How One Becomes What One is Called

UPDATE: A slightly updated version of this paper will be presented at the Central APA in February 2013, and will then appear in the Journal of Nietzsche Studies.

I’ve written a short paper arguing, though not in so many words, that Nietzsche is the progenitor of the idea of factitious virtue.  Here’s a draft:


How One Becomes What One Is Called:

On the Relation Between Traits and Trait-Terms in Nietzsche


When the devil sheds his skin, does not his name fall off too?  For it too is skin.  Perhaps the devil himself is – skin.

 (Z IV “The Shadow”)




Despite the recent surge of interest in Nietzsche’s moral psychology[1] and his conceptions of character and virtue in particular,[2] little attention has been paid to his treatment of the relation between character traits and character trait-terms.  In this paper, I argue for an interpretation of this relation: Nietzsche thinks there is a looping effect between the psychological disposition named by a character trait-term and the practice of using that term.[3]

While he affirms that people are differentially disposed to certain types of behavior, Nietzsche conceives of these dispositions as fluid both in their objects and, to a lesser degree, in their strength.  Someone disposed towards investigation will end up thinking, feeling, and acting very differently depending on whether he is labeled curious or nosy.  Someone disposed towards aggression will end up thinking, feeling, and acting very differently depending on whether he is considered a hero or a criminal (TI ix.45).[4]  The valence and content of the labels applied to a person, together with the power-relation between the labeler and labeled, interact with his preexisting psychological dispositions to produce the kind of person he eventually becomes.

Moreover, as people’s dispositions shift under the pressure of labels, the meaning of the labels themselves evolves.  If nobility is whatever noble people are disposed to think, feel, and do, then when noble people’s psychological dispositions change, so does the meaning of nobility.[5]  Pre-existing psychological dispositions are shaped by the activity of labeling, which in turn modulates the meaning of the label, which further shapes the psychological disposition, and around and around we go.

Here is the plan for this paper: Section 1 explores the first of two Nietzschean styles of becoming what one is called: the interpersonal.  Someone whose personality is built according to this plan becomes what others call him – good, bad, or mixed.  Nietzsche associates this blueprint for the construction of character with slavishness.  Section 2 explores the second way of becoming what one is called: the reflexive.  Someone whose personality is built according to this plan becomes what he considers himself.  Nietzsche associates this method of personality construction with masterliness.  It will turn out, however, that the masterly path is itself interpersonal, and in multiple ways.  In lieu of a conclusion, section 3 lays out a theory of what I call Nietzschean summoning.  In existing discussions of the looping effect, only the reactions of those labeled are considered.  Moreover, their reactions tend to be negative; they either deny the applicability of the label or modify their behavior in an attempt to squirm out of its extension.  Nietzsche seems to have realized that when the extension of a term is unclear, people sometimes modify their behavior in order to squirm into it.  Hence, by praising an ambiguously-defined kind of person, one can induce kind-relevant behavior and dispositions in one’s audience: praising people of type T summons Ts.  Sections 42-44 of Beyond Good and Evil are a prime example of this phenomenon.


1. The Interpersonal Blueprint


At first blush, it’s probably most attractive to categorize a trait attribution as an assertion: to say that someone is T is to commit oneself to the truth of the proposition that the person has the disposition in question.  Compare attributions of other dispositions, such as, “This table is flammable,” and, “You conduct electricity.”  The former commits the speaker to the truth of the proposition that the table would burn in appropriate conditions; the latter commits the speaker to the truth of the proposition that the hearer would conduct free electrons in appropriate conditions.  Why should trait attributions be any different?  What I want to argue in this section is that Nietzsche thinks that, despite the superficial similarity between attributing flammability to a table and attributing honesty to a person, it may be more apt to interpret trait attributions as directives or declarations because they either cause the hearer to engage in a certain type of behavior or make it the case that they are true by being felicitously uttered.[6]

It’s straightforward to see how a trait attribution might be used as a directive.  If someone is asking for charitable donations and I say, “Jessica here is quite generous,” it’s plausible to suppose that I’m not too subtly goading Jessica into donating.  It’s less obvious that a trait attribution might function as a declaration, but this is what Nietzsche thinks.  Standard examples of declarations are baptisms (“I hereby christen this ship the ‘Titanic.’”) and institutional acts of labeling (“I pronounce you husband and wife.”).  One of the odd things about these speech acts is their direction-of-fit.  The ship is called the Titanic because it was thus christened; it is not christened the Titanic because that is what it is called.  The couple is married because they have been so pronounced; they were not so pronounced because they were married.

Nietzsche seems to think that many people have the character traits they do because they have been labeled with those traits; in other words, some trait attributions are declarations.  This would be a special case of his insight that “what things are called is incomparably more important than what they are” because the “reputation, name, and appearance, the usual measure and weight of a thing, what it counts for […] grows to be part of the thing and turns into its very body” (GS 58).  He claims, for instance, that “since time immemorial, in all somehow dependent social strata the common man was only what he was considered: not at all used to positing values himself, he also attached no other value to himself than his masters attached to him” (BGE 261).  This is a theme that runs throughout the writings of his middle period: the lowly, the ignoble, the slaves, the poor in spirit are shaped by society.  And in this context society means the masters of society – the elite.  If the aristocrats tell a member of the hoi polloi that he is a farmer (or a blacksmith, or a sailor, or whatever), that is what he is.

Becoming what one is called is not just a matter of vocation, however.  Nietzsche has in mind a process that runs much deeper.  His idea is that those of lower rank take on not only the tasks and jobs, but also the character traits, that are attributed to them.  They become, quite literally, what they are called.  If they are labeled dishonest, they become dishonest.  If they are labeled cowardly, they become cowardly.  If they are labeled ambitious, they become ambitious.  In fact, I would venture to say that this way of reacting to attributions is what he means by slavishness.  To be a slave in this psychological sense is to have a second-order disposition to acquire or simulate any (or at least most) first-order dispositions that are attributed to one.[7]

Here we begin to see a tension between the political and the psychological senses of slavishness.  Politically, of course, to be a slave is to have one’s will subordinated, to be in another’s power; psychologically, to be a slave is to be disposed to think, feel, and act as expected.  While it would not be incorrect to say that Nietzsche is more concerned with the psychological than the political, he is most interested in their interaction.  He seems to think that almost everyone in modern culture has inherited some degree of psychological slavishness.  Because so many of our ancestors were considered slaves (i.e., were politically enslaved), they acquired or developed psychological slavishness, which they then passed on to us.  Through an “immense atavism,” even today “the ordinary man still always waits for an opinion about himself and then instinctively submits to that – but by no means only a ‘good’ opinion; also a bad and unfair one” (BGE 261).

Being treated as a person of a certain type has profound effects, especially when the treatment begins at birth and is presented as part of the natural order of things.  So, for example, Nietzsche says that “at bottom the masses are willing to submit to slavery of any kind, if only the higher-ups constantly legitimize themselves as higher, as born to command – by having noble manners” (GS 40).

This process need not be carried out at the level of consciousness.  Indeed, it rarely is.  Instead, even slavish people think that they are acting in their own interest and from their own character.  But “what they do is done for the phantom of their ego which has formed itself in the heads of those around them and has been communicated to them […] the one for ever in the head of someone else, and the head of this someone else again in the heads of others” (D 105).  After implicitly taking a label to heart, they act in accordance with it.  This leads others, as well as they themselves, to think the label was appropriately applied in the first place.  It also reinforces their first-order disposition to behave in accordance with the label.  After many cycles of such pretence, social confirmation, and habit formation, the trait becomes second nature.  By pretending to be what one is designated, one becomes what one is designated.  As Nietzsche puts it, “The hypocrite who always plays one and the same role finally ceases to be a hypocrite [….] If someone obstinately and for a long time wants to appear something it is in the end hard for him to be anything else” (HH 51).

Ordinary first-order dispositions like flammability do not depend on higher-order dispositions.  Strange as it may seem, on Nietzsche’s view, first-order psychological dispositions depend developmentally, if not conceptually, on higher-order psychological dispositions.  And this developmental dependence has both ontogenetic and phylogenetic aspects.  Most of our ancestors were politically enslaved to some extent, which led the majority of them to become psychologically slavish.  We have inherited this second-order disposition, and we express and reinforce it whenever we become what we are called.


2. The Reflexive Blueprint


The interpersonal blueprint for the construction of character relies on a kind of psychological receptivity.  To become what one is called, one must be to some extent disposed to acquire or simulate whatever traits are attributed.  To be evaluated, one must be evaluable.  The other side of the coin is the disposition to assign value, to evaluate.  This is what Nietzsche often seems to have in mind when he speaks not of political but of psychological masterliness or nobility.[8]

His most sustained treatment of the moral psychology of nobility is of course the first essay of the Genealogy.  There, Nietzsche claims, against the “English psychologists” that

the judgment ‘good’ did not originate with those to whom ‘goodness’ was shown!  Rather it was ‘the good’ themselves, that is to say, the noble, powerful, high-stationed, and high-minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common, and plebian.  It was out of this pathos of distance that they first seized the right to create values and to coin names for values. (I.2)

Unlike the slaves, these nobles are what they say they are.  Their self-evaluations are declarations, not assertions or directives.  Nietzsche even speculates that  “the origin of language itself [is] an expression of power on the part of the rulers: they say ‘this is this and this’” (GM I.2).  Whereas the political underclass becomes psychologically slavish and is thus molded from outside, the nobility practices reflexive evaluation.

It’s important to note, though, that even with the nobles, there is shift from the political to the psychological.  They begin by celebrating their social dominance, but end in an affirmation of their own character traits.  This is the “conceptual transformation” of which Nietzsche makes hay in GM I.4, saying that “everywhere ‘noble,’ ‘aristocratic’ in the social sense, is the basic concept from which ‘good’ in the sense of ‘with aristocratic soul,’ ‘noble,’ ‘with a soul of high order,’ ‘with a privileged soul’ necessarily developed.”  Their political superiority engenders the confidence to affirm their own character, which they subsequently take to be responsible for that very superiority (GM I.6).

But this presupposes that the nobles, too, lack robust first-order dispositions.  For the most part, they are not already, but rather become, what they say they are.  Their virtues are acquired through self-labeling.  Like the slaves, they have a second-order receptivity: they are disposed to acquire whatever dispositions are attributed to them by themselves.

This is just one of the paradoxes of psychological masterliness.  Another is the extent to which it, too, is grounded in interpersonal mechanisms.  As I have presented it thus far, it might seem that the reflexive model of character development is extremely individualistic.  A masterly person self-attributes some character traits, which he then goes on to acquire.  But this is not how Nietzsche usually envisions the process.  No individual has that much control.  The content of most masterly self-attributions is social in multiple ways.  First, the form of such an attribution tends to be not, “I am noble,” but, “We are noble.”  We – this group of people to which I belong – have this virtue.  The self-attribution thus relies on there being social group to which the individual belongs.

Second, the content of the trait-term tends to be social as well.  Nobility is perhaps the best example of this.  It implies a community of respect and honor, in which each member expects certain kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from the rest.  “As one who is good, one belongs to the ‘good,’ a community that possesses a communal feeling because all individuals are knit together by the sense of repayment” (HH 45).

A further way in which even masterly self-attributions are social depends on the fact that, though they are malleable, the meanings of trait terms are not completely up to their speakers at the moment of utterance.  Meaning depends on use, so the meaning of, for instance, ‘noble’ is dynamic, but its evolution proceeds at a stately, even glacial, pace.  Thus, when someone makes a masterly self-attribution, he can end up expressing content that he doesn’t consciously intend.[9]

The final way in which even the reflexive blueprint for the construction of character is grounded in interpersonal mechanisms is that, like many declarations, self-attributions require acceptance or uptake from the audience.  The ship is called the Titanic because someone christens it the Titanic, but the christening is felicitous only because the audience accepts the declaration.  The couple is married because they have been so pronounced, but the pronouncement only succeeds because the audience accepts it.  Someone who declares “We are noble” is noble, but only because the declaration is accepted.  Being noble depends on being considered noble.[10]  To be noble, they need to be considered noble – by themselves, by other nobles, and even by the slaves.  So “the aristocratic culture breathes power, and if its customs very often demand merely the semblance of the feeling of power, the impression this game produces on the non-aristocratic, and the spectacle of this impression, nonetheless constantly enhance the actual feeling of superiority” (D 201; see also D 248).


3. Nietzschean Summoning


In this paper, I’ve argued for two Nietzschean models of character development.  On the interpersonal model, one becomes what one is called.  This presupposes a second-order psychological disposition (‘slavishness’) to acquire or simulate whatever first-order psychological dispositions are attributed to one.  On the reflexive model, one becomes what one calls oneself.  This blueprint for character development turns out, however, to contain many interpersonal elements as well.  If my interpretation is on the right track, Nietzsche thinks there is a looping effect between character traits and the terms we use to attribute them.  People become what they are called, which helps to fix the meaning of the terms by which they are called, which again affects their personality, and so on.  This would mean that trait attributions often function as declarations rather than assertions.

And, as Nietzsche points out, pointing out this phenomenon doesn’t make it go away.  “We can destroy only as creators. – But let us not forget this either: it is enough to create new names and estimations and probabilities in order to create in the long run new ‘things’” (GS 58).  In this final section, I want to argue for a related phenomenon, which I call Nietzschean summoning.  So far, I have only discussed examples in which it’s clear who the target of the trait attribution is.  “You are T.”  “I am T.”  Sometimes, however, it’s less clear who the target of the attribution is.  When this happens and the trait is a virtue, the audience is being invited to think of themselves as the target.  When this kind of uptake occurs, the looping effect kicks in.  Praising Ts summons Ts.

The clearest example of this phenomenon is in sections 42 through 44 of Beyond Good and Evil (though it can also be observed in BGE 203, much of Zarathustra, and TI.iii.5).  There, Nietzsche says, for instance,

A new species of philosophers is coming up: I venture to baptize them with a name that is not free of danger.  As I unriddle them, insofar as they allow themselves to be unriddled –for it belongs to their nature to want to remain riddles at some point – these philosophers of the future may have a right – it might also be a wrong – to be called attempters.  This name itself is in the end a mere attempt and, if you will, a temptation. (BGE 42)

Who are these new philosophers, these attempters?  Nietzsche could, of course, just be making a prediction.  I want to say that, on the contrary, he is trying to summon the attempters from his readership.  By praising them, he is (as he himself admits) attempting to tempt us to think of ourselves as the new philosophers, and thus to become the new philosophers.

One reason to think that this is what’s going on is his bewildering use of pronouns in BGE 44.  Nietzsche transitions from talking about the new philosophers in the third person (“they […] will be free, very free spirits”) to talking about them in the first person (“that is the type of man we are, we free spirits!”) to breathless apostrophic direct address (“you new philosophers”).  In this passage, Nietzsche seems to be trying to do exactly what he describes in GS 58.  By creating a new name, he wants to create a new thing – the new philosopher.  And he tries to do so by means of the looping effect, by inviting his audience to think of themselves as new philosophers.  And, just as self-attributions need uptake from the audience to succeed, Nietzschean summoning only works when the audience accepts the invitation.  Was Nietzsche right to predict the philosophers of the future?  That depends on us.





Alfano, M. (forthcoming a). The most agreeable of all vices: Nietzsche as virtue epistemologist.  British Journal for the History of Philosophy.

Alfano, M. (forthcoming b). Character as Moral Fiction. Cambridge University Press.

Alfano, M. (2010). The tenacity of the intentional prior to the Genealogy. The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 40, 29-46.

Anderson, R. L. (2011). On the nobility of Nietzsche’s priests.  In Simon May (ed.), Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: A Critical Guide, pp. 24-55. Cambridge University Press.

Conant, J.  (2001). Nietzsche’s perfectionism: A reading of Schopenhauer as Educator. In Richard Schacht (ed.) Nietzsche’s Post-Moralism. Cambridge University Press.

Hacking, I. (1995).  The looping effects of human kinds. In  Causal Cognition, ed. by Dan Sperber, et al.  Clarendon Press.  New York.

Hacking, I. (2006). Making up people. London Review of Books, 28:16, 23-26.

Hunt, L. (1991). Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue. London: Routledge.

Hurka, T. (2007). Nietzsche: Perfectionist. In Leiter & Sinhababu (eds.), Nietzsche and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Katsafanas, P. (forthcoming). Nietzsche’s philosophical psychology. In J. Richardson & K. Gemes (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Katsafanas, P. (2011). The relevance of history for moral philosophy: A study in Nietzsche’s Genealogy. In S. May (ed.), Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: A Critical Guide, pp. 170-192. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leiter, B. & Knobe, J. (2007). The case for Nietzschean moral psychology. In Leiter & Sinhababu (eds.), Nietzsche and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reginster, B. (forthcoming). Honesty and curiosity in Nietzsche’s free spirit. Journal for the History of Philosophy.

Reginster, B. (1997). Nietzsche on Ressentiment and valuation. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 57, 281-305.

Reginster, B. (2003). What is a free spirit? Nietzsche’s critique of fanaticism. Archiv fur Geschichte der Philosophie, 85:1, 51-85.

Reginster, B. (2006). The Affirmation of Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Reginster, B. (2007). The will to power and the ethics of creativity. In Leiter & Sinhababu (eds.), Nietzsche and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richardson, J. (forthcoming). Nietzsche, language, and community. In Julian Young (ed.), Nietzsche and Community. Cambridge University Press.

Searle, J. (1975). A taxonomy of illocutionary acts. In Gunderson (ed.), Language, Mind, and Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press.

Searle, J. (1995). The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press.

Slote, M. (1998). Nietzsche and virtue ethics. International Studies in Philosophy, 30:3, 23-27.

Swanton, C. (1998). Outline of a Nietzschean virtue ethics. International Studies in Philosophy, 30:3, 29-38.

White, A. (2001). The youngest virtue. In Schacht (ed.) Nietzsche’s Post-Moralism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zagzebski, L. (2010). Exemplarist virtue theory. Metaphilosophy, 41:1, 41-57.


[1] Alfano (2010), Anderson (2011), Katsafanas (2011, forthcoming), Leiter & Knobe (2007), Reginster (2003, 2006), Richardson (forthcoming).

[2] Alfano (forthcoming a), Conant (2001), Hunt (1991), Hurka (2007), Reginster (2007, forthcoming), Slote (1998), Swanton (1998), White (2001).

[3] The phrase ‘looping effect’ is due to Hacking (1995), who also recognizes that Nietzsche may be its discoverer (2006).  Alfano (forthcoming b) is the first to argue for a looping effect between virtues and virtue-terms.

[4] References to Nietzsche use the Kaufman translations of BGE and GS and the Cambridge translations of D, HH, Z, and TI.

[5] Linda Zagzebski’s (2010) “exemplarist” semantics for virtue terms is the closest contemporary treatment of the meaning of virtue-terms.

[6] I draw here on Searle’s (1975) taxonomy of speech acts.

[7] See Anderson (2011, p. 31) and Reginster (1997, pp. 285-7).

[8] See Anderson (2011, p. 29)

[9] For more on this, see Richardson (forthcoming), who argues that Nietzsche thinks “words get their meaning from the history of the social practice, and carry much of its depth and intricacy,” which implies that “Nietzsche thinks that words do mean a multiplicity, and that we mean a multiplicity through them, but aren’t aware of this, and are misled by the singleness and apparent simplicity of each word.”

[10] Searle (1995, p. 13) argues that social facts always exhibit the feature: “seeming to be F is logically prior to being F.”

4 thoughts on “How One Becomes What One is Called

  1. “Nietzsche seems to think that many people have the character traits they do because they have been labeled with those traits..His idea is that those of lower rank take on not only the tasks and jobs, but also the character traits, that are attributed to them. They become, quite literally, what they are called. If they are labeled dishonest, they become dishonest. If they are labeled cowardly, they become cowardly. If they are labeled ambitious, they become ambitious. ”

    I suppose my main comment would be that these claims seem to conflict quite seriously with the idea that what explains much of one’s character is one’s prior posession of power. A typical Nietzschean explanation for cowardice makes reference to the physical and psychological powerlessness of the individual, not to the antecedent act of labeling them as cowardly. To be sure, this can be re-inforced by labeling, but your way of describing your thesis seems to imply that the labeling is sufficient here, and this seems too strong.

    • Thanks, Nick. I think you’re right. I tried to hedge appropriately in paragraph 2 (“he affirms that people are differentially disposed to certain types of behavior”), but the bit you quote is too strong. What I want to argue is that Nietzsche thinks that many people have the precise character traits they do because they have been labeled with those traits. The idea is supposed to be that what’s, as it were, antecedently there in the agent limits the palette or menu of traits he could end up with, but doesn’t uniquely determine how his character will develop. From that menu, then, social pressures select and shape the character that results. Do you think that this is still too strong?

      I’d be curious to see which passages you think the interpretation most conflicts with.

      • Hey again Mark,

        I was just thinking of the fairly well-accepted fact that the Will to Power is Nietzsche’s central explanatory mechanism in psychology. While he (of course) never comes right out and tells us what his method is, there are many passages (I’m thinking now of the comparison of his method with mechanism and Darwinism in GM) where he tells us that an explanation for human behaviour that references the agent’s power/perceived power is the superior one. My only concern was just that it seems that, for any behavioural pattern, the extent to which we prioritize an ‘antecedent labeling’ explanation is the extent to which we de-prioritize an explanation in terms of power.

        Your revised thesis sounds much more plausible. In rereading the last section of your paper, a question occurred to me. We might say that there are two Nietzsches: the psychologist and the prophet. At the surface level, he is always acting the former part, providing historical explanations in terms of power, etc. However, sometimes, you can see him entering a different mode, a mode where he aims to baptize or inaugurate some new kind of person. The end of GM is one such spot, and BGE 42-44 is another: there he is rhetorically fierce and playful, tempting the reader to become something new via the use of ‘dangerous’ language and meaningful puns (‘Versucher’ is translated in BGE 42 as ‘attempter’, but it is a pun that means both attempter and experimenter, an effective rhetorical device that is unfortunately lost in English).

        I was wondering if your thesis might be most clearly true of Nietzsche at this meta-level: that when Nietzsche is rhetorically attempting to initiate real social change, he tips his hand and shows us that he is committed to the power of language, the power of provocative labeling. This distinction might allow you to explain both why he seems committed to the overriding importance of psychological explanations in terms of power, and why he seems to (at least implicitly) recognize the power of labeling as you describe it.

        • Thanks, Nick. While you’re right that we should expect Nietzsche to explain behavior in terms of wtp when he can, I think you might be presupposing that to explain person P’s behavior you only get to refer to P’s wtp. But I don’t see any reason why that would be. I’m inclined to say, instead, that labeling is a way of exercising wtp. So, when we explain why one person acts the way he does, and why he has the character he does, we end up referring to another person’s (probably many people’s) labeling of him.

          Perhaps, though, I should first ask what you think wtp is for Nietzsche. I rather like Reginster’s higher-order-desire theory of wtp as the desire to overcome resistance. Giving someone a character trait presumably requires overcoming resistances in that person and in others who are also trying to shape him. So the account in this paper seems to fit nicely into the Reginster model. But perhaps you have a different conception in mind.

          On your other point, about the two Nietzsches: an intriguing speculation. I wonder how one can tell which Nietzsche is speaking? Perhaps by looking at his most hysterical passages. Or perhaps when he directly addresses his readers? Maybe when he starts making predictions?

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