Space & Time: Notes on Nietzsche’s Interpretation of Anaximander and Heraclitus

Emmet Gowin.jpg

“That which truly is, concludes Anaximander, cannot possess definite characteristics, or it would come-to-be and pass away like all the other things. In order that coming-to-be shall not cease, primal being must be indefinite. The immortality and everlastingness of primal being does not lie in its infinitude or its inexhaustibility, as the commentators of Anaximander generally assume, but in the fact that it is devoid of definite qualities that would lead to its passing. Hence its name, “the indefinite.” Thus named, the primal being is superior to that which comes to be, insuring thereby eternity and the unimpeded course of coming-to-be. This ultimate unity of the “indefinite,” the womb of all things, can, it is true, be designated by human speech only as a negative, as something to which the existent world of coming-lo-be can give no predicate. We may look upon it as the equal of the Kantian Ding an sick…“Rather, when he saw in the multiplicity of things that have come-to-be a sum of injustices that must be expiated, he grasped with bold fingers the tangle of the profoundest problem in ethics. He was the first Greek to do so. How can anything pass away which has a right to be?”

–Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, p. 47-8.


It may strike some as odd; this return to the ‘pre-Platonics’ as a means to comprehend the philosophical and historical constitution of the problem of space and time in relation to thought. However, as we will see below, by reminding ourselves of what Nietzsche valorized in his reading of the pre-Platonic thinkers we will better understand the way in which space and time remain metaphysically distinct and yet mutually condition the other’s actualization. Namely, the reality of space and the reality of time are the cause of the unification of reality and not the principle of the unity of reality as such. And it is precisely this difference between that which is a cause of unification and that which is the principle of unity that is present with Nietzsche’s reading of Anaximander and Heraclitus. As will be shown, both space and time can be legitimately said to cause unity without claiming that it is due to the primacy of space over time, or the primacy of time over space, that defines the principle of unity – or the requirements that need to be met in order for unity to be actualized.

I). The Ethical Question Behind Every Question of Metaphysics

To begin, two quotes from Nietzsche bear citing since they illuminate the way that Heraclitus himself addressed the same problem that concerned Anaximander but in a more sophisticated manner. Nietzsche writes the following:

“Rather, when he [Anaximander] saw in the multiplicity of things that have come-to-be a sum of injustices that must be expiated, he grasped with bold fingers the tangle of the profoundest problem in ethics. He was the first Greek to do so. How can anything pass away which has a right to be?” (p. 48).

“…he puts a question to all creatures: “What is your existence worth? And if it is worthless, why are you here? Your guilt, I see, causes you to tarry in your existence. With your death, you have to expiate it. Look how your earth is withering, how your seas are diminishing and drying up; the seashell on the mountain top can show you how much has dried up already. Even now, fire is destroying your world; some day it will go up in fumes and smoke. But ever and anew, another such world of ephemerality will construct itself. Who is there that could redeem you from the curse of coming-to-be?” (p.48).

For Nietzsche, then, there are two implicit claims being made regarding the nature and structure of reality: 1). If something has a right to exist, then it must not cease to exist. 2). If something does not have a right to exist, it must cease to exist since it should not have been in the first place and it is through this finite being’s death that Time delivers its justice in accord with its impersonal and eternal nature (we have here an account of a quasi-temporal definition of natural right). Here Nietzsche’s interpretation recapitulates Anaximander’s own position without much controversy: the legitimacy regarding the existence or non-existence of a thing is determined according to the ordinance of Time-itself. In addition to the impersonal nature of the justice given through the Time of the Apeiron, the ‘ethical’ question that motivates Anaximander is interpreted as a question about the value of existence vis-á-vis the fact of finite existence.

In other words, how one answers the question ‘what value does an existent have?’ – as meaningful/valuable or meaningless/valueless –  is what determines the ‘right to exist’ in accordance with the ordinance of this Time-of-ApeironThus, we have the equation between ethics and the meaning/value of existence; where the meaning/worth of one’s life is the true concern for that branch of philosophy termed ‘ethics.’ On Nietzsche’s interpretation, if one’s existence is meaningful one can be legitimately deemed (judged/evaluated) as innocent and just, and if one’s existence is meaningless one can be legitimately deemed (judged/evaluated) as criminal and unjust. These categories of innocence and guilt are determined from the perspective of Time as such.

However, innocence and guilt are determined from the perspective of Time not because history will be our judge (that is, not because we are some how free from taking responsibility of our actions in the present since the truth and value of their consequences for humanity can only be assessed in the fullness of time). Rather, it is because the future of History as such is constituted by the act of judging, evaluating, and determining the meaning/value of existence in the present and as it relates to the past. At this juncture, Time is what determines the ethical valence of the living and the dead according to a wholly impersonal criteria.

II). Space and Time: Essentially Distinct While Mutually Conditioning 

If Anaximander is praised by Nietzsche for understanding the essentially ethical (or, as he sometimes phrases it, ‘moral’) preoccupation regarding our concern with the nature and structure of reality, it is Heraclitus who is elevated to the status of the most significant pre-Platonic since he provides us with an insight into Anaximander’s problematic; one which hinges on the relationship between what causes (or gives) order to the perpetual process of the coming-into-being and passing-out-of-being of finite things. As Nietzsche writes,

“Heraclitus achieved this [overcoming Anaximander’s aporia of the eternal coming-to-be as not having fully eliminated from existence-as-coming-into-being] by means of an observation regarding the actual process of all coming-to-be and passing away. He conceived it under the form of polarity, as being the diverging of a force into two qualitatively different opposed activities that seek to re-unite. Everlastingly, a given quality contends against itself and separates into opposites; everlastingly these opposites seek to re-unite. Ordinary people fancy they see something rigid, complete and permanent; in truth, however, light and dark, bitter and sweet are attached to each other and interlocked at any given moment like wrestlers of whom sometimes the one, sometimes the other is on top. Honey, says Heraclitus, is at the same time bitter and sweet; the world itself is a mixed drink which must constantly be stirred. The strife of the opposites gives birth to all that comes-to-be; the definite qualities which look permanent to us express but the momentary ascendancy of one partner. But this by no means signifies the end of the war; the contest endures in all eternity […] the Will to Live, which is seen as a self-consuming, menacing and gloomy drive, a thoroughly frightful and by no means blessed phenomenon. The arena and the object of the struggle is matter, which the natural forces alternately try to snatch from one another, as well as space and time whose union by means of causality is this very matter” (p. 54-56).

What is clear, in this passage, is that both space and time have a reality that is not simply subsumable, or identical, to one another. The nature of space and the nature of time are independent of the nature and reality of the other. Additionally, what we see here is what constitutes Heraclitean becoming. That is, the eternal struggle and perpetual war without end that is at the heart of the reality of things is interpreted as the mutual determination or influence that space and time have upon one another. Thus, while space and time remain essentially and qualitatively different they are actualized, or instantiated, in a co-constituting relationship. Thus, space and time are essentially distinct and logically non-identical while being existentially conditioned by their relationship to each other. Thus, when Nietzsche posits the eternal struggle as the fight over how space and time are unified by means of causality, this suggests to us that what gives order and structure to the world is how either space or time is actualized as the determining factor in-the-last-instance within a specific historical juncture, or a specific moment in the infinite process of becoming.

III). Concluding Remarks: from the Ethical to the Political

The main consequence of space and time’s contingency in terms of their existence as the cause of unity in the world, and regarding any further political analysis, is the following: at certain periods in history and under certain determinate conditions it is space (spatialization/globalization/the means of production) that acts as that which determines the reality and ordering of geopolitical life. At other moments in history and under certain determinate conditions it is time (temporalization/global synchrony/the relations of production/superstructural determination) that act as the determining and organizing factor of the reality of geopolitical life.

As Heraclitus already understood, what causes the world to be unified is the endless struggle between space and time. In other words, space and time must be understood as the cause of unification and not the principle of the unity of reality as such. Thus, both space and time can be legitimately said to cause unity without claiming that it is due to either space or time, taken as an exclusive disjunct, that serves as the principle of the unification of reality as such. Thus, what motivates Nietzsche to baptize Heraclitus as the most innocent of philosophers is this distinction between what is a cause and what is a principle for the unification of reality.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s