What Nietzsche Taught Me About Definitions

There’s a tendency for people to think there is such a thing as the true definition of concepts like Christianity or socialism. I think this is a mistake. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “only something which has no history can be defined.” (Nietzsche 2006, 53) By this he meant that the reason why one can define concepts like ‘triangle’ or ‘atom’ in terms of essential and unchanging necessary and jointly sufficient conditions is that they lie outside of history and so do not vary within and between places. What a ‘triangle’ is does not change between 10th century France and 20th century Alaska. But the same is not true of concepts which are historical, in the sense of being inherently connected to and concerned with human activity, such as ‘Christianity’, ‘punishment’, or ‘socialism’. Such historical concepts are fluid changing entities because they are produced by and are about humans who are themselves constantly changing as they act and live within constantly evolving social structures.

The thoughts and actions of people are always articulated or performed within and in reaction to a particular intellectual context – such as previous texts, the inherited assumptions from previous thinkers, and contemporary texts and debates – and a given social and political context – such as the particular ways in which violence is institutionally organised, how people gain access to food, clothing and shelter, or what gender roles people are socialised into and expected to conform with. (Skinner 1978, x-xi, xiii; Wood 2011, 12) At any given historic moment different people will, in virtue of their different life experiences, social positioning, personality and other such idiosyncrasies, think and act differently in response to the same intellectual, social and political context. As a result, there will always be competing and contradictory conceptions of a historical concept since different people will disagree with one another on how the concept should be understood and will act so as to ensure that their understanding remains dominant or becomes so. For example, during the middle ages the Catholic church labelled certain versions of Christianity as heretical and used its power to marginalize and kill such heretics in order to preserve its orthodox understanding of Christianity.

Historical concepts will therefore change over time as disagreement and contestation causes some elements to arise to prominence or fade into obscurity, whole new elements to be added and other elements to be removed. What ‘Christianity’ is changed with the creation of Protestantism in 16th century Germany, and in turn changed again with the creation of televangelism in 1950s north America. Historical concepts are therefore not static or coherent unified bodies of thought. They are rather a constellation of disparate elements which undergo changes over time as the humans who produce them change, influence one another, and come into conflict with one another.

Given this, definitions of historical concepts do not and cannot fix what the concept can or will mean for the rest of history. What a concept is taken to mean is itself a product of history and contestation between different people. The best we can expect from a definition is that it provides a snapshot of how the concept is understood by particular people at a given moment of its development. Such a definition may be rendered incomplete by unexpected developments, or may work very well for understanding a certain version of the concept, while also not neatly fitting a certain other historical iteration of the concept.

To avoid being misunderstood I shall now specify what I am not saying in advocating this position. Firstly, I am not saying that historical concepts have no beginning or no boundaries. Christianity has undergone constant change but it is still the case that it developed during the 1st Century AD and so did not exist in the Palaeolithic era or in the 5th Century BCE. Likewise, Christianity may be a constellation of disparate elements but it is nonetheless distinct from the religion of the Aztecs due to it being composed of different elements. Were what is called Christianity to undergo such dramatic change that it was entirely unrecognizable, such as denying that Jesus or God existed, then it would no longer be Christianity in the previous sense even though it would be what people now considered Christianity.

Secondly, I do not think that all definitions are equally good. If one were to define Christianity as a religion which believes in a single God then one would be failing to construct a useful definition. Defining Christianity in this manner both includes belief systems which should be excluded, such as other monotheistic religions like Islam, and fails to specify the distinct elements which compose Christianity historically and within modern society, such as the belief in the divinity of Jesus.

Thirdly, just because somebody wishes to call themselves a Christian, or an anarchist or a socialist doesn’t mean that we have to respect their wishes. What historical concepts mean are produced in part through contestation and this contestation includes some people defining the boundaries of the concept and in so doing excluding other people. It is therefore perfectly consistent with my view to argue that anarcho-capitalists are not anarchists or that Stalinists are not socialists. In making this claim I am not appealing to some universal essentialist definition of these concepts. Instead I am merely arguing, for example, that if by socialism we mean workers owning and controlling the means of production then it follows that Stalinists are not socialists since they oppose worker self-management. In so doing I am performing the action of contesting their definition of socialism. I do this in the hope that other people will come to recognise that Stalinists should not be considered socialists and thereby cause the elements which compose the concept of socialism at this moment in history to exclude advocates of totalitarianism. Doing this is not only consistent with my viewpoint but is the very kind of action that it places special emphasis on, namely, what words mean being determined by conflict and contestation between opposed groups.

Bibliography

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2006. On the Genealogy of Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Skinner, Quintin. 1978. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Volume One: The Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wood, Ellen Meiksins. 2011. Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought From Antiquity to the Middle Ages. London: Verso.

My understanding of Nietzsche’s views on definitions comes from reading:

Hatab, Lawrence. 2008. Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 97-99.
Geuss, Raymond. 2001. History and Illusion in Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 6-8, 69-72
Geuss, Raymond. 1999. Morality, Culture and History: Essays on German Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 9-14.

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