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.

The strange peregrination of a Latin noun: tribus from Italy to India

By guest contributor Professor Sumit Guha

This essay addresses the shifting connection between signifier and signified, word and thing, by looking at the history of an important and yet so protean sociological term: ‘tribe’. My argument is that  ‘tribe’ is a ‘fossil word’ whose content has been replaced through centuries, just as a fossil’s soft tissue has been replaced by mineral compounds. In the process, it has changed to conform with the soil where it has lain. It is these shifts and their underlying discourses that I want to present in this post. In South Asia, the term was also in recent centuries permeated by traits based on the race theories of imperial-age Europe. It has therefore acquired a different connotation in the Republic of India than it has anywhere else. I begin however with its renewed presence in American public discourse now.

Tribes are in vogue (and even in Vogue) nowadays.  Their primordial existence is invoked by journalists and academics to explain mass behavior today. This is of course not new: in the age of modernization theory (after World War II) ‘tribalism’ was frequently invoked to explain the political behavior of ‘not yet modern’ (read non-Western) peoples. Modernization would dissolve all that. John Locke wrote that in the beginning, all was as America: Francis Fukuyama that in the end all would be. History has proved more complex, and back in the USA, ‘tribalism’ is the word of the day. Nations disintegrate and states fail, but ‘Tribalism’ has frequently invoked ever since the U.S. election of 2016 to explain political behavior.

I will show how the same word has come to have distinct referents within and outside the modern Republic of India. As an exercise in the history of ideas, I will look at how and why this came about by bringing to light the racial theories in which the Indian understanding originated.

is well known, tribus is an old Latin noun, originally applied to the divisions of the people by the ancient Romans. It has been suggested that it was originally a compound meaning ‘the three peoples’ or ‘three orders’, though the number of Roman tribes later increased to over thirty. The word entered many European languages during the medieval period. In English we find it in a 1752 thesaurus, and it was used (from Hebrew) as a name for the twelve divisions of the people of Israel as described in Exodus and elsewhere.

After 1510, the Portuguese controlled all sea-borne European access to the Indian Ocean  for almost a century. Asian ships largely sailed under stringent conditions that came with Portuguese permits. The Portuguese arrived at the beginning of the print revolution in the West. Western knowledge of Asia was mediated through Portuguese (and for the learned, Latin). Portuguese became a lingua franca around the littoral. The British commander Robert Clive addressed his Indian soldiery in that language in 1757.  The social category of tribe (tribus) was however, little used by the Portuguese despite their Latin heritage. Other than ‘casta’ – a sociological term common to both Portuguese and Spanish empires–communities were usually called. Both terms referred to ‘people’ in the loosest sense of the term.

But the word ‘tribe’ was early employed by the major South Asian colonial power: Britain. That usage likely came from literate Protestants’ familiarity with the English Bible. But it was still loosely used to mean an ethno-political  grouping. We therefore find great nomenclatural confusion in early English documents. The English East India Company took over the formerly Portuguese-ruled island of Bombay in 1665 and a few years later the governor wrote to his superiors that there were several different ‘nations’ (also described as ‘orders or tribes’) inhabiting the . (I have modernized his orthography by expanding abbreviations; all emphases added.)

[I]n order to preserve the Govern[ment] in constant regular method, free from that confusion which a body composed of so many nations will be subject to, it were requisite [that] [the] severall nations at pres[ent] inhabiting or hereafter to inhabit on the Island of Bombay be reduced or modelled into so many orders or tribes, & that each nation may have a Cheif (sic) or Consull of the same nation appointed over them by the Gover[nor] and Councell…

The distinctive twentieth-century anthropological use of ‘tribe’ and ‘caste’ was still absent as late as the 1820s. For example, in 1823, Thomas Marshall reporting to the Government of Bombay, wrote of one district: ‘the Weavers are either of the tribe of Lingayut [a religious community] or of another Kanaree tribe called Hutgur …’ (p.18). Today both of these would be classified as ‘castes’. He went on ‘the tribe of Bunyas [ a generic term for all Hindu and Jain merchant castes] educated to reading and accompts being unknown here ..’ (p.24).

To add to the confusion, any descent group could also be labeled ‘race’ – so Marshall writes that ‘a respectable Mahratta [today both an ethnonym and a caste-name] (to which race the institution is confined) …’ (p.83). From North India in the same period we find two Muslim communities self-classified as Sheikh [Arabic ‘chief’; used in India by many Muslims as a status label and Sayyad [descendant of the Prophet] referred to as races: ‘The village is divided into two [sections], corresponding with the two races (sic) by which it is occupied …’ This ethnographic looseness had however little administrative effect. (I have discussed English nineteenth century usage of ‘race’ elsewhere.)  Its practical unimportance is why it was allowed to persist. But some officials realized that tribal organization could frame political life in some parts of Southern Asia. Once social categories became administrative ones it became necessary to label clearly and describe exactly.

Mountstuart Elphinstone, one of Marshall’s superior officers in Bombay (later Governor there) and realized the sociopolitical importance of sociological clarity during his visit to the then Eastern Afghanistan in 1808-10. (Shah Shuja refused him permission to go further than Peshawar but he indefatigably interviewed travelers, merchants, Afghan immigrants into India and others when compiling his account.  I have discussed Elphinstone in a recent publication.)  He noted the centrality of ‘tribal’ organization to the political life of the region and this led him to try and label it accurately. So he wrote (all emphases added):

I beg my readers to remark, that hereafter, when I speak of the great divisions of the Afghauns, I shall call them tribes ; and when the component parts of a tribe are mentioned with reference to the tribe, I shall call the first divisions clans : those which compose a clan, Khails, &c, as above. But when I am treating of one of those divisions as an independent body, I shall call it Oolooss, and its component parts clans, khails, &c, according to the relation they bear to the Oolooss, as if the latter were a tribe. Khail is a corruption of the Arabic word Khyle, a band or assemblage ; and Zye, so often affixed to the names of tribes, clans, and families, means son, and is added as Mac is prefixed by the [Scots]Highlanders.

(Oolooss/ulus was a term popularized across the 13th century Mongol Empire to refer to an aggregate of tribe and their grazing domain.)

Elphinstone wrote of the founder-king, King Ahmed Shah Durrani (ruled 1747-1772), that he had been wise enough to know that it would need less exertion to conquer all the neighboring countries (i.e. Elphinstone’s ‘great divisions’) of Afghanistan. Ahmed Shah founded a state that, while designated a monarchy, functioned as a confederation of tribes and chiefdoms (khanates) held together by the Shah’s redistribution of tribute and plunder from the region extending from western Uttar Pradesh to the Khyber Pass. In the nineteenth century, British and Russian arms and subsidies enabled the kings to acquire more authority. But that broke down with the overthrow of the monarchy and then of all settled government in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Over much of the world therefore, “tribe” has generally referred to strong organizations, often possessing much latent military power. Nor should we view this as a situation confined to specific regions of West Asia or North Africa. Decades ago, Owen Lattimore provocatively suggested that from their beginnings, civilizations gave birth to the barbarian tribes that they then sought to subdue or to exclude, and by whom they were periodically conquered. Tribes (he argued) emerged out of simple bands of foragers or farmers because emerging empires preyed upon small unorganized communities for slaves, encroached on their territories, or sought to incorporate them as servile peasants.

afridi tribesmen

Afridi tribesmen, 1878, from Wikimedia Commons

Tribes might also take shape out of conquering war-bands. The area northeast of Delhi, for example (now known as Rohilkhand), lost its medieval name (Katehar) in the eighteenth century as warrior-bands called Rohilla displaced the local Katehriya Rajput gentry that had tenaciously resisted the power of Delhi from the thirteenth century. The Rohillas in turn, maintained the local tradition of resistance to central power well into the British colonial period. But there was no original Rohilla tribe in Afghanistan. As Jos Gommans has demonstrated in his contribution to the volume for D.H.A. Kolff, the early Indian Rohillas had themselves assembled a ‘tribal’ community out of various Afghan war bands and miscellaneous local slaves drawn into the following of Daud Khan, a horse-trader turned soldier of fortune turned tribal chieftain.

‘Tribe’ is an important category in modern South Asia, especially in the Republic of India. Nandini Sundar, an important Indian academic recently published a valuable edited volume on the 100 million-plus people classed as members of ‘Scheduled Tribes’ in India. This part of the post only looks at the origins of this term and the evolution of its unusual usage in the India, one so distinct from that in other parts of the Old World.

The Republic has followed a late colonial classification, one that began by defining ‘tribes’ as This strain of thought originated in late colonial times and derived from the now abandoned effort to apply geological models of stratification to contemporary social organization. We find it exemplified in the work of the missionary ethnographer John Wilson. It was transferred to the hilly forests of Central India by the British official Charles Grant who also incorporated the emerging “Nordic” and “Aryan race” theory.

The rise of nationalism and its critiques of colonial rule increasingly irked the British imperial government. One of the ideological responses was to argue that various Indian communities needed the benevolent protection of the Empire against the oppressions of other Indians, especially those critical of the Empire. This discourse naturally gravitated to the communities already declared to be . By the early twentieth century that led to special protection for such peoples and thus began the movement towards a conception of tribes as composed of simple, timid and primitive peoples whose special traits made them deserving of protection by the British government of India. As I have written elsewhere, the government wanted to counter nationalist agitations by presenting itself as the protector of the simple aborigines against oppression by their fellow-Indians. One effect of this was the creation of ‘excluded areas’ beyond the inner frontiers, where ordinary law and civil process did not operate and the executive had wide powers. The separate existence of such areas was gradually terminated after Indian independence, but special measures of affirmative action were enshrined in the new Constitution (1950).

However, the defining traits of ‘tribal’ communities were taken from colonial ethnography. Thus India’s tribes are defined and have been officially defined since at least the 1960s in ways detailed in Sundar’s Introduction to her book. Megan Moodie recently pointed out that “shyness” was an important identifying trait. This has had real-world consequences for communities seeking inclusion in this category. For example, the failure of the Gurjar or Gujar community of northern India to display the necessary traits led a judicial commission appointed by the Government of Rajasthan to deny them entry into the list of Scheduled Tribes for that state.  That commission reiterated the conclusions of an earlier report submitted to the government on 20 August 1981, which had said of them: “They are fairly well-off and suffer from no shyness of contact with people of other castes. Also, they do not have any primitive traits (for them) to be considered for inclusion in [Scheduled Tribe] ”.

Thus the same sociological term has radically different meanings. A few hundred miles west of the Indian border, adjoining Afghanistan, lies what was (until recently) known as  Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). Its residents have never been known for shyness or timidity: indeed, quite the opposite. It is here that we find the direct descendants of the ‘tribes’ that Elphinstone observed in 1810. Two hundred years later, they are still political and military communities that play a major part in the public life of Afghanistan and, to a lesser degree of Pakistan.

Sumit Guha is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin. He is indebted to Derek O’Leary for two careful readings and many good suggestions.