Individuality, Autonomy, “Freedom of Spirit”

From the earliest reception, commentators have noted the value Nietzsche places on individuality and on the independence of the “free spirit” from confining conventions of society, religion, or morality (e.g., Simmel [1907] 1920). This strand of thought continues to receive strong emphasis in recent interpretations—see, e.g., Nehamas (1985), Thiele (1990), Gerhardt (1992), Strong ([1975] 2000: 186–217), Reginster (2003), Richardson (2004: 94–103), Anderson (2006, 2012a), Higgins (2006), Schacht (2006), Acampora (2013), and the essays in Young (2015)—and there is an impressive body of textual evidence to support it (UM III, 2, 5–6, 8; GS 116, 117, 122, 143, 149, 291, 335, 338, 347, 354; BGE 29, 41, 259; GM I, 16, II, 1–3; TI IX, 41, 44, 49; A 11). Salient as Nietzsche’s praise of individuality is, however, it is equally obvious that he resists any thought that every single human person has value on the strength of individuality alone—indeed, he is willing to state that point in especially blunt terms: “Self-interest is worth as much as the person who has it: it can be worth a great deal, and it can be unworthy and contemptible” (TI IX, 33). Scholars have advocated quite different explanations of what makes a person’s individuality valuable in the privileged cases. Some hold that certain given, natural characteristics that admit no (or not much) further explanation entail that some individuals are “higher men” manifesting genuine value, whereas others have no such value—Leiter (2002) offers a strongly developed naturalistic version of this approach—whereas others take the ”true” or “higher self” to be a kind of ideal or norm to which a person may, or may not, live up (Conant 2001; see also Kaufmann [1950] 1974: 307–16). Still others attempt to develop a position that combines aspects of both views (Schacht 1983: 330–38), or hold that Nietzsche’s position on the “overman” or “higher man” is simply riven by internal contradiction (Müller-Lauter [1971] 1999: 72–83).

A different approach takes its lead from Nietzsche’s connection between individuality and freedom of spirit (GS 347; BGE 41–44). As Reginster (2003) shows, what opposes Nietzschean freedom of spirit is fanaticism, understood as a vehement commitment to some faith or value-set given from without, which is motivated by a need to believe in something because one lacks the self-determination to think for oneself (GS 347). This appeal to self-determination suggests that we might explain the value of individuality by appeal to an underlying value of autonomy: valuable individuals would be the ones who “give themselves laws, who create themselves” (GS 335), who exhibit self-control or self-governance (TI, V, 2; VIII, 6; IX, 38, 49; BGE 203), and who are thereby able to “stand surety” for their own future (GM II, 2–3). A variety of scholars have recently explored the resources of this line of thought in Nietzsche; Anderson (2013) surveys the literature, and notable contributions include Ridley (2007b), Pippin (2009, 2010), Reginster (2012), Katsafanas (2011b, 2012, 2014, 2016), and especially the papers in Gemes and May 2009.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s