Why Does Epicurus Think That His Radical Views Will Be Persuasive To The Average Person?

1 Introduction

My central claim will be that Epicurus is constantly and successfully concerned with increasing the persuasive power of his doctrines with a mind to proselytizing the average person. Epicurus believes that he can persuade average persons because he has carefully adjusted those views to avoid unpalatable consequences such as implausibly austere recommended behavior and conclusions dramatically at variance with the endoxa.

We can see this by noting how he always displays awareness of his audience as well as being focussed on the details of his message. In modern terminology, we might say that he is an excellent `spin doctor’. The reason for this is that he seeks converts to his philosophy. He believes he has some access to to the truth,1 and that the truth will make people happy: this is why he persuades.

I will show that he succeeds in carrying out the difficult task of doing this while retaining the core doctrines and their beneficial effects despite their radical nature. The fundamental goal of Epicureanism is the achievement of ataraxia — mental tranquility — and every aspect of the philosophy has been designed to make it appealing and reassuring with the aim of ataraxia in mind.

I will first consider general points supporting the central claim that may be drawn from the whole of Epicurean philosophy in S2. Then I will focus on detailed points from the different areas of the Epicurean philosophy, which is commonly divided into three sections: physics, epistemology and ethics. I will consider in S3 each of these three elements of the Epicurean doctrines in turn. In each case, I will list the main claims and then show how they are appealing and thus support my central claim.

1We will see later that the argument that one of a group of claims is the right explanation is more important than the argument that any individual explanation is the true one. Not all of the keys on the keyring are needed to set you free. This is the `multiple argument strategy’; it recurs frequently.

2 Why The Epicurean System Persuades

1. Provision of reassurance.

2. Security deriving from the multiple argument strategy.

3. Accessibility.

4. Anti-political stance.

5. Strong competitive position.

6. Coherence.

The provision of reassurance is an attractive feature of any philosophy, so we would expect the Epicureans to focus on the consolation that their teach- ing can provide. The centerpiece of the Epicurean reassurance strategy is the Tetrapharmakos, or `fourfold remedy’. This read `God holds no fears, death no worries. Good is easily attainable, evil easily endurable.’2 Succumbing again to modern vulgarity, one might remark that the brilliance of this sound bite lies in its simplicity, clarity and symmetry.

We have discussed the arguments against the existence of dangerous interventionist gods several times now. The arguments against death being a source of worry are twofold. Firstly, death is not for those who live, but also death is not for those who have died, since there is no longer a person present. The second argument against death being a worry asks us why we should be worried about the time after death if we are not worried about the time before birth. The easy attainment of good results from Epicurus’s identification of pleasure with the good, and the easy attainment of pleasure when it has been specified as the absence of pain. The avoidance of evil may be achieved by avoiding pain or bearing it by re ecting on past pleasure. The presence of all of these reassuring factors and their impressive encapsulation in the four-fold slogan argue strongly for the central claim.

The security deriving from the multiple argument strategy is another attractive feature. This is seen throughout the works.3 The essence is that many possible explanations are given for a given natural phenomenon. The aim is to remove the need to appeal to supernatural explanations, for the gods are terrifying in their potency and arbitrary justice. This aim has a higher priority than the truth. In fact, it does not matter which of the given explanations is the true one — perhaps we cannot know this — what matters is that we accept that at least one of them is adequate. This is how multiple explanations are converted by Epicurus from a weakness to a strength of his accounts. If he claimed to have a unique answer, not knowing which one would be a severe drawback. Having

2 See [1, x5].

3 Wasserstein notes the prevalence of this strategy and its use to promote ataraxia at [2, p. 490], writing that it occurs throughout the Letter to Pythocles.

multiple plausible options is a major advantage though when one merely seeks to have one right answer in one’s portfolio.4

Accessibility is a hallmark of Epicurean philosophy, in contrast to compet- ing schools. There is no need for the complex formal dialectics5 of Plato, which might be out of reach for the non-specialist. This leaves Epicurus open to the criticisms of Cicero6 that he has nothing to say on logic, sophistry and all the massive encumbrance of division and partition. While that may cost Epicurus supporters among the rarefied cognoscenti, their loss will be vastly outweighed by the number of converts among average persons that he has avoided alienating. We may take it that this is the reason for the omission, rather than that Epicurus is incapable of logic.

We may also note that Epicurus is aware of the need to maximize accessibility by starting his works with accessible and general considerations and deferring more inaccessible theoretical material towards the end.7 While Epicurus himself of course had no knowledge of Lucretius, it is significant that Lucretius as a good Epicurean chose to present the doctrines in poetic form. That dramatic and accessible format was the best way to deliver the message persuasively.

Again unlike other schools, Epicureanism is noted for its anti-political stance. As L&S comment,8 the Epicurean school was known for “shunning all political involvement”. Since politics may be regarded as the art of persuasion, we will have a prima facie tension between that attitude and my central claim. This must be squared with the claim that Epicurus thinks his works will be persuasive. Here, there is a comparison with modern `anti-political’, anti-incumbent politicians. We see many politicians claiming not to be an insider. These `anti-establishment’ figures can claim that they are free from conflicts of interest and thus can be relied upon for the best, unbiassed advice and decisions. The major advantage of the shunning of politics is of course that it will promote ataraxia. The disturbance and stress involved in public life is immense and this is best avoided.

A further key advantage of the Epicureans is what we may term their strong competitive position in the marketplace of ideas. Every good spin doctor needs to be as focused on the opposition as on the message of his own side. One of the primary opponents of the Epicurean school were the Stoics, so we may examine the competitive positioning of the Epicureans by contrasting it with that of the Stoics. That latter school could certainly boast of a number of powerful and well-supported doctrines. Nevertheless, there are five strands to the Stoic position where we may see that the Epicurean position is more attractive. These five strands are as follows.

4 We have now seen the multiple argument strategy many times. One further striking example of the multiple argument strategy is Lucretius’s provision of thirty arguments against the thesis that the soul survives physical death, as described at [1, x4]. Making out that claim is of course crucial to the element of the Tetrapharmakos that holds that death is of no concern.

5 L&S make this point at [3, p. 6].

6 See [3, x19H].

7 L&S characterize the Letter to Herodotus in this way at [3, p. 89].

8 See [3, p. 3].

Firstly, the Stoic system is designed to be independent, but there is a thin line between a self supporting system and an unsupported one. That line may not be clearly visible to the average person, which brings the additional disadvantage that even if the Stoics are successful in avoiding the construction of an unsupported system, they may not bene t from that avoidance in terms of gaining converts.

Secondly, a rigorous methodology is required. This will bring formal logical strength to the enterprise, but will not assist in making the Stoic doctrines accessible.

Thirdly, wealth and health are `indifferents’ to the Stoics. It is still permis- sible to seek them, but given the overwhelming desires of almost all people to pursue those two objectives, it appears that the Stoics’ attitude is dismissive and hard to square with how people are. By making pleasure the goal of human life, Epicurus is much better placed to gain the acceptance of the average person than the Stoics are. He is careful though to affirm that people who try too hard to gain wealth are under the illusion that expensive pleasures will make them happier: since that is false it is not necessary to struggle too hard for wealth.

Fourthly, the Stoic sage avoids all opinions. This brings out either the ex- treme di culty or indeed practical impossibility of becoming a Sage, since ev- eryone has a large number of opinions at all times. There is nothing in Epicurean philosophy which counsels the unachievable. Even though he counsels to reserve judgment more often, he sees that as a goal whose incremental achievement in pro tanto valuable, as opposed to the impossible goal of Sagehood where only total immunity to opinion is of any value.

Fifthly, the Stoic attitude to pain and general indi erence to life seems ex- ceptionally difficult to obtain. The famed objection to the claim made by the Stoics that the virtuous man will be happy on the rack presents few defensive options.9

The appealing coherence of the Epicurean system is best illustrated by the unusual — and unusually successful — unification of physics and ethics. We see this in the phenomenon of the Swerve, which serves two purposes in those two realms, as will be discussed below in S3.1 and S3.3. Also, the general approach of deriving the system from widely-accepted axioms shows that the doctrines cohere.

3 Why Epicurean Doctrines Persuade

3.1 Physics

1. The method of argument does not set the bar high for explanations.

2. There is a reassuring use of familiar fundamental principles.

9 We should note that these five comparisons to the Stoic doctrines defeat a potential objection to the central claim to the effect that all philosophical schools aim to appeal and thus the central claim is not specific to Epicureanism.

3. The Swerve allows for objects so we do not need the gods.

4. Arguments proceed from observations everyone can make.

Unusually in ancient science, Epicurus prioritizes happiness over nding the exact truth, which of course provides powerful support for the central claim.10 The point is that happiness will not be found by endless searching for answers; all that is needed is that we come to believe that is a right answer among the possible explanations for all events, and none of them involve the supernat- ural and unknowable. This supports the central claim and does so in a way that only applies to the Epicurean school. The approach described explains the Epicurean method of argument, which is to point to the absence of contradictory evidence or the mere absence of impossibility.11 These are tests of whether something could be an explanation, not tests of truth. Since the appeal of the explanations for the purpose of promoting ataraxia rests only on one of them being correct rather than which one is correct, this explains a significant and unusual aspect of Epicurus’s approach by appeal to his desire to proselytize. The approach will appeal to the average person because it removes the need for him to conduct exhaustive investigations into vexing questions.

Epicurean physics makes use of familiar fundamental principles with a long history, such as Parmenides’s claims that nothing can come from nothing or perish into nothing.12 This is a form of respect for the endoxa — the common opinions — will allow more radical doctrines to be proposed on the basis of foundations that will shock no-one. Moreover, these principles are aimed at establishing the stable permanence of all things. People nd ux disturbing, and so this denial of change will be reassuring. Similarly, Epicurean atomism is a development of the long-established Democritean atomism. These principles are supported by arguments from mundane experience and thus are intuitively plausible and automatically consistent with that experience. So the approach should appeal to the average person because the starting point is comfortingly familiar.

We see here an example of the multiple argument strategy, as was discussed in S2. The strategy here is to strengthen the plausibility of a principle by providing several forms of support, any one of which would su ce alone. An example of this is seen with the two arguments for the impossibility of things perishing into nothing. Firstly, destruction of macroscopic objects would be frequently observed, and yet this is not seen. Secondly, in nature we see new life coming from death, which also argues against the possibility of annihilation.

The most distinctive feature of Epicurean physics is the Swerve. This is a random sideways movement of atoms which otherwise move in straight, parallel lines. The Swerve allows for collisions between atoms, which would not otherwise meet and create the macroscopic objects we see, because they

10 Wasserstein argues for this at [2, p. 493] by noting that the Letter to Pythocles opens with the acknowledgment that the purpose of all branches of science is the obtaining of peace of mind.

11 See [3, x18A].

12 See [3, x4A].

move in parallel straight lines at a constant speed. However, the Swerve is really a solution looking for a problem, since Epicurus could have remained with Democritean atoms, which collide because they move in all directions. This is an example of the distinctive approach in Epicurean physics, which is not to start with axioms and see where they proceed, but to make progress with a particular direction of travel in order to arrive at a specified end. This end is of course is the production of ataraxia by the construction of a set of possible explanations for natural phenomena. Epicurus does not want to start with axioms that could lead anywhere but wishes to direct the program from the outset towards the achievement of ataraxia. This will appeal to the average person because everyone wants a quiet life.

These explanations will not involve supernatural causes, thus eliminating fear of the gods and fear of necessity.13 If the Swerve can create objects, there is no need to postulate dangerous and unpredictable gods. A parallel discussion14 uses the atomic theory to reject teleological arguments for the existence of the gods. That whole class is dismissed by noting that the infinite atoms will come together over sufficient time in measureless combinations, thus manufacturing animals and the limbs of men. Thus again, no creator gods need be postulated.15 Any approach which leads to the elimination of fear will appeal to everyone.

One example of arguments proceeding from observations that everyone can make is that given for atomic motion. The observation of motes dancing in a shaft of sunlight in a darkened room is a `pictorial representation’ of the un- derlying atomic motion.16 The potency of this particular example of Brownian motion may be seen from the fact that it is still used educationally. Einstein’s 1905 arguments for molecular movement relied on Brownian motion17 meaning that Epicurus is correct as well as plausible here.18 So one can make a great deal of progress in the radical direction of the atomic thesis by using an experience which everyone has had. This is therefore a very clear illustration of the central claim, because we see Epicurus promoting a radical doctrine in a highly accessible way, and explaining something the average person can easily see.

3.2 Epistemology

1. All perceptions are true; we do not need to worry about skepticism.

2. There are multiple routes to knowledge, so it is easy to obtain.

The main claim of Epicurean epistemology is that all perceptions are true. This has the major benefit of removing concern that we cannot rely on

13 Wasserstein explains the introduction of the Swerve thus at [2, p. 489, p. 494 and passim].

14 See [3, x13].

15 L&S describe a total of ve arguments against the existence of the gods in their commentary on [3, x13] so this a further example of the multiple argument strategy. NB I will use the abbreviation `L&S’ for Long and Sedley throughout.

16 See [3, x11B].

17 See [4, x6.1].

18 See [1, x3] for the claim that Lucretius uses standard Epicurean methodology when he employs `familiar empirical data’ to defend hypotheses.

our senses. So we can obtain cognitive certainty through those senses.19 Optical illusions, for example, are explained by the suggestion that the images that have travelled to us are being accurately reported by our eyes as they arrive there but have been damaged by their passage to us and no longer accurately represent the object from which they came. Thus, the disturbing possibility of skepticism is warded off.

Epicurus will now need to explain the non-perceptual source of error in illusions, and this is done by locating the error in judgments we make about the perceptions. This though will not be disquieting, because it will simply teach us to reserve judgment more frequently, which will tend to promote ataraxia. It also clears the way for arguments elsewhere, such as the pleasure illusion to be discussed in the next section.

There is a further example here of the multiple argument strategy in the claims supporting the senses against skepticism. The arguments include that skepticism is self-refuting; that reason cannot countermand the senses; that the senses cannot outweigh each other; any account relying on the falsity of the senses must itself be false because it will have started from their evidence. It is also noted that even if all of these arguments fail to persuade — and as we have noted, the entire bene t of the multiple argument strategy in Epicureanism is that acceptance of any one of the arguments suffices for the attainment of ataraxia and happiness — then it would still be better to act as though the senses were correct in order to avoid dangers presented by physical hazards.20

In a variant on the multiple argument strategy, there are to be multiple routes to knowledge. These are sensations, feelings, focussed impressions and `prolepses’.21 The aim in providing multiple routes is the same as providing multiple arguments elsewhere. It is simply to provide assurance that knowledge will be available by some route, thus promoting ataraxia by removing the doubt that knowledge can be attained. Another way to see these multiple routes is to bear in mind the Epicurean scienti c methodology, which is to allow that the true opinions are all those attested by self-evidence, and also those uncontested by self-evidence.22 Clearly such unrestricted qualifications will permit many routes to knowledge.

L&S wonder why observation that an opinion is false counts only as non-attestation rather than outright denial.23 Their answer is that the approach is only to be used in scientific method. From our perspective of knowing that Epicurus is maximizing persuasion of the average person, we can see that there is a better two-fold response. Firstly, Epicurus does not think that many of his targets, being average persons, are engaged in scientific work so he will not be restricting his remarks to those that are. On the contrary, he means this

19 See [3, p. 6].

20 See [3, x16A].

21 See [3, x17A]. Scott describes the available criteria in Epicurean epistemology as `generous’ at [5, p. 360]; he characterizes Epicurus as an `epistemological optimist’ at [5, p. 367] since everyone has the `prolepses’ { general preconceptions derived from repeated perceptions, like `man’ { that can bring knowledge.

22 See [3, x18A].

23 See [3, p. 94].

approach to be used by everyone in daily life to decide what they can accept. Secondly, the reason for the looseness of the denial is the one we have now seen several times: they wish to allow as much knowledge to the average person as possible — as well as disqualifying as little as possible. The best route to ataraxia is the acceptance of everything which can be accepted and the benign neglect of everything else. We may perhaps suspect that Epicurus was not above a little attery of his audience — with his philosophy, the average person is clever enough to possess a great deal of knowledge.

L&S are surprised that non-contestation establishes the truth, when it ap- pears to only establish the possibility of a theory being true. They address this in three ways.24 They claim that only one theory may be consistent with the pheonomena; that only one solution may be theoretically tenable; and that in an in nite universe, all possible solutions are, in a way, true. The rst two claims are unsupported, but in any case, this approach is much more contrived than the perspective we have been developing. We can see that Epicurus does not need the unique truth to persuade. All he needs is an array of possible ex- planations, and so that is exactly what he provides. Since the phenomena exist, one of those explanations must be the right one. Non-contestation establishes that the truth is out there, but not exactly where it lies.

3.3 Ethics

1. Pleasure is allowable and achievable.

2. The gods will not harm us.

3. The Swerve means that we can have free will.

The Epicurean doctrine of pleasure25 is cleverly calibrated to avoid making unrealistically ascetic demands on people. Attaining the goal of ataraxia is not inconsistent with seeking and enjoying pleasure. The problems come from becoming dependent on luxury, not on its enjoyment. The Epicurean may accept and enjoy pleasure when it comes, but not to the extent that he becomes unhappy when it does not come.26

There is in addition a common illusion in relation to pleasure: that there is no limit to its intensity. Removing this is an Epicurean aim. It is important to observe that this is not because illusions are not truthful; as we have seen specifying exactly which explanation is the truth is not Epicurus’ aim. The removal is designed for the di erent reason that if we are subject to it, we will be forever seeking the impossible further intensification of pleasure.27 Once pain has been removed, there is nothing further to be achieved. This is most definitely an achievable objective, so the average person will have little difficulty in accepting it.

24 See [3, p. 95].

25 See [3, x21].

26 Woolf argues for this line at [6, Ch. 9].

27 Scott argues for this at [5, passim].

Epicurus selects friendship of the like-minded as one of the best pleasures.28 Clearly that means the friendship of other Epicureans, since it will be hard to be an Epicurean alone. This is true because while friendship is a good thing, it remains the case that if one’s friends are all hedonists or Stoics, they will a ect one’s own position and make it hard to be a good Epicurean. They will have incorrect ethical views, wrong behaviors resulting from a misunderstanding of the nature of pleasure and allot excessive and e ort to trying to nd exactly the right explanation for a particular phenomenon and worrying about their failure to do so. None of this is conducive to a relaxing existence. So we see a further importance of the emphasis on making the doctrines persuasive since that is the only way to produce thriving communities of Epicureans. The average person is not averse to pleasure, and so we can see that he will nd this aspect of Epicureanism appealing.

The Epicurean position on the gods is carefully chosen. Commentators continue to debate whether Epicurus was in fact a theist.29 Whether he was or not, he clearly intends the message to achieve two aims which are in tension. The primary aim is that central task of Epicureanism, the attainment of ataraxia. In this context, that becomes removing the fear of the gods and their actions. Atheism is the most simple way to achieve that. Taking that route, however, would conflict with the second aim, which is to produce an appealing message. It is clear that the common opinion accepts to the existence of the gods.

The solution is to admit the existence of the gods, but deny that they intervene in human affairs. This will be the `slogan’ describing the Epicurean type of theism. It has the advantage of avoiding the outrage of public opinion and moreover avoiding o cial suppression. The fate of Socrates, sentenced to death for exactly the crime of seeking to supplant the public gods, is not to be welcomed and can hardly assist in gaining converts. Obtaining at least the benign neglect of the authorities is also helpful, for few will study views proscribed by those authorities.

On closer inspection, for initiates only perhaps, the gods appear to have an existence which is at best exiguous. Understanding this view will require substantial study of Epicureanism though, and so could only have adverse affects on those whom Epicurus has already had some time to exercise his persuasive talents, thus reducing the risk of losing converts. The key point remains that the school is officially theist. Epicurus is quick to lay the charge of impiety at those who believe in interventionist gods, thus blunting the swords of those who would bring that charge against him, which charge would reduce the appeal of his doctrines if made out.

Determinism is a depressing doctrine, which also has unpleasant and coun- terintuitive consequences in that those accepting it will no longer reasonably be able to punish, blame or praise anyone.30 For this reason, Epicurus introduces

28 See [3, p. 7].

29 See the commentary appertaining to [3, x23].

30 We may take it that the Epicurus does not think his audience will be familiar with Frankfurt-style arguments that free will is not required for responsibility.

the Swerve in order to allow for free will.31 It does this by being an uncaused motion which is outside the normal laws of the universe. The importance that Epicurus attached to his promotion of ataraxia may be judged from the way he was willing to countenance such an uncaused motion, even though he must have known it would expose him to severe criticism. Even that is a price worth paying in order to improve the appeal of the system to the average person. The introduction of the Swerve does not exonerate persons for their actions, for as Epicurus argues,32 it is absurd to blame atoms for anything.

4 Conclusion

The central claim has been made out. Every aspect of the Epicurean system both in detail and in general has been carefully selected in order to maximize its appeal to the average person. This is the highest priority; it is of more importance to Epicurus even than specifying the exact truth. After all, for Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy is the provision of happiness33 — and what could be more persuasive than happiness?


[1] D. Sedley, “Lucretius,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (E. N. Zalta, ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, fall 2008 ed., 2008.

[2] A. Wasserstein, “Epicurean science,” Hermes, vol. 106, no. 3, pp. pp. 484{ 494, 1978.

[3] A. Long and D. Sedley, The hellenistic philosophers: Translations of the principal sources with philosophical comentary, vol. v. 1. University Press, 1990.

[4] A. Chalmers, “Atomism from the 17th to the 20th century,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (E. N. Zalta, ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, winter 2010 ed., 2010.

[5] D. Scott, “Epicurean illusions,” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. pp. 360–374, 1989.

[6] J. Warren, The Cambridge companion to epicureanism. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

31 L&S argue for this in their commentary on x20 at [3, p. 107].

32 See [3, x20B].

33 See [3, x25A].

Persons Do Not Have Identity

1 Introduction

I will argue that the type of identity philosophers are investigating when they consider `personal identity’ does not apply to persons. They seek an identity — which I will term `set identity — that applies only to abstract items such as sets, numbers and the like. That type of identity bears the usual defining characteristics of reflexivity, transitivity and symmetry. What they find, however, is something I will term `legal identity’. A legal identity is exemplified by the appropriate beneficiary of a bequest. It can be determined by legal procedures. Since the methodologies applied are legalistic, they can only find legal identity; moreover, they suffer from Sorites and other problems. In Sorites problems, a major binary change — the identity of persons — changes based on apparently insignificant analog changes in underlying quantities.

It has been argued before1 that there are different types of identity for items such as numbers, which have strict identity, and persons, which have identity only in a loose sense. The general argument is that set identity for numbers or sets or any abstract entity is clear and trivial while identity of persons is unclear and important, suggesting that there is a distinction between the two types of identity.

That type of distinction would be consistent with the line I am proposing in this essay, but a better terminology is to allow identity to abstract items only, because what concrete objects have is something much more approximate which fails to have the key criteria for identity of symmetry, transitivity and reflexivity. The mistake all the authors I consider here make is either to con ate the two types of identity, or as I would put it, to seek set identity where there is none. They find only what we may term `legal identity’ — finding the just recipient of an inheritance — which is just not the same matter as determining who I am.

There have been three types of account of personal identity, as listed below.

1.Psychological continuity accounts, relying on the importance of memory.

1Perry observes that JJC Smart takes this line at [2, p. 66].

2.Bodily continuity accounts — the most well known of which is termed `animalism’ — relying on the importance of the body.

3.Combination accounts involving both of the above aspects.

Psychological continuity theories fail because they do not allow sufficient weight to the importance of bodily continuity and for Sorites reasons. Bodily continuity theories fail because they do not allow sufficient weight to the importance of psychological continuity and for Sorites reasons. Combination accounts fail because they attempt to weigh incommensurable quantities. Since this exhausts the list of possible accounts, no account can succeed and we must conclude that persons do not have identity.

These problems arise from the brain transplant cases discussed by Williams.2 He describes a scenario in which we wish to agree that a brain transplant has taken place — a person has acquired a new body in what appears to be little more than a development of standard organ transplants. This results from our tacit assent to the proposition that psychological continuity is a sufficient condition for personal identity. Williams is then able to reformulate the description of the scenario such that although it is the same scenario, we now agree that bodily continuity is the sufficient condition, and psychological continuity is not important. Since he is able to obtain our agreement to inconsistent positions, and we are unable to decide which of the two conditions is the most important, we should already be on notice that no resolution of the problem of personal identity will be available. I will discuss Williams’s account in more detail below as it relates to the different types of account.

I will discuss the various problems with psychological continuity accounts in s2, with bodily continuity accounts in s3 and with combination accounts in s4. I will then conclude in s5 that the reason that all of these accounts fail is that identity does not apply to any objects in the world subject to temporal change; persons are just a special case of this.

2 Psychological Continuity Accounts

Psychological continuity accounts allow body transfer. If the brain of a person were transferred to a different body, the brain now in that new body would have the memories of the person and would think they were the person. However, supporters of a bodily continuity account must deny that the person in the new body is identical with the pre-transplant person.

Locke’s original psychological continuity account allowed that “person A is the same as person B i A can remember having an experience of B’s.”3 There is little space in psychological continuity accounts to allow any importance to the body. We then fall into the fatal problems that Williams describes in the first half of his paper, as I will now outline.

2See [1].

3This is Perry’s formulation at [2, p. 84].

2.1 Transplant Problem

In the scenario Williams describes, two persons A and B enter a machine and subsequently leave it in states such that we would be inclined to say they had swapped memories. Williams adopts neutral terminology of the A-body person who now inhabits the A body in order not to prejudge the issue; likewise the B-body person is the person now inhabiting the B-body. The A-body person has B’s memories and objectives, etc. The B-body person has A’s memories an objectives, etc. The question is now put: if it were known before the transplant that one of the bodies was to be tortured, to which body should one request that it be applied, assuming that one acts solely in self interest.

Under the description of the first half of the paper, and also under the influence of the psychological continuity account, one naturally agrees that A will say that the torture should be applied to the A body that he is about to `leave behind’ for his new life in the B-body. The problem now though is that Williams can reformulate the scenario in terms that make this decision appear irrational.

He does this by appealing to what is the central intuition behind bodily continuity accounts. It might be termed the `amnesiac intuition’. It is known that one’s memory is imperfect, and also there appear to be people who lose large parts of their memory altogether. If this process is too extensive, we may say that that person is no longer present, but generally we are happy to talk as though the same person is there even if they have forgotten some things. This intuition then leads us to think that the body is the key factor in deciding identity.

Williams describes the same scenario involving A and B not as a memory swap — or identity swap for adherents of a psychological continuity account — but in terms of a minor extension of the amnesiac intuition. If we imagine that the torture is to be applied after deletion of all memories — i.e. externally imposed amnesia — followed by the insertion of someone else’s memories, this does not improve matters. If anything, it makes them much worse because the situation is loss of all memories of personal attachments, projects etc followed by torture. Described thus, the pre-transplant A person would be irrational to select the torture for the A-body person because he would be that person.

2.2 Brave Officer Problem

There are other reasons why a psychological continuity criterion cannot work. The first point to note is that it must at least be improved from Locke’s version, because of what is known as the brave officer paradox. We can imagine that the General remembers leading a cavalry charge as a junior officer, and the junior officer remembers school days even though the General can no longer remember school days. This scenario has the outcome that the General is identical to the officer and the officer is identical to the schoolboy but the General is not identical to the schoolboy. That outcome is unacceptable since identity is transitive. Therefore, Locke’s simple criterion must be modified.

Perry4 gives an outline of Grice’s modified account, which he considers the most successful psychological continuity account.5

The concept of Total Temporary States — `TTS’ — is introduced to refer to the set of total experiences of a person. We are to find a sequence of TTS’s which are linked by common memory elements i.e. a later TTS would, given certain conditions, contain a memory of an experience that was part of an earlier TTS. When we have found a complete set of TTS’s to which no further TTS’s can be added, we have a person. We will immediately want to ask how a person can be identical to a set. Moreover — and we will see this problem again with Nozick’s account in 4.1 — this approach is an example of covertly introducing sets. Sets do have identity; but they are abstract. It is not possible to find an account of identity in the concrete world by considering identity criteria for abstract objects.

Perry6 gives an account of how we are to apply the Grice procedure. If Smith examines a green cube, and Jones is hypnotized into thinking he has, then both will have a later TTS which includes the belief that they examined a green cube. However, Grice will say that only Smith is identical to the earlier Smith and Jones is not, because Smith is really remembering and Jones is not. We now have to bear in mind the `given certain conditions’ caveat mentioned above. These conditions will include necessary weakenings. Perhaps Smith has a weak memory. He can remember examining a cube, but not what color it is. Or weaker still, he can remember examining a solid object, but not its shape or its color.

Here the Sorites problem emerges. We will examine various very similar counterfactuals in order to decide whether this is Smith. His identity will depend on how good his memory is of a particular event, and this is a continuously variable parameter. This will inevitably lead to difficulties when used to determining binary questions. We will see this type of problem three times in this essay — with all accounts of personal identity.

3 Bodily Continuity Accounts

The animalist denies that a brain transplant could suffice for a transfer of identity. This of course is in direct opposition to the intuition behind psychological continuity theories and there can be no fully justified victory in a contest between intuitions. Only the current state of progress in medicine means that we are denied the sight of brain transplant cases wherein the new body walks, talks, remembers, feels very similarly to the way the person in the old body did. The vividness of that experience would go a long way towards dissolving the appeal of the idea that identity is a useful concept in relation to persons, because it

4See [2, Ch. 5].

5It might be objected that Grice is not making the error of seeking set identity when persons have only legal identity or no identity. This objection cannot succeed because Grice’s `logical construction’ approach: identities are sets (of experiences) for him. Thus if his account succeeds, it can only find set identity for sets rather than set identity for persons.

6See [2, p. 88].

would bring to life the difficulties I outline in this essay and the problems that Williams describes in the second half of his paper (see 2.1.)

Madden7 provides an animalist response to the brain transplant cases. The question of identity8 is reformulated in terms of reference. We are to establish to which person utterances of an `I’-token refer after the brain transplant. The idea is that there could be a gradual shift of reference of the `I’-token from the old animal to the new animal — this encapsulates Madden’s animalist approach whereby bodily continuity is decisive. The reference shift is of the type considered by Putnam.9 This allows little space for the importance of psychological continuity, and so all lines of this general type would fall victim to the challenges in the second half of the Williams paper. In addition, all accounts relying on analysis of physical parts will involve irresolvable Ship of Theseus-type problems.

Ship of Theseus problems involve trying to establish the identity conditions for composite objects which may have some of all of their parts replaced over time. The problem becomes particularly acute if we imagine that all of the parts that have been removed from one ship as it is repaired over time are reassembled so that we have two ships. We have great difficulty in deciding which of the two ships is identical with the original ship. The answer I would favor would be `neither’, because in fact even a single ship does not retain identity from one moment to the next. Since persons are also composite objects — crucially, it seems they can be split into brains and bodies in transplant cases, but also bodies have components — the Ship of Theseus difficulties apply just as much to persons as to ships. So in fact we should not seek set identity for any real concrete composite objects.

The difficulties do not stop here however, as I shall now discuss.

3.1 Sorites Problem

A major difficulty with Madden’s account is that of Sorites problems. These arise when binary distinctions are driven by analog changes. Imagine removing single pins from a heap of pins. We start with a heap. If we continue to remove pins, when we have none left, there are no pins so a fortiori, there is no longer a heap of pins. The difficulty lies in a line-drawing exercise. Did the removal of a single pin change the status of the group of pins from being a heap to no longer being a heap? That is a large change to hang on a single pin. Further, the difference between a heap of pins and a group of pins not quite large enough to constitute a heap is arbitrarily located.

Sorites problems are especially problematic in relation to personal identity. We find the pin examples confusing enough, but the consequences are more

7See [3, Ch. 9].

8It might be objected again that Madden is only seeking legal identity and not set identity. We can see this is false however. He describes the type of identity he is looking for as `numerical’ at [3, p. 287]. Further, he notes that in a transplant case “[t]he referent of these I tokens is a single thing” at [3, p. 293], confirming he is seeking set identity. No one thinks a legal heir is the same entity as a benefactor.

9See [4].

severe in questions of personal identity because those consequences are of such import. We cannot really allow changes in the answer to the question as to who we are to depend on unavoidably vague considerations of how many things we know.

Madden adapts a Davidsonian10 approach to assigning referents to terms. Davidson uses in radical interpretation a principle of charity whereby we compare assignments based on how many utterances they make true and prefer those which maximize the number of true utterances. Madden uses a variant principle of charity based on knowledge maximization rather than maximization of truth. In addition, we are to assign the referent of `I’-tokens based on finding which assignment maximizes the number of utterances that express knowledge.

There is a new objection to which the original principle of charity is not susceptible. In the original version, the test of whether an global assignment of referents is correct, or more correct than an alternative, is the extent to which it makes utterances true. This has a straightforward numerical measure: a simple count of true utterances constitutes the assignment’s figure of merit. On the new version, we need to count the number of utterances that express knowledge, and seek an assignment of personal identity that maximizes the number of utterances that express knowledge.

On Madden’s view, an utterance counts as an expression of knowledge if it is `safe’, viz. S has knowledge of p if S could not easily falsely believe p in the scenario where p is in fact false. So now we need to count not the number of true utterances, but the number of utterances where S believes p, p is true, but if p had been false in only a slightly altered scenario from the actual one, S would not have believed p.

Counting statements that express knowledge is harder than counting true statements. We wish to determine a figure of merit for an assignment of personal identity by finding the ratio of utterances expressing knowledge to the total number of utterances. In assessing whether an utterance constitutes knowledge, we find whether it meets some specified level of safety. This means establishing the domain of possible worlds in which we require the utterance to remain true. So we need a specification of all the scenarios which qualify as only `slightly altered’ for each utterance under consideration. That is: which close possible worlds where the utterance must remain true to be knowledge.

Few deny that I have knowledge because there is a remote possible world in which I am a brain in a vat. However, many agree that I do not know that this is an elm tree even if it is because I cannot distinguish elm trees from oak trees; the world in which it was an oak and I said it was an elm is close. Two different specifications might be very similar in that they differ only by excluding one additional scenario just for one utterance and are entirely identical in a myriad of other respects. They could differ only in relation to an utterance about trees on one particular day and remain unchanged for all other utterances and potential utterances on all other occasions. These two specifications differ in the

10Cf. [5, Ch. 9]. Davidson notes the difficulties inherent in attempting to make “finely discriminated distinctions amongst beliefs”.

most minor way if one measures difference by the number of differing scenarios divided by the total number of scenarios; yet this minor distinction would suffice to produce a quality distinction between two candidate assignments. This seems a fine level of subtlety; a great deal would turn on this very fine distinction.

Imagine you are a radical translator seeking to assign referents to the language I use, which happens to be English: you do not speak English. You see that there is a zebra in a field. I point at it and say `the zebra is in the field’. The original translator has few difficulties with this. An assignment of the term `zebra’ to the zebra produces an incremental mark for that assignment: my utterance has been made true by that appropriate assignment.

Do I have a safe belief that there is a zebra in the field? Answering this requires dealing with the usual questions such as whether it is a relevant possibility that carefully disguised donkeys have been placed in the field. Madden might respond that he is open only to the objections that he has imported along with the safety account of knowledge. It remains the case he has exacerbated that problem by multiplying it and he would have analogous problems with different accounts of knowledge. The only real defense for Madden to adopt is the `dirty hands’ one, which is to observe that these problems apply to all other accounts also. That of course is the result for which I have argued here — since that defense is the only one available, no accounts of this type can succeed.

4 Combination Accounts

Nozick11 has observed the fatal flaws with both psychological continuity and bodily continuity approaches and this motivates him to try to combine the two. He also begins with Williams’s brain transplant cases, noting correctly that the problems therein derive from the fact that we do not know how to weigh up the competing significance of bodily and psychological continuity in determining questions of identity. He seeks a legal mechanism12 to do this, but no such mechanism can ever be found, because a legal mechanism will find only legal identity. Moreover, there will be the Sorites problem discussed in s3.113

11See [6, Ch. 1].

12It might be objected a third time that Nozick is only looking for legal and not set identity. However, we can see this is false by noting he observes that we are “not willing to think that whether something is us can be a matter of (somewhat arbitrary) decision or stipulation” at [6, p. 34]. He also admits that `nontransitivities’ are problematic at [6, p. 42] which is only the case because he seeks set identity.

13Nozick is aware of this; he writes: “But the interval can be varied gradually; it seems absurd that there should be some sharp temporal line which makes the difference to whether or not the person continues to live in the other body” at [6, p. 44]. He is discussing whether there could be a time period after which we allow that someone has moved to a new body but before which we do not. It will be apparent that this is the same objection as I raised in relation to Madden’s account in x3.1.

4.1 Covert Introduction Of Set Identity

I will now argue that a major problem with Nozick’s account is that it covertly introduces notions of identity which are appropriate in the abstract world of numbers and sets but do not apply in the concrete world.

The legal mechanism that Nozick chooses to determine identity — which he dubs the Closest Continuer theory { will basically involve looking at all the candidates for identity with something else and making a measured decision. This will mean that the identity criteria for an item will depend on other items that exist or potentially could, which is implausible. Why should it matter to who I am who you are, or what else exists? Would I not still be me in an otherwise empty universe? So much of Nozick’s effort will focus on attempting to make it plausible that external items can influence identity.

Nozick introduces his proposed mechanism by way of a story that could have happened to the 20 members of the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers who we are to imagine flee to separate locations where they are no longer in contact with each other or the outside world. Three members of this group escape to Istanbul where they believe wrongly that all the others are dead. As Nozick puts it:14 “[t]hey now are the Vienna Circle”. We may certainly agree that in these circumstances, were one to find a legal document naming the Vienna Circle, perhaps as the recipient of a bequest, these three would be entitled to claim it. That would be the case providing no better placed group could make out a stronger claim to the bequest, a caveat that will be important in Nozick’s development of the story, as we will see.

However, Nozick needs something more than this legal status, surely. We are discussing questions of identity. We should ask: which of the following claims is Nozick pressing?

1.The three members in Istanbul are identical to the same members in Vienna.

2.The three members in Istanbul are identical to the 20 members in Vienna.

3.The 20 members in Vienna are identical to the Vienna Circle.

4.The 3 members in Istanbul are identical to the Vienna Circle.

Of these claims, only 1). appears defensible. Claim 2). must be false because three persons cannot be identical with 20 persons. Claims 3). and 4). may appear prima facie implausible because it seems that a number of persons cannot be identical with a legal construct like that denoted by `the Vienna Circle’, which is presumably some kind of club or society with meeting rooms and a constitution. However, to take this line would be unfair to Nozick; we must allow him to stipulate that `the Vienna Circle’ refers to nothing beyond the group of people who are its members. Yet this produces the real difficulty. We must now allow Nozick claim 3).; it is the case that the original group met,

14See [6, p. 32].

had meetings, comprised 20 members and those 20 members as a group were identical to the Vienna Circle because that term is just another way of referring to those 20 members.

We are only allowing that the term `Vienna Circle’ can be identical to its 20 members because we have allowed that that term can be another way of referring to those members. So in fact this is a case where the abstract realm in which identity does apply has been smuggled in — since we are talking about the identity which does indeed hold between a set and itself — under the appearance of making identity statements about items in the real world.

If the term `Vienna Circle’ changes over time — say one person dies and now the term refers to the 19 remaining members — the identity between the two uses of `Vienna Circle’ is not the set identity that obtains between the initial 20 members and the first use of `Vienna Circle’ because there is no identity between the 20 and the 19. There is only a legal identity between the two uses of `Vienna Circle’ because there is only a legal identity between the 20 and the 19.

Nozick develops his story such that unbeknownst to the Istanbul three, there is also a California nine who have been conducting the same business as them. Both groups believed they spoke for the Vienna Circle. The outside world may decide that the nine are the Circle.15 However, this is merely to make a decision on legal status — it answers the question as to who can speak for the Vienna Circle. It achieves nothing connected to identity relations. Even if these legal questions could be definitively settled, none of these groups would be identical to the Vienna Circle in the required sense.

5 Conclusion: Identity Is Abstract

A basic problem with all of the accounts considered here is that they seek the wrong type of identity. They have a legalistic approach which might be appropriate for determining who is entitled to what share of a legacy. They weigh up factors counting in various directions, and, in the case of Nozick’s account, allow also for factors not relating to the entity under discussion to affect that entity’s identity criteria. This cannot be the right way to decide who I am. A committee of lawyers cannot make the decision as to from which pair of eyes I regard the world.

15Even this is questionable though. We might imagine circumstances where the three are all of the major players making immense original contribution to philosophical debate while the nine are doing no work at all. This problem again highlights the con ation of the two issues of who legally may speak for an entity and what metaphysically is identical with it.


[1]B. Williams, “The self and the future,” The Philosophical Review, vol. 79, no. 2, pp. pp. 161{180, 1970.

[2]J. Perry, Identity, personal identity, and the self. Hackett Pub., 2002.

[3]K. Bennett and D. Zimmerman, Oxford Studies in Metaphysics. No. v. 6 in Oxford Studies in Metaphysics Series, Oxford University Press, 2011.

[4]A. Pessin, S. Goldberg, and H. Putnam, The Twin earth chronicles: twenty years of reflection on Hilary Putnam’s “The meaning of `meaning'”. M. E. Sharpe, 1996.

[5]D. Davidson, Inquiries into truth and interpretation. Philosophical essays, Clarendon Press, 2001.

[6]R. Nozick, Philosophical explanations. Harvard University Press, 1981.

The Importance Of Forgetfulness For Nietzsche

See also much more on the related topic of Nietzsche on memory in my free Ebook/iBook at:



0.1 Introduction

Forgetfulness is the tendency to forget, to engage in forgetting. Our normal view of it is negative: it is generally unhelpful when we forget where we have placed important items, and our focus in education, especially at school, is on trying to remember facts. Forgetfulness is our enemy here. Alzheimer’s Disease is greatly feared, primarily because it adversely a ects memory, and this loss is held to be an attack on what makes us who we are.

In philosophy, forgetfulness has received much less attention than memory, and generally then only as the negative opposite pole to memory. Nietzsche has a unique view of forgetfulness which is positive, active and essential to much of life and thinking. Since this is so unusual and illuminating, and goes against much of common sense and philosophy, it is worth careful consideration.

Nietzsche will not deny that forgetfulness is unhelpful in many prosaic circumstances. It is never a good thing to forget where your car is parked or which hotel room you are staying in. Nevertheless, I will argue that active forgetfulness plays an important role in Nietzsche’s writings, occurring throughout them. It is significant in connection with major themes such as the doctrine of eternal recurrence and the Ubermensch, but most importantly, it is central to his ethical project. That project, involving the revaluation of all values, is arguably Nietzsche’s most important message. Therefore, since I shall show it cannot be understood without an active conception of forgetfulness, that conception is essential to interpreting Nietzsche. We would also do well to consider the alternate valency of forgetfulness Nietzsche provides in analysis of other philosophy, particularly in relation to memory.

We need to know what forgetfulness is for Nietzsche and why it is important. I will argue for the following linked theses: that forgetfulness:

1.is active and is essential to action;

2.is central to Nietzsche’s ethical project.

I will show also that there are clear links between thesis one and thesis two by discussing the Masters. The Masters are characterised by their activity, and are actively forgetful. Moreover, the Masters, like the Ubermensch, create their


own values: they exemplify what Nietzsche wants us to do or to prepare for: this is his central ethical project.

0.2 Action

There are three reasons why forgetfulness is essential to action. Firstly, without forgetfulness, we would have at the forefront of our minds the Heracliteanux, which will mean that we fail to believe in a fixed self, and also note the immensity of change within all space-time. Both of those realizations will tend to make activity seem pointless.1 Secondly, forgetfulness is the opposition to and the cure for an excess of historical sense, which is paralysing.2 The paralysis derives from the crushing weight of comparison with previous ages and great deeds. Nietzsche’s cure for this is to exhort us not to think of ourselves as latecomers to the historical scene.3 Thirdly, forgetfulness is essential to action because otherwise we are paralysed by the thought of the consequences. We need su cient strength to ignore injustice since all other than the most trivial actions will be unjust in some way, will injure someone. This means that absent the accepted morality and equality of humans, both of which Nietzsche opposes, there are no justifications for any actions since almost everything one does a ects someone.4 In addition, forgetfulness aids in focussing on single objectives, in that apart from the aforementioned absence of conscience, paralyzing knowledge is eliminated.5

Nietzsche notes in UM6 that forgetfulness of one’s self will assist in the untimely task of transcending the stifling conformity of one’s age: `The heroic human being despises […] the measuring of things by the standard of himself […]. His strength lies in forgetting himself.’ This is also a call for the courage

1Nietzsche writes: `a man who did not possess the power of forgetting at all and who was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming: such a man would no longer believe in his own being […]. Forgetting is essential to action of any kind.’ [1, `On the Uses and Dis- advantages of History for Life’, x1] Carlson [2], reviewing Grundlehner on Nietzsche’s poetry { which is `the music of forgetting’ [3] { discusses Grundlehner’s argument that `forgetting dismembers the integral self’ and that this fragmentation is re ected in the dissonance of Nietzsche’s poetry.

2Kariel [4, p. 217] also notes that we need to forget facts about the future { and in particular the fact of our own deaths { to continue to act at all. We might add that those who seek to avoid that conclusion by procreation must forget that procreation, being the creation of new human life, can only solve problems which are not essential to human life.

3We learn that `it is altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting […] there is a degree of sleeplessness, […] of the historical sense, which is harmful and ultimately fatal’ [1, `On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, x1] Moreover, the end of history has been falsely announced before now and doubtless will be again: we must `forget the suspicion that [we] are epigones’. [1, `On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, x6]

4`It requires a great deal of strength to be able to live and to forget the extent to which to live and to be unjust is one and the same thing. [1, `On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, x3]

5We see this since `[a]s he who acts is, in Goethe’s words, always without a conscience, so is he also always without knowledge; he forgets most things so as to do one thing’ [1, `On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, x1]

6I will use standard abbreviations for Nietzsche’s works such as are to be found at [5, p. xxxvii]; here I refer to [1, `Schopenhauer As Educator’]


that will be needed to go against one’s age, which will involve forgetting about the concomitant risks to one’s person.
There is an equation of `the unhistorical’ with the active powers of forgetfulness { one may act only within artificial niteness because otherwise our actions are like drops in the ocean of space-time, fleeting and of no significance. Science does not accept these bounds, and while science is correct in believing this, and `correct’ in that that is the aim of science, to that extent science is the enemy of action. It is allied with an excess of historical sense; both seek knowledge and too much consideration of knowledge of either type causes inactivity. So Nietzsche uses the term `unhistorical’ for the power of forgetting, which is against unlimited horizons, against science and against knowledge.7 An alternative way of understanding this is to note that the strength of a nature might be mea- sured by how much historical sense it could deal with. So all of the paralysing effects of excessive historical sense would be purged either by being overcome or forgotten.8

In GM [5, I.1], forgetfulness is described as `effective, leading, decisive for our development. We learn later of `active forgetfulness, a doorkeeper as it were, an upholder of psychic order, of rest, of etiquette’. [5, II.1] The `porter’ metaphor here needs some interpretation because `bar[ring] admission’ is not the same thing as `erasure’, which would be closer to expulsion after admission. We should note that doorkeepers are as able to eject those already inside as to bar entry to newcomers, and it is this former sense that Nietzsche is using. Indeed, forgetfulness is `an active faculty of suppression’ which makes `space for new things, above all for the nobler functions’. [5, II.1] This is the active forgetfulness which serves the Masters in their ressentiment-free activity.9

I will now argue that we can see further grounds for thinking that forgetfulness is active for Nietzsche by examining the case of the Masters, who are both active and active users of forgetfulness.

Another aspect of action linked to forgetfulness can be seen by noting that forgetfulness belongs to the Masters and counteracts ressentiment. Forgetfulness is the prerogative of the Masters for two reasons. Firstly it is a reflec-

7`With the word `the unhistorical’ I designate the art and power of forgetting and enclosing oneself within a bounded horizon […] science […] hates forgetting, which is the death of knowledge, and seeks to abolish all limitations of horizon’. [1, `On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, x10]

8Nietzsche describes the most powerful nature as one that `would no know boundary at all at which the historical sense began to overwhelm it […] [t]hat which such a nature cannot subdue it knows how to forget; it no longer exists’ [1, `On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, x1]

9Corngold [6, fn. 27] argues that even the existence of a self for the Masters requires active forgetfulness. He says that in BGE, [7] Nietzsche argues that the noble human possesses a natural certainty about the self. This could be in tension with what Corngold sees as a quasi-Heideggerean notion of self as that for which its being is in question. The noble human, however, wishes to overcome himself in anticipation of the Ubermensch. Corngold notes that `This suspension of the explicit question of the self is connected in Nietzsche to the entire complex of ideas that comes under the head of \active forgetfulness.” ‘ Thus we see that forgetfulness is shown to be necessary, via the concept of the (noble) self, to the coming of the Ubermensch and the revaluation of all values. Corngold also sees forgetfulness as `condition of action and truth.’


tion of their essentially active nature, in contrast to the enforced passivity and reactive nature of their counterparts, the Slaves. The second reason allows us to see why forgetfulness is importantly different to ignorance;10 the reason flows from the difference between the self-affirmation of the Masters and the parallel double negation of the Slaves. The latter lack the ability to simply affirm themselves and have the denial of what is not themselves result from that. Instead, they deny that the Masters are good and then derive self-affirmation from the second negation, which is that they, the Slaves, are not the Masters. While the Slaves can `say no to what is outside’11 this means they cannot forget it — they must not forget it because they need to continue to deny it.

The Masters are allowed forgetfulness and require it; they do not have or need ressentiment and so correlatively they have no need of its driver, the absence of forgetfulness — and forgetfulness is what enables them to act. Note that all of these considerations show why forgetfulness is not ignorance and is more important. The di erence between the two is that one can only forget items one has previously known, whereas one has never known items of which one is ignorant. While ignorance can allow action it cannot drive it, because facts which one does not know cannot be motives. So ignorance cannot replace forgetfulness in the dialectic driving the Masters: action causes forgetfulness and forgetfulness causes action. This shows the importance of forgetfulness however, because it is a key component of his analysis of morality, and because forgetfulness of existing values could, unlike ignorance, be a precursor of their destruction.

Nietzsche compares [5, II.1] the active power of forgetfulness to a properly functioning process of digestion. The analogy is that material must be taken in, made use of and then eliminated, which again shows a clear opposition between forgetfulness and ignorance. An opposition is also introduced to memory, which Nietzsche argues has the function of making guilt and debt relationships possible via pain12 in icted as punishment for non-payment of debts and in order to provide pleasure to creditors.

Only `strong’ and `healthy’ animals in whom forgetting `represents a force’ will be able to disconnect forgetfulness in the special cases when a promise is to be made. Only in such specimens will memory have a positive role as recording words representing promises made or debts

10We may note here that `putting to the back of one’s mind’ is di erent to active forgetting. One may recall an item at will but choose not to. This more passive forgetting is di erent to the active forgetting that we are discussing.

11We can see this denial of what is other at [5, I.10]. Deleuze [8, x1.4] notes that ressenti- ment replaces action. Action will produce forgetfulness because it extinguishes its own causes or rather their resultant intermediary motivations while ressentiment, which would be ex- tinguished by forgetfulness, must continue for the Slaves to allow them to continue in their parody of self-affirmation.

12O’Sullivan [9] cites this connection between pain and forgetfulness, and regards the former as an `ever recurrent theme of his work’. He argues that pain is a function of intelligence that drives us into various displacement activities such as mechanical labour — we are reminded of Wittgenstein — which function by inducing self-forgetfulness. Pain is valuation and so active forgetfulness is a precursor of revaluation of values. O’Sullivan also notes that we need to forget the blood-soaked origins of our institutions and customs in order to continue to observe them.


incurred, as opposed to the more reactive, passive, dyspeptic nature of memory in the slaves — to be understood as all of us — where it records difficulties and slights which we struggle to eliminate. This, paradoxically, is what allows apparently superior active forces to be ineffective in the face of inferior reactive forces.

The latter do not overwhelm the former, but separate active force from what it can do.13 This then becomes ressentiment, which is not the healthy situation where reactive forces are not simply acted upon and thereby eliminated, but the unhealthy counterpart where they are turned back on the subject, recorded in memory and invade consciousness. Thus a failure of active forgetfulness leads directly to the phenomenon of ressentiment, one of Nietzsche’s central concepts in his analysis of how current morality has arisen.

Forgetfulness is then one of the de ning characteristics of the Masters, who are active in virtue of their powers of forgetfulness and have the concomitant power of `acting’ their reactions — of giving them force.14 The slaves, by contrast, possess a `prodigious memory’. We must avoid however the idea that forgetfulness is solely the prerogative of the Masters, since in fact all humans are forgetfulness embodied.15

So we have seen that forgetfulness is itself active and essential to action. I will now show the ethical dimension of forgetfulness, beyond what is already clear from the facts that The Masters are central to understanding Nietzsche’s ethical project of revaluation, and The Masters are active and forgetful.

0.3 The Ethical Project

We see an ethical importance in HA, where it is noted `how little moral would the world appear without forgetfulness!’. [10, II.92] Nietzsche has ambivalent attitudes towards (post-Christian) morality and the decline of the in uence of religion due to its passage under the microscope of scienti c history. He is an atheist, yet regrets the passing of Christianity and believes that Christian ethics apply to everyone. Later, a forgetfulness as `doorkeeper’ metaphor appears, being necessary to preservation of `human dignity’. This means we may need the hypocrisy involved in asserting that we believe in `the equal value of all human life’ while at the same time doing nothing about, for example, widespread starvation in other countries.

We may also consider under the ethical heading Nietzsche’s project of revaluation of all values, which heralds the coming of the Ubermensch { or is his task. There are three metamorphoses of the spirit to be found in Z [11]: the spirit becomes first a camel, then a lion, and then a child. The camel, a beast of burden, accepts the status quo, and labors uncomplainingly under extant values. The camel must become the lion, who ghts and destroys existing values. The lion’s

13Deleuze notes this separation. [8, x4.2] Deleuze also observes [8, x4.11] that forgetfulness becomes opposed to a memory of the future — a facilitation of the redemption of promises { in the active and strong individual.

14Deleuze note this characteristic of The Masters at [8, x4.4]

15Nietzsche describes the human animal as `forgetfulness in the flesh’ at [5, II.3].


strength is only negative though { it succeeds to destroy existing values but not to create new ones. The lion must become the child16, which `is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes.’ [11, I, `Of the Three Metamorphoses’]

We have already seen one of Nietzsche’s meanings here: that of forgetfulness being necessary for creation — because creators must forget the impermanence of everything. The second meaning is that they must also forget existing values and the `value’ of those values. Nietzsche has a doctrine of eternal recurrence under which we are asked to imagine our reaction to the prospect of everything returning exactly as it is an in nite number of times. Those passing the test of willing this return are possessed of uncommon psychological strength. [14, x3] The `Yes’ can therefore be seen as the a rmation given by those passing the test of affirming eternal recurrence, but it could also be seen as the a rmation of the new values.17

Forgetfulness then is part of the necessary negation of existing values which must be forgotten to be negated. The `wheel’ refers to the infinitely repeated cycles in the doctrine, but the `self-propelling’ description refers both to the fact that creators are driven by themselves and not society { they are untimely { and that they create their own values. In this way, they are a rst motion which may have consequent movements, but are not the result of prior movements: they are essentially active and not reactive. The importance of the link between forgetfulness and creation (of new values) may be seen from the fact that the image of the self-propelling wheel recurs in a section on Creators. [11, I, `Of the Way of the Creator’]

In the next section, Zarathustra meets an old woman who wishes to have truths explained to her which Zarathustra thinks are inappropriate for her ears. She though thinks she is old enough to soon forget them. Thus we see an echo of the line in UM that the amount of historical sense or truth a person can stand is a measure of their strength; or alternatively that a power of forgetfulness would be a source of such strength. [11, I, `Of Old and Young Women’] There is also a link elsewhere [5, I.3] to this line, admittedly via an explanation which Nietzsche sees as false though psychologically plausible. Here, forgetfulness is seen as alter of values. Only those of the highest importance survive the ltration. We could see this as a precursor to the revaluation of all values because it reminds us of the key question as to what it is { if anything { which gives value to values.
Nietzsche accepts the idea of human equality only for the sake of argument in [1, `David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer’, x7]. There, he notes that

16Downard [12] notes that `purity’ is one characteristic needed to make the transition from the value-destroying lion to the value-creating child, and notes that `[o]ften, this requirement of purity is referred to as innocence, solitude, honesty, or forgetfulness.’ This is in the context of discussing Nietzsche’s suggestion that we should have a pure drive to truth; that is, one that involves forgetfulness of our selves and our personal desires. Obtaining that would permit the self-overcoming and revaluation Nietzsche seeks by way of noting that currently many { less useful { truths are created by convention. [13, `On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense’] Convention employs forgetting as well [1, `Richard Wagner in Bayreuth’, x6], so that we forget what we wanted to say, thus enabling the standard hypocrisy required for social life.

17Deleuze [8, x5.13] takes this latter view.


since it is a precondition of success in evolutionary competition to forget that others in theory possess the same rights, forgetfulness is a mark of strength if one accepts Darwinian ideas. Forgetfulness here plays an important supporting role in Nietzsche’s attack on the idea that morality could have evolved or must be right because it is natural.

Commentators give many reasons to think that forgetfulness is closely related to Nietzsche’s ideas on values.18 Since that latter area is of central importance for him, we have shown that forgetfulness is also key to Nietzsche’s work. I willnally make some remarks on the linked topic of how forgetfulness has some positive valorizations for Nietzsche. We should expect this because he must to some extent have a positive valorization of aspects of forgetfulness if he valorizes action and creation of new values, as I argue, and also sees forgetfulness as key to those two beneficial steps.

Nietzsche observes that `[o]nly through forgetfulness could human beings ever entertain the illusion that they possess truth to the degree described’. [13, `On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense’] By `degree’, Nietzsche means the illusion that truth is external to us as opposed to a creation of language. Without that illusion, we would be unable to act or think.

Nietzsche argues that forgetfulness is essential to abstract thought. Martin [18] draws our attention to a Borges story bearing on Nietzsche’s point here. In Borges’s story, the hero is unable to connect a dog seen at 3:14 from the side with one — as we know, the same one — seen at 3:15 from the front. Nietzsche’s own example is a leaf. Once we have seen one leaf, we use it as a metaphor for all other leaves we see, which permits us to use the same name for all of them. This requires forgetfulness of the differences between all of the leaves.19 Since we have shown above that truth is intimately bound up with Nietzsche’s ethical project — because we are to nd a pure drive to truth unsullied by personal considerations — and that forgetfulness creates truth, such as it is, we have a

18Crawford [15] argues that Nietzsche’s conception of time drives his urging that we live unhistorically — i.e. use forgetfulness — and connects this to the Ubermensch and the doctrine of the eternal return via the line that the former perceives the latter. She coins the neologism Overchild to represent the link between the unhistorical child who lives in the moment and the superhistorical Ubermensch who perceives the whole of the eternal return and that the world is always already complete and achieved. These are the only two remedies to an excess of historical sense. Gillespie [16] also sees the forgetfulness of the child as the key to new values. Clearly mere ignorance of the old values would not su ce to reject them decisively and overcome them. Forgetfulness is needed for the transition from the child to the Ubermensch but is not enough — affirmation of the eternal return is also needed to pass beyond good and evil. Gillespie also sees forgetfulness as a measure of the strength of individuals, some of whom can use it to repress the `horrifying truth’ that total destruction must precede creation. Peters [17] holds that linear temporality must be subjected to forgetfulness in the revaluation of all values; this also includes `remembering’ the circular time of the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Zarathustra — the `advocate of the circle’ — is a philosophically sophisticated version of the unhistorical man. Creativity requires a shrinking of the temporal horizons to the zero point of the current moment. There is also a parallel between active forgetfulness and active silence — the pauses in different pieces of music are not the same, as what is omitted in di erent discourses is not the same.

19On this point depends Nietzsche’s important doctrine of perspectivism, which holds that there is no privileged viewpoint from which an ultimate truth may be perceived.


further reason to see that active forgetfulness is central to that ethical project. Active forgetfulness will also be a strategy `recommended’ by Nietzsche in approaching the paradoxical and self-contradictory nature of his work. Com- mentators have adopted a variety of subterfuges20 in order to avoid perceiving these contradictions, including the ascription of madness and the division of Nietzsche’s thought into various incompatible phases. The approach Nietzsche wants us to take is to handle the contradictions using active forgetfulness to take only what we need and thus create our own Nietzsche along with our own

Nietzsche describes active forgetting as a `divine ability’.21 This is characteristically double-edged: it suggests ultimate value and at the same time unattainability. Language is necessarily metaphorical. Nietzsche needs to for- get this in order to write at all, and Z. is a rhythmic alternation22 between sections where active forgetfulness allows language to be used `innocently’ — that is, as if it had a stable meaning — and sections remembering that very critique of language, that such stable meanings can only be constructed.

We can describe this opposing polarity of forgetfulness vs remembering (or self-consciousness) in terms of Nietzsche’s oppositions between Dionysus and Apollo23, or intuition and analysis, or even group vs individual. Moreover, we can see (self-) forgetfulness as a product of Dionysiac excess of intoxication24 and music for Nietzsche, adding that the ecstatic state is the one in which a rmation of all life as it is takes place. So we see that forgetfulness is linked to passing the test represented by the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Indeed, Hutchings identi es Zarathustra with Dionysus. Since all pair members require their opposite, we see an additional dialectical importance of forgetfulness in that it is a precondition for memory: it creates space for the new. Dionysus and forgetting are linked by intoxication. Since we know that Nietzsche will choose Dionysiac excess over Apollonian asceticism, we have a further positive valorization of forgetfulness.

Consideration of BT [13] adds tragedy and Socraticism to the opposed pairs.25 We know that Nietzsche holds that the artistic imagination creates all values, and also our pure drive to truth. (In fact, poetry is the music of forgetfulness and seeks to be the unvarnished truth.) So eventually we have a progress from forgetfulness via art/tragedy to values. Dionysus is a figure representing death or dissolution who is nevertheless life-sustaining — this is a clear parallel to forgetfulness and shows us another Nietzschean double-valorization.26 Z. is an encouragement to use forgetfulness as a weapon against our own will to truth, but it is also a biblical parody.27 The ridiculous aphorisms that

20Kuenzli [19, p. 100] draws attention to these.

21Kuenzli. [19, p. 107] gives this Nachlass reference.

22Kuenzli [19] observes this alternation.

23These polarities are outlined by Astell [20].

24Hutchings [21, p. 240] draws attention to this function of intoxication. 25Pippin [22] discusses this polarization.

26Pippin [22, p. 40] describes these characteristics of Dionysus.

27We might also note that the controversial fourth part, which was somehow published and yet not published by Nietzsche, represents a parody of the parody; the fourth part exists in the penumbra of the Nachlass.


are in Z. couched in biblical solemnity constitute a proof that weighty language is no guarantor of truth. Indeed, distracting sounds and words are a means of forgetting [19, p. 111] and so they would be `divine’: I am the word and yet the word is false. The counter-myth of the Ubermensch also becomes a `poetic lie’ which is only true to the extent it is useful for us to believe it and so finally, only we ourselves can be the source of values.

0.4 Conclusion

We have shown that forgetfulness is active and this active forgetfulness is essential to action, and is a major characteristic of The Masters. Since The Masters are a key to Nietzsche’s central ethical project, being a call to the revaluation of all values, we have shown that active forgetfulness is important in the context of that project, which would also require forgetfulness of existing values.


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