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Meaning and Metaphor in Nietzsche and Wittgenstein

Lecturer: Paul Daniels

Originally Taught: Winter School 2009

From Plato’s Cratylus onwards, philosophers have often recognised language to be of philosophical interest, but only with Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) did language become an epicentre of Continental philosophy. Both of these philosophers offered short and stunning critiques of language early in their philosophical lives: Nietzsche with the essay ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’ (1873), and Wittgenstein with his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). These works aim to provide a sketch of the subject and its relation to the world by interrogating the use of language, concepts, truth, falsehood, and metaphor. While each philosopher would eventually move away from these early works (to differing degrees), they set the backdrop for much work on language in 20th Century continental philosophy.

In 1872, aged 28, and already Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel, Nietzsche published The Birth of Tragedy – and was widely criticised by his colleagues in the academic establishment for his abandonment of philological method in favour of philosophical speculation.  The following year, in his notebook, Nietzsche wrote ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’ – an essay which transgresses the border between philology and philosophy yet further, and which (perhaps for this reason) remained unpublished during his lifetime.  At the heart of ‘On Truth and Lie’ is a refutation of the notions of objective truth and knowledge of objects in themselves; in their place, Nietzsche advocates a model of meaning as metaphor, and describes the drive towards the formation of such meaning as fundamental to the subject.  What can we extrapolate from this reformulation of meaning, and to what extent can it be seen to illuminate the remainder of Nietzsche’s oeuvre?

From the gardens of Cambridge, to a court house in Vienna and the trenches of WWI, the culmination and writing of the Tractatus is as remarkable as the book itself. Published in the milieu of Frege’s and Russell’s magnum opera, the Tractatus cemented its reputation as a foundational text of analytic philosophy, largely through its reception by the positivists. Yet for all its logical apparatus and structured architectonic, a chief motive of the text appears to be to destroy itself – and early analytic philosophy with it. What can we say of this enigmatic approach to philosophy? Does Wittgenstein’s early philosophy end with the final proposition of the Tractatus, or does this mark the beginning of a deeper and more critical understanding of ineffable subjects such as the ethical?

This course will lay out Nietzsche’s and Wittgenstein’s early approaches to language. By putting the machinery and themes of each philosophy side by side we hope to illuminate the degree to which each felt that language – considered either as an aide or a barrier – necessarily designates certain relationships between truth and art, and concepts and aesthetics.

This course is intended to be introductory to the topic, but intermediate knowledge of either philosopher or of the history of philosophy (especially Kant or Schopenhauer) would be an advantage. For Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, no background knowledge in analytic philosophy or philosophical logic is necessary, as the lectures will be more concerned with the overall structure and movement of the text.

Monday – Nietzsche and Wittgenstein: Philosophers of Language
Nietzsche’s life and the motives of ‘On Truth and Lie’
Wittgenstein’s life and the motives of the Tractatus

Tuesday – Nietzsche and ‘On Truth and Lie’ – The Clever, All-Too-Clever Animal
‘An Unstable Foundation’
Pure Deception: Climbing the Non-existent Ladder

Wednesday – Wittgenstein and the Tractatus, or, the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
The Mechanics of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus
The Limits of Language… and the Destruction of Philosophy?

Thursday – Meaning and Metaphor in Praxis
Over, Across and Down: the Zarathustran Übermensch and Metaphor
Beyond the Silence: Metaphor, Aesthetics and Ethics

Friday – Comparing Nietzsche and Wittgenstein
Nietzsche’s and Wittgenstein’s Worldviews in Focus
Panel Discussion: Aspects of Language and Philosophy

Suggested Reading

  • Some reference will be made to Nietzsche, F. (1969), Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, London, Penguin - particularly the prologue. Students may wish to read this in advance.
  • No prior reading is necessary for the Wittgenstein component of the course. However, for reference, the Tractatus is available online, in both German and in translation, at the following sources: