Philosophy, Literature, and the Dissolution of the Subject

Nietzsche, Musil, Atay

by Zeynep Talay (Author)
©2014 Monographs 282 Pages


If philosophy has limits, what lies beyond them? One answer is literature. In this study, rather than seeing literature as a source of illustrations of philosophical themes, the author considers both philosophy and literature as sometimes competing but often complementary ways of making sense of and conveying the character of ethical experience. She does so through an analysis of ideas about language, experience and ethics in the philosophy of Nietzsche, and of the way in which these themes are worked out and elaborated in the writings of Robert Musil and the Turkish novelist Oğuz Atay.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Acknowledgements
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I: Nietzsche on the Self and Morality
  • I.i. Introduction
  • I.ii. The Self and the Christian Morality
  • I.iii. Nietzsche’s Critique of Kant
  • I.iv. Nietzsche and Spinoza: Free will and Freedom
  • I.v. Conclusion
  • Chapter II: Nietzsche’s Remedy
  • II.i. Introduction
  • II.ii. Nietzsche and Stoicism; The Care of the Self; A Modest Egoism
  • II.iii. The Sovereign Individual; Amor Fati; Eternal Return
  • II.iv. Conclusion
  • Chapter III: Intermediate Reflections; Philosophy and Literature
  • Chapter IV: Musil on Epistemology, Culture and the Self
  • IV.i. Introduction
  • IV.ii. The Reception of Nietzsche in the German-speaking World and Lebensphilosophie
  • IV.iii. The Epistemological Background: Cause-effect
  • IV.iv. The Critique of Rationality; The Sense of Possibility
  • IV.v. Culture and the Individual
  • IV.vi. Conclusion
  • Chapter V: Musil on Ethics
  • V.i. Introduction
  • V.ii. Subjectivity, Free Will, Responsibility
  • V.iii. Essayism
  • V.iv. Ulrich’s Company of Women
  • V.v. ‘The Other Condition’ and Ethics
  • V.vi. Conclusion: Ulrich Returns to the Parallel Campaign
  • Chapter VI: Intermediate Reflections II: Metaphor, Irony and Simile
  • Chapter VII: Atay on History and Authority
  • VII.i. Introduction
  • VII.ii. History: ‘Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow’
  • VII.iii. ‘Words, words, words’: Excess of Words
  • VII.iv. Fathers and Sons: Authority and Bureaucracy
  • VII.v. Comedy, Irony and the Subject
  • VII.vi. Conclusion
  • Chapter VIII: Atay on the Self
  • VIII.i. Introduction
  • VIII.ii. The Self
  • VIII.iii. The Double
  • VIII.iv. Intertextuality and the ‘Dissolution of the Subject’
  • VIII.v. The Originality Paradox
  • VIII.vi. Originality: The Act of Reading
  • VIII.vii. Conclusion
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← 8 | 9 →Introduction

To the question ‘what is self?’ philosophers give a variety of answers. Some claim that such a thing does not exist at all, while others say the opposite and attempt to give us an account of the self by grounding it in God, spirit, substance, nature or brain, or body, or some combinations of these. Some turn to antiquity, claiming that we could understand things better if only we could establish a continuity between concepts at different times. In other words, they argue that when the ancients asked questions similar to today’s, like ‘what is the fundamental truth of human nature?’ or ‘what defines the identity of an individual?’ they were, in fact, dealing with the one and the same sort of problem.

Whether such continuity – between the conception of the self in antiquity and in modern philosophical thought – exists or not extends the scope of this book, and despite the fact that our contemporary ideas about self stem from Descartes, it is well known that Greek philosophy is a rich source for philosophers and that they often find themselves in a constant dialogue with the Greeks (Nietzsche). So, I will give a synopsis of the conceptions of the self in different eras before we turn to modern conceptions of the self, and, correspondingly, its ethical ramifications.

Richard Sorabji claims that there is such a thing as self and that there was in the ancient Greek world. He says that autos (‘same’, emphatic ‘himself’) and the reflexive heautos (‘himself’) often come close.1 Aristotle describes a friend as another self, allos autos. In Republic (IX, 589a-b), Plato uses the word anthropos (‘human being’) which denotes something closer to ‘self’ or ‘person’.2 The ‘self’ in the ancient philosophers is seldom identical with the soul, being sometimes connected with only one aspect of it, sometimes with the body, sometimes with the whole person. For Plato, the true self is reason or intellect. Michel Foucault famously argued that the ‘care of the self’ was a fundamental attitude throughout Greek, Hellenistic and Roman culture. Socrates, for instance, is always associated with the notion of ‘caring for oneself’. The notion of the ‘care of the self’ was important for Plato, as well as for Epicureans, Cynics and Stoics. It is also found ← 9 | 10 →in Christianity, as a positive principle.3 In fact the problem of what a self is may go back as far as Homer.

In Homeric society every individual has a given role and status within a well-defined system of roles and statuses. Kinship and the household are the key structures. In such a society a man knows who he is by knowing his role in these structures and through this he also knows what he owes and what is owed to him. There is no distinction between ‘ought’ and ‘owe’ in Greek (dein) and in Anglo-Saxon (ahte), and in Icelandic the word ‘skyldr’ ties together ‘ought’ and ‘is kin to’.4 Eduard Frankel wrote of Homeric man that

a man and his actions become identical, and he makes himself completely and adequately comprehended in them; he has no hidden depths…In [the epics] factual report of what men do and say, everything that men are, is expressed, because they are no more than what they do and say and suffer.5

To judge a man therefore is to judge his actions. In other words, morality and social structure are in fact one and the same in heroic society. Thus, the assumption that some modern moral philosophers take to be essential characteristic of human selfhood, that is to say, the capacity to detach oneself from any particular standpoint, to step backwards and judge things from the outside, is just what the self of the heroic age lacks. There is no outside position to which to withdraw without becoming a stranger, or alien. There is no difference between trying to withdraw yourself from a given position and trying to make yourself disappear, in other words, wanting your own death.6

The virtues of Homeric society were different from those of Athens. For the Athenian man the question of the relationship between being a good citizen and being a good man becomes central. Then the virtues have their place within the social context of the city state and to be a good man is equal to being a good citizen. The virtues, for Plato, for instance, are not merely compatible with each other but the presence of each requires the presence of all. The assumption behind this thesis is that there is a cosmic order which ‘dictates the place of each virtue in a total harmonious scheme of human life.’7

← 10 | 11 →In the Platonist thesis concerning the unity of the virtues the idea of the mastery of the self through reason becomes central. To be master of oneself is to have the higher part of the soul (reason) rule over the lower part (desire). Only a rational person can attain the unity of the virtues. The idea of the unity of the virtues appears in Aristotle as well. Like Plato, Aristotle sees the exercise of the virtues as not a means to the end of the good for man. What constitutes the good for man is a complete human life lived at its best, and the exercise of the virtues is a central part of such a life, rather than a mere preparatory exercise to secure it.8 According to Aristotle, what makes an object the kind of object that it is is what it does, in other words, its function, or characteristics. In this view, to be unified is to be teleologically organized. Correspondingly, a good action for Aristotle is the one conducted at the right time, in the right way, towards the right object, and with the right aim. That is to say, it is one that embodies the right principle. In Nicomachean Ethics there is a threefold structure: 1-human-nature-as-it-happens-to-be; 2-human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realised-its-telos; 3- the precepts of ethics as the means for the transition from one to the other. There is a fundamental contrast between the first two and this is why we need the third one, namely, ethics which enables men to understand how they make the transition from former to the latter.

Ethics therefore on this view presupposes some account of potentiality and act, some account of the essence of man as a rational animal and above all some account of the human telos. The precepts which enjoin the various virtues and prohibit the vices which are their counterparts instruct us how to move from potentiality to act, how to realise our true nature and to reach our true end.9

Our desires and emotions are educated by the use of such precepts, and it is reason which shows us what our true end is and how we can reach it. Thus, Aristotle’s view is teleological.

Despite this resemblance between Plato and Aristotle, Sorabji, focusing on the on the Stoic theory of four personae, shows how ancient philosophy exhibits a large variety of discussions of self and selfhood. For Stoics, moral decision-making presupposed an understanding of one’s individual character and position in the world:

And this difference of natures has such force that sometimes one man ought to commit suicide, while another in the same situation (in eadem causa, only in some mss) ought not. For was Marcus Cato in a different situation (alia in causa) from the others who surrendered to Caesar in Africa? But perhaps with the others it would have been attributed to moral failure if they had killed themselves, because their lives had been less austere ← 11 | 12 →and their habits more easy-going. Since nature had conferred on Cato an incredible gravity, and he had strengthened it by unceasing consistency, and had always persisted in his resolved purpose, it was right for him to die rather than to look on the face of a tyrant.10

By focusing on the importance of the unique individual of Cato, Sorabji underlines the contrast with the idea of moral obligation found in a modern philosopher such as Kant. While Kant sees moral obligation as applying universally, Cicero claims that Cato’s suicide was morally right only for him. Sorabji says: ‘It was unique to Cato that suicide was the right course, because his character was unique among those defeated here. The interest here is not only in the individual but in an individual whose character in the situation was unique.’11 Cicero appeals to a theory of persona which goes back to the Stoic philosopher Panaetius. It is a view about what you must take into consideration while making decisions about what it is right to do. So the Kantian idea that you must consider the fact that you are a rational being is not enough. According to Panaetius, one needs to make decisions in the light of one’s individual persona as well, that is: ‘of the position you have been born into, the choices you have made, and what fortune has brought you.’12 Personae are of course constituted partly by our roles like fatherhood or motherhood and so it is true that many of these roles are common to many people; nevertheless, there are characteristics that are not shared.13

Even though there are different views about whether the use of the word ‘self’ among the ancients is similar to uses of it today, at least it seems that there are basic assumptions about the ancient philosophy of the self on which many commentators agree:

All these basic assumptions will be addressed at various points, but for now the last assumption is crucial. Firstly, the idea that the concept of the self is inseparable from ethics is a recurring theme of this book; secondly, I shall suggest that our modern notion of the self is related to a particular sense of inwardness, one in which some sort of opposition between the inner/outer or inside/outside seems unavoidable. We tend to think that our thoughts, feelings and desires are ‘within’ us while the objects exist in the outer world. Taylor writes: ‘We are creatures with inner depths; with partly unexplored and dark interiors. We all feel the force of Conrad’s image in Heart of Darkness.15

Even if, as Taylor suggests, the modern notion of the self is unthinkable without Plato’s idea of the rational self, it was Augustine who stressed the opposition between the inner and outer man. The inner is the soul, whereas the outer is the bodily things, including our senses and even the memory storage. The road from the lower to the higher (and to the God) goes though our attending to ourselves as inner. This is very different from Plato’s idea of finding out about ‘the highest principle by looking at the domain of objects which it organises, that is, the field of the Ideas. In other words, Augustine shifts the focus from the domain of objects to be known to the activity of knowing, to the first-person stand point. Here the idea of self-knowledge or our search for our inner self is at the same time our search for God. Augustine’s turn to the inner self was a turn to radical reflexivity, a method which will be taken up Descartes. However, Descartes gave a radical direction to the inner man of Augustine, placing the sources of morality, too, within us.16

It should be noted here even though Descartes is Augustinian in his method of radical reflexivity, it is a method that enables him to move from the first person experience into an objectified, impersonal stand-point. We have to objectify the world and our bodies in order to stand back and withdraw from them so that we ← 13 | 14 →can have a clear and distinct idea about the objects in the outer world, in other words, ‘to come to see them mechanistically and functionally, in the same way that uninvolved external observer would.’17

Descartes’ rational self or ‘the disengaged reason’ is quite different from Plato’s idea of self-mastery through reason, for in Plato one can realise his/her true nature ‘as a supersensible soul’ only when one turns ‘towards the supersensible, eternal, immutable things. This turning will no doubt include my seeing and understanding the thing which surround me as participating in the Ideas which give them being.’18 This is quite different from Descartes’ mechanistic world according to which the universe is a mechanical clockwork system of bodies in motion.

Thus far this brief synopsis of the route from Plato’s unified self to Descartes’ method of radical reflexivity via Augustine may suggest a continuous tradition of thought and a stable background for the modern notion of the self. In contrast, Michel Foucault turns to the Greeks, not in order to emphasise continuity, nor in order to see the Greeks as an attractive alternative, but to defamilirize the taken-for-granted notions of the self, selfhood and subjectivity that are involved in our discussions of ethics. Foucault’s work raises the question of methods of ethics.

We referred briefly to Kant. One criticism of ethical theories of the Kantian sort is that they are too abstract to be able to speak about particular human beings who lead particular lives. This is one way of formulating the old debate about universality and particularity.

In The Republic Plato announced that there was a long-standing antagonism between poetry and philosophy.19 While literature shows us patterns of excellence in such a way that we are drawn towards their imitation, these patterns of excellence are themselves susceptible to judgment. If this is so, the problem arises of whether they are really patterns of excellence. If, having been brought up in a culture where our selves are also shaped through the values and literature of that culture, we can stand back and question whether their claim to be patterns of excellence is justified, then according to Plato, we need to refer to other standards that are beyond all cultural values and, accordingly, beyond literature. In other words, we need a timeless and unchangeable transcendent ground. This, for Plato, can be found in the Forms. Literature is mimesis, or imitation, and secondary to the real world, and the real world is itself an imperfect imitation of the transcendent ground, of the forms. So literature is removed from the transcendent ground by two degrees. In ← 14 | 15 →Plato’s account, such a ground can only be found in the realm of Being, as opposed to the world of coming into being and passing away, the world of Becoming.20

Such a notion of a transcendent ground has been influential throughout the history of philosophy. For some philosophers we can access this ground by means of reason, for others we can do so only through faith. Kant, though, undermined this philosophical position to some extent, and this break continues with, for example, Nietzsche. Nietzsche proposes a life not seen in terms of a submission to a moral obligation which is grasped as the most familiar experience of the common man and as the uncanniest of all experiences (Kant), but as a constant process of self-formation, of affirmation of one’s own experiences and actions. At the centre of Nietzsche’s mature work is an attack on modes of thought, such as Platonism, which posit a dualism between a true world outside the order of time, and an apparent world of change, becoming and mere semblance.

The debate about binary oppositions like Being and Becoming, the unitary self and the ‘self’ regarded as constant becoming also leads to a discussion between the language of philosophy and of literature. As we have seen, Plato regards literature as an imitation of the real world, so it can never provide a timeless transcendent measure; being a product of culture, which is itself to be judged, literature is also open to interpretation, to change. However, this is precisely why Nietzsche appreciates literature.21 Nietzsche says that the discovery of our true life can be made through the creation of a work of art and this view captures his belief that one should ‘become what one is.’ Indeed, literature and art provided models of how to understand the world:

…we should learn from artists while being wiser than they are in other matters. For with them this subtle power usually comes to an end where art ends and life begins; but we want to be the poets of our life – first of all in the smallest, most everyday matters.22

← 15 | 16 →Nietzsche has been very influential in his attempt to relate literature and philosophy. Following Nietzsche’s critique of western metaphysics and the concept of unitary self, many contemporary thinkers claim that the language of philosophy which tends to conceptualize and generalize cannot be a good source for addressing the problems of human conduct, especially ethics. As a result of this they turn to literary works. For both Iris Murdoch and Martha Nussbaum, for instance, there is a general question of how we should live which is the concern of both philosophy and literature. The question is both empirical and practical. It is empirical because we don’t have access to a transcendent standpoint, and practical since we must be able to experience it. Only literature can show in detail how we should conduct our lives. Murdoch claims that good art shows us not only the illusory unity of the self but also its real disunity. Post-Nietzschean philosophers like Derrida, Bataille and Blanchot claim that literature becomes the place where the fascination of dissolution can operate on our discontinuous selves. Similarly, D.Z. Philips claims that moral change is not progress, but coming to a new perspective on one’s life, and that when we accept this we will be able to reinterpret the ethical value of the unity of a life in terms of becoming rather than eternity. In that sense, to engage with literature is to contemplate the possibilities and the impossibilities of sense for us.23

There are many other philosophers of ethics who subscribe to a form of inquiry which places literature at its centre. However, although one of the common features of the philosophers mentioned above is that they see in literature a richer account of the nature of ethical experience and of the idea of the self as becoming, they still tend to see literary works as a source of ‘illustrations’ of basically philosophical points. I try to avoid this, and to see literature as an activity that has its own claims to make. My aim is not only to discuss Nietzsche’s critique of the constitution of the modern self and its ethical contents, but also to explore the ways in which this Nietzschean theme appears in literature. I will focus in particular on Nietzschean motifs in the writings of Robert Musil (1880-1940) and Oğuz Atay (1934-1977).

In order to do this I will focus on one aspect of this clearly large topic: the dissolution of the subject and its ethical content. Such ideas are found in Nietzsche’s treatment of the self which, in turn, is strongly related to his notion of freedom, but they are also worked out and extended in the writings of Robert Musil and Oğuz Atay, both of whom were inspired by Nietzsche. I will ask three main questions.

← 16 | 17 →Firstly, if the self is an ‘illusion’, how can we still talk about ethical issues like promising and responsibility? In On The Genealogy of Morality Nietzsche tries to establish a connection between guilt, debt (Schuld), responsibility, punishment, conscience and the memory of punishment. This connection is quite speculative and also brief. But Musil explores these connections at great length through various transgressive characters who appear in his writings, in particular Moosbrugger, Törless and Ulrich, the central protagonist of Musil’s master work The Man without Qualities, who throws off or ignores debts to the past or to tradition, and seeks to shape a future for himself. Musil’s work is often an ironic commentary on such efforts.

Secondly, if there is not a unitary self, in other words, if the self is in a state of becoming, what kind of future can we create for ourselves and for others? Nietzschean ethics rests primarily on a ‘relationship with oneself’, but here I want to add that Musil’s art enables him to explore ethical experiences while problematising the Nietzschean self and, correspondingly, Nietzschean ethics. Seen in these terms, the first two parts of The Man without Qualities are an experimental examination of Nietzschean ethics, while part three is an exploration of different modes of participation with the world and others. This difference is paralleled by a difference between monologic and dialogic presentation of the main characters.

Thirdly, Atay takes up Nietzsche’s idea that ‘the doer behind the deed’ is a fiction in order to experiment with the idea of a life of pure imitation; if the doer is a fiction then can one become anyone by imitating the deeds of others? In The Disconnected the subjecthood of the main characters gives way to a state in which each of them is everyone and no-one, in which neither self-oriented nor other-oriented ethics seems to apply. Atay’s subjects suffer from radical groundlessness, and as such the novel contains a problematisation of the Cartesian account of the subject, which regards the subject as a fixed identity and which assumes a human essence.

Here I should emphasise that I maintain a distinction between the ‘subject’ and the ‘self’. Nietzsche’s, Musil’s and Atay’s critique/problematisation of the ‘subject’ is directed against the Cartesian subject, the subject being the knower of the known (subject-object separation, ‘the disengaged reason’). However, my main argument is that the idea of the dissolution of the subject was regarded by all of them as an opening toward a new discussion of the ‘self’. Neither Nietzsche’s nor Musil’s anti-Cartesian thrust is directed so much against substance, or against the ‘inner’ self, as against the subject regarded as a defence mechanism. Against what?


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (September)
Sittlichkeit Ethik Erzähler Schriftstücke
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 282 pp.

Biographical notes

Zeynep Talay (Author)

Zeynep Talay-Turner is a philosopher, sculptress and translator. She was born in Istanbul and is resident in London. She gained her MA at Warwick University (UK) and holds a PhD in Philosophy from the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw (Poland).


Title: Philosophy, Literature, and the Dissolution of the Subject
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284 pages