Friedrich Nietzsche described his books Human, All Too Human and Thus Spoke Zarathustra as ‘a book for free spirits’ and ‘A Book for All and None’, respectively. What did he mean by this? A clue may be found in his uses of ‘we’ to pick out — and where necessary create– the groups to which he belongs:

‘we northeners’ (Beyond Good and Evil § 48); ‘we free spirits’ (BGE § 61); ‘we first born of the twentieth century’ (BGE § 214); ‘We scholars’ (BGE § 204); ‘We artists’ (The Gay Science § 59); ‘we [good] Europeans’ (GS § 352, BGE Preface); ‘we incomprehensible ones’ (GS § 371); ‘we modern men’ (GS § 375); ‘we new philosophers’ (Will to Power § 988); ‘we philosophers of the present and the future’ (WTP § 1034); ‘we pagans in faith’ (WTP § 1034).

Nietzsche’s uses of ‘we’ are expressive not only of the time and place in which he is writing, but also of his intellectual pre-occupations and ambitions. As such, it is never entirely clear when he is inviting the sympathetic reader who identifies as free, modern, and new to join him in his quest, and when he is simply telling his readers about his own kind (the 20th century European man). His writings are in principle for all, but in practice most probably for none, not least because Nietzsche is pessimistic about the likelihood of being understood by anyone in his lifetime. By the time of his last book, 1888’s autobiographical Ecce Homo, the first personal plural has given way to an ‘I’ that bombastically proclaims to be incredibly wise, clever, and a destiny, though this is arguably at least in part a parody of Wagner’s autobiography My Life(completed eight years earlier).

Uses of ‘we’ typically contrast with a ‘they’ that is at the very least implied. Nietzsche’s ‘others’ explicitly include the following sets of people:

‘the Greeks’ (GS §§ 155, 356; BGE § 260), ‘savage tribes’ (GS § 147), ‘these English [men]’ (BGE §§ 252), ‘the Celts’ (BGE §48), ‘The Chinese’ (BGE §§ 267), ‘’the Jesuits’ (BGE §§ 48), democrats (BGE, Preface). ‘the Brahmins (BGE §§ 61)’, ‘the Jews’ (BGE §§ 61, 250), ‘the first Christians’ (Daybreak §§ 72), ‘German middle-class Protestants’ (BGE §§ 58), and, indeed, ‘the German(s)’ (BGE §§ 11,28, 246).

Nietzsche, who spent most of his life stateless (having given up his Prussian citizenship at the age of 24 to work in Switzerland) knows full well that the names we give to others are as important as those we give ourselves:

the names of peoples are usually terms of abuse. The Tartars, for example, are literally “the dogs”; that is what the Chinese called them. The “Germans”: this originally meant “heathen”; that is what the Goths after their conversion named the great mass of their unbaptized kindred tribes (GS § 146).

In grouping together his own imaginary ‘higher men’ — who set themselves apart from ‘the herd’ — Nietzsche puts into practice his view that ‘what things are called is unspeakably more important than what they are’ since ‘it is enough to create new names and valuations and probabilities in order in the long run to create new “things”’ (GS §58).

The heir of this ‘creationist’ view of language’s relation to the world would come to be Ludwig Wittgenstein, though only after he’d written his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (in which in which he defends the ‘picture theory’ of language as a means by which we represent the world). Like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein largely wrote with a handful of few specific individuals in mind, remaining pessimistic that even his closest friends could understand him. In his 1918 Preface to the Tractatus, he states that ‘[p]erhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has oneself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it — or at least similar thoughts’ (p.3). Not much has changed by the time he writes 1945’s dark Preface to the Philosophical Investigations:

It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work […] to bring light into one brain or another — but, of course, it is not likely.’ (PI, p.4)

Like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein sometimes writes as if it is he alone who is opposing the old guard, whilst simultaneously forming a new ‘we’ via a problematic othering of groups such as ‘the Chinese’ (Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology II, p.89), ‘mental defectives’ (Remarks On Colour I: §75), ‘Englishwomen’ (Culture and Value 84), and ‘the Jews’ (CV 13e), the last of these raising complicated questions regarding his membership. Nontheless, Wittgenstein’s later uses of ‘we’ are less exclusive than Nietzsche’s, at times referring to anyone under the spell of philosophy. This includes both his current self and the author of the Tractatus, that other within him whose views he is now fighting to break free from, despite a persistent personal temptation to keep succumbing to them:

[W]hat confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when wehear them in speech, or see them written […] Especially when weare doing philosophy! (PI §11); Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by the resources of our language (PI § 109); A picture held us captive […] for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably (§115); What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use (PI §116); The real discovery is the one that enables me to break off philosophizing when I want to (§133); When we do philosophy, we are like savages…(PI §194).

In his The Geneology of Morals, Nietzsche writes of the ‘sick’ ascetic priest who tries to alleviate others of their suffering, though unable to cure himself of the very same existential pains. By contrast, Wittgenstein’s philosophical therapy begins with his own continued bewitchment, a confession regrettably lacking in many of his followers. We contemporary philosophers should take heed.

A version of this story was first published in The Philosopher’s Magazine.

Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

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