Nietzsche, sight, wisdom, doubt

This post takes as its starting point some remarks concerning sight and wisdom made by Nietzsche in his early essay “On the uses and disadvantages of history for life”. In a very condensed form, I reflect on some ideas that could be unpacked from his apparently mixed metaphors. Some of these reflections are arguably rather tangential or loosely connected to Nietzsche’s own concerns in the essay and are more aligned with themes from Wittgenstein and Wittgenstein scholarship (in particular the work of Stephen Mulhall and Raimond Gaita), though I do not explicitly explore that connection here.

In Nietzsche’s essay, he sets out a metaphorical schema that recurs in various forms throughout his later works. On the one hand, his fellow moderns are associated with “wisdom”, “light” and unobscured clarity of sight, standing for knowledge (especially of history), science and theoretical reasoning. He presents the moderns as weighed down by these “indigestible stones of knowledge”, which stifle their activity, creativity and vitality. These excessively historical moderns are contrasted with an opposing side of darkness, forgetting, “blissful blindness” and “unwisdom”, with which Nietzsche himself identifies:

We will gladly acknowledge that the suprahistorical outlook possesses more wisdom than we do, provided we can only be sure that we possess more life: for then our unwisdom will at any rate have more future than their wisdom will.

Now, Nietzsche acknowledges that “not only light but darkness too is essential for the life of everything organic”, so it might appear it is simply a question of striking the right balance between two extremes.

But, on the other hand, elsewhere in the essay it is precisely the wise, cunning historical moderns who can “never [attain] to wisdom’. And it is these clear-sighted historical individuals who are blinded by a ‘too bright, too sudden, too varying light’ and “ruined for […] right and simple seeing and hearing’:

There are things they do not see which even a child sees, there are things they do not hear which even a child hears, and these things are precisely the most important things: because they do not understand these things, their understanding is more childish than the child.

Meanwhile, the passionate, unhistorical individual, with a gaze clouded by darkness and unfettered by history, perceives the world as “palpable, close, highly coloured, resounding”.

How can someone be both wise and lack wisdom, blind yet possessed of vivid sight? The answer, in short, is that there are different forms of wisdom and different forms of sight.

On the one hand, the form of wisdom and clear-sightedness cultivated by Nietzsche’s moderns consists in the indiscriminate acquisition of facts on the basis of an explicit process of calculation and theorising, and then assenting to these facts’ being true. The moderns are wise in the sense of being very knowledgeable about a vast body of meticulously verified facts.

Unhistorical individuals, on the other hand, are wise in a different sense and are sighted in respects in which the historical individuals are blind. Three ways in which this could manifest:

  • The unhistorical individuals see the world under the aspect of falsifying illusions that present the world in dazzling, fantastical colours, as seeped in values and purposefulness that it does not really contain. It is wiser to see the world this way because these illusions (even if they are known to be false, which does not necessarily loosen their hold on us) are essential in order for life to flourish. These falsifying illusions might also lead to an overall epistemic gain on balance if such illusions are in some sense necessary or instrumental to processes of knowledge-seeking.
  • The unhistorical individuals are able to acquire knowledge that eludes the historical moderns’ methods of knowledge acquisition (conscious, calculating deduction) and conceptions of knowledge (precisely delineated, atomistic facts). They can grasp holistic, narrative or uncodifiable concepts by means analogous to perception.
  • The unhistorical moderns are able to see things in a way that, while it does not lead to the acquisition of new knowledge or facts, allows them to appreciate, understand, experience or face up to aspects of the world in a (particularly vivid or immediate) way that is valuable in non-epistemic respects (i.e. valuable for reasons other than leading to a gain in knowledge).

(All three types of sight, incidentally, have been discussed under the heading of “seeing-as” or what Wittgenstein calls “aspect perception”, especially in connection with emotion, but this theme is not something I will expand on here)

Instinct and doubt

At this point, I would like to bring in another topic that Nietzsche discusses in parallel: instinct and doubt. I will then relate this back to the question of “sight”.

Nietzsche describes the historical moderns as consumed by “morbid doubt”:

They have lost and destroyed their instincts and, having lost their trust in the “divine animal”, they can no longer let go the reins when their reason falters and their path leads them through deserts.

Someone with intact instincts, by contrast, is able to act with certainty and assurance. Where we are capable of doing something instinctively, we (ordinarily) do not doubt how to perform the action and do not need to deliberate; we simply act without reflection. Importantly, this applies both to our innate instincts, but also to acquired techniques that have become “second nature”. As Nietzsche puts it: we “implant in ourselves a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature” – and if this second nature is ‘victorious’, it “will become a first”. And in a note from a later period, he says that it is a sign that “One has attained to mastery when one neither goes wrong nor hesitates in the performance”.

The moderns’ actions lack the automatic, unhesitant flow that characterises mastery in a particular domain; they are forced to deliberate and doubt over questions and decisions which would simply not even arise for someone who had attained or retained instinctive certainty in that domain. The moderns are like knowledgeable tourists who are nonetheless not instinctively at home in the cultures they observe from the outside, or people who lack automatic fluency in a foreign language but are able to laboriously produce sentences by referring to dictionaries and rules of grammar. (Or, perhaps, the analogy should be to a native speaker who has cut themselves off from their instinctive mastery of their language because they are seized by an indiscriminate, pathological impulse to doubt and deliberate until they can formulate an explicit justification, rather like Wittgenstein’s interlocutor in Philosophical Investigations, and consequently now feels unsure of the meanings of even the simplest words in their own language.).

Nietzsche expresses this using the metaphor of digestion – the moderns drag around a “huge quantity of indigestible stones of knowledge”. This undigested knowledge contrasts with a state of instinctive wisdom or assured mastery, a knowing-how-to-proceed without needing to ask or think first, a seamless responsiveness and attunement to the world.

Instinct and sight

So how does this type of instinctive wisdom relate to the forms of sight described above?

One possibility is that this kind of wisdom can be identified with a continuous form of seeing. This form of seeing is bound up with certain responses and actions that flow unreflectively from our apprehension. Those who have not mastered this way of apprehending things, who like the historical moderns merely know facts about things and people they encounter in the world, will be more stumbling and hesitant in their dealings with them. Consider, again, how the fluent reader or speaker of a language reads or hears meaning in words compared with a learner who must consciously, painstakingly deduce what the words say.

Yet equally, we might also consider how instinctive certainty can be characterised precisely by the absence of seeing; certainty or mastery of a technique consists, positively, in a disposition or ability to perform some actions automatically and unreflectively in appropriate circumstances, and, negatively, in our not experiencing certain conscious episodes – not being struck by certain things. If we know our way around our home town, we can glide around almost on autopilot, and perhaps miss things that might strike a tourist unfamiliar to the area; and certain peculiarities of our native language might be opaque to us that are more plainly visible to those less familiar with it.

But then, in turn, there will be some things that will only strike someone possessed of instinctive certainty or mastery; within the domain around which they know their way instinctively, they are capable of perceiving fine nuances and textures invisible to the mere tourist or bumbling theorist; the precise mastery or instinct that allows them to proceed without reflection or hesitation is also what allows them to be struck, on occasions, by intuitive realisations, creative epiphanies, profound passions (which can consequently open up new arenas of reasoning and reflection).

There exists, in other words, a subtle interplay between sight and blindness of the sorts described here, one which can sometimes appear paradoxical. An occluded perspective, from within which some things recede from view, may be a precondition for sight; one form of sight may preclude another; darkness may open up new vistas of light, and light may darken our gazes.


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