Jiwon Hahn | On Nietzsche and Metaphor

By Jiwon Hahn

In Nietzsche and Metaphor (1972), Sarah Kofman engages with Nietzsche’s text by exploring the relationship between metaphor and concept, as well as the role of language and memory, in writing and reading Nietzsche. At the very beginning of the book, Kofman ponders on the correct method of interacting with Nietzsche’s text: “Writing on Nietzsche presents a difficulty, made that much greater by writing on metaphor.”[1] Wondering whether “[speaking] conceptually of [his] uncategorizable text” would “reduc[e] it to the most traditional of philosophical categories,”[2] Kofman at first appears to provide a contrast between metaphor and concept as “mutually exclusive styles of reasoning.”[3] Nietzsche also seems to concur–especially in his early works–with the opposition, writing that philosophy is uncategorizable as science or poetry despite its usage of “the same means as science,” which is “conceptual representation,” because it is “a form of artistic invention.”[4] Kofman’s rigorous analysis of the interaction between metaphor and concept that goes beyond the simple binary illuminates Nietzsche’s text which “combin[es] all the ‘genres’ in its writing, [and] deletes all oppositions with one great burst of laughter (Kofman, 5).

In her efforts to define what is metaphor and concept as well as the relationship between them, Kofman first notes that “[m]etaphorical activity is termed instinctive because it is unconscious” and that “it could be called the general form of all drives” (25). But in contrast to what is commonly associated with the unconscious, it is not random and general, but “hereditary and specific” (25), as metaphorical activity is inherited via language and culture: “The conscious world is a language which symbolizes a text written originally by unconscious activity,” i.e. metaphorical activity (33). Consciousness consequently distorts the unconscious and instinctive, through “transposition” which is “carrying over the ‘known’ on to the unknown’” (33). As a result, language becomes both the tool of distorting the unconscious and its reservoir that preserves it as time goes by. Nietzsche’s usage of language in On the Genealogy of Morals as the archeological tool to uncover such transposition and inculcation of values supports Kofman’s thesis. Demonstration of the etymological evidence—though he appears to focus on convincing his reader more of the likely logic or nature of the psychological consequences in his genealogy than of any kind of historical evidence—Nietzsche shows how the language serves as both the evidence of dichotomy between masters and slaves and the masters’ tool to secure the black-and-white value discrimination against the slaves.[5] As a result, the distortion of the unconscious is prolonged and preserved by the language, in which originary meanings behind original metaphors have been long forgotten.

As Bernard Harcourt points out, “forgetting” (49) is the “key operative term”[6] in understanding concept in relation to metaphor chez Kofman. She writes that “the concept…plays a privileged role in the forgetting of metaphor, in that it hides the metaphorical character of the process of generalization” (35). Such a process is observed by Nietzsche’s passage on punishment in the Genealogy as Kofman points out, where the repetition of what was originally metaphorical activity has been forgotten and generalized into general concepts such as punishment and justice (II:12). Forgetting thus creates concepts by effacing original metaphors. At the same time, it becomes originaire (25) on its own, as the source of the general, communal, and non-individual. The transition thus requires “repression” of “individual metaphor [which is] dangerous to the life of the group” (36). The metaphorical activity as “the general form of all drives” (25) (emphasis added), “set[s] up as an absolute value a language which is valid only for the ‘average’ man, i.e. … no one” (36). The metaphorical activity, while the transposition of known to the unknown may be unconscious, hereditary, and individual, involves language which is by definition absolutely general to remain individual. Yet the repression of all individual meanings behind a metaphor results into generalization of meaning. As a result, while metaphor is often referred to as metaphorical activity, concept is not referred as conceptualization or otherwise to emphasize involvement of the individual consciousness or activity to create it. The transition from metaphor to concept thus ensues that of one from unconsciousness to consciousness, from individual to community, and from “no one” to everyone.

Yet the transition does not occur naturally as a result of the passage of time, unlike what one might assume from the ordinary meaning of forgetting. According to Kofman, forgetting in this context “does not occur at a specific point in time” and “does not simply apply with respect to and because of the concept” (25). Forgetting, chez Kofman, is not passive, individual and natural, but the opposite: active, communal, and artificial. It is in fact a construction of “social memory” which “goes hand in hand with the creation of responsibility, self-consciousness, and moral conscience” (43). Forgetting is thus “the product of a perspectival shift which sifts through the evaluations made from the former perspective so as to keep only what can be reconciled with the new point of view” (50). It signals and validates transvaluation, change of those in power and of their thought. Passage of time is relevant, but not sufficient on its own.

Against this force of forgetting, of changing, of new and communal meanings, arises the struggle of memory against forgetting “as an active life-force” (47). The fight between forces of forgetting and remembering can be also read in the passage of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where Nietzsche reassesses the concept of the neighbour (I:16).[7] Declaring that “[y]our love of the neighbour is your bad love of yourselves,” Zarathustra denounces the famous Christian doctrine to “love thy neighbour” by identifying its source as the lack of self-affirmation: “One man runs to the neighbour because he seeks himself, and the other because he would like to lose himself. Your bad love of yourselves makes solitude a prison for you” (I:16, 53). Communities conveniently hand over a set of pre-formed values, or concepts per Kofman, for those who cannot stand being alone as a creator of values. The old, or the Christian good, thus struggles to prolong the forgetting and the resulting concepts (I:8, 39) and the Christianity becomes the concept of Nietzsche’s era.

Nietzsche was truly “a poet” who “multiplies metaphors, repeating the traditional metaphors and attaching them to less usual ones, or pushing them to their ultimate consequences to see just where they can lead” (Kofman, 102). Considering that Nietzsche’s study extends back to the Greeks, Nietzsche’s philosophical endeavor to uncover what lies beneath the already-formed values be then categorized as struggles to remember, against forgetting. At the same time, his writing may also embody forgetting, which proposes a new system of values—a system that remembers the older past that belonged to the Greeks and transposes that glory to what is unknown or rather unknowable–the Overhuman. This is why “Kofman’s method is deconstructive” since it aims “to show how [metaphor and concept] are imbricated and function together, differently than we supposed or that they would on a simple reversal.”[8] Since Nietzsche, there may have been another series of forgetting where we have reduced metaphors such as the Overhuman and eternal recurrence into concepts, or mere caricatures of the original metaphorical activity.

But the complexity of not just Kofman’s method, but of the implications of Nietzsche’s text inevitably brings us back to the idea that Nietzsche’s philosophy is in fact “uncategorizable” (Kofman, 1) and that his is “[a] philosophy which, by combining all the ‘genres’ in its writing, deletes all oppositions with one great burst of laughter” (5). The metaphor of laughter reminds the reader of the “riddle” that immediately follows Zarathustra’s vision of eternal recurrence, where a young shepherd who bites off the snake around his neck starts to laugh (III:2:2). Zarathustra recounts: “No longer shepherd, no longer human—one transformed, illumined, who laughed! Never yet on earth had a human being laughed as he laughed!” (III:2:2, 138). While the snake visualizes the crushing idea of eternal recurrence, biting it off signifies not being cowed by it. However, laughter, more so than biting the snake off, appears to be the rite of passage from human to Overhuman. Perhaps in Kofman’s terminology, eternal recurrence is a test of absolute memory, where one has to resist relying on concepts, where one has to continue “multipl[ying] metaphors” (Kofman, 102) as Nietzsche did while always accompanying it with a laughter.



[1] Kofman, Sarah. Nietzsche and Metaphor. Trans. Duncan Large. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1983. 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Harcourt, Bernard E. “Introducing Sarah Kofman: On Metaphor, Law, and Politics.” https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/nietzsche1313/introducing-sarah-kofman-on-metaphor-law-and-politics/

[4] Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Philosopher: Reflections on the Struggle between Art and Knowledge,” in Philosophy and Truth, 3-58. 53.

[5] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic. Trans. Douglas Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. I:5.

[6] Harcourt.

[7] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Graham Parkes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[8] Harcourt.