Ambivalence, the Self, and Ambivalence about the Self in Nietzsche

This is a draft I wrote a couple years ago but haven’t yet submitted for publication.  As always, comments, objections, questions, etc. are welcome.


Desire is the very essence of man.

~ Spinoza (Ethics III.D1)


Nietzsche seems ambivalent about the existence of the self.  Sometimes he affirms it, but just as often he denies it.  In this paper, I argue that Nietzsche has a positive theory of the self that diverges from traditional views so significantly that he can consistently affirm the self as he conceives it while denying the self as traditionally conceived.  In particular, the Nietzschean self is characterized not by unity, consciousness, knowledge, and rationality, but by plurality, diversity, non-consciousness, and desire.  On his view, a state belongs to oneself in a minimal way if it inheres in one’s body, but to truly possess a state one must endorse it with a higher-order desire.  If one is ambivalent in virtue of bodily possessing a state while desiring to be rid of it, one in a way both possesses and does not possess that state.  In addition, being a self at all on Nietzsche’s view is not an all-or-nothing matter; it admits of degrees.  Selves are individuated by their bodies, but one is more a self in direct proportion to one’s wholeheartedness and lack of ambivalence.

1. An apparent inconsistency

When Nietzsche talks about the self, he often seems to contradict himself.  For each passage in which he explicitly denies the existence of the self, there is another where he affirms it.  To GM I:13 (“The subject (or, to use a more popular expression, the soul) has perhaps been believed in hitherto more firmly than anything else on earth because it makes possible to the majority of mortals, the weak and oppressed of every kind, the sublime self-deception that interprets weakness as freedom.”) we may juxtapose BGE 231 (“At the bottom of us, really ‘deep down,’ there is […] some granite of spiritual fatum [….] Whenever a cardinal problem is at stake, there speaks an unchangeable ‘this is I’.”).[1]  Against WP 269 (“‘The subject’ is the fiction that many similar states in us are the effect of one substratum: but it is we who first created the ‘similarity’ of these states; our adjusting them and making them similar is the fact, not their similarity (– which ought rather to be denied –).”) we may set GM II:16 (“All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward – this is what I call the internalization of man: thus it was that man first developed what was later called his ‘soul.”).  And in contrast to WP 268 (“Through thought the ego is posited; but hitherto one believed […] that in ‘I think’ there was something of immediate certainty, and that this ‘I’ was the given cause of thought [….] However habitual and indispensable this fiction may have become by now – that in itself proves nothing against its imaginary origin.”) stands Z I.4 (“Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, stands a mighty commander, an unknown sage – he is called Self.  He lives in your body, he is your body.”)

The tension between these pairs of statements cannot be explained away by positing a change of heart; all of the opposed claims come from Nietzsche’s later writings.  Still less should it be explained by supposing Nietzsche failed to recognize an inconsistency in his view; the tension is too glaring to be overlooked it.  In this paper, I propose that the self whose existence Nietzsche denies differs so dramatically from the self he accepts that the inconsistency of his view is merely apparent.  In particular, he rejects the traditional conception of the self characterized by unity, consciousness, knowledge, and rationality, opting instead for a conception of the self characterized by plurality, diversity, non-consciousness, and desire.

As this Nietzschean account of the self is developed, it will emerge that whether a given state counts as really part of oneself is a matter of degree, not an all-or-nothing question.  While brute bodily considerations determine whether a given state is mine in a minimal sense, structural criteria determine the extent to which it is mine.  In this structural sense, a state is mine if I want to have it; that is, a state is mine if I form a higher-order desire with the lower-order state as its content.

On this view, the extent to which a state is one’s own is a matter of degree; in addition, the extent to which one is a self is a matter of degree, not an all-or-nothing affair.  The less ambivalent – the more wholehearted – one is, the more one really is a self.  For Nietzsche, wholeheartedness is a healthy, flourishing way to be.  His notion of selfhood is therefore normative.  Frankfurt (1992, p. 9), whose view resembles Nietzsche’s in striking ways and who like Nietzsche uses the language of health and sickness to characterize the will, puts the point thus:

If ambivalence is a disease of the will, the health of the will is to be unified and in this sense wholehearted.  A person is volitionally robust when he is wholehearted in his higher-order attitudes and inclinations, in his preferences and decisions, and in other movements of his will. […] What is at issue is the organization of his will.[2]

Unlike the traditional, unitary self, which is essentially whole and complete, the Nietzschean self may be more or less healthy in direct proportion to its wholeheartedness, to the extent that one has given “style to one’s character” (GS 290; see Nehamas 1998, p. 142).

This interpretation not only enables us to understand Nietzsche’s seemingly inconsistent pronouncements on the self, but also sheds light on his discussions of freedom of the will and ressentiment.  For Nietzsche, freedom of the will is not a matter of being able to do otherwise.  Like Spinoza before him and Frankfurt after him, Nietzsche thinks that free will is a matter of wanting what you want to want, of having the desires you want to have.  Because they endorse their own first-order states with second-order desires, agents with this sort of free will are selves in a stronger sense than agents without it.  Agents filled with ressentiment, by contrast, have states that they themselves condemn; they possess their own states in the minimal sense but do not possess them in the structural sense; disintegrated, they are attenuated, hollow selves, divided in their allegiance to their own parts.

2. What the Nietzschean self is not

Nietzsche opposes the conception of the self as a “pure will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge” (GM III.12), a conception he attributes with some justice to Kant.  As Nietzsche understands the Kantian picture of the self, a person is essentially a unified, practically rational will that makes choices on the basis of known principles.  Though a person may have all manner of desires, sentiments, and preferences, they are strictly irrelevant to what she is.  The person herself stands behind these impulses and urges, possessed of an autonomous capacity for rational choice.  Her desires, affects, and drives may prompt now this, now that action.  The ultimate responsibility for what she does, however, lies with her rational will.  The messy, affect-laden, irrational amalgam of desires is lorded over by a unitary, deliberative, rational capacity for choice based on knowledge of one’s obligations and principled rules of action (maxims).

Nietzsche denies this Kantian conception of the self in which “the physical oneness of the agent is mirrored by the stipulation of one ‘inner chooser’” (Risse 2007).  As a naturalist, he cannot countenance such a “detached theoretical subject” (Richardson 1996, p. 46) standing over and apart from the swirl of empirically real desires.  When he denies the existence of the self, he is denying this conception of the self.  For instance, in WP 268 he rejects the Cartesian self identified by the first-person pronoun in “I think.”  To refuse to countenance the thinking self, though, is compatible with countenancing the desiring self.  As Janaway (2007, p. 220) points out, Nietzsche explains the apparent unity of the individual in terms of diverse states falling under the influence of a single higher-order drive.

Thus, whereas hoary tradition from Locke to Parfit individuates persons by their consciousness and memories, Nietzsche would individuate them by the “memory of the will” (GM II:1).  In WP 269, Nietzsche denies the self considered as a unified substratum.  Again, however, to reject the conception of the self as essentially unified is not to reject a conception of the self as a plurality capable of more or less unification depending on the structure of its higher-order desires.

3. What the Nietzschean self is

If the self is not a unified, conscious, knowing, rational monad, it may nevertheless be a teeming, diverse, non-conscious, desiring, irrational swarm.  This interpretation of the Nietzschean self is supported by D 119, where he remarks that a person’s “drives” (note the plural) “constitute his being.”

Many contemporary interpretations of Nietzsche cluster around this view.  According to Richardson, for instance, a person is not “a simple will for Nietzsche but an organized complex of numerous drives of various strengths” (1996, p. 46).  Janaway says that “the great bulk of the real self” for Nietzsche is “composed of many competing drives and feelings” (2007, p. 18-19) and constituted by a “literal multiplicity of affects” (2008, p. 127).  On his interpretation, the Nietzschean self is “a composite of hierarchically related drives” (2007, p. 263).  For Risse (2007, p. 77), “What unites those drives and affects is their joint presence in one body with shared memories and cognitive abilities.”

This apparent consensus, however, masks a crucial question.  Is the Nietzschean self merely a congeries of desires, drives, and affects that inhere in a given body, or is there something more to it?  In the above quotations, Janaway and Risse lean toward the former answer, whereas Richardson inclines toward the latter.  The correct response, I contend, is that both answers capture an aspect of Nietzsche’s full position.  He thinks of the self as minimally the collection of states inherent in a given body, a given organism.  But he reserves a special, honorific status for selves that exhibit wholeheartedness and lack of ambivalence.

This interpretation reconciles pronouncements like Z I.4 that the self is just (just is) the body, with more sophisticated claims elsewhere that the self is some kind of organization of one’s internal life.  For instance, in BGE 6, Nietzsche equates the question who someone really is with the question “by what rank order the innermost drives of his nature are related to each other,” implying that the self is not a mere collection of drives but (at least in the ideal case) a structured system of drives.

3.1 “Having a desire” is ambiguous

If the foregoing is correct, then a belief, desire, emotion, or other state is someone’s in a minimal sense if it inheres in his body rather than some other, but there is a philosophically more interesting sense in which one may have or possess a state.  One incorporates states into one’s self by endorsing them with higher-order desires.  There are thus three permutations of state possession.  First, one might merely have a state, with no high-order desire corresponding to it.  Next, one may have a state in the full sense of its both inhering in one’s body and its being endorsed by a higher-order desire.  In other words, one might have a state wholeheartedly, where an agent counts as wholehearted just in case “there is in him no endogenous desire to be volitionally different than he is” (Frankfurt 1992, p. 11).  Third, one may both have and not have a state, in the sense that it satisfies the minimal bodily criterion for being one’s own even though it violates the structural criterion because one harbors a higher-order desire to be rid of it.  Put In a word, one may be ambivalent.

Suppose, for instance, that someone harbors an intense sexual desire for his wife’s friend, but that he also wants to remain faithful.  The carnal desire is his in the minimal sense – whose else might it be?  But there is a question to what extent it is his in the deeper sense.  It might be that he is a Frankfurtian wanton; he neither desires his sexual impulse to lead to action nor desires to act on his desire to be faithful (1971, p. 11).  He is indifferent with respect to his own will.  Above and below this state are the conditions of wholeheartedness and ambivalence.

In ambivalence, the agent possesses his sexual desire in the basic bodily sense, but he wishes to be rid of it.  He is divided against himself, incapable of full satisfaction.  If he acts on his sexual desire, he frustrates both his desire to be faithful and his second-order desire not to act on his sexual desire.  If he does not act, however, his sexual desire is left unsated.  This is a tormenting, unhealthy condition of the will, and one in which the agent’s first-order desire is not fully attributable to him.

In a case of deep ambivalence, the agent may have second-order desires endorsing both of his contrary first-order desires.  Perhaps he fancies himself a playboy (and therefore wants to be moved by his sexual desire) but also reckons himself resolute (and therefore wants to be moved by his desire to maintain fidelity).

To attain psychological health and reintegrate himself as a wholehearted individual, the agent would have to go through two stages.  First, he would need to resolve the higher-order ambivalence plaguing his will.  This might be done through a third-order desire that one of his second-order desires win the conflict; it might result from mental habits or training; it might be the arational result of inner turmoil.  In any case, resolving the higher-order conflict would eliminate the tension in his soul at one level.  As Frankfurt (2000, p. 11) says, “When this happens, the tendencies that he has decided to oppose are made in a sense external to him.  They are then not just opposed by the occurrence of some contrary inclination.  They are opposed by the person.”  After that, he would still have to face the problem of eliminating the first-order desire that was not endorsed by his remaining second-order desire.  Should he succeed in this second stage, his first-order desire is truly his own because it not only inheres in his body but is endorsed by a unified higher-order desire.  He has succeeded in becoming wholehearted, psychically healthy.

Note that this account of desire possession is structural, and explicitly amoral.  Whether the agent resolves his ambivalence in favor of fidelity or infidelity makes no difference to his psychological health.  He can possess an immoral desire just as wholeheartedly as a moral one.

3.2 “Being a self” is ambiguous

This Nietzschean theory of the self further entails that being a self is not a binary, all-or-nothing affair.  Instead, one is more or less a self in direct proportion to one’s wholeheartedness.  If this is right, it helps explain the enigmatic subtitle of Ecce Homo: “How One Becomes What One Is.”  One essentially is one’s desires, which are thrust upon one by fate, but one becomes what one is by endorsing those desires, by exercising what Nietzsche sometimes calls amor fati.  Once again, Frankfurt (1988, p. 170) offers a concise expression of the view, saying that a person, “in making a decision by which he identifies with a desire, constitutes himself.”

The boundaries of the Nietzschean self are therefore blurry in two ways.  First, the extent to which one of one’s desires is truly one’s own is a matter of degree, dependent on the valence and strength of one’s second-order desires that take it as content.  Second, the degree to which one is a self at all depends on the existence of consilient (or at least not ambivalent) higher-order desires.

Nietzsche takes the analogy between persons and political states quite seriously.  For him, however, the state is not the self writ large; instead, the self is the state writ small.  Thus, while he rejects the “soul atomism” of Kantian moral psychology, he advocates thinking of the soul as a “subjective multiplicity” and a “social structure of the instincts and passions” (BGE 12).  In the same way that a failed state with no coherent governing structure is a state in a minimal sense (because it encompasses a certain region) but fails to be a state in a stronger sense (because it lacks organization), so the social structure of one’s instincts and passions may constitute a self in the minimal sense (inhering in the same body) but fail to constitute a self in a stronger sense (being structurally integrated by consilient second-order desires).  As Richardson (1996, pp. 159-160) puts it, Nietzsche dissolves “the boundaries we ordinarily draw with such confidence around ourselves, making it indefinite just where my self ends – and never an all-or-nothing matter whether something is part of my self.”

3.3. Freedom of the will and ressentiment

This account of the self sheds some light on Nietzsche’s understanding of freedom of the will and ressentiment.  For him, the libertarian conception of free will is anathema; instead, he goes in for a compatibilist picture on which free will is just wanting what you want to want, of having the will you want to have.  In BGE 21, for instance, Nietzsche rejects the metaphysical notion of free will as a “rape and perversion of logic,” but in the same breath he rejects the contrary notion of “unfree will” as “mythology.”  Instead, he thinks, “it is only a matter of strong and weak wills.”  A strong second-order volition will typically succeed in giving one the will one desires, that is, of making one’s will free.  Later in BGE (284), Nietzsche claims that to “freely have or not have your affects, your pros and cons, to condescend to them for a few hours” is noble.  And in HH I, P 6, he declares, “You shall become master over yourself […] You shall get control over your For and Against and learn how to display first one and then the other in accordance with your higher goal.”  As before, the value Nietzsche attributes to this kind of psychic health is explicitly amoral; one could just as easily endorse an immoral first-order desire as a moral first-order desire.

By contrast, a weak second-order volition will fail of its intent, leaving one ambivalent.  Such ambivalence partially divorces one’s desires from oneself and makes one less of a self.  Nietzsche sees it as a kind of sickness, a disease that afflicts humans alone because (presumably) we are the only creatures with second-order volitions.  In KSA 13:14[219], he puts the point thusly:

The multitude and disgregation of impulses and the lack of any systematic order among them results in a ‘weak will’; their coordination under a single predominant impulse results in a ‘strong’ will: in the first case it is the oscillation and lack of gravity; in the later, the precision and clarity of direction.


In ressentiment such ambivalence reaches its zenith.  The person of ressentiment wants power but has also formed a higher-order desire not to have power and a higher-order evaluation that condemns power.  Rather than resolving his ambivalence by spiritualizing, deifying, or beautifying the passions he himself disowns (TI “Anti-Nature” 1), the man of ressentiment persists in both the lower-order desires and the higher-order condemnation of them.  He does not or cannot give up his lust for power, yet refuses to say with Prospero, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”  Ressentiment is therefore objectionable because it “undermines the integrity of the self” (Reginster 1997, p. 284), because it “corrupts or disintegrates the self” (p. 301; see also Gemes 2009, p. 48).

4. Is Nietzsche right about the self?

Assuming for the moment that my account accurately captures Nietzsche’s view, we may ask whether Nietzsche is right about the self.  Is it really the case that a self is a more or less organized conglomeration of desires, drives, affects, and emotions unified minimally by a body and maximally by higher-order desires?  Is it really the case that being a self is not a binary, yes-or-no matter but something that admits of degrees?  One way to address this question is to consider cases like that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which Jekyll and Hyde share all their memories (thus satisfying the Lockean-cum-Parfitian criterion for personal identity) but diverge in their first- and second-desires.  In my own anecdotal experience, people tend to think that Jekyll and Hyde are not really the same person.  It would be interesting to conduct controlled scientific experiments to determine whether this experience is representative.



Branson, J. (1996).  Identification and the idea of an alternative of oneself.  European Journal of Philosophy, 4, 1-16.

Bratman, M. (2003). A desire of one’s own.  The Journal of Philosophy, 100:5, 221-242.

Frankfurt, H. (1971).  Freedom of the will and the concept of a person.  The Journal of Philosophy, 68:1, 5-20.

Frankfurt, H. (1976). Identification and externality, in A. Rorty (ed.), The Identities of Persons. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Frankfurt, H. (1988). Identification and wholeheartedness, in The Importance of What We Care About, 159-176. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frankfurt, H. (1992).  The faintest passion.  Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 66:3, 5-16

Frankfurt, H. (2000).  The dear self.  Philosopher’s Imprint, 1:0, 1-14.

Gemes, K. (2009). Freud and Nietzsche on sublimation.  The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 38, 38-59.

Janaway, C. (2007).  Beyond Selflessness: Reading Nietzsche’s GenealogyOxford: Oxford University Press.

Janaway, C. (2008). Beyond selflessness in ethics and inquiry.  The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 35/36, 124-140

Nehamas, A. (1998).  The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

Reginster, B. (2007).  The will to power and the ethics of creativity, in Leiter & Sinhababu (eds.) Nietzsche and Morality, 32-56.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richardson, J. (1996).  Nietzsche’s System.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Risse, M. (2007).  Nietzschean “animal psychology” versus Kantian ethics, in Lieter & Sinhababu (eds.) Nietzsche & Morality, 57-82.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] In this paper, I cite the following translations of Nietzsche’s works: Faber and Lehmann’s translation of Human, All-Too-Human (New York: Bison Books, 1984); Hollingdale’s translation of Daybreak (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Kaufmann and Hollingdale’s translations of On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo in On the Genealogy of Morals & Ecce Homo (New York: Vintage Paperbacks, 1989); Kaufmann’s translations of The Gay Science (New York: Vintage, 1974), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (New York: Penguin, 1978), and Beyond Good and Evil (New York: Vintage, 1966); Kaufmann and Hollingdale’s translation of The Will to Power (New York: Random House, 1968); Norman’s translation of Twilight of the Idols in The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and KSA (Kritische Studienausgabe, ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1980).

[2] See also Frankfurt (1976, pp. 242-3).  For sympathetical but critical responses to Frankfurt, see Branson (1996) and Bratman (2003).  For more on the connection between Frankfurtian higher-order desire theory and Nietzschean moral psychology, see Reginster (2007, p. 37).  Frankfurt’s view of the self differs from Nietzsche’s in that Frankfurt seems to think the self is a substratum, an independent entity distinct from the organism’s collection of desires.  For Nietzsche, by contrast, the self just is these desires.

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