German history

From the Rational Animal to the Metaphorical Animal: Max Müller, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Metaphor in 19th Century German Thought

By Contributing Editor Andrew Hines

The theme of the relationship between language and rationality has resurfaced as of late. This is not in the least due to concerns about “post-truth” that have emerged from a political landscape in which rhetoric takes on a life of its own, divorced from the necessity of facts or rational argumentation. Some commentators have suggested the blame lies with twentieth century French thinkers such as Lyotard or Derrida. I am sorry to have to tell the reader that the re-evaluation of language’s relationship to rationality is much older. While post-war French philosophy has undoubtedly had a dramatic influence on the trajectory of Western thought, its relevance to the relationship between rationality and language is part of a longer story that goes beyond radical developments in cafés on the Parisian left bank.

One particularly poignant chapter of this story is the transformation of the West’s view of the relationship between rationality and metaphor in 19th century German thought. Metaphor, the device of figurative language which Aristotle famously described as “the application of a word that belongs to another thing”(1457b), was given a distinct relationship to reason in the Enlightenment by Hobbes and Locke. They recognized metaphor’s power to persuade, but for them such persuasion operated in all of the wrong ways. While they believed that metaphor had entertainment value as a poetic device, they also believed it should be avoided in rational argumentation because it was illusory and led one’s thinking away from the truth (26, 36; 372). Other Enlightenment thinkers, such as Vico and Rousseau, were more charitable but metaphoric expression and rational thought were still viewed as distinct categories.

What is startling about 19th century German thought is the way in which this distinction was transformed. We could cite many episodes in this story such as Gustav Gerber’s distinct understanding of Lautbild (a phonetic or articulated image) or Heymann Steinthal’s notion of linguistic relativism. But one episode in particular encapsulates the transition from the view of the human being as the rational animal to the human being as the metaphorical animal: the influence of Max Müller on Friedrich Nietzsche.

This transition was set against a backdrop in which various 19th century German thinkers were grappling with the implications of Schlegel’s historical comparative method and Christian Gottlob Heyne’s and Friedrich August Wolf’s approach to language. In this approach art, religion, customs, and usage were considered equally important to the mechanics of grammar. Thus, as Benedetta Zavatta has put it, some thinkers in this period had an ‘anthropological interest’ in language because they viewed language “in relation to the man who speaks it”(285). This “anthropological interest” interest in language reframed the question about the relationship between language and rationality. Why? Because it allowed space to question the ability to judge between rationality and the aspects of language, deemed, from the perspective of thinkers like Hobbes and Locke, as productions of poetic fancy, such as metaphor.

Müller is significant because while he is widely known for his assertion that mythology was a “disease of language,” it is less recognized that metaphor is in fact central in this notion (129 – 130). This reminds us that, for Müller, metaphors play a central role in the formation of abstract concepts. Yet, as we shall see, it also shows us that Müller is still firmly committed to a distinction between metaphor and reason where one can judge between the two.

In Müller’s Lectures on the Science of Language, he called language “the one great barrier between the brute and man… Language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to pass it” (392). This quotation reflected Müller’s anthropological interest in language and how he held on to language as a demarcation of what it meant to be a human being. When a human being used language, from Müller’s perspective, he or she used language as a rational being that is distinct from the irrationality of animals. This commitment to the human being as the rational animal also appeared in Müller’s famous notion of mythology as a ‘disease of language’.

The phrase “disease of language” referred to Müller’s suggestion that key features in a myth, such as the name of a god, were metaphorical descriptions of natural phenomena. However, these metaphors were imbued with anthropomorphism and over time become more substantial. One example of this can be seen in Müller’s long essay “Comparative Mythology.” There he wrote about the gendered nouns in Greek or Sanskrit. He said that because of these gendered nouns it was ‘simply impossible to speak of morning or evening, of spring and winter, without giving to these conceptions something of an individual, active, sexual and at last personal character’ (72–73).  Gendered nouns inevitably anthropomorphized their subject because they projected a human characteristic – gender – onto natural phenomena like morning or spring.

Müller famously generalized this idea to show the way that language works in the creation of mythology. He wrote, “Mythology…is in truth a disease of language. A myth means a word, but a word which, from being a name or an attribute, has been allowed to assume a more substantial existence. Most Greek, Roman, Indian and other heathen gods are nothing but poetical names, which were gradually allowed to assume a divine personality never contemplated by their original inventors. Eos was a name of the dawn before she became a goddess, the wife of Tithonos, or the dying day” (12).

As Andreas Musolff has pointed out, for Müller metaphor created a “fundamental misunderstanding” in thought (129 – 130). The reason that Müller called it a misunderstanding at all, comes back to the view we have seen where Müller asserted that language was a unique human phenomenon and indicative of an underlying rational mind.  Therefore, it followed that, for Müller, “the disease of language” was apparent because there was a clear line between the natural phenomenon, the metaphor and the figurative expression used to describe it.

Nietzsche appropriated this idea in a subversive way. Nietzsche is perhaps the most famous for his critique of propositional truth via metaphor when in ‘On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense’ (1873), he wrote, “What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors…”(146). Müller became central to this famous critique when Nietzsche appropriated him to explain metaphors role in the creation of truth claims:

[Truth is] a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation…and which after they have been in use for a long time, strike a people as firmly established, canonical, and binding; truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigour, coins which, having lost their stamp, are now regarded as metal and no longer as coins (146).

When Nietzsche was trained as a philologist in Leipzig by F.W. Ritschl and Georg Curtius he encountered Müller’s work and also frequently borrowed it from the university library in Basel (273 – 274). However, while Nietzsche clearly drew on Müller’s ideas, he took them a step further when he wrote, “the intellect shows its greatest strengths in dissimulation, since this is the means to preserve those weaker, less robust individuals who, by nature, are denied horns or the sharp fangs of a beast of prey with which to wage the struggle for existence” (142).   This ‘disease of language’ as Müller would call it, was the greatest strength of the intellect according to Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, dissimulation, calling a natural phenomenon by a metaphorical description that relates to a divine personality, was not some aberration of rationality, like it was for Müller, rather, it was the greatest strength of our intellect. He uncompromisingly asserted that metaphor was the rule and law of cognition when he wrote that it was “that fundamental human drive which cannot be left out of consideration for even a second without also leaving out human beings themselves” (150–151).

This does not simply critique truth. Rather, with Nietzsche’s subversive reading of Müller, he collapsed the gap between metaphor and reason and transformed the Aristotelian rational animal, which Müller held up as the clear distinction between ourselves and animals, into something we might call, a “metaphorical animal,” as the French philosopher Sarah Kofman so poetically put in her book Nietzsche and Metaphor (1983) (25).

The intellectual-historical question this poses for us regards the trajectory of the relationship between our western conceptions of rationality and of metaphoricity. A re-evaluation of the relationship between these concepts in this period could shed light on the still murky relationship between them across a number of fields, including post-war French philosophy and cognitive metaphor theory. Politically, the question it poses to us is much more pragmatic: whether we can detect reason’s error, whether we can distinguish between dissimulation, between truth and lying is perhaps irrelevant. For as Nietzsche also wrote, while truths are simply metaphors that “strike a people as firmly established, canonical, and binding,” the fact that they strike us as canonical and binding, help us to create “peace treaties.” However relative these peace treaties may be, they help society to prevent a Hobbesian “war of all against all” and enable communication (143).  Perhaps, what matters most about metaphor in the age of post-truth is whether we want to see the world shaped by these new attempts at “peace treaties.” If not, what are the alternatives besides a nostalgic yearning for good old rationality and rhetoric that plays by the rules?

Dr. Andrew Hines studied at both the University of Oregon and the University of Tübingen, obtaining a BA in Philosophy. He also holds a MA in Philosophy from University College Dublin and a PhD in Comparative Literature from Queen Mary, University of London. His thesis was on the concept of metaphor in European philosophy after Nietzsche. A specialist in the history of metaphor theory and post-Kantian European philosophy, he is more broadly interested in the political power of language, the history of ideas, and the relation between philosophy and cognitive science. He has written for The Conversation, The Huffington Post, and Newsweek.

From the Archive: Images of History

by John Raimo (July 2016)

As often as historians and art historians talk past one another, they also come together before common problems, questions, and sources. Both groups recognize the sheer power of images. Such a moment has reappeared in intellectual history. The recent one hundred and fiftieth celebrations of Aby Warburg’s birth underscored how widely Warburg’s terminology could stretch between art and cultural history. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Patrick Boucheron take iconography as a starting point for deeper and deeper reconstructions of political and intellectual milieus. The work of art historians such as Georges Did-Huberman and Giovanni Careri follow similar patterns shuttling between contextual and formal considerations. Anthropologists too have not been far behind, finding in images the source for new methodologies across disciplines dealing with ideas both in and of history. And many museum curators do not shy away from presenting both ethical and historiographical challenges to the public in precisely this tenor, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern.

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Guerre 1939-1945. Occupation. Destruction de statues pour récupérer les métaux. La statue du marquis de Condorcet, homme politique français, par Jacques Perrin (1847-1915). Paris, 1941. JAH-REP-34-8

Four ongoing or recent exhibits in Paris also directly engage with the stakes that images—and specifically photography—hold for intellectual history today. Exhibitions dedicated to Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) at the Grand Palais, the photographers of France’s Front populaire (1936-1938) at the Hôtel de Ville, Lore Krüger (1914-2009) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, and Josef Sudek (1896-1976) at the Jeu de Paume have this much in common: their images possess immediate documentary and historical charges, intervening histories challenge any recovery of the same, and the images themselves pose different meanings—political and otherwise—in our own time. How does one reconcile these knotty realities to one another, let alone relate them to questions of sheer aesthetic value, enduring or otherwise? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the question touches at once upon the artists themselves as much as upon each show’s respective curators. Together, they answer for the most part magnificently just how ideas and patterns of thinking flow into and out from photographs.

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Seydou Keïta, Untitled (1956-1957)

Perhaps no exhibit succeeds so brilliantly as that dedicated to the Malinese photographer Keïta. Self-taught and a portraitist by trade in Bamako, Keïta carefully arranges various customers against complex cloth backdrops in plain-light settings. Several layers of history collide in what only first appear as beautiful, if straightforward portraits. Keïta’s private practice runs from 1948 to 1962, shortly after Mali achieves independence from the French colonial empire. His customers find themselves at a crossroads: both women and men dress in traditional clothing as often as in European or American fashions, often modeling themselves upon the figures of the latest films and popular magazines. A watch ostentatiously displayed, a certain hairstyle, new western clothing, or certain postures together subtly betray consciousness of new cultural models, economic statuses, and social change ranged against Keïta’s brilliantly-patterned backgrounds. Both the circumstances of the photography session and the material object—the photo itself, as the exhibit makes clear—are intended to circulate by word of mouth and hand to hand. Yet an alchemical change also occurs. Keïta’s subjects prove subjects in every sense of the term; their glances say as much, even as they slowly come to look out upon a new country.

At the same time, a personal iconography emerges across the œuvre. Keïta’s workshop feature props (pens, glasses, flowers, and so on) that appear regularly throughout the portraits. An iconographic vocabulary similarly developed in the photographer’s carefully-choreographed poses. An uneasy sort of modernity can be teased out in the tension between these hugely personable figures, their clothing and possessions, and those objects and gestures which both they and Keïta saw fit to add to the compositions.

The art proves doubly-reflexive, looking inwards to the person and to life in Bamako as much as outwards to a rapidly changing Africa and globalization. Keïta’s own touch emerges in the gap. He arranges women into odalisque reclinings, organizes groups of civil servants into full profile portraits, and captures others at their ease wearing traditional clothing. The hindsight of a retrospective allows us to see how closely Keïta simultaneously engages European art history, the stock imagery of popular culture, and a Malinese society in transition throughout his career. The complex of ideas here reveal the subject much as the same ideas flow from the same person, the photographer himself, and finally the image in its own right.

The Front populaire exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville attains a similar achievement, albeit on a different scale. The show follows upon a burst of renewed popular and academic interest in Léon Blum’s government and the period immediately preceding WWII. What emerges in the photos of such luminaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour), Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis among other photojournalists is little less than a unified, if contested image of a society rapidly refiguring itself. Here technology proves the first hero. The portability of cameras, wide lens and higher resolution photography, and the ability to turn shots into next day’s paper gave birth to a new documentary language. Close-ups from within a crowd, odd angles, photos taken from rooftops hold their own with group portraits of politicians at ease in saloon lounges or mid-speech before thousands.

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Bastille Day demonstrations, Vincennes 1935 (©FredStein.com)

The great range or even discrepancy of Capa and company’s interests and work suggest a whole society falling at once under the same photographic lens, even as history jostles against advertisements and film stars in the daily papers. The photos appear on equal terms. Even publicity in the sense of public relations proves nascent, if not off balance. Airs of improvisation and the same-old business surround political figures like Blum and his contemporaries. Striking workers and public amusements achieve a glamour just as photographers accord the homeless and unemployed a new dignity. And slowly certain dramatic poses and compositions take on a new regularity across the exhibit. The vocabulary hardens and situations reprise themselves. New understandings of personal and sexual relationships, masculinity and femininity, and modernity itself track across the years. (One gentle criticism should be added here: it would have done well to have included far more female photographers.) What happens, as Michel Winock and others argue, is that French society comes to understand itself in images just as photographers came to learn their full historical potential—‘History’ with a capital ‘H.’

The German photographer Lore Krüger’s work confronts many of the same issues, if more obliquely. Her career and biography stagger the mind. Krüger studies photography with Florence Henri and other Bauhaus-trained photographers while attending lectures with László Rádványi in 1930s Paris, all the while absorbing the lessons of interwar avant-garde photographers (and living in the same house as Arthur Koestler and Walter Benjamin). An exile from Nazi Germany, Krüger passes through Majorca—witnessing Franco’s troops massacre Republican forces in 1936—and mainland Spain at the height of its Civil War before making her way to New York, where she and her husband work for the exile community’s German-language press. Giving up photography after the war, Krüger eventually returns to a quiet life as a translator and author in Eastern Germany before dying in 2009.

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Lore Krüger, “Jeune Gitan, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1936; © Estate of Lore Krüger)

The exhibits’ curators posthumously assemble what remained of Krüger’s photography. In their composition, lighting, and psychological reach, her work achieves a uniform excellence across still lives, landscapes, portraits of friends, and above all in her studies of interwar gypsies. The balance between all her influences is remarkable, not least as Krüger too follows in the wake of glossy magazines and photojournalism. Yet a dichotomy of sorts also arises. For every ‘political’ image or photograph taken on the street, Krüger veers to high avant-garde experimentation elsewhere. These activities both overlap and command longer periods in her work, persisting until the end of Krüger’s artistic career. Something new emerges at the same time: what might be called the private lives of an avant-garde and an artist in wartime apart from any political engagement. The exhibit’s repeated argument that Krüger’s œuvre forms a consistent whole here seems to miss a much more interesting set of questions. How do we reconstruct private intellectual life, the persistence of international movements once contacts have been severed, and the experience of artistic experimentation continued under the hardest conditions?

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Josef Sudek, “The Last Rose” (1956, Musée des Beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. 2010 © Estate of Josef Sudek)

All the same issues confront any attempt to wrangle the great, protean Czech photographer Josef Sudek into a coherent retrospective. The portraitist, the architecture and the landscape photographer, the artist of still lives, and the commercial man all jostle against one another over a career spanning the complicated histories of interwar and then communist-era Czechoslovakia. To reduce Sudek’s photography to any political (or apolitical) stance or simpler historical context would be a mistake on the same order of privileging one genre above the others. Yet the Jeu de Paume’s curators attempt something like this. Moving backwards from the interior studies, they claim a certain artistic unity which in turn drives the late Sudek into a sort of inner exile. An impression grows of intervening notions organizing a narrative: the late Romantic artist gradually finds himself confined to a window by the history beyond it, something like an uncritical reprise of Günter Gaus’s old notion of East Germany as a ‘niche society.’ This is not to say that the merits of Sudek’s work do not shine through the exhibit, or that the curators entirely mute his own thinking. The problem is rather that later ideas and contexts—historical or otherwise—drown out the images. As confidently as Keïta’s or as loudly as the Front populaire journalists’ pictures speak to audiences today, others such as Krüger’s and Sudek’s talk to historians, art historians, and all of us in much quieter tones.

Exhibitions reviewed: “Seydou Keïta,” Grand Palais (31 March to 11 July, 2016); “Exposition 1936 : le Front populaire en photographie,” Hôtel de Ville de Paris (19 May to 23 July, 2016); “Lore Krüger : une photographe en exil, 1934-1944,” Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (30 March to 17 July, 2016); Josef Sudek : Le monde à ma fenêtre,” Jeu de Paume (7 June to 25 September, 2016).