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My Research

Title: Nietzsche's Project of Cultural Incorporation in the Middle Period

In his middle period works, Nietzsche engages in a complex philosophical project among whose aims are cultural regeneration and what he calls ‘the incorporation of truth’. The aim of my thesis is to flesh out the relation between these two aims; in other words, I ask: what does it mean for a culture to incorporate truth? To answer this question I bring together Nietzsche’s understanding of culture, a topic that has received little attention, his position on truth in these works, and his theory of incorporation. I explore how these ideas fit together, something which Nietzsche never makes explicit, seeing them all through the lens of a criterion of progress that helps direct cultural regeneration, the criterion of ‘life’. I also trace this conception of life back to its roots in the 19th-century biology texts to which Nietzsche was exposed.

For Nietzsche, we never engage indifferently with things in the world, but rather fit them into interpretive or symbolic frameworks. Over generations, things are reinterpreted over and over, resulting in complex symbolic frameworks that sit on top of the world. This is the process by which culture is formed; culture, for Nietzsche, is this world of symbolism in which we find ourselves. We are not aware of this process, but rather take the things that it presents us with in the world as genuine and eternal entities. The tendency of culture is therefore to stagnation and dogmatism.

Stagnation, for Nietzsche, is antithetical to the principle of life. What Nietzsche means by ‘life’ is an area that has received very little attention, yet it is a concept he constantly invokes. I argue here that Nietzsche uses a principle of life borrowed from biology and applies it much more generally. Life, for Nietzsche, is defined by the ability to unify difference without reducing it. An organism, for example, is an organisation of cells each with different jobs, but each of which contributes to the organism as a whole. This balance of unity and difference is, for Nietzsche, the principle of life. But where Nietzsche goes further is that he does not treat life as merely the ability to unify; he allows the possibility of an overabundance of life that involves deliberately taking in as much diverse material as possible while maintaining unity. The concept of life for Nietzsche is the criterion by which to judge both individuals and cultures.

So the tendency of culture is to stagnation, but the greatest culture is one that refuses to stagnate and instead continually seeks to expand and unify diverse elements. Cultural incorporation is, I claim, Nietzsche’s attempt to overcome or at least manage this conflict. The ‘truth’ that is incorporated is that nothing is eternal or stable, but is, instead, in a constant state of developing, evolving, changing - in short, becoming. Cultural incorporation involves a continual loosening of the symbolic framework of culture designed to combat culture’s tendency to stagnate. Various tools are invoked to this end, one of which being the introduction of new symbols that alter peoples behaviour so that they avoid the easy option of embracing and perpetuating cultural stagnation.

David Rowthorn

D dot W dot Rowthorn at warwick dot ac dot uk

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