Katsafanas, as I’ve acknowledged in my “Nietzsche’s Theory of the Will,” Philosophers’ Imprint 7 (2007), is plainly correct to criticize me (and Deleuze) for claiming that Nietzsche views consciousness simpliciter as epiphenomenal. That is not consistent, as Katsafanas shows, with a variety of claims Nietzsche makes, and in retrospect this strikes me as the most serious mistake in my 2002 book Nietzsche on Morality. (There are other interpretive points I would put differently now, but the treatment of epiphenomenalism is the one issue that I now think in error.) Yet it is clear that Nietzsche thinks some aspects of consciousness (e.g., our conscious experience of will) are epiphenomenal: the challenge is to specify the parameters of the epiphenomenalism, and give some principled theoretical account for those parameters. That is not my concern here, though Katsafanas’s paper has interesting suggestions on that score that deserve attention.
Instead, I want to consider critically Katsafanas’s own proposal regarding how Nietzsche demarcates the “conscious” and the “unconscious.” It is an intriguing and subtle discussion, but having taught it recently in my seminar, it strikes me as problematic, both textually and philosophically.
Early on, Katsafanas dismisses the view that the hallmark of consciousness is that it involves “awareness” (2-3). This can’t be right, he says, since there are “unconscious perceptions” (3), and since “a perception is a type of awareness of the world” (3), it follow that unconscious states can involve awareness. That seems right as far as it goes, but it elides a more pertinent proposal (that travels under the general heading of the Higher-Order-Thoughts [“HOTs”] account of consciousness) according to which the hallmark of consciousness is not awareness simpliciter, but rather awareness of being in a particular psychological state, i.e., the one that ergo is conscious. Here is Rosenthal, a leading proponent of the view: “A psychological state is conscious…if one has a thought, distinct from the state itself, to the effect that one is in that state” (15). The HOT need not itself be conscious, indeed, most often it probably is not—unless there is another even higher-order HOT about the original HOT. The details of the view may not matter for our purposes. The point here is that Katsafanas has dealt far too quickly with the intuitive idea that consciousness has something to do with “awareness”: it’s not, contra Katsafanas, awareness of the world that’s at issue, but rather awareness of the state of perceiving or thinking or desiring that we count as conscious. We’ll return to this, below.
Katsafanas dismisses the “awareness” account without citing Nietzsche. But when he turns to claims about Nietzsche’s own view he, quite correctly, assumes a textual burden, as well as a philosophical one. The key passage on which he relies is GS 354, and the key bit (cited at his p. 3) is this (I follow the translation Katsafanas uses, which seems fine for our purposes):
Man, like every living being, thinks continually without knowing it; the thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of all this—the most superficial and worst part—for only this conscious thinking occurs in words, which is to say signs of communication, and this fact uncovers the origin of consciousness. In brief, the development of language and the development of consciousness…go hand in hand.
This passage comes fairly late in GS 354, and thus obscures the fact that the primary thesis of the section is that, as Nietzsche puts it, “consciousness in general has developed under the pressure of the need to communicate,” which arose for basic evolutionary reasons, i.e., at some point the human animal “needed help and protection.” We will return to this point shortly. Let’s focus, instead, on the passage that Katsafanas makes central to his reading.
What Katsafanas wants to take from GS 354 is the following argument: (1) there is no conscious thinking without language; (2) to think in language is to think conceptually; (3) therefore, conscious thinking is necessarily conceptual or “conceptually articulated.” Here is Katsafanas:
It is one thing to say that “words and concepts go hand in hand,” it is another thing to claim that words are essential to conceptual articulation, which is what Katsafanas needs to support his strong concluding claims, namely, that “It follows that unconscious mental states do not have conceptually articulated content.” Does he have any evidence? Certainly not GS 354. BGE 268, which he cites, tells us that words express concepts, but that is not enough, since it may be that conceptual content can be expressed in other ways (e.g., through images). More on point is a Nachlass passage, WP 506, in which Nietzsche says, in passing that “concepts, possible only when there are words,” though the rest of the passage is silent on that idea and its import. Strikingly, the prior section (WP 505) says, “Consciousness is present only to the extent that consciousness is useful,” which is more in line with GS 354. At the same time, WP 505 makes no claim about consciousness requiring conceptualization or words.
In short, the textual basis for the view Katsafanas ascribes to Nietzsche is exceedingly thin, consisting of a sentence fragment from the Nachlass, which has no analogue I am aware of (Katsafanas cites none) in the published corpus. The absence of real textual support is significant, however, primarly because the view about consciousness Katsafanas wants to ascribe to Nietzsche is extremely implausible on the merits. Since this implausible view is not required by the texts, one should probably not ascribe it to Nietzsche.
Let us now review the details of the view of consciousness that Katsafanas attributes to Nietzsche.
According to Katsafanas, a state has conceptual content when “first, the content is composed of simpler parts, namely, concepts; second, these concepts are structured or composed in a certain way in order to constitute the content” (4). The belief “the cat is white” is “conceptually articulated; the content appears to be composed of two concepts, CAT and WHITE, which are structured in a certain way, namely in a subject—predicate fashion, in order to form the belief” (4). But one could perceive a white cat without having the belief that the cat is white. But to have the belief, you must have the concepts of CAT and WHITE, as well as a grasp of the syntactic form.
Conceptual content is not, however, the only way for a mental state to have determinate content on Katsafanas’s view. Once again, he uses perceptions as the example. “Perceptual content would be conceptualized if the perceived object were represented as an instance of some concept, that is, as a token of some type.” Nonconceptual, but determinate perceptions “represent their objects in a definite way, but do not represent them as instantiating concepts” (7). (To my knowledge, those who think perceptions can involve nonconceptual content do not think this has anything to do with whether or not they are conscious.)
Katsafanas also emphasizes, plausibly, that while both perceptions and concepts require discriminatory abilities, having a concept requires more than this (8). “For Nietzsche, concepts are classificatory abilities; possessing a concept involves the ability to classify various objects as falling under the concept” (8). Thus “concepts are systematically related to other concepts, and concepts can be employed in non-perceptual contexts” (9).
Two points here.
First, the textual evidence proferred for saying this is Nietzsche’s view is misleading in the extreme: footnote #16 (accompanying the last quote) cites BGE 20 as saying that “concepts…grow up in connection and relationship with each other” and involve an “innate systematic structure and relationship” to other concepts. But Nietzsche is not discussing concepts per se—a subject on which, unsurprisingly, he has no views at all as far as I can tell—but rather “philosophical concepts” (philosophischen Begriffe), Katsafanas simply having dropped “philosophical.” In context, it is quite clear that he is making claims about distinctively philosophical concepts—the Cartesian “I think” and the Schopenhauerian “I will”—and not any point at all about Begriffe, at least as philosophers today would understand that idea. So Katsafanas has described a reasonable view of concepts, but there is no reason to say it is Nietzsche’s view.
Second, the fact that “concepts are systematically related to other concepts” has nothing to do with whether they are conscious. Rosenthal has effectively made this point against the view that consciousness is essential for both rationality and intentional action. For the rationality or intentionality of mental states is a matter of their intentional contents, not whether they are conscious; so, too, we might suppose with “systematic relations.” Here is Rosenthal on rationality:
Thoughts and desires are rational in virtue of their having causal connections that reflect rational connections among intentional contents….[S]ince the intentional content of thoughts and desires occur independently of whether those states are conscious, rational connections among them will tend to occur independently of whether they are conscious (9).
And here is Rosenthal on intentional actions:
Actions are intentional when they are initiated by volitions to do those things. And volitions tend to cause the particular actions they do in virtue of the intentional content of those volitions. As with cognitive states, volitions can occur without being conscious; so the property of a volition’s being conscious is independent of its intentional content….So even though we are aware of our own actions as being intentional only when the relevant volitions are conscious, the consciousness of the volitions is not necessary for an action to be intentional (10).This gets us to the very heart of the difficulty with Katsafanas’s account of consciousness. It may be true, as Katsafanas writes, that “conscious perceptions involve a classifying awareness, whereas unconscious perceptions involve only a discriminatory ability” (9); to be clear, I am not sure it is correct either philosophically or empirically. But even if it is, that does not get us very far in the case of Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, like Freud after him, surely thinks there are unconscious beliefs and desires which figure in the best explanation of observable behavior. But unconscious beliefs and desires must surely have determinate intentional contents! Yet how can they have such contents without their being conceptually articulate contents? How can, per Freud, my unconscious wish to sleep with my mother be anything other than a mental state that deploys the concepts of SLEEP and MOTHER together with some syntactic connectors? The issue of conceptually articulate content seems entirely orthogonal to whether or not the mental state is conscious or unconscious.
Katsafanas, I fear, has obscured the implausibility of the account of consciousness he has ascribed to Nietzsche (an account that no one, as far as I can tell, defends in trying to explain consciousness) by concentrating on the perceptual case—though even here, I don’t take it that those who think perceptions can involve nonconceptual contents think this has anything to do with whether they are conscious or not. But at least in the case of perception, the idea of determinate but non-conceptual content makes some sense. But does it make any sense at all in the case of intentional content that is unconscious? Either Katsafanas has to explain unconscious intentional content without reference to conceptual articulateness or he must claim (how could he claim this?) that there is no such thing as unconscious intentional content.
I am not, needless to say, a philosopher of mind (even though, once upon a time, I published two peer-refereed papers on mental causation!), so it’s possible I’ve made some obvious error in construing the issues about content. I hope Paul Katsafanas or some philosopher of mind with a side interest in Nietzsche (the only kind likely to be reading this!) will set me straight accordingly! I also want to be clear that the only reason I have bothered to write about Katsafanas’s paper is because it is of significantly higher quality than is the norm in Nietzsche studies. I do think one of his central theses is mistaken, but it is interestingly mistaken, and it reflects a degree of scholarly and philosophical seriousness that is far too rare in Nietzsche studies.