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Many philosophers today, particularly, but not exclusively in France,
understand Nietzsche to have developed a coiiception of life and a style of
writing and thinking which go beyond and indeed "put out of order" the
traditional categories of philosophy.l The philosophical concept that is often
considered to have been most consistently discredited by Nietzsche is one
that is usually associated with Kant, namely the concept of the thing in itself.
Indeed, for Jacques Derrida, one of the "points" of Nietzsche's "spurring"
style is to call int question the concept of anything "in itself", be it a thing,
truth or woman.2 The purpose of the present essay is to examine whether
Nietzsche does in fact succeed in twisting free of the concept of the thing in
itself, or whether, in his very discrediting of Kant's concept, Nietzsche does
not remain ensnared in what is still a largely Kantian perspective.
The first task is to examine the nature of Kant's project and to try to
establish what he means by the concept of the thing in itself. Kant's aim in
the Critique of Pure Reason is to try to put an end to what he sees s the
"random groping" (bloes Herumtappen} (B^y)3 of traditional metaphysics,
and to establish metaphysics s a rigorous science which is able to make
definite progress by following an agreed and tested path. He tries to achieve
this aim by examining the limits of pure reason and by determining whether
reason is capable of genuine metaphysical knowledge. Unlike Nietzsche, Kant
does not intend to eliminate all dogmatic philosophy in favour of relative,
perspectival Interpretation, but, rather, to replace blind dogmatism with


See J. Derrida, Spurs, French-English edition, English translation by Barbara Harlow (Chicago, 1979), p. 83. See also the collection of essays entitled The New Nietzsche, edited by
D. Allison (New York, 1977). Somc of the transladons of diese and other works cited in the
text have been amcnded where necessary.
Derrida, pp. 55,101. See also D. Krcll, Postponementf. Woman, Stnsuality and Deatb in Nietzsche
(Bloomington, 1986), pp. 4 f.
TThi$ and subsequent translations of Kant's First Critique aoe taken frora Immanutl Kant's
Critiqut of Pure Reasoa, translated by N. Kenap Smith (New York, 1965).

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Stephan Hidgte

dogmatic, but self-critical rational fcnowledge that understands its owi* powers,
capabilities and limits.4
Metaphysicl judgements, for Kant, are examples of what he eaHs "synthetic a priori" jdgetnents which are universal and necessry, yef wtiich
increase (or, at least, purport to increase) our knowledge of the worid, riather
than just explain the meaning of the terms involved in the jdgetnents* The
task of the Critique of Pure Reason to determine whether metaphysics^can
be established s a sence can only be fulfiljed, therefpre, if Kant establishes
whether and how synthetic a priori judgetiients in generat are possible,
How then is it possible to have synthetic a priori ktlowledge? This can
only be possible, Kant teils us, if synthetic dpriori judgements lay dowh the
necessary conditions for any human experience. Thus, for .example, if k is a
necessary condition of our being able to experience events that we undexstand
objects to be situated within a causal chain, then we will know a priori that
all the events we experience must have cuses. Simarly, if it is a necessary
condition of our being able to experience objects that we intuit them in space
and time, then we will kiiow a priori that all the objects we intuit mus t be
determined accrding to the mthetnatical relations which dbtain in space
and time. Kant's specific arguments in favour of this conclusion do not
concern us here, but there is ne feature of Kant's thinking about this matter
which is of great importance for our considertih of K.rit's Hngering hold
over Nietzsche.
Kant adheres to the empiricist doctiirie that ^11 knowledge derived from
objects is a posteriori and thus at best only contingently true for us. The only
knowledge that can be a priori and so necessarily tr\ie for us, therefojre, is
that which is not derived from objects, but which has its squtoe ijfi us.
If intuition must conforrri to (sich richten nach} the cristitiiitiQA of the objects,
I dp tiot $ee how we could know anything of the latter a priori [...] Nothing
in a priori knowledge -can be asciribed tp objects save what the thiaking
subject deriyes from itself (aus sich selbst hernimmt}. (B xvii, xxiii)

However, Kant also believes that what has its source/in us caijno^be true of
objects or things in themselves. On B 65 he expresses Qartesian douj?ts and
sys simply that what has its source in the subject cannot be known to apply
necessarily to objects themselves. But his more commpn view is more
dpgmatic, natiiely that what has its souree a priori in the subject is definitely
not true of things theinselyes, wfor no determinatioris, whether absolute or
relative, can be intuited prior to the existence. of the things to which they
belong, and npne, therefpre, can be intuited a priori*9 (B 42)^

See B xxxv^xxxvii.

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


In Kant's view, the only way we could know things in themselves would
be through a posteriori ernpirical Intuition, that is if those objects were "present
and given to me" and if the properties of those objects could "migrate
(hinberwandem) into my faculty of representation".5 What we know a priori,
from the structure of our own minds, therefore, cannot by definition teil us
about things in themselves. Gonsequently, the a priori form of outer, spatial
Intuition, for example,
does not represent any property f things in themselves, nor does it represent
them in their relation to one another. That is to say, space does not represent
any determination that attaches to the objects themselves, and which remains
even wKen abstraction has been made from all the subjective condhions of

Rather, "space is nothing b t the,form of all appearances of outer sense. It

is the subjective condition of sensibility" (B 42). In fact, Kant does not think
that knowledge of things in themselves is possible even a posteriori. However,
the important point for our purposes is that, in Kant's view, what the subject
generates or determines a priori out of itself never puts us in touch with the
intrinsic nature of things, but is always only subjective. This view constitutes
an axiom of Kant's thought that he never questions.
Since the a priori forms of Intuition and the a priori categories of thought
are the universal, necessary conditions of all human experience for Kant, they
guarantee that all human beings understand the world to have the same
spatio-temporal and causal structure (which we thus consider to be "objective"). However, the a priori character of our categories and forms of Intuition
also ensures that the structure which we perceive and understand the world
to have is quite different from tKe way the world may be in itself. Here,
then, is Kant's famous distinction between things s we know and perceive
them to be or s they appear to us, and things s we think them to be in
themselves. There has recently been some debate over the precise meaning
of these terms amongst Kant scholars.6 To my mind, however, Kant's position
is unambiguous:
What we have meant to say is that all our Intuition is nothing but the
representation of appearance (Erscheinung); that the things which we intuit
are not in themselves what we intuit them s being, nor their relations so
constituted in themselves s they appear to us, and that if the subject, or
even only the subjective constifution of the senses in general, be removed,

See L Kant, Proltgpmena to any Future Afetaphysics that Will be Ahle to Present Itself s a Science,
translated by P. G. Lucas (Manchester, 1953), 9. Kant believes that beings other than
ourselves might gain acccss to things in themselves through intellectual Intuition, but he
denies that we have such a faculty; see B 308 f.
See, for example, P. Guyer, Kant and tbe Claims of Knowkdge (Cambridge, 1987).

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the whole ccmsthution and all the rektions of objccts in spacc aacl timc, nay
space and time theimelves, would vanish, (B 59)

Kant goes on to claim that "what objects may be in themselves, afld fr

from all this receptivity of our seiisibility^ remains completely unknown to
us. We know nothing but ouf mode of perceivipg them (unsere
, sie
wahrzunehmen)" (B 59). Things in themselves are thus to be thought s quite
unlike the subjective reptesentatios of tjiem which we pserceive. All that we
can know is the way that we are affected by objects ^- the sensations that
objects produce in us and the a priori form s of intuidpn and categories in
terms of which we make sense of those sensations. Consequently, Kant
condudes, "we can know a priori of thing^,only what we ourselves put into
them (was wir selbst in sie legen)" (B xviii).
As we shall see, Nietzsche launches a full-scale assuk on Kaiit's ciitical
project and on the concept of the thing in itself. Howeve% this central
Kantian thesis that we know a priori of thing only what we ourselves put
into them is one which Nietzsche, in my view, never serisly chaUenges,
but one which he dheres t ";' albeit in an amended form -* tlbroghut
his philosophicaJ career. Nietzsche will drop the Kantian ide of a priori
necessity, and he will transform the relatively mijd idpa of ptting forms into
things into the more radical, and characteristically Nietzscheaii coiiception of
veiling>falsifyingz.na Jmpostngftms onto things. Hwever^ Nietzsche's assertiii
that human interpretations and evalusitioris are "thrown over things like a
dress and [are] altogether foreign to their iiature (Wesen) and even to their
$kin" (GS 58)7 is undoubtedly a direct descendent f Kat's claim that "the
things which we intuit are not in themselves what we intit them s beiiig"
(B 59). The central paradox f Nfietzsche's philosophy is that he clings tb a
Version of Kant's idea that the forms geerated by human thought and
perceptin are quite different from the things they ar put into, whilst, at
the same time, he rejects the;corresponding Kantian idea that the things into
which we put those forms must be thought to have a nature and cbnstitution
of their own'-in themselves.

Kant's limitation of human knowledge to "apperances" (Erscheinungen)

leads to the conclusion that, from the Kantian point of vieW? the claims and
aspirations of traditional metaphysics cannot be met* for the whole purpse
of traditional metaphysics, according to Kant, was to transcend human sense
experience and seek the unconditined nature of things themselves, the very

TJiis and subsequent translatioos of Die Frhlich* Wissenschaft (() are takeia cpra'Nietzsche,
The Gay Science> trhslated with commentajcy by W. Kaufmann (New York, 1974). Original
German passages fromvialtof Nietzsche' works cited in this essay are taken from Nietzsche,
Smtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bnden. Hg. Von Giorgio Colli und Mazzino
Montinari (Berlin/Mncheri, 1986):

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


nature which he argues must remain inaccessible to us if we are to have any

synthetic a priori knowledge. Metaphysics can thus only be a science, for
Kant, if it renounces its clim to divine insight into the things that are held
to transcend human sense experience, and if it limits itself to being the science
of the a priori character of the experienced world and the science of the a
priori conditions of experience itself.8 In this way, Kant anticipates another
important theme of Nietzsche's, namely that human beings are limited to
their own human perspective on things, to what Nietzsche calls "the world
that concerns us (die Welt, die uns etwas angeht)" (BGE 34).9 Like Nietzsche,
Kant believes that other perspectives on the world than the human perspective
are possible and that the world may look very different frorn those perspectives than from our point of view. But, like Nietzsche, Kant also believes
that we, s humans, are restricted to the only perspective we know our
own. Where Nietzsche and Kant part Company, of course, is that Nietzsche
does not hold, s Kant does, that human beings are confined within one
perspective whose structure is determinable a priori by reason, but that an
indefinite multiplicity of changing human perspectives is available to us if
we are prepared to experiment10
From what we have said so far, two main reasons suggest themselves for
Kant's distinction between things s they appear to us and things s they are
in themselves. First of all, there is the tension, which we mentioned above,
between Kant's empiricism and his rationalist commitment to the idea of
synthetic a priori knowledge. Since Kant believes that any knowledge we
could have of things in themselves would have to be given through a posteriori^
empirical Intuition, if it were possible, it is obvious that the synthetic a priori
knowledge, which he claims lays down the necessary conditions of human
experience, cannot teil us about things themselves. Secondly, it is clear that
Kant's distinction between appearances and things in themselves is one that
he inherited from the 'pld' metaphysics (at least, s he understood it) whose
pretensions he is trying to curb. Unlike Nietzsche, who disputes the very
idea of determinate things in themselves beyond human experience, Kant
retains the traditional metaphysical idea that things have a constitution of
their own beyond what we can know of them, although he considers that
constitution to be inaccessible to us. There is, however, a third factor to be
taken into account when considering Kant's reasons for distinguishing between appearances and things in themselves, a factor which has been implicit

For Kant's views on the Old* metaphysics and on his own "metaphysics of experience", see
B xiv, xixf.. 25-30, 826, 873-879.
This and subsequent translations of Jenseits von Cut und Bse (BGE) are taken from Nietzsche,
Bejond Good and Evil, translated with commentary by W. Kaufmann (New York, 1966).
See Kant, B 42, 59 f. and 342 f. and Nietzsche, GS 143.

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StepMen Houlgate .

in what hs beeil saicl so far, but whieh now needs to be madc explicit.That
is Kant's adoption of the curipus modern notlon, found in the writings of
Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and ;uuie^ that *- whether uf Knowledge is a priori r a posteriori what we are cpnscious of are always
perceptinSj representatipns or 'ideas' rathe than :things. :K^nt'$. acceptance
of this notion explains why, s I suggested abbve> he believes tfaat not even
empiricalj aposterionexpenence can yield knowledg^ of thlngs kx themselves.
"If we treat uter objects s thjngs in themselves", Kant maintains, "it is
quite impossibl^ to understand hw we cold arriye at a knowjedge of their
reality outside us, since we haye to rely merely on.the representation which
isinus"(A378). n
". ; . ' . . ' v'
Drawing attention to this crepresentationalist* ;presupposition in gilt's
theoretical philpsophy enables us to MgrjiHght a subtle complieation in his
epistemological theory, which I have so far glossed oyerj but which will be
reflected in Nietzsche's thinking. A. 'priori knowledge, in Kant's view, is
wholly the product of the knowing subject and is *put into' th4gs. A.
posteriori Sensation, howeyer, is produced by. objects affecting the hrnman
mind in sorne way.12 posteriori Sensation is thus not simply the product of
the rnind's own activity, but reflects our perspective on, or reliion to,
something that is other than us. What is given in a reltion of ah object to
a subject are never, for.Kant, athe inner properties of the object in itself"
(B 67), so a posteriori Sensation does not bring us any closer to the inner
constitution of things themselves than a priori Impwlecige des, However,
sincei genuine knowledg^ is considered by Kant to be the indissoliible fusipn
f Sensation and the a priori forms of intuition a$d tbught, Kant clearly
believes that thihgs .in themselves have some role to:play m determMng what
we khow namely, through the way thiey affect us. -' even though their
intrinsic natre remains forever hidden from us.
This dual perspective is retained by Nietzsche. In 118 of DajbreakyfcK
example, Nietzsche Stresses *the relational side of knowledge - the fct that
we are affected by something other than us ^ in a manner directly reminiscent
of Kant: uwe understand nothing of him [our neighbpur] e^cep^the chatige
in us of which he 15 the cuse". Yet, in the very next, paragraph, Nietzsche
Stresses the subject's role in generating the fons of ekperience by itself:
What then are our experiences? Much more that^ which We put into them
(hineinlegen) thari that which they ifedy coritain! Or must we go so fer s
to say: in themselves they contain npthing? To experieace is to invent? -^.

See, alsp, Prolegornen, 9.

. . > * . ' .
'SeeB..33 '
. . .
. / '.
. . , ' ' ' -"
Tys ajid subscqijient: traiislatons of Morgenrte {Z>) are. taken frpm Nietzsche, Dajbreakt
translated by R, J. Hollingclale, with an Introduction by M.;Tahnet (Cambridge, 1982).


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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


In 483 of Dayhreak, under the infhaence of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche goes

even further and advances the startling claim that all we know are our own
organs. Nietzsche tnay turn his back on Kant's epistemology, therefore, and
reject it s self-contradictory, but it is clear that that epistemology casts a
lingering shadow over Nietzsche's thinking throughout his philosophical

Having now given a brief sketch of Kant's overall epistemological position, it is time to consider the Kantian concept of the thing in itself in more
detail, before we turn to the paradoxes of Nietzsche's thinking. Kant's concept
of the thing in itself, the "noumenon" or the "transcendental object" these
terms are in efifect interchangeable has two different functions. On the
one hand, it permits Kant to draw a distinction between the finite objects
which we experience and the unconditioned, 'infinite' objects, such s God
or the soul, which, he maintains, we do not experience. On the other hand,
it permits him to draw a distinction between the objects of experience s we
experience them and those same objects considered s they are in themselves,
that is between two perspectives on the same objects, that of sense-experience
and that of thought.u It is this second distinction that Kant primarily has in
mind when discussing the thing in itself, and we shall therefore concentrate
on that.
Kant's intention is not to make metaphysical claims about things that
transcend our experience, but to use the concept of the thing in itself to limit
human knowledge to the sphere of the objects given to the senses. Kant's
starting-point in the Critique of Pure Reason is human experience. He believes
that we are restricted to that, and all his judgements are made from within
that human perspective. He lays no claim to a God's eye view. From within
the perspective of human experience, however, Kant makes two important
philosophical assertions about experience, neither of which is based on
experience, but both of which together constitute axiomatic presuppositions
of his thinking. The first is that any a priori knowledge has its source in ,the
subject and is therefore only valid for us, and the second is that all human'
perception is representational. On the basis of these assertions Kant makes
the judgement, from within experience, that the knowledge we have o'f objects
is limited and is oniy knowledge of things s they appear to us.
See B xix, xxv.

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Stephen HpuJgate

As a tpfrelate of this, however, Kant rnaintains tfet we must assume that

there is something s it were, Out there' that affects our senses and
thus underlies appearances, "otherwise we shiould be landed in fhe stbsufd
contlusion that there can be ppearance (Erscheinung withputanything that
appears" (B xxvif.). Unless, tberefre, "we are to move constantly i a ekele"
(A 252), the word "appearance" must be taken to indicate a rektipirtp
sometfring that appears, (It is this conclusin that Nietzsche will resist, but to
which the logic of his vocabulary will constantly return him^ generating the
most troubling paradoxes of his philosophy.)
The concept of the thing in itself, the "noumenon" or the "transcendental
object" is thus what Kant calls a "problenjtic" concept (B 310). We do not
know that the objects we perceiye have a nature and constitution of thek own
which would exist even if we did not, but we must thtnk that they do,: because
only in this way can we make sense of the ideia that pur perspective on the
world is a limited one, and that is the main idea that Kant wants to stress.
The concept of a noumenon is thus a merely limiting concept (Gnn%begriff)3
the functipn of which is to curb the pretensions of sensibility '{.:.] At the
same time it is no arbitrry ivention; it is bound up with the limitation of
sensibility. (B. 310 f.)

The concept of the thing in itself is not therefore intended to denote a

determinable non-sensbus object presented to some mysterious human faculty of intellectual Intuition; it simply contains the abstract thought oif the
objects of experience considered s we dp not experience them, a thought
which we must entertain when we reflect on the fact that our experience and
knowledge are limited. When we think of things s they are in themselyes,
therefore, we must .not think of Leibnizian monadic substaiices or of ideal
Platonic Forms; we must thirik simply of what Locke would refer tp s "we
know not what".15 The coftcept of the transcendental object, Kant teils us,
signifies nothing more than "a spmething == TL" (ein Etwas = x) (A 250), "a
something [...] of which, aAs it is in itself, we have no concept whatsoever"
(B 726). What things tnight be in themselves is thus of np positive theoretical
or cognitive iniportance to me whatsoever. In themselves things afe "nothing
to me" (B 524). The concept of the thing in itself does, of course, have
practical value in Kant's view, since the idea that the sptip-temporal objects
which we experience are not in thernselves in space and time allows us to
postulate a realm of being that corr^pletely transcends space and time, and in
that realm we can find 'space' for God and human freedom, both f which
we must rationally believe in if we are to mako sense of hunian morality. (In

J. Locke, An Essay Concerning Huniatt Uriderstanding, edited abiidged and i^troduced by

A. D. Woozley (Glasgow, 1964), p. 34

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


this way, Kant unifies the two functions of the concept of the thing in itself
which I mentioned at the beginning of this section.) However, although we
may be able to postulate a realm of noumenal, non-spatial and non-temporal
Objects', the thought of things s they are in themselves, which our recognition of the limits of human knowledge forces upon us, is not the determinate
thought of such Objects'; it is simply the "completely indeterminate thought
of something in general" (A 253) underlying our experience.
Yet, despite the indeterminacy of Kant's concept of the thing in itself,
we can say something about what he means by the concept. First of all, and
perhaps most importantly, the thing in itself is construed by Kant s the
thing abstracted from all relation to us, that is s the thing "apart from any
relation to the outer senses" (A 358). A thing in itself cannot be known
through the way it relates to us, therefore, because it is defined by Kant s
the thing considered in itself s opposed to the thing considered in relation to
a human subject. The correlate of this view, of course, is that all we can
know or 'represent' are our relations to things (s well s the a priori forms
of Intuition and thought in terms of which we make sense of those relations),
and that the things which we do experience are to be taken "s consisting
wholly of relations" (B 341).
This same distinction between what something is in itself and what it is
for us is taken over by Schopenhauer and generalised into the idea that what
something is in itself lies beyond all relations, not just relations to a knowing
subject.16 And, although Nietzsche rejects the idea that there is anything in
itself, the Schopenhauerian view that whatever would be in itself could not
at the same time be relational is one that he never questions.
Kant does not go quite s far s Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, however.
Kant claims that things do not manifest their intrinsic nature in any cognitive
relation to us, but he leaves open the question whether things in themselves
might not be related to one another. At least that is what seems to be implied
by his assertion on B 59 that the relations of things to one another are not
"so constituted in themselves s they appear to us".
The second important point to make about the Kantian conception of
the thing in itself is that, despite his frequent reference to things and objects
in themselves, Kant does not construe the inner nature of the things we
experience s necessarily separate from us. Whatever things are in themselves%
cannot be known and thus remains completely hidden from us. But, for that
very reason, we cannot say whether what underlies appearances s their "true
correlate" (B 45) is something disrinct from us or something that is identical

See A. Schopenhauer, The World s Wi and Represcntation, translated by E. F. J. Payne in

2 vols. (New York, 1969), I, 121,195, 245 ( 24, 37, 51).

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Stephan Houlgace

with (or at least inextricably bound up with) our

sub)ctiykyC The very
fact that the inner nature of things elude$ u$ means that.it caflnot be thought
of s definitetyhaving the form of a subject or an object. Its Status, to borrow
Demda's word, is'^ndecidable'V ;
We are eotnpletely Ignorant whether it (tbe ttanscendentaf object] is to be
inet within us or outsicle us, whether it Wpuld b6 at ofcce femoved iaith the
cessation of sensibility, or whethei: in the albsence of sensibility it would still
remain, (B 344 f.)

Cnsequently, we can assunie no fundamental ontological duality between

mind and matter. Both may ultimately be one and the saine;17 On the other
hand, of course, we cannot assume any fundamental ontlogical homogeneity
either. All we can do, to parphrase Wittgenstein, is remain silent about what
there might be beyond what we can experience.
And yet the third point to be noted abut Kant*s concept of the elusive
transcendental is that, notoriously, he does not remain silent about it* Kant
teils us quite clearly that the understanding ^cannot know these noumena
through any of the categories, and that it must therefore think them only
under the title of an unknown smething" (B 312), and that the transcendental
object can be thought "neither s quantity nor s reality nor s substance,
etc. (because these concepts always require sensible forms in wfaich they
determine an object)" (B 344). But, at tlie same time, he maintains that the
transcendental object is "the cause of appearance" (B 344)* However, perhaps
Kaixt is not violating his own prohibitions to. quite the degree it seems.
Althoughj in his view, the pure concepts of the understanding "can acquire
no meaning which might yield a concept of some object" (B 186).unless they
are understood in terms of space and tiine, or *schematised?, they do;have a
purely logical meaning of their own; That leaves open the possibility. of
thinkirtg of a transcendental cause bf appearances beyond space and time, even
if it rules out the possibility of knowing or determinmg precisely what one might
mean by such a trnscen<ifejital cause. To that ^teiit one coulcl perhaps
say that Kant's use of the concept of a transcendental cause anticipiites
Nietzsche's use of terms> such s "cause" or "essenee" in quot^tion-^markis
(and Derrida's employment of concepts "under erasure") at le^t in so far
s both Kant and Nietzsche are offering us a concept with one hand whilst
denying us the possibility of mking determinate sense of the concept with
the other. (Though, of course, Kant's concept of a transcendental cause is
simply underdetermined, whetes Nietzsche invariably employs such concepts
s ecause? ironically.)18
. ' "- *.-..

See A 358 f., B 427 f.

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"



Having thus sketched out Kant's conception of the thing in itself, we

must nw examine Nietzsche's critique of Kant's concept and try to determine
to what extent the shadow of that concept still hangs over Nietzsche's
thinking. There are, of course, many other features of Kant's philosophy
than the ones I have indicated which find echoes in Nietzsche's philosophy.
One could draw parallels between Kant's understanding of the way in which
the mind is stimulated by Sensation to constitute the objects of experience
and Nietzsche's account of the way in which we are stimulated by sensations
to determine causes for events in our dreams. One could also point to the
parallel between Kant's idea of transcendental illusion which we cannot avoid,
but can at least recognise s illusion (B 353 f.), and Nietzsche's idea of language
s that which we cannot escape from in our thinking, but can at least recognise
s "mere signs" (bloe Semiotik) (WP 625).19
To my mind, however, the most important parallel between Kant and
Nietzsche is the one first mentioned in our discussion, namely the parallel
between Kant's notion of 'putting forms into things' and Nietzsche's notion
of 'imposing forms on to things'. Nietzsche is profoundly suspicious of
Kant's whole critical entefprise, but the idea that it is we who give objects
the forms which they appear to us to have is one that he endorses and
appropriates wholeheartedly (though not, of coursCj without amending it to
his own ends).
When Kant says "the understanding does not draw its laws from nature, it
prescribes them to nature", this is wholly true with regard to the concept of
nature which we are obliged to attach to nature [...], but which is the
summation of a host of errors of the understanding. (HH19)20

In spite of occasional passages such s the one just quoted, in which he

praises Kant, the majority of Nietzsche's comments about Kant, particularly
in his later writings, are in fact highly critical of the Kantian project. In one
passage from the Nachla, for example, Nietzsche points to what he sees s
the contradictory nature of the Kantian project.
The sorc spot of Kant's critical philosophy has gradually become visible
cven to dull eyes: Kant no longer has a right to his distinction "appearance"


This and subscquent translations of passages from the unpublished writings or Nachla(WP)
are taken from Nietzsche, Tbe Will to Power> translated by W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale
(New York, 1968).
This and subsequent translations of Menschliches, Allfumenschliches (HH) are taken from
Nietzsche, Human, All too Human^ translated by R. J. Hollingdale, introduced by E. Heller
(Cambridge, 1986).

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Stephen HouJgace

and "thing m itself** he faad depriyed himself of .the ght

to go on distinguishing in this old familir way, in so fr s he rejectecl s
impermissible makihg inferences from phenomen to bjause of pnenraena
in accordance with his conception f cusality and its purely iniraphnomenal validity which conception, ort the othei han<3, already anticipates this distinction, s if the "thingr-ia-itself" were not pnly infetred but
ginn. ( />553)
Nietzsche highlights here what he Sees s a vicioiis circle in Kantus thinkirig
tfaat yitites Kant's whole enteirprise. In Nietzsche's Yiew, Kant dtw$ the
distinction between appearances and things in themselves in order tp restrict
the legitimacy of the category of causality tc the sphere of human experience,
that is to 'appearances'; and yet at the sanxe^time, by making this distinction,
Kant indicates that we must consider appearances themselves to have a case
or ground which lies beyond what we can experience. In other words, Kant
relies on the distinctiori between ph'enomenal ppearaiice and the underlying
cause of that appearance in order to deprive himself of the right to talk of
any causes other than phenomenal ones.?1
From one point of view, Nietzsche appears to have put his finger directly
on a central problem of Kant's critical philosophy: that Kant presupposes
what he dejiies, namely that there are causes beyond the sphere of phenomenal
experience to which causality is restricted. ;However, we should remernber
that Kant only says that we must think f things in themselves s ihtelEgible
causes of appearances, not that we can know that (or know how) they case
appearances. Kant insists that we can only make sense of causality within the
phenomenal realrn of space and time., Unschematised, the categories merely
have logical .meaning: they only have real, deterrninate rneaning (Sitifi} in
conjunction with sensibility (Sinnlichkeit} (B 299). This allows us to infer, I
suggested, that wheh Kant uses the term "intelligible cause" (B 592), ; the
word "cause" must be read, s it Were, in qutatjo-marks tp iadicate that it
does not mean what it means in ordinary experience.
Kant's position is thus not quite s straightforwardly circular s Nietzsche
impHes, Nevertheless, Nietzsche is right to see Karit's; position s problematic.
The question we need to address to Kant, in riiy view, is this: is it actuaily
legitimate to use a concept, but to declare in the same breath that one does
not intend that concept to be understood in any ordinary serise? Furthermore,
is it legitirnate to.leave the sense iri which such a coricept is t be understood
indeterminate or, at least, insufficientiy deterrninate or does not the
ordinary sense of the concept constantly reassert itself in the: absence of any
deterrninate alternative? But, of course, if we can ask this question about
Kant, can we not surely ask it about Nietzsche hlise.lf even more, since he
See J. T. Wcox, Truth anj Value in Nitt^scbe (Ann Arbor, 1^)74), pp. 119 f:"

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself'


specifically teils us that one should use traditional philosophical concepts

"only s [,..] conventiohal fictions for the purpose of designation and communication not for explanation" (BGE 21)? What we shall have to consider,
therefore, is the extent to which the distinction between what is apparent
and what is real in itself reasserts itself in Nietzsche's thinking, even though
he sets it s his task to challenge and undermine any straightforward conception of such distincrions.
Nietzsche's attack on the Kantian concept of the thing in itself (and on
what he considers to be related concepts such s the "beyond" or the "true
world") is launched from a variety of different perspectives and involves the
employment of Veveral different arguments (which it is not my intention to
assess here, but simply to display).22 In some passages Nietzsche undertakes
a genealogical critique of the concept of the thing in itself, which is to say
that he tries to make us sceptical of the value of the concept by exposing its
psychological or historical origins. In l of Human, All too Human, for
example, Nietzsche claims that metaphysical philosophers have posited a
realm of things in themselves s the source of "the more highly valued
thing[s]" (such s reason, altruism and truth) in order to avoid the idea that
such 'more highly valued things' might have their roots in their apparent
opposites (irrationality, selfishness and error). In 5 of Human, All too Human,
on the other hand, Nietzsche offers a genealogical critique of the more general
idea of a "second real world", by tracing the origin of our belief in such a
world to the dreams of primordial man. In 11 of the same text Nietzsche
then claims that human language is responsible for setting up "a separate
world beside the other world"; and in later passages from the Nachla he
frequently blames physiological weakness or decadence for our metaphysical
Besides these various genealogical criticms of the idea of a "beyond",
Nietzsche also offers a pragmatic critique of the idea. Whatever the origin of
our idea of a "beyond" may be, he teils us, the conseguences of its employment
are harmful since it insinuates that this world is of much less value than the
world we do not see.24
Nietzsche's genealogical and pragmatic criticisms often do not address
the concept of the thing in itself directly (though l of Human} All too
Human does), but are frequently targeted against the general idea of a realm
beyond the world of human experiehce. However, Nietzsche also presenfs

On Nietzsche's critique of the concept of the thing in itself, see Wilcox, pp. 98126, and
A. Nehamas, Nietytbe: Life s Litcrature, (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), pp. 74105.
See, for example, WP 579.
See WP 586.

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Stephcn Houtgate

dircct criticisms of the specific concept of the thing in itself which chaUenge
ehe very idca that anything could ever be sometfaing in itstlf. In Niet&sche's
view, it does not make any seSe to tlk of things in themselves becaiise, if we
abstract things from thcit relations to other thdngs and eonsider their iatriiiiSiG
nature lpne^ theri we are not able to understaiid how things could act upon
or have an effect upon the world. An<J if we are not able to do that, then
we are not able to deterrnine the properties of things pr eveci to think of
thetn s things, the existence of which makes a diffefence in the world, at all
The properties of a thiiig are effecti? on other "things": if one fernoves other
"things", then a thirjg has no properties, i. e., there is no thing without
other things, i. e., there is no "thing in itselP'. (WP 557)
Apart from showing that Nietzsche presupposes that the properties of a thing
are its effects on thef thiijgS, these lines mke it clear that he understands
the term "thing in itself" to mean somethmg. like "a thing cOfisidered by
itself", though, s I pointed out bove, it is not clear that Kant shares that
understanding of the tefrn; Kafit's point is simply that the thing in itself is
the thing considered in abstraction from all relatin to a knowing ;subject,
not necessarily the thing considered in abstraction from any relatin to
anything whatsoeyer. Nietzsche preserits criticisms of this more narrowly
defined Kantian position, too, however. In One passage, for exampie, he
rejects the concept of a 'thing abstracted from all relatin to a bject because
he assumes that it is only for subjectivity and through subjective Interpretation
that there are such things s 'thirjgsV
That things possess a coristittion in thefriselves (eine Beschaffenheit an sich)
quite apart from interpretatiori and subjectivity, is a cjuite idle hypothesis:
it presupposes that Interpretation and subjectivity are not essential [*..]: the
apparent objective character of things: could it not be merely a difference.of
degree within the subjective? (WP 560) .
It is clear, then, that the Kantian concept f the thing in itself is one that
Nietzsche firmly rejects, eveh if he is not s careful s he might have beeri
to disnguish Kant* s position from that of Schopenhauer or Plato. Often, s
I have indicated? Nietzsche sirnply launches a general attack againSt what he
considers to be central metaphysical cpncepts such s "the true wirld",
"reality" or "essenee", concepts which are not particularly Kantian. However,
certaia expressions make it clear that he frequently has Kant very much in
mind even when he is rnaking his cnticisrns of such concepts. In 54 of the
Gay Stieme, for exampie, we read the follpwing linesi
What is "appearance" (Schein) for rne now? Certainfy not the oppsite of
some essence (Wesen): what could I say bout ay essence except t;p n^me
the attfibutes f its ppeararice! Certainly not z dead mask that one could
place pn an unknpwn or remoye from it!

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


Strictly speaking, the Opposition Nietzsche is dismantling here is not a Kantian

one since Kant does not talk of the contrast between Schein and Wesen, but
of that between Erscheinung and Ding an sich (indeed Kant is very careful to
keep the concepts of Schein and Erscheinung separate).25 However, Nietzsche's
reference to "an unknown x" firmly suggests that Kant's distinction is being
rejected along with all other apparently 'essentialist' positions.
In a passage from the Nachla Nietzsche attacks what he sees s the
metaphysician's blind faith in the rational proposition that "if A exists, then
the opposite concept B must also exist" (IFP579). Once.again, no direct
reference to Kant is made, but Kant is surely amongst the unnamed metaphysicians that Nietzsche is thinking of. After all, is not Kant's belief that
"it follows naturally from the concept of an appearance in general: that
something which is in itself not appearance must correspond to it" (A 251)
exactly the kind of 'metaphysicaP assumption that Nietzsche is criticising?
It is true that Kant only claims that we must th'mk of things s they are in
themselves, and refrains from asserting dogmatically that there must actually
be things in themselves. Nevertheless, the rational inference from the concept
of appearance to the concept of that which underlies appearance is one that
Kant does not call into question. Indeed, s we have seen, he believes that
the word "appearance" must be taken to indicate a relation to something
that grounds the appearance "unless [...] we are to move constantly in a
circle" (A 252).
But is not this circle just what Nietzsche, at least in certain passages, is
inviting us to embrace by doing away with the ide of a thing or world in
itself? "We possess no categories by which we can distinguish a true from an
apparent world", Nietzsche teils us: "There might only be an apparent world
(eine scheinbare Welt\ but not just our apparent world." (IFP 583) This deliberately paradoxical and bewildering idea thatltnere could just be appearance
or illusion without anything which appears or underlies the appearance is
encountered most forcefully in a famous passage from Beyond Good and EviL
What forces us at all to suppose that there is an essential Opposition of
"true" and "false"? Is it not sufficient to assume degrees of apparentness
(Stufen der Scheinbar keif) and, s it were, lighter and darker shadows and
shades of appearance different "values", to use the language of painters?
Why couldn't the world that concems us be a fiction? And if somebody
asked, icbut to a fiction there surely belongs an author?" couldn't one
answer simply: why> Doesn't this "belongs" perhaps belong to the fiction,*
too? (34)

The challenge which Nietzsche addresses to our ordinary understanding in

this passage is profound. But can we really make any sense of the claim that


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Stephe Holgatc

the "world that concerra us" might be made up of nothing othe* thaji
"degrees of apparentness"? Has not Nietasche tken leave of logic?
Fottunately, perhaps, Nietzsche elsewhere seems to recover his Jogical
sense and acknowledge thaC if he wishes |o reject the eoticespt of the 'thiftg in
itself or of a true wprlci, he ought togically tp reject the concept of mere
appcarance or of an apparent world s well. If one side of the Opposition
between appearance and reality in itself is to be rejected, theci the whole
Opposition must be rejected becase these terms are contraries that cannot
be made sehse of in Isolation from one another. Nietzsche proclaims His
'libetation* from the Opposition between the appajcent and the true world
most clearly and boldly in Twilight of the Idols.
We have abolish^d the true world: \rfiat world remained over? The apparerit
world, pertaps? ... But no! Witb the true world m h$ve abolisbed the apparent
(scheinbare) world s well! :

It seems, therefore, that Nietzsche does not after all want to Jeave ms spinning
around in a circle of ngrounded appearances arid illusions, but that he wnts
to displace the very Opposition of appearance and reality indtself upon ^h|ch,
in his view, Kant's philosophy and indeed the whole: traditin of Western
philosophy sinee Plato * is based. What it means to think "beyond appearance
and reality" (or indeed "beyond gopd and evif^^may .npt yet be completely
clear, but we know that that at least is Nietzsche's im.
Yet doubts linger that things might not be quite s simple s that (if k is
appropriate to cll What we have just described s Nietzsche's vaim 'simple').
In the passage from Beyond Good and Evil which; we quoted above, Nietzsche
queried the Yery Opposition between "true" arid "false", but theri asked: "wls
it not sufficient to ssume degrees of apparentness [...]?" (34)i Does this not
suggest that beyond the pppositions pf Karitian and Platpnic ipetaphysics
at least, beyond the ojpposition pf "true?? and "false" -^ We cpntinue to whirl
around in a dizzying Spiral f agpearances?^imi[aa%^
of the Gay Science^
after having rejected the idea that "appearance' (Schein) is the opposite f
some essence, Nietzsche writes:
Appearance is for me, that which lives^arid is efjFective and goes so far in its
self-mockery that/it mkes me fael that this is appearance and will-o?-thewisp and a dance of spirits and nothingmre [,.,].

Does not this suggest that Nietzsche abolishes the Opposition between
essence and appearance by collapsing both into ^- appedrnc^.

See Nietzsche, Tmligbt of the Uols\The Anti-Christ, translated and introduced by R. J.

Hollingdale (HarmonidswPitfe, 1908), "How the *Real World* at last Beeame a Myth".
Traosiation modified. See also Derrida, pp. 71^83.

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itseif


If this is so, is not Nietzsche in danger of doing just what he accused

Kant of doing, namely depriving himself of the right to a distinction whst
relying on that very distinction? It is true that one must not automatically
assume that the postanetaphysical "appearance" Nietzsche delights in is simply
identical with the "appearance" he is trying to twist free of. But does not bis
retention of words such s Schein, Scheinbarkeit and erscheinen^ and his seeming
wlingness to court paradox, at least raise doubts that he may not have
twisted free of metaphysics and Kant s much s some might like to think?

In one very simple respect Nietzsche clearly does not twist free of Kant.
We have seen that whatever problems there may be with Nietzsche's retention
of words like Schein, Scheinbarkeit and erscheinen, he rejects the concept of the
thing in itself unequivocally. However, s I indicated above, Nietzsche does
not challenge Kant's basic conception of what the expression "thing in itself"
means^ he simply denies that anything actually corresponds to the term.
Although Nietzsche does not always mean exactly the same thing by the term
"thing in itself" s Kant, he agrees with Kant that what we are to understand
by that term is something which cannot be known by us.
The biggest fable of all is the fable of knowledge. One would like to know
what things-in-themselves are; but behold, there are no things-in-themselves!
But even supposing there were an in-itself, an unconditioned thing (ein Ansich, ein Unbedingtes), it would for that very reason be unknowable! Something
unconditioned cannot be known; otherwise it would not be unconditioned!
Corning to know, however, is always "placing oneself in a conditional
relation to something" (WP 555).

Indeed, Nietzsche fiirther agrees with Kant that, since what something might
be in itself could never be made manifest to us, it could not be of any concern
to us. Not only do 'things' have ho constitution of their own in themselves
in Nietzsche's view; such an intrinsic or essential constitution would be a
matter of utter indifference to us even if 'things' did have one.
There is also another respect in which Nietzsche does not twist free of
Kant. Although Nietzsche abolishes the idea of the thing in itself, we have
seen that he clings to a version of the corresponding Kantian idea that "we
can know a priori of things only what we ourselves put into them (was wir
selbst in sie legen)" (B xviii). Despite the multiplicity of his perspectives on
life, Nietzsche's understanding of human consciousness is dominated by one
recurring idea: that "it is the human intellect that has made appearance
(Erscheinung) appear and transported its erroneous basic conceptions into
things (seine irrtmlichen Grundauffassungen in die Din&e hineingetragen^ (HH16).

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Stcphen Hottlga|e

The problem that we must addre&s thercfore, is tMs; to what exteat

Niet2sche*s evident retention of one-side of Kant's pMosopfakljl dichotomy
~ the idea that we s knowing sbjects put our own forms into things '-*".
cause hko to fall back into tbe other side of that dichotoiny, which he clearfy
wants to reject the idea that wljat we put our forms and categories iiito
has a hidden constitution of its own? And how is Nietzsche's apprent claim
that he ciisplaces and freesy himself from the fundamental oppositions of
philosophy to be reconciled with his dherence to what is still, despite
undeniable differences from Kant, a basically Kantiij episteiiiology?
These points require consideration because, despite his insistence that he
rejects the concept of the thing in itself, Niet^sche's talk of imposing forms
on to things constantly and inevitably invites the question: what does
Nietzsche think that the things, on to which we impose our forms and
categories, are in themselves* Furthermore, in many passages, Nietzsche actually
employs the very terminology .of the "m itself (an sich) which he clims to
have put out of order.
In 111 of The Gay Science, fr example, he declares that the desire to
treat what is similar s what is equal is an illogical desire, ^rid he gives s his
reason for saying this the simple Statement "fr nothing is really equal>J (denn
es giebf an sich nichts Gleiches).
Then, in a passage frm the Nachla, Nietzsche again seeins to employ
the words an sich in a llterl aiid straightfoirward way:
. whatis that function that must :be much older and ipust ha,ye been at work
much earlier, that mkes cases idehticai and simat which are in themselves
dissimilar. (welche an sich ungleiche Flle ausgleicht und verahnlichf)J

The lingering presence of Kant' s "in itself " is not always marked by the
use of the specific phrase "an sich"> however Sometimes, s m the early text,
On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense, it is marked by a comtiaent to the
effect that nature is for us "an inaccessible and indeiBiiable x".27 At other
times, it is ma;rked by such comments s: "we are none of us that which we
appear to be (erscheinen) in accrdarice with the states for which ajpne we
have consciousness and wofds"(Z? 115), or:
Actions are never what they appear to us to be (Das, als was sie uns erscheinen)^.
We have expend^d so much lbiir on leanhg that external things are not
s they appear to us to be very welll the case is the same with the inqer
world! Moral actioris are in reality (in Wahrheit) ^something other than that'
^ etwas nderet) more we cannot say: and all actions are essentiajly
uiaknown. (D 116)
'. " "

See KSA l, p. 880.

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


Nietzsche differs from Kant in that he does not claim that what we are "in
reality" lies beyond space and time; indeed he considers time in particular to
be fundamental for all things. However, he does retain the Kantian idea that
'behind' the appearances the natuire of our selves and of out actions remains
We noted before that Nietzsche's critique of the concept of the thing in
itself and his critique of such concepts s 'reality' or the 'true world' tend to
slide into one another and become indistinguishable. (Conceptual imprecision
and 'slippage' is indeed a distinctive Nietzschean trait.) Correspondingly, just
s he retains the concept of the "in itself" despite having rejected it, so also
he retains such concepts s 'reality', 'truth' or 'fact' despite having rejected
them. In 11 of Human,
too Human, for example, Nietzsche states that
"Logic too depends on presuppositions with which nothing in the real world
(Nichts in der wirklichen Welt) corresponds"; in 19 of the same text he refers
to the error of believing that there are "identical things" and comments that
"in fact (thatschlich) nothing is identical with anything eise"; and in 112 of
The Gay Science he criticises the concepts of cause and effect by claiming that
"in truth (in Wahrheit) we are confronted by a continuum out of which we
isolate a couple of pieces".
Such examples of apparently naively realistic language abound in
Nietzsche's texts and, to my mind, are an inevitable consequence of his project
of unmasking the forms and categories of human consciousness s fictions
which we impose on to things. However much Nietzsche may fight against
naive realism and against the idea that things have a real constitution of their
own, apart from what we make of them, it seems that he is forced to claim
that "becoming", "life", "will ta power" or "Dionysiac force" constitute the
fundamental given reality in our experience, in order to give meaning to the
assertion that the categories of human reason, language and morality are not
real, but human fictions that simply create the illusion of being real. Arthur
Danto has put this point well:
To some extent he [Nietzsche] was seduced by his own arguments. Because
he wanted to say that all our beliefs are false, he was constrained to introduce
a world for them to be false about: and his bad to be a world without
distinctions, a blind, empty, structureless thereness.28

Yet, s Nietzsche above all has taught us to realise, appearances can be

deceptive. It may appear that Nietzsche is contrasting illusion and appearance
with what is real in itself, but is it not rather the case, s Nicholas Boyle has
suggested, that " 'reality' is simply a part of his own affective an'd polemical
vocabulary, a term which points to the metaphorical that is, the deceitful
A. Danto, Niet^scbt s Philosopher (New York, 1965), p. 96. <

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Stben Hottlgate

Status of thc vocabulary; pf his adversaties"?2* Althpugb I agjree witfe

Danto that Nietzsche i& forced to employ a realistic vocbulary by the nature
of his philosophical project, Boyle> in my view, ha$ correctly Menrified the
way in which Nietzsche wisbes that *realj$ti<f vocabulary to be uncterstd.
Nietzsche may apper to talk about wfaat is really or / /fr^f or / truth Uxt
case, but we must aiways remember that "The 'real world* (ptbri Weif),
however one has hitheito conceived it [...] has aiways been the apparaat
world (scheinbare Welt} once again" (IFPSiio). What appears to be the ieal,
independent charactec of the world is thus pniy ever wht ppears to be more
fundamental, more all pervasive from a particular subjettiye pini of view. And
this applies to what Nietzsche perceives to be more fundamental s much s
to anybody eise. When Nietzsche refeirs to som^thing s being really or infact
the case, therefore, we must und^rstarid hirn to be highlightmg the simplemindedness or fallaciousness of a viewpoint other than his own, but it does
not necessarily men that he is granting us insight into what he believes
really is the case, or indeed that he is prepared to admit that anything really
is the case, independently of our perceptions, at all.
To Support this reading of Nietzsche's position, one could poiiit out that
he does not aiways contrast the forms and categqries which we create with
something that js claimed to be real. Ofteh he prefers tp talk of coceptual
distinctions being "imposed s a schematism uppn all the apparent facts (ber
alle anscheinenden Tatsachen}" (WP 549), or of^^having "in^ented the reality of
things (die Dinglichkeit) arid prjected therri iinto the medley of sensations (in
den Sensationen-Wirrwarr hineininterpretiert)" (WP 552). The Standard Nietzsche
appeals to to defend Ms belief io the "erroneousness of the^^ world in which we
think we live", in 34 of Beyond Good and Evil9 is not the truth but our eye;
and in the Gaj Science Nietzsche declares that the higher human beings (who
presumably iriclude Nietzsche himself) are distinguished frbm the lower'
humans beings, not by any immediate grasps of reality, but by the fact that
they "see and hear immeasurably more, and see and hear thoughtfully" (301).
It ppears, therefore, tbat Nietzsche iritends to present us with a thoroughgoing phenomenalism, in which all we have access to and can talk about is '
"pur world of desires and passions" (BGE.36), or our "thought* arid Sensation" (WP 574). And that is not to say that we can cnsider otir thought and
Sensation to be ontolpgically fundamental, just that our thought apd Sensation
give us the only world that. is of any concern to us, .the world pf our
experience and of our mafcing.

N. Boyle, ''Nietzsche and tbe 'middle mcle of discourse* *', in Relism in Eurpean Literature:
Essays in Honour ofj, P. Stern (Caml?ndge> 1986), p. 129. ;

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


The fictions and interpretations of human consciousness are thus not so

much measured against what is real by Nietzsche, bat radier against other
fictions and interpretations, other probabilities and conjectures made from
within the only perspective that our thought and Sensation allows us. What
we experience is merely phenomenal appearance, though
appearance, thought of in this new way and transfigured by the abolition
of all oppositions, never comes to the point of referring itself back to any
ultimate foundation, nor to any central focus of Interpretation, nor to
anything "in itself": rather, it always refers to a further appearance. Everything is a mask. Any mask once uncovered uncovers another mask.
"Becoming" is simply the indefinite play of interpretations, an indefinite
shifting of masks.30

When Nietzsche employs the concept of the "in itself", to talk of "opposites that do not exist in themselves (die nicht an sich existieren)" (WP 552),
we must thus not read him s claiming that in itself the world is without
oppositions a posion that assumes that there is a world in itself. Rather,
we must read him s maintaining that the central oppositions with which we
think have no being of their own because nothing in our world of
experience has any being of its own. "Is there then any meaning (Sinn) in the
in-itself (im An-sicb)V" (WP 590), Nietzsche asks. We must answer no
because there is no in itself for Nietzsche. The concept of the in itself is a
fiction created by man and imposed upon ...
But s soon s we begin to talk this way the problem returns; for what
exactly do we impose the concept of being in itself on to? Our sensations?
Our experience? But is not our experience a fusion of subjective illusion and
the effects of other things, of the ivorld^ on us? Nietzsche may be a subjectivist,
but he is not an utter idealist. He may think that all the forms in terms of
which we think are fictions, but he does not think that the very idea of there
being something other than us nature, cjsaos, the all is a mere fiction.
After all, he wants to point to the limits of all human pterspectives and make
us realise that the universe exceeds what we can experience, that it "does not
by any means strive to Imitate man", indeed that "None of our aesthetic and
moral judgements apply to it" (GS 109). Thus, for Nietzsche, we project our
concept of the thing in itself directly on to the world 0/Our sense experience,
but we thereby project that concept indirectly on to the world wbicb- we
experience through our senses or, rather, do not experience, but veil, falsify
and conceal from view. But if our .concept of the thing in itself is a fiction
which we impose on to the world, must we not say that the world is in itself
not something in itself? Or are we perhaps only permitted to say that the

M. Haar, "Nietzsche and Metaphysical Language", in The Ntw Nietzsche, p. 15.

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Stcphcn Houlgatc

world is 'in itsdF not something in itseJf? How are we to spcak of the world
wc vcil? And yct must we not speak of it, if we are going to rnake sense out
of the idea that perspectives other than ours indeed any tbings, beings or
forces other than us are conceivable?
The paradoxes of Nietzsche's position are clearly seen in 21 of Beyond
Good and Evil.
In the "in-itself" (im "An-sicb") there is nothing of "causal connections", of
"necessity", or of "psychological non-freedom"; there the effect does not
follow the cause, there is no rule of "law". It is we alone who have devised
cause, sequence, for-each-other, relativity, constraint, number, law, freedom,
motive and purpose; and when we project and mix this symbol world into
things s if it existed "in itself" (als "an sich"), we act once more s we have
always acted mythologically.

In this passage Nietzsche makes the familir claim that we project our created
world of signs on to things s if that world were something real in itself and
not just our creation. Implicit in this remark, of course, is the idea that the
conception of something being in itself is itself part of the world of fictions
which we create. However, also contained in this passage is the claim that,
since we created the concepts of 'cause' and ceffect', and so on, the things
on to which we project those concepts are not themselves actually governed
by them. But Nietzsche has prohibited himself from talking of what things
are like in themselves by implying that the very idea of anything being in
itself is a fiction. Nietzsche's only recourse, therefre, is, s Derrida says, to
"inaugurate the epochal regime of quotation-marks"31 and to talk ironically
of what there is (or is not) in the world s it is "in itself". This means that,
although we are forced to speak s if things had a nature of their own in
themselves, we cnnot do so strightforwardly, we cannot mean exactly
what we say.
At times, therefre, Nietzsche resists resorting strightforwardly to the seemingly unavoidable concept of the thing or of being in itself by
insisting that talk of what something is in itself cn only ever be talk f what
something is in itself from some' particular-, subjective point of yiew, or by
employing the concept ironically in quotation-marks. By these means
Nietzsche continually subjectivises and relativises anything in his, tcXts that
might appear to take on the Status of something real and independent of our
However, at other times, Nietzsche seems to acknowledge that we can
talk in an apparently straightforward way of what the world is in itself, of
what our categories and fictions are imposed on to. But, when he does so it
Derrida, p. 107.

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself


is to teil us that things in themselves constitute an endlessly shifting world

of relations in which nothing actually is /// itself because nothing is what it is
by or through itself alone, nothing has a wholly individual constitution of
its own. In a passage from the Nachla, for example, Nietzsche maintains
that the concepts of 'unity', 'ego', 'thing', 'motion' and catom' are all fictions
which are generated by us and imposed on to the world. He then goes on
to suggest that
if we eliminate these additions, nq things remain bt only dynamic qanta,
in a relation of tensiori to all other dynamic qanta: their essence lies in
their relation to all other quanta, in their "effect" upon the same. (WP 635)

In another passage, Nietzsche continues the same theme:

The world that we have not reduced to our being, our logic arid psychological prejudices, does not exist s a world "in itself" (als Welt "an sich"}; it
is essentially a world of relationship; under certain conditions it has a differlng
aspect from every point of view; its being is essentially different from every
point (WP 568).

So we can apparently talk of what the world is in itself of what is other

than us and hidden from us s long s we recognise that the world in
itself is not fixed and determinate in its identity, but is a sphere of relations
between things that have no isolated being of their own. In a world so
construed, nthing is what it is by or in itself; everything that exists is
simply a specific way of acting upon and reacting to of affecting and being
affected by the other forces or things that surround it. Beyond or behind
a thing's relations to other things there is nothing; indeed there is no such
But, to pose our fundamental question once again, to what extent does
Nietzsche's conception of a wqrld of relations twist free of Kant? To the
extent that it entails the thought of a world which has not been distorted by
our perception, of course, not at all (except that Nietzsche is prepared to
hypothesise about the character of the world beyond our experience of it
more extensively than Kant is). Even the conception of a world of relations
does not necessarily twist free of Kant either, since, s we have seen, Kant
may admit of relations between things in themselves, too. However, if we
consider the following two possibilities, there seems to be some hope that
Nietzsche might after all cast off the shadow of Kant's thing in itself by
developing a new, non-Kantian conception of appearance and a new, nonKantian conception of the world.
Firstly, perhaps Nietzschean appearance or Schein is to be understood not
so much s the falsification or distortion of some unknown and nknowable
which remains concealed beyond our experience, but rather s the wholly
new product the chd, s it were of a fleeting and ever changing
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conjunction of forccs. Perhps forces comc together and interact to produce

new imagcs and forms which are appearances in the sense that they only exist
for or appear to the forces which produce them, and thus have no being of
their own, but which do not involve the veiling appearance of something
hidden, since they are not to be cnceived on the model of distorted
representations. (An Interpretation along these lines has been put focward,
for example, by R. Bittrier, though Bittner is concerned specifically with
Nietzsche's concept of Interpretation radier than his concept of appearance.)32
Secondly, we could reflect on the fact that, although Nietzsche's world
of relations is something that can be thought to exist without us, since we
are only an accident of nature, that world cannot be abstracted from subjectivity altogether. The Kantian thing in itself may be a subject or an object,
we do not know; but it is part of the very concept of the thing in itself, s
Kant construes it, that it does not have its own intrinsic being in being for
the subjectivity of another. This is not true of Nietzsche's "forces". They
only are what they are in relation to, 01 for, the subjective perspectives of
other forces. For Nietzsche, Interpretation and 'being subjective' are essential
to being. That is why he criticises the physicists of his day: "They forgot to
include this perspective-setting force in 'true being' in school language:
the subject (das Subjekt-sein)" (WP 636) Things can exist if our perspective
on them disappears, but they cannot exist without relating to some subjective
perspective. Furthermore, since their being resides in their relations to subjectivity, what they are depends on how they are viewed. They are not,
therefore, the same from all perspectives, nor do they remain the same if
particular perspectives on thern disappear. Their being is established in a
creative relationship with forces that view them from specific points of view.
The way that they are pefceived thus goes to determine what they are, just s
a person's reputation in the eyes of others comes to be paft of the identity
of that person. There can be no things in themselves on this model, therefore',
since what a thing is would only be defined
once all creatures had asjked "what is that?" and had answered their question.
Supposing one single creature, with its own relationships and perspectives
for all things, were missing, then the thing would not yet be "defined''.
, ^

Nietzsche can thus talk legitimately about what the world would be like
without us, but we must not assume that a world which is not perceived by
us is simply the world s it really is in itself, since he believes that the world
itself becomes something different when we come to perceive and Interpret
it. Our perception makes a difference to the being of the world.itself, in
See R. Bittner, "Nietzsches Begriff der Wahrheit", in Nietzsche-Studien 16 (1987), pp. 86-90.

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Kant, Nietzsche and the 'Thing in itselP'


Nietzsche's scheme of things, in a way that it does not appear to do so for

If we consider these two possibilities, then, it seems s if Nietzsche has
given us a genuinely non-Kantian conception of the world and a genuinely
non-Kantian conception of appearance s well, that is a conception of
appearance that does not give rise t the thought of a reality distinct from
(and concealed by) what appears. The second of these two possibilities is
especially important. According to this, appearances are essential to being,
for Nietzsche, because perspectives are essential to being, and because what
something is is no longer clearly distinguishable from the way it is perceived
by, or appears to, something eise, Nietzschean "appearance" is thus not
fundamentally different from "things in themselyes", s is Kantian appearance.
Rather, it helps to constitute the reality of things. Nietzsche proclaims that
"'appearance' (Scheinbarkeit) itself belongs to reality: it is a form of its being"
(WP 568), and we can now give determinate sense to the distance that those
quotation-marks around "appearance" put between Nietzsche and Kant.
However, aside from the vexing question of the intelligibility of the
world-view just described, there are in fact greater problems in determining
the precise difference between Nietzsche's concept of Appearance' and Kant's
than appears. Nietzsche constantly closes the gap between himself and Kant
by reintroducing the idea that 'appearance', s he conceives it, simplifies,
falsifies and veils a world that is itself different from the way it appears. "In
a world where there is no being", he teils us, " certain calculable world of
identical cases must first be created through appearance (Schein)". "Appearance
(Scheinbarkeif) is [thus] an arranged and simplified world" to be contrasted
with "the world that we have not reduced to our being" (WP 568), and one
which Nietzsche says we have created for our own practical purposes. "The
question", for Nietzsche, "is whether there could not be many other ways of
creating such an apparent world (eine solche, scheinbare Welt) and whether
this creating, logicizing, adapting, falsifying is not itself the best-guaranteed
reality" (WP 569). Nietzsche thus seems to have incorporated into a worldview which promised,to go beyond Kant, an idea that is directly inspired by
Kant, and which re-opens the question of the thing in itself: the idea that
subjects (or perspectival forces) impose their fictions on to things and distort
the intrinsic character of those things themselves.
Yet, perhaps Nietzsche's centres of force or specificity do after all twist
free from the Kantian thing in itself or "something = x" for the simple
reason that, though elusive and veed by appearance, they cannot logically
remain completely and utterly hidden from view. Nietzsche says that forces
are falsified and concealed by the interpretations imposed on them by other
forces. Yet, at the same time, since he wants to say that what these forces

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are is nothing othcr than a specific way of rdating to onc another, must he
not thereby conclude s Hegel would have done that what they are is
manifest in and s their relations to others? And is not what they are manifest
in us s well, s will to power? Kantian things in themselves remain forever
hidden and unseen, but do not the forces which Nietzsche talks of make
themselves feit and known within us s Dionysiac forces, despite the fact
that we falsify them? Or indeed through the very fact that something within
us seeks to falsify life?
And yet, should we not also remember something we have perhaps
overlooked so far: namely that this whole cosmological picture of a world
made up of centres of force or will to power is not presented by Nietzsche
s his unclouded view of reality, nor simply s a dream existing in a void,
but s an Interpretation imposed by him upon ,..33

Nietzsche's thought is proving, to borrow a phrase from David Krell, to

be an "abyss [...] on whose verge philosophy experiences vertigo".34 Let us
pause, draw JDreath and recapitulate. We know that Nietzsche attacks and
rejects Kant's concept of the thing in itself. And je t bis theory of Interpretation
s the imposition of categories and liiiguistic forms on to things seems to
reinstate the concept of the thing in itself in his thiriking. Andjet, what we
impose our categories on to is not made up of things with their own,'
independent constitution, but is a world of forces which, through their
interrelations, actually help to produce one another, and which we, too,
through our interpretations, help to constitute and produce. Furthermore,
though these forces may also be concealed from us by our activity of
Interpretation, they are, at the same time, manifest to and in us s will to
power. And yet, Nietzsche himself declares that his cosmological theory of
perspectival forces and will to power is only an Interpretation which we
impose upon a world that remains hidden from us.
We are in a circle, a circle that Kant predicted would arise-it'we reject
the thought that behind appearances there must be things in themselves.
How are we to make sense of what Nietzsche is doing? Can we indeed make
sense of the idea that the concept of the thing in itself is a fiction imposed

See BGE 22, 36. See also my HegeJ, Nietzsche and the Criticism of Metapbysics (Cambridge,
1986), p. 60. ' ';''
Krell, Postponements, p. 86.

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself


upon things that are not anything in themselvesy but merely things ... "in
There are one or tw passages in Nietzsche's texts which might help us
here. In a note from the Nachla Nietzsche declares that the distinction
between Ding an sich and Erscheinung is an Interpretation, not a factual
distinction; but he adds the question: to what extent is it perhaps a necessary
Interpretation?35 Perhaps, therefore, in a manner analogous to Kant's transcendental illusion, we cannot avoid thinking in terms of appearances and
things in themselves, but can at least prevent ourselves being deceived by
these concepts. In another passage, Nietzsche makes the same point about all
our means of expression: "We cannot change our means of expression at
will", he comments, but "it is possible to understand to what extent they are
mere signs" (WP 625).
According to these passages, Nietzsche has no choice but to1 think in
terms of things in themselves and appearances. The most he can do to free
himself from the concepts is to indicate his recognitin that they are "mere
signs" by placing their names in quotation-marks. But there is more to
Nietzsche's procedure than that. Nietzsche is not simply caught in a vocabulary which he can neither put his trust in, nor throw off. He has adopted a
deliberate strategy of setting up and employing conceptual distinctions, and
then undermining them, a strategy of setting up Standards of criticism to
unmask the fictional nature of our concepts and then withdrawing those
Standards themselves. This strategy is evident, I believe, throughout
Nietzsche's entire work.
One of the clearest examples of Nietzsche's displacing an Opposition
which he himself sets up is to be found in 58 of The Gay Science. Nietzsche
begins by setting up an Opposition between what things are and what they
are called, and by claiming that the names of things are "originally almost
always wrong and arbitrary, thrown over jhings like a dress and altogether
foreign to their nature and even to their skin". This sentence seems to suggest
that Nietzsche, like Descartes, thinks that one could, if one wished, approach
a thing, "take the clothes off, s it were, and consider it naked".36 However,
Nietzsche continues to explain that in fact the naked truth and the clothes
that cover it are not s easily separable s Descartes thought, since the names
and values which we ascribe to things eventually, over generations, "growf]
to be part of the thing and turn[] into its very body". In other words, "What
at first was appearance becomes in the end, almost invariably, the esserice
* See WP 589.
Tbt Pbilosopbical Writings of Descaries, translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and
D. Murdoch, 2 Vois. (Cambridge, 1984), II, 22.

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and is cffective s such". The initial distinction bctween the "dress" and thc
"skin", bctween "error" or "apperancc" on the one hand and "truth" on
the other, thus disappears and the two poles of the Opposition become
indistinguishable. Once the Opposition has been dissolved, of course, we no
longer have any reliable way of separating truth from error, essence from
appearance. But then what gave us the confidence that we could reliably
distinguish the two to begin with? Must we not conclude, retrospectively,
not simply that the purky of the essence has been lost, but that perhaps it
never existed 'unclothed' or s it is in itself to begin with, and that truth and
illusion are always inseparable?
Nietzsche's strategy, at least in the passage I have cited, is to shift the
ground on which he initially appears to stand by displacing and undping the
distinction he first offers us. The apparent paradoxes of Nietzsche's thinking,
which we have been examining in this essay, appear therefore to be resolvable.
Nietzsche is forced by the logic of his vocabulary to contrast the concepts
he wishes to expose s fictions with some Standard of reality or being in itself.
In this respect Arthur Danto is right. However, Nicholas Boyle is equally
correct in pointing out that whatever appears to be a fundamental distinction
in Nietzsche's thinking between appearance and reality is always to be taken
s a merely provisional, relative distinction which is made from a particular
point of view' and with a particular, polemical purpose in mind, and which
is invariably subject to subsequent displacement. Indeed, Nietzsche's cosmological theory of forces is designed precisely to dissolve appearance and
reality into one another and to show that the traditional distinction that has^
been made between them is misleading. For Kant, appearance is what is not
real in itself and the thing in itself is what does not manifest itself or appear.
For Nietzsche, however> these terms cease to be opposed to one another and
thus lose their Kantian meaning. Nietzsche thinks we can draw relative
distinction between the forces that appear ('reality') and the way that they
are perceived by other forces ('appearance'), but this distinction cannot be
sustained absolutely. Each term is in fact so defined that it includes the other
with the result that the line between them blurs into undecidability. Forces
are only 'real' in so far s they 'appear' to and affect others; their nature
consists in being for others. The way that they 'appear' to others,' conversely,
is or becomes part of what they *re'. From the point of view of Nietzsche's
'epistemology', therefore, the word 'reality' can only ever refer to what
appears to be real or what is interpreted s real from a specific perspective.
From the point of view of his 'cosmology' of forces, on the other band,,
appearance, Interpretation and interpreted forms must always be understood
to constitute an inseparable part of 'reality'. Either way, what is 'real' and
what is 'appearance' for Nietzsche are effectively indistinguishable.

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


In Nietzsche's texts a vocabulary similar to that of Kaiit*/j retained, but

it ppears that it is not intended to be taken too seriously. The terms
'appearance' and cthing i itself' must always be read in quotation-marks,
therefore, to show that they are not to be conceived in Opposition to one
another, s Kant conceives them, and to show that Nietzsche's apparent
Kantianism is merely a mask barely concealing his profoundly deconstructive
aim. The concept of the thing in itself is indeterminate even for Kant. In
Nietzsche's thinking, however, it is continually transformed into a conception
of a thing or reality *in itself whose difference from 'appearance' is no longer
even clearly thinkable.
That, at least, ppears to be Nietzsche's Strategie aim. At this point a
comparison suggests itself with another post-Kantian philosopher, Hegel. Is
not what Nietzsche presents similar to the process which Hegel describes in
the Phenowenology, whereby "it comes to pass for consciousness that what it
previously took to be the in itself (das Ansich) is not in itself, or that it was
only in itself for consciousness^31 The procedures of Hegel and Nietzsche are
indeed similar, bt not by any means identical, and the differences between
them are instructive.
First of all, whereas Hegel's aim in the Phenomenology is to bring consciousness to the point at which it finds itself at one with and at home with
itself in the presence of the truth, Nietzsche's aim is to encourage us to
delight in and to affirm the enigmatic, problematic and uncertain character
of the world we inhabit, to promote, in the words of The Gay Science^ "the
love for a woman that causes doubts in us" (Preface, 3). The second difference
between the two philosophers is more subtle. Like Nietzsche, Hegel in the
Phenomenology recognises a deep ambiguity in the Status of what is held to be
true 'in itself'. However, Hegel does not begin, s Nietzsche does, by
presupposing a Kantian understanding of what the term 'thing or truth "in
itself"' means. He does not understand the term 'truth "in itself' to mean
that which is supposed to transcend or exceed human experience, but rather
the object of human experience. Hegel thus begins with a distinction which
human consciousness makes wtihin its own experience, namely that "consciousness is, on the one band, consciousness of the object (Gegenstand)^ and,
on the other band, consciousness of itself, consciousness of what for it is the
true (das Wahre\ and consciousness of its knowledge of the truth"vThe
object seems to be for consciousness only "in the way that consciousness

Hegefi Pbenomenolog of Spirit, translated by A. V. Mler, with an analysis of the text and a
foreword by J. N. Findlay (Oxford, 1979), p. 54. For the original German text, see Hegel,
Werkt in qvatnyg Bnden, edited by E. Moldenhauer and K. Michel, 20 Vols. and Index
(Frankfurt a. M,, 1969),
, 78.

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knows it", Hegel says; so consciousness does not appear to be ablc to, "s it
were, get behind the object s it exists for consciousness so s to examine
what the object is in itself \ However, Hegel points out,
the distinction between the in itself and knowledge is already present in the
very fact that consciousness knows an object at all. Something isfor it the
in itselfi and knowledge, or the being of the object for consciousness \s,for
//, another moment.38

The Kantian conception of the thing in itself s that which transcends

conscious experience thus plays no role in HegePs phenomenological examination of consciousness. Hegel is purely interested in what consciousness
itself experiences s the object, thing or truth in itself. The ambiguity that he
points to is the simple ambiguity which lies in taking something s what it
is in itself, in taking something s true, and it corisists in the fact that anything
we take to be what it is in itself will always be what it is in itself for us.
Consciousness knows something, this object is the essence or the in itself, but
it is also for consciousness the in itself. This is where the ambiguity (Zweideutigkeit) of this truth enters.39

Hegel does not mean by this (s Nietzsche does) that, whenever consciousness
takes something s truey it is always deluding itself and only grasping what
is 'true' (i. e. apparently true) for it. He means that the truth is never simply
given to consciousness, but that consciousness can only see s much of the
truth s it is open to (even though it may still be .vulnerable to truths it does
not see). Hegel, of course, recognises that human beings can and frequently
do have a limited, even distorted view of things. His central point, however,
is that even when what consciousness knows is the genuine truth of things
themselves^ that truth is ambiguous in so far s it does not simply present itself
to consciousness; but is something that consciousness must actively help to
disclose and bring before itself. For Hegel, therefore, the acttvity of consciousness does not necessarily conceal or veil the truth, but is rather an irreducible"
condition of the fll disclosure or revelation of the truth. Conversely and
this is where Hegel twists free. of Kant's conception of the thing in itself
much mre radically than Nietzsche what is to be understood-by the truth
(or a thing) in itself \s not something which is different frorh, or which always
conceals itself behind, its 'appearance* or being for others, but' something
which is revealed in and through its being for others> and which, therefore,
can be brought before consciousness s the object of conscious experience.40

Hegel's Phenomenology, p. 54; Hegel, Werke, III, 77 f.

Hegels Phenomenology, p. 55; Hegel, Werke, III, 78 f.
See also in this regard Hegels Science of Logic, translated by A. V. Miller, with a forewbid by
J. N. Findlay (Atlantic Highlands, NJ.t 1989), pp. 119-122; Hegel, Werke, V, pp. 127-131.

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


The ambiguity which Hegel is interested in is thus an ambiguity in

the Status of truth s disclosed truth^ namely that, although the truth in
itself can be for consciousness, it can only'be for consciousness if consciousness is open to it. This is an ambiguity which, I believe, Nietzsche
does not fully grasp. He fails to recognise the ambiguity of truth itself
because he can't make any sense of the idea of truth itself9 of being
conscious of things s they are, and so rejects out of band the idea that we
could know -r- or that there could even be such a thing s the truth.
And the reason for this is that he clings stubbornly to the view that our
essenrial activity lies'in falsifying and concealing the world through the
categories which we impose on to it.
Nietzsche, s we have seen, does not actually believe that things have a
constitution of their own, in themselves. But even if he did, he would not
consider things in themselves to be accessible to human consciousness,
because he believes consciousness. and the body always blocks its own
path to the world (and indeed to itself). Whether what is other than man is
a realm of things with a constitution of their own, or a realm of forces in
ever-changing relations to us and to one another, makes no real difference
to Nietzsche's profound epistemological scepticism. Either way, human beings
(or, if one prefers, the conscious and unconscious 'forces' that constitute what
we are) throw a veil over whatever confronts them. "Why does man not see
things?", Nietzsche asks. The ans wer is simple: "He is himself Standing in
the way: he conceals things." (D 438)
This epistemological scepticism, which is ultimately derived from Kant,
is, in my view, an irreducible element in Nietzsche's thinking, and must now
be thought together with the strategy of dissolving oppositions which was
discussed previously. Nietzsche does not, I believe, begin from a wholly
immanent sense of the limits ofliuman knowledge, s Kant tried to do, but
from a sense of the limits of human knowledge together with a vision,
inspired in part by Schopenhauer, of the Dionysiac forces which he thinks
inform, underlie and exceed our consciousness; and his consuming interest
in the slippage of philpsophical terms and in the dissolution of conceptual
oppositions is without doubt in part a consequence of his desire to write in
a manner which reflects and embodies this Dionysiac vision. However, what
I wish to suggest here is that that interest in the dissolution or unsettling of
oppositions can also be understood s a consequence of his epistemological
scepticism and his conviction that human beings impose their own categorjes
and forms on to, and thus veil, the world.
This is shown clearly by 58 of The Gay Science which was cited above.
In that paragraph, s we have seen, the terms Schein and Wesen are held to be
indistinguishable and to become one, and because of this, the concept of

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csscncc of reality in itself, of the nakcd truth loses its distinctive

meaning and evancsces before our very eyes. Bt why docs the concept of
esscnce evanesce and disappear in this way? According to Nietzsche's account,
it is because what is originally taken to be the essence is veiled by the names
and valucs which we throw over it, and then subsequently becomes indistinguishable from those veils. It is thus not the character or Status of the original
essence s disclosed essence or truth that causes it to disappear and blend with
its apparent opposite, but rather the imposition on to that essence of forms
that are foreign to it, and the subsequent growing together of the essence
and those forms. This is where Nietzsche's thinking *diverges most clearly
from Hegel's. The ambiguous Status of the truth in itself in Hegel's Pbenomenology rests on its being presented or revealed s it is in itself to consciousness.
The ambiguous or undecidable Status of the essence or the 'truth in itself, for
Nietzsche, on the other hand, rests on its being veiled by, and then fused
with, forms that are alien to it.
Nietzsche sets up an Opposition between essence and appearance, shows
how that Opposition disappears, and thereby indicates that that Opposition
can in fact never have been clear and stable in the first place. But he does
not show this by attending to the ambiguity at the heart of the concept of
essence or truth itself. Indeed, he is unable to think the ambiguity of essence
or truth itself^ because his whole strategy is to show how essence or truth is
never simply itself> but is always indistinguishable from the veils that are cast
over it. This means that Nietzsche's thinking is in fact pulling in two different
directions. It is because veils have been thrown over, and have fused with,
what was deemed to be the essence that that essence can never be separated
from the veils and be thoght simply by itself. But the very idea of veiling
requires us to think of a difference between the essence itself and the veils
which prevent the essence from ever being simply itself. Nietzsche's veils
thus presuppose the separateness of the essence which they render impossible,
and so not only prevent Nietzsche from understanding the Hegelin project,
but cast Nietzsche's thinking into the abyss of inescapable paradox.
Veiling, concealment and' falsification He at the heart of Nietzschean
ambiguity. This means that we must reconsider the character of Nietzsche's
strategy of dissolving the distinction between appearance and realitf in itself
which we have been examining. We have suggested that Nietzsche perhaps
develops a non-Kantian conception of appearance by subtly changing the
meaning of the term (see pp. 137, 142 f. above). Appearance, for Nietzsche,
is the way things or> rather, forces are for one another, how they are
perceived by one another; and such appearance is not simply something alien
or inessential to the real being of the thing, but something that forms an
inseparable part of that 'reality'. However, we also' noted that Nietzsche

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


retains the Kantian conception of appearance s what is other than, and

conceals, the thing in itself, too (see p. 139 above). We have tried to suggest
that the presence of Kantian vocabulary in Nietzsche's text seems to be
unavoidable, because of the nature of bis enterprise of unmasking fictions s
fictions (s opposed to the truth\ but that it should not be taken too seriously
since Nietzsche's concern is always to relativise and dismantle any Opposition
he sets up (see p. 143). What we now have to recognise is that in fact the
Kantian conception of appearance s that which does not let us see s that
which conceals the real is a much more integral element of Nietzsche's
project of dismantling and twisting free of Kant's categories than we have
granted so far.
Nietzsche'^ dissoiution of the Opposition between appearance and reality
thus not only leads him to the conclusion that being in itself and being for
another are indistinguishable, and that, strictly speaking, there is no truth in
itself distinct from appearance to reveal or conceal. It also leads him to
the conclusion that the concepts of revealing and concealing must nevertheless
both be retained and be thought together s indistinguishable, s well. As
Jean Granier puts it, "the phenomenon masks what it manifests, without
enabling us to dissociate dissimulation from Manifestation".^ This means, s David
Krell has shown, that Nietzsche's aim is not in fact simply (s I suggested
above (p. 143)) to affirm the enigmatic character of life, but also to postpone
direct confrontation with the enigma of life and to veil it so that we can bear
to look at it and live with it. Nietzsche does not simply want to reveal
Dionysus to us, he also wants to conceal Dionysus behind an Apolline screen
with the intention, however, (s in tragedy) of letting us catch veiled
glimpses of Dionysus through the screen.42
As is evident from 58 of The Gaj Science^ it is what he perceives to be
the unavoidable fact of concealment in life, of veiling or clothing things in
forms which are foreign to them, which is die main reason why Nietzsche
thinks the distinction between appearance and things in themselves cannot
be sustained. Yet it is precisely this unavoidable 'fact' of concealment that
generates the problem of the Status of the thing in itself in Nietzsche's texts
which we have been examining. It is because we veil, falsify and interfere
with whatever we come into contact with, and indeed because all forces
contaminate and interfere with one another in this way, that there are, in
Nietzsche's view, no things in themselves. Since there are no things in them41

J. Granier, "Nietzsche's Conception of Chaos", in The New Nietzsche* p. 136.'

Krell develops this point in his book Postponements. For my review of Krell's book, see The
Britisb Journal of Aestbetics 27, 4 (Autumn 1987), pp, 384387. For Nietzsche's conception
of the fusion of Dionysus and Apollo, see especiaUy The Birtb of Tragedy, 22.

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sclvcs, what we vcil and falsify with our iJlusory ideas (which of coursc
include the concept of the thing in itself) is not itself to bc thought of s
something in itself. However, the concept of veiling constrains us to conceive
of what is veiled s something that is whatever it is in itself\ in spite of the
fact that Nietzsche wishes us not to. It is because we, and indeed all things
or forces, falsify the other that there cannot be things in themselves, and yet
it is because we falsify the other that we must construe the other s something
in itself. The concept of veiling, falsifying and imposing forms on to things
is thus itself profoundly ambiguous because it both undermines and reinstates
the concept of the thing in itself at one and the same time.
Nietzsche is clearly intending to twist free of Kant and to dissolve the
thing in itself into a dissimulating play of forces, veils and illusions in which
'reality' and 'appearance' and revealing and concealing are no longer
clearly distinguishable. However, he 'twists free' of Kant on the basis of an
epistemological scepticism that is by no means identical with, but is certainly
derived from, Kant's theory of knowledge. And the presence of that scepticism in Nietzsche's texts constantly causes the spectre of the thing in itself,
which Nietzsche is trying to put to rest, to reappear, haunt his thinking and
demand once more to be exorcised. Despite his hostility to dogmatic thinking
and his emphasis on experimentation and perspectivl multiplicity, Nietzsche's
thinking seems to rest on one unchallenged axiom: namely his belief in the
fundamental fact of human falsification and efror, his belief in the "errneousness of the world in which we think we live" (BGE34). It is on the basis
of this belief that Nietzsche is able to- claim that "truths are illusions which "
we have forgotten are illusions"43 or that "truth" is "only the posture of
various errors in relation to one another" (W^P 535), and thus play such
havoc with our traditional concepts. But it is also on the basis of this belief
that 'Dionysus' the dissimulating play of forces and fictions that constitutes'
life for Nietzsche gets transmuted back into a reality whose infrinsically
shifting and dissimulating character we constantly falsify and fail (or refuse)
to recognise.
Nietzsche thus cannot avoid using the concept of reality, or of a thing in
itself, even though he prohibits himself from using it. He has 'no choice,
therefore, but to use it in quotation-marks.
The purpose of Nietzsche's use of quotation-marks, s I see it, is to
render the precise meaning of words such s 'reality' or thing % itself'
problematic. As Nicholas Boyle notes, such words retain the form of referentiality, "the form of being about something', but they combine that apparent
"Ueber Wahrheit und Lge im aussermoralischen Sinne", KSA l, p. 880.

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Kant> Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


referentiality with an "absence of assessable reference".44 The wrds refer us

to a sphere of what is whatever it is in itself, and yet, at the same time, the
quotation-marks withdraw and call into question the very idea of something
being what -it is in itself. We are thus left with no choice but to speak of
'reality* or the *in itself', but we know that we must 'suspend', 'overcome'
or 'revalue' the ordinary sense of those concepts (even if we are not quite
sure what that might involve).
The problem of the reference of Nietzsche's words, of course, always
confronts the readers of his texts. Is Nietzsche talking about Wagner when he
is talking about Wagner, or is he talking about himself? (or, indeed, both at
the same time?) Is he talking about mmen when he talks about women, or is
he talking about something eise perhaps truth? Is he talking about bistory
when he talks about history, or is he giving us a figurative account of his
own Spiritual biography? These questions remain, throughout much, if not
all of Nietzsche's writing, frustratingly or delightfully (depending on one's
point of view) undecidable.
Whatever one thinks of the ambiguity of many of Nietzsche's terms, that
ambiguity can frequently be seen s the consequence of his 'Dionysiac' 'free
play' with philosophical concepts. The problem with the concept of the thing
in itself, however, is a little different, since Nietzsche seems constrained by
his own vocabulary to employ it, even though at the same time he refuses
to allow it any literal meaning. Nietzsche is thus not free to play with the
concept of the thing in itself; he is forced to 'play' with it, because his
phenomenalism, though founded on the rejection of the thing in itself,
constantly reinstates the concept by raising the question: what would the
world be like in itself, if our subjective forms were not imposed on it? In
fact, therefore, Nietzsche is in the same position s Kant. Indeed, the very
strategy which Nietzsche employs to undermine the Kantian "in itself"
the use of quotation-marks to indicate that the term is not being conceived
in any straightforward way can itself be*seen to be derived from a Kantian
procedure, since, s we have seen, Kant himself talks of things in themselves
s causes without using the word 'cause' in a straightforward, determinable
way. The question to be considered, therefore, is this: to what extent does
Nietzsche really twist free of Kantian (or metaphysical) categories and oppositions? Nietzsche realises that he cannot avoid Kantian vocabulary; but
he thinks that he can 'suspend', 'dismantle' or Overcome' such a vocabulary
through the use of quotation-marks. But do they really do the trick? Or does
not Nietzsche's epistemological scepticism entail the thought of the thing in
itself s its fundamental correlate, s a correlate which carinot be successfully
'suspended' or Overcome'?
Boylc, pp. 144, 147.

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Nietzsche's most characteristic proccdure, s we have prcsented it, is to

dismantle or deconstruct certain traditional conceptual oppositions with
which intentionally or not he operates. In this respect he is carrying
to a distinctive extreme what Kant, Schiiler and Hegel have all done more
soberly, and with somewhat different results before him. The person who
has alerted us to this aspect of Nietzsche's writing most strikingly in recent
years is Jacques Derrida. In his brilliant, tantalising and at times obscure
book, Spurs, Derrida shows how terms such s man and woman or truth and
falsity blur into one another in Nietzsche's texts, and how this textual
Operation' unsettles and frustrates the 'credulous' reader who still believes
he or she can clearly separate Nietzsche's trutKs from his dissimulations and
divine what Nietzsche really means, what he is an sich.**
In Spurs Derrida is concerned primarily with Heidegger's readmg of
Nietzsche. He applauds Heidegger for pointing out that Nietzsche did not
simply want to invert Platonism and champion the virtues of this wofId over
those of the 'beyond', but that he was "seeking something eise" (p. 79)
namely to suppress, displace and twist free of the whole Platonic Opposition
of the true and the apparent worlds. However, Derrida is worried by Heidegger's attempt to understand what that "something eise" entails by "rethinking [...] Nietzsche's most intimate thinking. will" (p. 83). The problem,
in Derrida's view, is that Heidegger's search for Nietzsche's "most intimate
thinking will" appears to be guided by a desire to understand the real or.
essential Nietzsche, a desire which, Derrida Claims, Nietzsche's textual "operation" should "put out of order" (deranger) (p, 83). Heidegger has thus not
thought through the consequences of Nietzsche's Operation, and the reason
for this, Derrida thinks, is that he "skirts" (contourne) the question of woman
in Nietzsche's texts (p. 85). (Though Derrida does suggest that there are hints
in Heidegger's own thinking of a recognition of what he is pointing to (see
pp. 121-123).)
The question of woman in Nietzsche's texts is important for Derrida
because he believes Nietzsche's views on woman and his related \jjews on
truth lead him to develop a style (or styles) which frustrate the Heideggerian,
hermeneutic attempt to determine what his "most intimate thinking will"
really is. "The question of woman", Derrida teils us,

For three very helpful reviews of Derrida's book, which I have made extensive use of whilst
reading Spurs, see Krell, Postpomments, pp. 313, and "A Herraeneutics of Discretipn", in
Research in Phenomenologf 15 (1985), l 27, and A. D. Schrift, "Reading Derrida Reading
Heidegger Reading Nietzsche", in Research in Phenomenolgy 14 (1984), 87119.

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


suspends the decidable Opposition of true and non-true and'inaugurates the

epochal regime of quotatin-marks which is to be enforced for every concept
belonging t the System of philosophical decidability (p. 107).

Consequently, "the herrneneutic project which postulates a true sense of the

text is disqualified under this regime" (p. 107).
How, then, does Nietzsche conceive of woman, and how does this
conception bear on Nietzsche's view of truth and on bis philosophical style?
Derrida says that woman, in Nietzsche's eyes, does not have any easily
determinable identity that can be pinned down by man. Woman, for Nietzsche,
has no graspable essence or core of real being behind the veils and masks
which she employs to seduce man, because the shimmering, tantalising,
indeterminate play of dissimulation, veiling and pretence itself constitutes
what woman is. There is, therefore, "no such thing s woman, s a truth in
itself of woman in herself/itself (en soi)" (p. 101), because woman is the
"abyss" in which the distinction between the truth in itself and dissimulation
disappears. Woman, in Nietzsche's texts, is therefore but one name for what
Derrida refers to s the "untruth of truth" (p. 51). Woman is woman, for
Nietzsche, "precisely because she herseif does not believe in truth itself,
because she does not believe in what she is, in what she is believed to be, in
what she thus is not" (p. 53). Nevertheless, she plays consciously and
unconsciously with the Illusion of truth, with the feigned promise of
mysterious secrets hidden behind the veil, in her seduction of man. However,
it is only the credulous man who takes that promise at face value, who
actually believes in that truth and who tries to grasp it and master it
(pp. 63-65).
Now, since woman suspends the decidable Opposition between truth and
falsehood and only allows us to speak ironically of the 'truth' of woman,
Nietzsche's own stylistic procedure of dissolving oppositions in a play of
ambiguity, irony, parody and dissimulationcan itself be called his "feminine"
Operation (p. 57). For Derrida, therefore, Nietzsche is, s it were, trying to
write with the band of woman.46
To be feminine, for Nietzsche, is not to be credulous, not to believe that
there is an essential truth of anything in itself, but to welcome and delight in
dissimulation. However, just because woman does dissimulate and recognise
that there is no one truth of woman, she shows that she realises that she is
not in fact a unity or unified subject at all, but many women, a plurality of
difYerent faces and personae some related to one another, others unknown
to one another with no single common 'seif present in or underlying all
of them.
See Kreli, Postponemenis, p. 85

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This 'feminine* plurality of faces is mirrored in Nictzsche's own texts,

Derrida believes. He thtrs sees Nietzsche not just s presenting ont figure of
woman, but s showing us a multiplicity of forms of feminine dissimulation
and indeed of feminine forgetfulhess of dissimulation. Derrida teils us that
Nietzsche presents woman s sceptical of profundity and s wedded to the
surface of things (p. 57); that he presents her s playing with the threat of
castration in order to seduce man (p. 61); and that he presents her s forgetful
of her feminine duplicity, s seeking to be male by laying claim to dominance
and mastery over the truth (p. 65).
At times, Derrida claims, Nietzsche himself appears in bis texts s the
credulous male who is committed to revealing the truth and who condemns
woman s a figure of deceit and falsehood. At other times, however, woman
is condemned s an image of the truth by a Nietzsche who realises that there
is only falsehood and who thus reacts against the pretence of truth in woman,
but who thereby, paradoxically, shows that it is the truth about untruth that
he is concerned to bring to light. At other times still, woman is affirmed by
Nietzsche, affirmed s dissimulating and dissolving oppositions, by a
Nietzsche who is himself 'feminine' in that he rio longer insists on laying
bare the truth (or the truth that there is no triith), but who reveals and
conceals his truths by offering his insights in the form of a play of parody,
irony and deceitfulness (p. 97).
It is clear, therefore, to Derrida that Nietzsche's texts are irreducibly
heterogeneous (p. 95). There is rio such thing s the truth of Nietzsche's texts,
but only "truths" that are "multiple, variegated, contradictory even" (p. 103).
Nietzsche's general desire to avoid male credulity and to avoid falling into
the belief in the simple truth has thus led him to see feminine dissimulation
dispersed into a plurality of forms. Derrida notes, however, that 'amongst
these multiple forms of woman there are sorhe who, lthough they do
dissimulate because they are vfomen,forget that they are dissimulating womehi
"lay claim [...] to truth, science and objectivity", and thus, ki Nietzsche's
view, become men. "In truth, they too are men, those women feminists so
derided by Nietzsche. Feminism is nothing but the Operation of a woman
who aspires to be like a man" (p. 65). Corresjbondingly, the 'feminine'
multiplicity of Nietzsche's own attitudes to women includes sbme that, in
Derrida's view, are avowedly 'masculine', for examples those which show
Nietzsche to be concerned to uncover the truth of woman's deceitfulness.
Now, is this contamination of the 'female' by the 'male' a coritradictioh
in Nietzsche's thinking? r is it perhaps paft of a deliberate strtegy? After
all, if woman undoes and dissolves traditional oppositions and is never purely
herseif, musi.not the female incorporate the male and not simply oppse him?
The various passges which Derrida cites from The Gay Science certainly

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Kant, Nietesche and the "Thing in itself"


suggest that Nietzsche is playing havoc with sexual identity and seeing male
and female s undecidably fused everywhere. If Derrida's Suggestion is correct,
then the culmination of Nietzsche's philosophical endeavour is not, s Nicholas Boyle claims, simply "the reaffirmation of the male"?1 but rather the
presentation of a male philosopher who seeks to write with the hand of
"woman", but who recognises that this 'feminine' hand is still necessarily
guided in part by his 'masculinity'. What this means for the question of
truth is this: that Nietzsche recognises that the 'feminine' enterprise of
undoing the disnctin between trth and falsehood (or appearance) cannot
simply stand opposed to the 'masculine' search for the truth, but must
somehow incorporate the search for the truth into its very Operation of
putting that search for truth out of order. One can no longer seek woman,
or the femininity of woman, or feminine sexuality, Derrida teils us (nor, of
course, can one any longer seek the truth). But, he adds, "it is impossible to
resist looking for her" (p. 71). The 'male' in 'woman' will always seek the
truth, therefore, but he will always be led into the abyss of truth's collapse
into dissimulation.
Derrida presents a complex picture of Nietzsche's enterprise, but his
picture is in fact even more complex than I have suggested so far. Derrida
believes that Nietzsche wanted to develop a 'feminine', deconstructive Operation and thus to puncture the illusion that one could penetrate to the truth
of, and thereby control, woman. The point of that 'feminine' Operation is
therefore not just to disclaim any fixed identity, but to refrain from laying
claim to fully understanding the truth (or 'truth') of one's 'feminine' lack of
identity, s well. To be 'feminine', for Nietzsche, is thus not to be completely
clear about who or what one 'is', nor to be in complete control of what one
is doing.
That Nietzsche had no illusions that he might ever know anything of these
effects called woman, truth, castration^ nor of those ontologtcal effects of
presence and absence, is manifest in the very heterogeneity of his text.
Indeed, it is just such an illusion that he was analysing. (p. 95)

Nietzsche's philosophy.is not without a purpose or a goal; it is not, s Derrida

frequently and playfully teils us, without "point". Nietzsche's aim, s I have
suggested already, is to suspend conceptual oppositions, to set concepts in
play, and to encourage us to affirm, engage in (and, of course, veil) a world
of greater uncertainty in which trth and deception blur into one another,
and in which creative Interpretation and evaluation, and a good deal of irony,
are demanded from us. However, Nietzsche does not claim to know exactly
where his experimental philosophy will lead him, nor does he claim to be in
Boyle, p. 140. See note 50.

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control of the effects of his deconstructive Operation (nor indccd does he

alway$ claim that be is the onc who initiates or sustains that Operation48). As
Derrida points out, Nietzsche's mastery over his parodying, deconstructive
Operation is not and is not meant to be infinite, (p. 99) Nietzsche
devises a definite strategy to dismantle the oppositions of traditional thought,
but his thinking always exceeds his control and leads him he knows not
exactly where. He quite literally does not know exactly what his 'feminine'
Operation ultimately entails, and though, like Socrates, he knows that he does
not know, that does not give him any more control over the fate of his
words. As Derrida aptly notes, "Nietzsche might well be a little lost in the
web of his text, lost much s a Spider who finds he is unequal to the web he
has spun" (p. 101).
How does this lack of fll self-mastery and self-knowledge reveal itself
in Nietzsche's texts? Derrida gives us an important clue at the end of the
section of Spur s entitled "The gaze of Oedipus". Commenting on Nietzsche's
deconstructive Operation, Derrida says that it does. not pierce the veil of truth
simply to let us see to produce "the thing itself" (la chose meme\ but
undoes and dismantles "truth in the guise of production, the unveiling/
dissimulation of the present product" (p. 107). For Derrida, therefore,
Nietzsche does not so much tear or take away the veil of truth and reveal the
untruth of truth behind the veil, for "the veil is no more raised than it is
lowered" (p. 107). Rather, he lets the veil "fall a bit differentiy" (p. 59) so
that we see that it is a veil, see that what we have taken to be the truth is
only 'truth', that the very distinction between what is truth and what is veil
or appearance is blurred. However and here Derrida addresses his most
profound question to Nietzsche is this not still a matter of letting us see
the veil of truth s // is in itself^ despite the fact that it is an Operation that
puts the truth in itself out of order and causes it to evanesce?
To de-limit, to undo, to come undone, when it is a matter of the veil, is
that not once again tantamount to unveiling? even t the destruction of a
fetish? This question, s a question (en tant que question\ [...] remains
interminably (pp. 107X109).

What Derrida invites us to consider is that Nietzsche's 'feminine' Suspension

of the male' distinction between truth and illusion might be ihevltably and
necessarily bound up with, indeed indistingttishable from, the 'male' unveiling
of the truth about truth that it is merely 'truth'. Nietzsche's relapse into the
very 'male' unveiling and mastering of truth which he wishes to avoid might

See, for example, BGE 1: "The problem of the value of truth came before us' .or was it
we who came before the problem? Who of us is Oedipus here? Who the Sphinx? 1t is a
rendezvous, it seems, of questions and question marks."

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself"


not, therefore, simply be a part of a strategy whereby he recognises the need

to incorporate the 'male' into the 'female' and the metaphysical search for
the truth into the non-metaphysical deconstruction of the truth. Rather, the
relapse into the 'male' mastering of truth ma/ well be an inevitable pitfall of
Nietzsche's 'feminine' enterprise a relapse which his project/0ra,r on him
and which he cannot guard against or Overcome', and which thus marks the
moment of naivety, unconscious non-mastery and genuine lack of control at
the heart of his 'feminine' Operation (p. 101).
To my mind, Derrida has highlighted one of the profoundest ambiguities
of Nietzsche's thinking. Nietzsche may well try to stay one step ahead of his
lapses into 'male', 'metaphysical' 'weakness' or 'decadence' by retrospectively
redefining them, s he does in the 1886 prefaces, s integral moments of his
project of self-overcoming. Or he might try to incorporate his naivety and
lack of control over his texts into his deconstructive strategy by acknowkdging
and affirming that naivety s an irreducible element in his thinking and by
recognising that, s well s being a destiny, he is also a fool.49 (Indeed, I
believe that Nietzsche is always much more concerned to boldly affirm or
to creatively appropriate, transform and thereby, to a degree, deny whatever he encounters in life and within himself, than he is genuinely to open
himself to what he encounters.)50 However, those lapses into the 'male'
pursuit of truth cannot ultimately be affirmed or appropriated s moments
of a successful 'feminine' strategy of self-overcoming and of dissolving Opposition into ambiguity, because they themselves constantly call into question
Nietzsche's claim to have really Overcome' or 'twisted free' from metaphysics
and the 'male' search for truth.
Whilst recognising the deepest contradictions in his thinking, and whilst
admitting that he is not in fll control of his deconstructive experimentation,
Nietzsche still considers himself to have taken thought "beyond good and
evil", beyond metaphysics and beyond trutl}. Derrida's Suggestion, however,
is that Nietzsche's texts do not permit us to say with certainty whether he
has taken thought beyond metaphysics or not. Whether Nietzsche succeeds in
twisting free of metaphysics is something that we are unable ultimately to
determine for the 'simple' reason that the Operation of dissolving the oppo49

See EH, "Why I am a Destiny", 1.

See my "Power, egoism and the Open' seif in Nietzsche and Hegel", in Tbe Journal of ihe
Britisb Society for Phenomenohgy 22, 3 (OcL 1991), *pp. 120138. The very emphasis that
Nietzsche puts on affirming or boldlj transjorming 'feminine* ambiguity, rather than genuinely
opening himself to it, can of course itself be seen s *masculine', and migjht mean that
Nicholas Boyle is right after all, when he Claims that the moment of 'masculinity* ultimately
predominates in Nietzsche's thinking s long s one recognises that the 'male' in Nietzsche
5s trying to affirm the 'feminine* ambiguity with which itis inextricably bound up; see note 47.

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sition bctwecn truth and falsity the Operation which seems to lie closest
to Nietzsche's heart and the act of unveiling the truth about truth an
act which Nietzsche readily (though necessarily) engages in, but which he
also wants t Overcorne* or 'exceed' appear in his texts to be Indistinguishable
from one another, to be one and the same Operation or act.
This is an undecidability or ambiguity which we must presume Nietzsche
did not intend. However, it is the very failure of Nietzsche's texts to make
it clear whether he has gone beyond metaphysics or not that, in Derrida's
eyes, ultimately frustrates the hermeneutic attempt to determine what the
truth of Nietzsche's texts is and whether he has succeeded in fulfilling his
aim. For Derrida, therefofe, Nietzsche's texts succeed in 'putting out of ordef'
the expectations of truth-seeking philosophy even if, or rather precisely because,
we are unable to identify that success s Nietzsche's own.
The ambiguity which Derrida has pointed to in Nietzsche's thiiiking in
my view overlaps with the ambiguity in Nietzsche's treatment of the concept
of the thing in itself which we have been examining in this essay. For Derrida,
the problem lies in Nietzsche's atternpt to twist free of the metaphysical desire
to reveal truth by unveiling of revealing the pf ofound ambiguity of "truth",
"woman" and "life". The ambiguity which I have tried to point to resides
in the fact that Nietzsche seeks to twist free of the Kantian concept of the
thing in itself by stressing the idea that that concept is a fiction imposed pon
life and which falsifies life itself. Bth approaches yield a similar result, namely
that in Nietzsche's texts "life" (or "woman" or "truth" or "reality") vacillates
back and forth between something that is clearly not intended to be anything
in itself and something that stubbornly takes on the form of something in
itself. For Derrida, we arid Nietzsche find it impossible to resist looking for
the truth of woman behind the veils, even though or rather because
Nietzsche has exposed that truth s one of the veils or illusions that woman/
life throws over her-/itself. On my reading, Nietzsche is forced to think of
life and nature s that which withdraws into itself and eludes us, s that
which "has hidden [itself] behind riddles and iridescent uncertainties" (GS,
Preface, 4), even though or rather because he thinks life is manifest in,
and indistinguishable from, the activity of imposing fictions, apparent forms
and concealing veils upon itself.
It is clear that Nietzsche wants to twist free of the concepts of truth and
the thing in itself. However, since his attempt to do so is so closely tied to
the idea of unveiling and to the idea of imposing forms and categories on to
things which are alien to the way thkigs are, Nietzsche is always necessarily
cast back into the concepts he aims to subvert. The deepest ambiguity in
Nietzsche's concepts or metaphors of "life", "woman" or "will to pwer" is
thus that they shift back and forth between that wfiich is not anything in

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Kant, Nietzsche and the "Thing in itself "


itself and that which nevertheless takes on the form of something in itself.
The quotation-marks which Nietzsche puts around the words "thing" or
"truth" <cin itself" are meant to indicate that, although we cannot avoid
Kantian concepts, we must not understand them in a Kantian sense. They
indicate that Nietzsche is playing with, and is forced to play with, the old
concept of the thing in itself whose difference from appearance was clear and
definite, at the same time s he is putting forward a new 'concept' of a 'thing'
or 'reality' 'in itself whose difference from 'appearance' has disappeared.
However, those quotation-marks do not protect the new undecidable 'in
itself against confusion with the old decidable in itself s much s Nietzsche
perhaps would like. Rather, they constantly invite that confusion at the same
time s they try to hold it at bay, because they simply mark Nietzsche's
intention to distance himself from the thing in itself whilst offering no concept
with which to make sense of what Nietzsche means except the one that is
held in Suspension. As much s they indicate a truth or reality 'in itself that
is indistinguishable from 'appearance', therefore, Nietzsche's quotation-marks
also suggest a 'truth' or 'reality' 'in itself that is unable to free itself from
the idea of the thing in itself.
Ultimately we remain unsure how to construs the Status of 'life' or
'woman' or 'will to power' in Nietzsche's texts because, at one and the same
time, we cannot^ and yet also must, understand it s the reality behind our
fictional forms, and we cannot settle on either alternative. We know that
Nietzsche wanted to enhance life; however the concept of life in Nietzsche's
texts remains intractably problematic and elusive and more so, I believe,
than even Nietzsche intended. Nietzsche's aim is always to transform what
seems to be in itself into an 'in itself which is indistinguishable from
'appearance' and thus ambiguous; so he always endeavours to Overcome' the
idea that life might be a hidden, unknown x. However, by confronting us
with 'Dionysiac' life that is the play of appearances and of revealing/concealing, but which also conceals itself behind its own veils and the forms we
impose upon it, Nietzsche effectively presents us with life that is both something
'in itself and something in itself at one and the same time, and whose
undecidable oscillation or Suspension between the two remains interminably. Perhaps this undecidability or ambiguity of life, which, I think, goes
beyond the ambiguity Nietzsche had in mind, will act, s Derrida hopes, s
a spur to a new kind of reading and thinking "freed from the horizon pf the
meaning or truth of being" (p. 107). Or perhaps it will rather stand s an
indication of the lingering shadow that Kant's "something = x" casts over
Nietzsche's thinking, and thus s evidence that, in the last resort, Nietzsche's
thinking fails to twist free of Kant.

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