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The Innocence of Becoming: Nietzsche Against Guilt

By Brian Leiter.

(Brian Leiter, Marxist philosopher and Nietzsche expert, has published the latest iteration of his essay regarding Nietzsche’s attitude towards guilt. Below are the opening paragraphs.)

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‘I offer an interpretation of Nietzsche’s idea of “the innocence of becoming” (die Unschuld des Werdens), and a defense of its import that no one is ever morally responsible or guilty for what they do and that, in consequence, many of the so-called “reactive attitudes” are misplaced. The idea of the “innocence of becoming” is introduced explicitly in the final two sections of the “Four Great Errors” chapter of one of Nietzsche’s mature works, Twilight of the Idols.

Three of the errors Nietzsche discusses in that chapter pertain to causation: he calls them “the error of confusing cause and effect” (1-2), “the error of false causality (3), and “the error of imaginary causes” (4-6).2 The fourth “great” error, by contrast, is “the error of free will” (7-8), and it is in the discussion of this fourth error that the idea of the “innocence of becoming” is introduced. No argument is actually given in these concluding sections of the chapter for why free will is an error (instead Nietzsche offers a debunking explanation of why people might be motivated to believe in free will quite independent of its reality). The inference the reader is plainly supposed to draw is that the “error of free will” follows from the errors about causation discussed in the preceding sections of the chapter.We return to those arguments shortly.

Let us begin with what Nietzsche says about the innocence of becoming near the conclusion of the chapter from Twilight in question. Nietzsche writes:

“Whereever responsibilities [Verantwortlichkeiten] are sought, it is usually the instinct of wanting to punish and pass judgment [Strafen- und Richten-Wollens] which is at work. Becoming has been deprived of its innocence when any being-such-and-such is traced back to will, to purposes, to acts of responsibility: the doctrine of the will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, because one wanted to impute guilt. The entire old psychology, the psychology of the will, was conditioned by the fact that its originators, the priests at the head of ancient communities, wanted to create for themselves the right to punish—or wanted to create this right for God. Men were considered “free” so that they might be judged and punished—so that they might become guilty: consequently, every act had to be considered as willed, and the origin of every act had to be considered as lying within the consciousness (and thus the most fundamental counterfeit in psychologicis was made the principle of psychology itself). Today, as we have entered into the reverse movement and we immoralists are trying with all our strength to take the concept of guilt and the concept of punishment out of the world again, and to cleanse psychology, history, nature and social institutions and sanctions of them, there is in our eyes no more radical opposition than that of the theologians, who continue with the concept of a “moral world-order,” to infect the innocence of becoming by means of “punishment” and “guilt.” Christianity is a metaphysics of the hangman.” (TI VI:7)

There are three main ideas. First, there is Nietzsche’s hypothesis, partly psychological and partly historical or anthropological, that the ideas of “free” action or free will, and of responsibility for actions freely chosen or willed, were introduced primarily in order to justify punishment on the basis of guilt (“[m]en were considered ‘free’ so that they might be judged and punished”).”

Call this the Genetic Thesis  about Free Will. Second, there is Nietzsche’s claim that the moral psychology, or “psychology of the will” as he calls it, that underlies this picture is, in fact, false—that, in fact, it is not true that every action is willed or that it reflects a purpose or that it originates in consciousness. These are the theses argued for in the preceding sections of the Twilight of the Idols chapter. Call these, in aggregate, the Descriptive Thesis about the Will. Finally, there is articulation of a programmatic agenda, namely, to restore the “innocence of becoming” by getting rid of guilt and of punishment based on guilt. We will return to the question why Nietzsche thinks such a restoration is desirable, which is the crucial claim in his whole critique of free will, guilt and responsibility. Notice, importantly, that Nietzsche does not regard his attack on free will and guilt as incompatible with the need for sanctions, only with the idea of a right to punish, of the idea of punishment as deserved due to the wrongdoer’s guilt.

The Genetic Thesis about Free Will

Nietzsche’s Genetic Thesis about Free will is not the only thesis he advances to explain belief in freedom of the will sufficient to underwrite ascriptions of guilt and demands for punishment, though it is a prominent one. He sometimes suggests, for example, that philosophers are misled by a tendency to reify grammatical forms, “the basic presuppositions of the metaphysics of language” (TI II:5) as he puts it. The example he gives is this: “Everywhere it [that is, language and thus metaphysics] sees a doer and doing; it believes in will as the cause; it believes in the ego, in the ego as being, in the ego as substance, and it projects this faith in the ego-substance upon all things” (TI II:5). What Nietzsche presumably has in mind is the characteristic syntactic feature of most Indo-Germanic languages that transitive verbs with direct objects—except those in the imperative mode—must have subjects who perform the action. “I write the book” or “Ich schreibe das Buch” are grammatically correct, but drop the “I” or the “Ich” and the sentence makes no sense, unless treated as imperatives. Nietzsche’s point is that metaphysical philosophers treat the syntactic structure as reflecting the worldly reality, that is, that the “I” and “Ich” required by grammar must refer to some entity that causes or does the writing.

Nietzsche is making the same kind of point in his critique of the Cartesian cogito in Beyond Good and Evil when he observes that,

“a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish, so that it falsifies reality to say the subject “I “is the condition of the predicate “think”.”It” thinks: but this “it” is just that old famous “I” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, above all, no “immediate certainty”…[E]ven this “it” contains an interpretation of the process and is not part of process itself.” (BGE 17)

We may know with certainty that there is thinking, but we don’t know with certainty that there is a subject that does the thinking, unless, of course, we simply treat the syntactic form as metaphysically reliable.

So “seduction by language” is an alternative, genetic explanation for belief in the will, but it is not Nietzsche’s primary one. Yet “seduction by language” helps explain why the primary mechanism (the desire to punish) was successful—namely, that it had syntax on its side! Nietzsche emphasizes this explanation in many places. For example, in the famous passage from section 13 of the First Essay of the Genealogy on the lambs and birds of prey, Nietzsche attributes belief in the freedom of the agent to choose to perform his act to the “[t]he suppressed, hiddenly glowing affects of revenge and hate,” which want to be able to hold those who harm the weak responsible for their actions (GM I:13).

One might wonder what the epistemic import of the Genetic Thesis is supposed to be. It cannot show that our belief in free will is false, since our belief in free will might be true, its peculiar origins notwithstanding. But what the Genetic Thesis can and does show, if it is correct, is that the reasons we presently have for accepting free will are not epistemically reliable ones: beliefs that satisfy our urge to punish, or that follow from reifying the syntactic features of language, are not warranted, since a desire to punish, or the conventional syntactic features of a language, are not inherently reliable epistemic mechanisms for determining what is really the case about the world (Leiter 2004, Leiter unpublished).

The Descriptive Thesis about the Will

Nietzsche’s Descriptive Thesis about the will helps vindicate the worry—raised by the Genetic Thesis—that our belief in free will is not true. That Nietzsche thinks our belief in free will is mistaken is not a point on which he was ever particularly reticent. I note just a couple of representative passages here. In the first work of his mature period, Daybreak in 1881, Nietzsche writes:

“Do I have to add that the wise Oedipus was right that we really are not responsible for our dreams—but just as little for our waking life, and that the doctrine of freedom of will has human pride and feeling of power for its father and mother? “(D 128)

Belief in freedom of the will is here explained by the ulterior motivations we have for accepting it, not by its reality: we are as little responsible for what we do in real life as what we do in our dreams. This is a rather bracing, but typical, denial of freedom and responsibility. The same themes are sounded in one of his very last works, The Antichrist (1888):

“Formerly man was given a ‘free will’ as his dowry from a higher order: today we have taken his will away altogether, in the sense that we no longer admit the will as a faculty. The old word ‘will’ now serves only to denote a resultant, a kind of individual reaction, which follows necessarily upon a number of partly contradictory, partly harmonious stimuli: the will no longer ‘acts’ [wirkt] or ‘moves’ [bewegt].” (A 14)

Denial of the causality of “the will” (more precisely, what we experience as willing) is central to Nietzsche’s skepticism about free will (Leiter 2007) and also explains why he frequently denies “unfree will” as well: what we experience as “will” does not, in fact, cause our actions (“we no longer admit the will as a faculty,” as he puts it), so the causal determination or freedom of this will is irrelevant. In Daybreak (124), he writes:

“We laugh at him who steps out of his room at the moment when the sun steps out of its room, and then says: “I will that the sun shall rise”; and at him who cannot stop a wheel, and says: “I will that it shall roll”; and at him who is thrown down in wrestling, and says: “here I lie, but I will lie here!” But, all laughter aside, are we ourselves ever acting any differently whenever we employ the expression “I will”?

If the faculty of the will “no longer ‘acts’ or ‘moves’” (A 14)—if it is no longer causal—then there remains no conceptual space for the compatibilist idea that the right kind of causal determination of the will is compatible with responsibility for our actions. If, as Zarathustra puts it, “thought is one thing, the deed is another, and the image of the deed still another: the wheel of causality does not roll between them” (Z I, “On the Pale Criminal”)—a pithy statement of the point of the D 124 passage—then there is no room for moral responsibility: I may well identify with my “thoughts” or my will, but if they do not cause my actions, how could I possibly be responsible for them?

(Continue reading Brian Leiter’s ‘Nietzsche Against Guilt’ here.)

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Brian Leiter’s teaching and research interests are in moral, political, and legal philosophy, in both the Anglophone and Continental European traditions, and the law of evidence. His books include Objectivity in Law and Morals (Cambridge, 2001) (editor), Nietzsche on Morality (Routledge, 2002; 2nd ed., 2015), Naturalizing Jurisprudence (Oxford, 2007), Why Tolerate Religion? (Princeton, 2013), and Moral Psychology with Nietzsche (Oxford, 2018). He is presently working on realism as a theme in political and legal theory, on meta-ethical and metaphysical questions in general jurisprudence, and on philosophical issues about free speech, in both the liberal and Marxian traditions.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 11th, 2018.