Instinct and Habit
Connections between Nietzschean and Aristotelian Acquired Dispositions
by Diana Mertz Hsieh
Date: 16 Dec 96
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Nietzsche class
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh
Note: The basic thesis of this essay was turned into Hsieh's bachelor's thesis.
Aristotle and Nietzsche are hardly two philosophers with a great deal of commonality between them. Their respective views on logic, identity, and the good life, for example, are widely divergent. Although Nietzsche spends little time directly attacki ng Aristotle's philosophy, particularly in comparison to the attention which he devotes to Socrates and Plato, Nietzsche's thought is definitely not particularly compatible with Aristotle's. Nevertheless, there are at least two important similarities bet ween their moral philosophies -- the role of acquired dispositions in moral action and the purpose of morality as a process of becoming. Instead of regarding each moral choice and action as an isolated event, both Aristotle and Nietzsche focus on the critical importance of acquired dispositions to moral action, in the form of habits (Aristotle) or instincts (Nietzsche), over the lifetime of an individuals. Additionally, both philosophers regard morality as inherently a continual process of becoming, ra ther than the achievement of or even striving towards some static state of being.
The purpose of this paper is to draw out these two similarities between Aristotle and Nietzsche, in order to give a fuller account of the importance of both acquired dispositions and the end of morality to a moral theory. After briefly discussing prob lems with comparing Nietzsche to other philosophers, I will outline Aristotle's view of habit, using it as a springboard for my discussion of Nietzsche's conception of habit. I will then address what these acquired dispositions achieve for each philosoph er, namely a state of continual growth and self-overcoming, rather than any end state or the simple sum of an individual's moral actions.
Nietzsche is certainly a difficult philosopher to compare with any other. His writing is unsystematic, and his use of key terms is not constant between even the passages of a single work. These facts, as in the case of his views on instinct, frequen tly make gleaning a single, coherent perspective from Nietzsche's works difficult. Where Nietzsche speaks broadly of morality, for example, it is often unclear whether he is referring to the standard Christian/slave paradigm which permeates so much Weste rn philosophy or the noble morality or his morality beyond good and evil. This conflation of terms, in addition to Nietzsche's particularism (i.e. anti-universalism) in ethics and no-holds-barred attacks on Christianity, often makes it appear as if Niet zsche is nothing but a nihilist. If he were a nihilist, it would indeed be impossible to compare his ethics with any standard moral paradigm. But Nietzsche does advocate a form in morality, albeit one which is grounded in the distinction between good an d bad (rather than between good and evil) and in genuine expressions of the will to power. So comparison to other ethical theories is indeed possible; the fact that Aristotle's moral philosophy is in opposition to so much of the Christian paradigm will only make a comparison easier.
Aristotle's discussion of habits occurs in the beginning of Book II of Nichomachean Ethics. Habits, according to Aristotle, are at the foundation of moral virtue. They condition our emotions to respond with pleasure or pain to certain actions and for m the states of character which constitute a virtuous individual.
Aristotle begins his discussion of moral virtue with the observation that while intellectual virtue primarily originates in teaching, "moral virtue comes about as a result of habit." (NE II:1, 1103a) Moral virtue is not something we possess naturally; particular habits (such as lying or honesty) are not an intrinsic part of our identity in the way that, for example, bipedalism is. On the other hand, we do have the natural capacity to develop habits. In Aristotle's words, "we are adapted by nature to receive [virtues] and are made perfect by habit." (NE II:1, 1003a)
These moral habits are not acquired by a mere intellectual commitment to act in a certain way, but rather by actually exercising these habits. Just as we cannot not learn to play the piano without sitting down and playing over and over again, we canno t not learn to be brave with doing brave acts over and over again. Just as repeated practice on a piano trains our body to act in certain ways, developing habits trains our emotions to feel pleasure in moral action and pain in immoral action. We can even judge "states of character [by] the pleasure or pain that ensues on acts." (NE II:3, 1004b) Randall accurately describes the role of habit in Aristotle's ethics when he writes that the excellences of the individual "can be considered as hexis or 'habits ,' as powers possessed by the individual. A 'habit' or hexis for Aristotle is a kind of 'second nature,' an acquired power: like human 'nature' itself, a habit is a determinate power to act in a specific way." (Randall 254)
In other words, according to Aristotle we condition ourselves through habits to act in certain ways. We can condition ourselves to both virtue and vice, which is why "it makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another fr om our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference." (NE II:1, 1103b) These habits, over time, become "second nature" to us and an integral part of our characters, which results in a structuring and regularization of our em otional responses. The end result is that moral action is easier and more pleasurable than immoral action.
Nietzsche's conception of instincts as acquired dispositions for moral action action is not nearly as clear as Aristotle's. Not only does the word "instinct" retain its usual meaning of an innate pattern of behavior found in animals in Nietzsche's wri ting, but it is also used to refer to nearly any subconscious process in humans. For example, in a discussion of the frequently-made distinction between the "true world" and the "apparent world," Nietzsche writes "appearance is an arranged and simplified world at which our practical instincts have been at work; it is perfectly true for us, that is to way, we live, we are able to live in it." (WP 568, emphasis added) Instinct here is being used to convey that we have created the concept of the "apparent world" without a conscious awareness of that process of creation. Nevertheless, as Richard Schacht persuasively argues, Nietzsche frequently speaks of instincts as "firmly established dispositions of any significant degree of specificity, however acquire d." (Schacht 279-80) In Genealogy of Morals, for example, within an individual who has the right to make promises, "the consciousness of this rare freedom this power over oneself and over fate, has in his case penetrated to the profoundest depths and be come instinct." (GM II:2) More importantly, this conception of self-created instinct permeates Nietzsche's discussions of the all-too-frequent overestimation of the power of reason in achieving moral action.
Throughout The Will to Power, Nietzsche rejects the common idea that moral action is best achieved through a rational, methodical process of moral deliberation. Conscious deliberations are "merely tentative" and "show a far lower standard of morality" in comparison to action directed by instincts. (WP 440) Conscious thinking is pained, laborious, and unwieldy; it ought to be considered only a stepping stone towards moral action.
The true genesis of moral action lies in instinct, the disposition to spontaneously act in a certain way, without conscious awareness of the reasons behind that action. Nietzsche writes that "we must in fact seek the perfect life where it has become l east conscious (i.e. least aware of its logic, its reasons, its means and intentions, its utility). . . the demand for a virtue that reasons is not reasonable." (WP 439) Perfection does result from instinctual action; "genius resides in instinct; goodnes s likewise. One acts perfectly one when one acts instinctively. Even from the viewpoint of morality, all conscious thinking is merely tentative." (WP 440)
Despite how it may first appear, Nietzsche's criticisms of the reliance on rationality and vision of perfection in the less conscious instinctual action does not amount to a repudiation of reason. He clearly differentiates himself from Rousseau's "ret urn to nature" through animal instincts in a section entitled "Progress in my sense" of Twilight of the Idols. There he writes that "I too speak of a 'return to nature' although it is not really a going-back but a going-up -- up into a high, free, even f rightful nature and naturalness." (TI IV:48) For Nietzsche, then, instincts represent an overcoming of both reason and animality, i.e. of both the limits of reason imposed by its hesitancy and laboriousness and of the blindness and lack of self-direction inherent to animal instincts. These Nietzschean, post-rational instincts combine the spontaneity and beauty of animal action with the intentionality and self-mastery of rational action, by automatizing and internalizing certain types of actions. (Schac ht 280)
In light of this understanding of Nietzsche's views on the role of reason to moral action, his comment that "absurd overestimation of consciousness" results in the view that "every advance lies in an advance in becoming conscious; every regression in b ecoming unconscious; ( -- becoming unconscious was considered a falling back to the desires and senses -- as becoming animal)" seems more reasonable. (WP 529) It is not that no advance results from becoming more conscious, but rather that some advances result from becoming more unconscious, i.e. from the process of moving away from conscious deliberation that occurs in the creation of instincts.
It is clear that both Aristotle and Nietzsche share a common conception of acquired dispositions as integral to moral action. The true unification of instinct and habit, however, lies in the connections that each philosopher draws between these acquir ed dispositions and the body. "Instinct," because of its association in the animal world, is inherently connected to the body. And Aristotle explicitly draws connections between habits and learning physical activities such as lyre-playing.
For Nietzsche, the term "instinct" is used precisely to convey the smooth, spontaneous response that is found in animals. Instincts are inherently a bodily knowledge; even when they are deliberately and consciously formed, they become a non-conscious, physical knowledge of an activity. Richard Schacht's discussion of instinct makes extensive use of the connection between instinct and bodily action. He compares different levels of learning a physical task and the amount of consciousness that each req uires. When one is first learning tasks, such as typing and playing a musical instrument, "one may be said to know how to do them once one has learned how to execute certain rudiments of them, but so long as one's mastery of them is only partial, one's p erformance will be halting, tentative, uncertain, and flawed. One is still in the position of having to think about how various how various procedures are and must be mediated by one's consciousness." (Schacht 280-81) Only when one has been able to "dis pense with the mediation of conscious deliberation and reckoning at each step of the way" does "one's engagement in the activity. . . [take] on the appearance of complete 'naturalness.'" (Schacht 281) A person who has made an activity 'second nature' or 'instinctual' does not lose consciousness, but rather, as Schacht points out, experiences "a higher degree of psychic intensity and sensitivity." (Schacht 281)
Aristotle, in his discussion of the role that habit plays in moral virtue, states that "the virtues we get first by exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well." (NE II:1, 1103a) In other words, just as we learn physical tasks by engaging in them, we learn virtue by being virtuous. To use Aristotle's examples, "men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre." (NE II:1, 1103a-b) Habits then, for Aristotle, are connected to bodily learning in much the same wa y that instincts are for Nietzsche.
The similarities between Nietzsche's instincts and Aristotle's habits is not so startling, given each's view of the purpose of morality. For Aristotle, "the function of man [is] to be a certain kind of life, and this [is] to be activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle." (NE II:7, 1098a) Human goodness lies in "the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue" over the course of an entire lifetime. (NE II:7, 1098a) In other words, it is an individual's character that constitute s his/her morality, not just a simple sum of moral actions over time or any end state that can be achieved and then maintained without further effort. One's inner character need to be continually developed throughout a lifetime; without attention to one's habits and virtues, one's character slowly degrades over time.
The importance of self-overcoming in Nietzsche's moral philosophy is a similar rejection of the idea that the purpose of morality is just a string of moral actions or an end state. For Nietzsche, morality is a continual process of becoming, of self-ma stery, creativity, and development. His conception of eternal recurrence does not even admit of a final end state, but rather a continual becoming, which, in a certain way, becomes the end. "Becoming does not aim at a final state, does not flow into 'be ing'" (WP 378) Nietzsche even connects activity, pleasure, and overcoming in the following way, when he writes:
Why is all activity, even that of a sense, associated with pleasure? Because before it an obstacle, a burden existed? Or rather because all doing is an overcoming, a becoming master, and increases the feeling of power? -- Pleasure in thinking. -- U ltimately, it is not only the feeling of power, but the pleasure in creating and in the thing created; for all activity enters our consciousness as consciousness of a 'work.' (WP 661)
By focusing on morality as a process rather than an end state, both Nietzsche and Aristotle lead themselves to regard acquired dispositions, i.e. habits and instincts, as integral to a moral life. When a moral life is viewed as a process, as a continu ous chain of actions which arise out of our inner character and which, in turn, shape that character, the dispositions that we develop over the course of our lifetime becomes of paramount importance. This connection between Aristotle and Nietzsche is har dly an incidental one, and so perhaps there are even more connections between Aristotle and Nietzsche than one might suspect.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. R. J. Hollingdale, trans. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Genealogy of Morals. Walter Kaufmann, trans. New York: Random House, 1967.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. R. J. Hollingdale, trans. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, trans. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.
Randall, John Herman Jr. Aristotle. New York: Columbia UP, 1960.
Schacht, Richard. Nietzsche. New York: Routledge, 1983.
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