Jared Brandon Sacks | Nietzsche as Metaphor: Thinking Against a Petrified Canon

Nietzsche and Metaphor is Sarah Kofman’s attempt at a “Nietzschean reading of Nietzsche” (Kofman 1993, p.xxii)⁠. Whereas a significant amount of work on his thought is concerned with his larger ideas (Übermensch, Eternal Return, etc), Kofman’s is a primarily textual analysis that deals with and deconstructs the metaphorical nature of Nietzsche’s thought and how it is put into practice in his writing. In her work, then, the metaphor is seen as having a “strategic status” (1993, p.xv)⁠, one that sees concepts as merely a collection of metaphors. If, however, we take Kofman’s thinking to its logical conclusion, then the idea of Nietzsche himself should be understood as a metaphor. This would then foreground the problem of the intellectual canon and how Nietzsche’s writings have become “petrified” to use Harcourt’s (2017)⁠ formulation, a form of rigid and jailed thought that discourages creativity and freedom. Breaking this is a necessary precursor to systematically challenging hierarchies of thought.


One of the key themes of Kofman’s book is the deconstruction of metaphors. She seeks to do this by showing what Nietzsche’s writing is and does. Rather than simply being a call to poetry as a response to science (as Aimé Césaire had argued), she instead asserts that “philosophy, if it is not science, is not poetry either” (1993, p.1)⁠. To be true to Nietzsche, then, Kofman advocates that philosophy be a new kind of writing that breaks with traditional genealogies and methodologies. This is a call for more than just creativity within the limits of already existing theoretical structures, but rather for a rupture with these boundaries. It is a repudiation of theoretical teleologies. Instead, as Nietzsche put it, “I came to my truth by diverse paths and in diverse ways: it was not upon a single ladder that I climbed to the height where my eyes survey my distances…For the way – does not exist!” (Nietzsche 2003, p.213)⁠. In other words, Kofman via Nietzsche is calling for an anti-dogmatism, a form of theoretical pluralism.


The other side of this theme is that, while the metaphors may be new and the methods (the art and style of writing) may vary, the root of the ideas on which they’re based remain the same. Richard Deming’s essay on “Strategies for Overcoming” points this out: “Ultimately”, quoting Nietzsche in Ecce Homo, “no one can extract from things, books included, more than he already knows” (2004, p.65)⁠. He goes on further to explain that a reader cannot understand and therefore cannot hear something which they do not already know in some fashion. For this reason it is “the books that really read us” (2004, p.65)⁠. As Deming notes, Kofman observes something similar in Nietzsche and Metaphor: “we can discover in a text only what we ourselves are but were unaware of” (1993, p.116)⁠. Concepts are based upon metaphors, which themselves only representations of a “substratum” of pleasure and pain – which are universally the same for all people (1993, p.7)⁠.


The activist and poet, Audre Lorde has taken this view further:

Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves, along with the renewed courage to try them out…For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt... (2007, pp.24–25)⁠.

Lorde here was thinking parallel to Nietzsche: “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought” (2007, p.33)⁠.[1] Like Nietzsche, this essay of Lorde’s recognises the limitations of thought, critiques the enlightenment concept of progress, and ultimately shows that modernity is farcical if it is based on such a teleological point of view. Rather, there are multiple, non-hierarchical paths which can be extrapolated and which we can feel and understand in new ways.


However, despite being an anti-establishment thinker whose ideas attempt to resist a more reified attempt at philosophy, over the years Nietzsche’s thought itself has become petrified. Within academia, intellectual circles and the like, the way we treat Nietzsche has not been true to Nietzsche in the sense that we have turned his thought into a mode of evaluation, categorisation and management of ideas – to channel Foucault (1972)⁠ . Critique of enlightenment ideas have turned into the affirmation of alternative hegemonic spaces, such as that of the university. Contributing to Nietzsche’s reification, one reviewer of Kofman’s book asserted that we must see him as “the self-conscious heir of the radical tradition of the Enlightenment” (Caygill 2017, p.553)⁠. Yet, Nietzsche himself wrote in such a way that rubbished the concept of the Enlightenment itself. Kofman, likewise, would prefer to deconstruct the idea of a “radical tradition” rather than give it any currency.


In order to be true to Nietzsche, it is perhaps better to see him as a metaphor – but one that resists its petrification. Deming quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as saying that “every thought’s a prison”. Again, thinking metaphorically, he interprets this “to be expressing a fear that once a thought coalesces as the language by which it might be articulated, its potentiality is circumscribed and delimited by the problems of discourse” (Deming 2004, p.64)⁠. Acknowledging that thought gravitates towards reification by seeing Nietzsche as a metaphor, one can then open up various emancipatory possibilities.


How can we attempt to work towards this? A place to start can be the rejection of genealogies of thought, intellectual canons and the imposition of universals on others. Kofman sought to do this with regards to writing: “Thus it is as vain to seek to impose a canonical model on writing as it is futile to seek to legislate universally in morality: each must do only what he can” (1993, p.3)⁠. However this is equally true of other expressions of thought – even if not necessarily written down. We need to advocate new forms of writing and new symbols (Kofman 1993, pp.6, 101)⁠, a plurality in which each person can express their relationship to society in their own way which does not become confined within hegemonic canons (or counter-hegemonic ones for that matter). This would be a valuing and concentration on the decentring of thought, of knowledge, and of writing thereby disrupting and displacing already existing authorities while resisting the creation of new ones.


However, this means dissenting from Kofman and Nietzsche is two important ways. Firstly, it requires the recognition of the creative and emancipatory potential of collective forms of thought and the tempering of individualism which is bound up with the very hierarchies which need to be disrupted. This is not a call for a Leninist subordination to ‘democratic centralism’. Nor is it an encouragement of populist forms of governance or what many call a ‘herd-mentality’. Rather, a decentred way of thinking collectively would explicitly value the importance of each individual thinking deeply with the collective. Much of this already happens through the flowering that is created in resistance to the status quo; yet it is usually roundly dismissed in elite spheres as the ‘irrationality’ of ‘unthinking masses’. Still, this is the kind of thinking that resists petrification because it happens outside the institutionalisation of capital and the state.


This leads to the second objection to Kofman and Nietzsche: that it is important, in fact necessary, to write in ways that are understood and engaged with beyond a narrow elite. Near the end of Nietzsche and Metaphor, Sarah Kofman writes the following:

However, to write while displacing the habitual meaning of metaphors, to write outside the norms of the concept, like a ‘madman’, is to risk not being understood — to want not to be understood — by the heard, by common sense…Thus it is Nietzsche’s fate to be ‘misheard’ (1993, p.112).

However, Kofman further points out that when Nietzsche argues for “wanting to stay ‘clean’ [‘propre’] and not mixing with the populace” (1993, p.112)⁠, his language is one that “parodies” aristocratic obsession with purity and mixing. While this may be true and while Nietzsche’s voice is is certainly a mockery and critique of elite society, he remains committed to a “metaphorical style that is ‘aristocratic’” (1993, p.112)⁠. The acceptance here, by Kofman, of the kind of insularity and parochialism in engagement with others who are different than oneself, is not only problematic, but also dangerous. Not necessarily in the purist fashion (that borders on fascism) which Nietzsche is opposing, but in the way such an approach attempts to withdraw entirely from society and the idea of the ‘public’. In “discouraging the common” (1993, p.114)⁠, Kofman and Nietzsche are denying the necessity of human sociality and solidarity. In this way, they are not only denying hierarchical relationships but also horizontal ones.


It is only as someone from a privileged position, as a member of the aristocratic classes, that insularity and withdrawal become possible. Nietzsche’s flirtations with living a lifestyle of a hermit portrays a certain privilege which few people are able to achieve. This is why the popular classes have to engage collectively: thinking, speaking, and writing in ways that are understood broadly. Kofman’s asserts that “it is not the fault of the ‘author’ if his aphorisms fail to be understood” (1993, p.116)⁠. While the question of fault may be too prescriptive here, it is a question of privilege if one does not need to be understood. For the popular classes, it is, rather, a necessity. Further, it is also possible to be understood in a real practical everyday sense – even if one is writing in aphorisms. Frantz Fanon’s assertion is instructive: “Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you really want them to understand” (Fanon 1963, p.189)⁠. This in itself is an attack on hierarchy and an assertion the all people can and do think deeply.


If then, we are to see, not only Nietzsche as a metaphor, but all forms of thought as a collection of them; and if we are to attempt a decentring of thought, speech and writing that resists its reification and attempts to “dance” with others; we must recognise too that this as a social dance, one that cannot be done alone without communication and understanding. This is the challenge of going beyond Nietzsche and making the metaphor radically meaningful.









Caygill, H., 2017. Nietzsche and Metaphor by Sarah Kofman and Duncan Large; Nietzsche by Michael Tanner. The Philosophical Quarterly, 46(185), pp.35–37.

Deming, R., 2004. Strategies for Overcoming: Nietzsche and the Will to Metaphor. Philosophy and Literature, 28(1), pp.60–73.

Fanon, F., 1963. The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press.

Foucault, M., 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse of Language A.M. Sheri., New York: Pantheon Books.

Harcourt, B., 2017. Nietzsche 7/13: Sarah Kofman on 5 January 2017. In Nietzsche 13/13. Paris.

Kofman, S., 1993. Nietzsche and Metaphor D. Large, ed., London: The Athlone Press.

Lorde, A., 2007. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, New York: Ten Speed Press.

[1]            I do not, here, want to fetishise the contention that one cannot learn from books as it is clear that none of these thinkers have meant to essentalise the claim. Instead, I would argue that they are all speaking poetically in the sense that, there being no new ideas, is an attempt at deconstructing questions around reading, learning and progress.

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