Issue #10 January 2018

Nietzsche and Freud on The Subject as Territory

The image of the subject Nietzsche offers in his cursory sketches here is one of a pandemonium of competing drives and forces, each vying for control. This appears to hold true at both the micro level (in a single act of willing) and at the macro level (entire epochs being defined as the ascendency, or configurations, of certain, large scale drives). At bottom all of this tumultuous activity is so many diffractions of the will to power: Nietzsche’s contribution to fundamental ontology. In the place of the Kantian psychology of the deduction of the transcendental categories, Nietzsche calls for us “to grasp psychology as morphology and the doctrine of the development of the will to power” (BGE.23).

However, let’s say we are to take up this project, persuaded by Nietzsche’s problematization of the transcendental subject (the Cogito is not certain after all, the will may be complex, etc) until we are forced to admit that what we held closest and firmest may be the flimsiest and most ghostly, a question still remains: how has this grand deception come about? That is, what is it that generates these “ego” illusions, the division between subject and object, the attractive mirage of transcendental certainties, so obstinately? The development of these illusions is a key part of any “doctrine of the development of the will to power”. The quick response, attested to all over Nietzsche’s writings, is language and consciousness (GS.354, BGE.268, HatH.11, GM1.13) and morality (especially a morality’s need to find guilty and responsible) (GM2.1–2). However, such indications are only a beginning, we’re still left with the question of how these things could have fabricated the division.

It’s in the treatment of this question that the resources of Freud’s metapsychology become useful in filling in certain gaps in Nietzsche’s picture. Truthfully, Nietzsche does have his answers to this question, which we will explore in the following section — however, Nietzsche’s aims seem predominately preoccupied in giving consistent accounts of how transcendental objects could have evolved. These accounts, if we are to take them literally as explanations, rather than counter examples to claims of necessity, make certain empirical claims of an anthropological and archaeological type. Accordingly they hinge on the evidence as it comes to light.

But we do a disservice to Nietzsche’s insight if we take his historical accounts (in The Genealogy of Morality, for example) as pure anthropology. Where his brilliance lies is in discovering possibilities for how the illusion of “transcendentality” could emerge organically from the immanent, with the particular accounts being more suggestive, thematic, theoretical or illustrative.

Freud on Subject Formation

Where Freud becomes of use is his systematic treatment of the process of subject formation, within a Nietzschean atmosphere, in the life span of a single individual, whereas Nietzsche often speaks in terms of the broadest trends of cultural history.

I’ll here sketch out the pertinent points of Freud’s theory of the developmental ontogeny of the subject. This will necessarily gloss over a few details, but I merely aim to pull out the key Nietzschean connections.

Firstly, in On Negation, Freud tells us that “the opposition between subjective and objective does not exist from the start” (Freud, 2005, p.91). This division not existing, neither subject nor object can meaningfully be spoken of. The “start” here refers to the infant; in Freud’s theory the infant is coextensive with the biological and physical forces that comprise its body and integrate it into its environment.

Then, the first inkling of the division is worked out:

We learn how to distinguish between the internal, which belongs to the ego, and the external, which comes from the world outside, through deliberate control of our sensory activity and appropriate muscular action.” (Freud, 2002, p.6)

We need to take care on this point. Freud here seems to be reading categories that are in the process of genesis back into the beginnings of that process: it’s through the “deliberate control of our sensory activity and appropriate muscular action” that any discernment between there being a subject and object at all are engendered. So, it’s not entirely accurate to say there is an ‘internal’ that belongs to an ego, and an ‘external’ that belongs to the world that are discovered. Freud is more precise on this in The Ego & The Id, where he associates the ego in its beginning purely with this originary distinction:

“the ego is that part of the id that has been altered by the direct influence of the external world as mediated by Pcpt-Cs [conscious perception]; in a sense it is an extension of the process of surface differentiation.”(Freud, 2003, pg.116)

And then:

“(the ego) is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface.”(Ibid, pg.117)

That is to say, of all of the forces and activity within an organism, a difference is discovered between, on the one hand, perceptions and muscle movements (which are everywhere linked; unlike birds, few of us possess the ability to move our body while keeping our visual field stationary), and those forces and events that seem disconnected from muscular modulation. This distinction forms a projected surface, a skin, which eventually develops into the ego of psychoanalysis.

Once this “skin” has developed, then items are either projected outwards, or introjected inwards. That is to say, the subject arranges the world vis-à-vis a surface that will ultimately be denoted as “I”.

Kant was aware of this process (that some mental contents (empirical intuitions) needed to be “projected out” into a representation of space). He writes:

“They [outer representations] possess, however, this illusory property that, since they represent objects in space, they detach themselves, as it were, from the soul and hover outside it; yet the space itself in which they are intuited is nothing but a representation — ” (Kant, 2007, A386)

However, in seeing in the division between the inner and outer senses the formal division of space and time, given transcendentally a priori, Kant misses the active and creative force of this “illusory property” that in projecting things outwards, also engenders an inwards, as well as the distinction. Freud, despite still very much within the logic of “mental representations”, with his emphasis on biological surfaces and topography introduces a dynamism to Kant’s picture. For example, of these representations seemingly “hovering outside the soul” it is possible to pluck one out of the air, and swallow it, thus incorporating it back into the soul:

“The outside world is divided up into a pleasurable part, which (the ego) incorporates into itself, and the rest, which is alien to it. It also separates off a part of its own self, which it projects into the outside world and perceives as hostile.” (Freud, 2005, p.27)

That is, for the infant the surface of the “I” originally incorporates all sources of pleasure, as distinct from mere indifferent representations; it literally tries to eat them (as one very direct means of incorporating them into itself). Then, its own unpleasurable sensations it projects out into the world. I’ve intimated before that one could argue that it is these sensations of displeasure being attributed to the world that gives the overall completed “world projection” its spatiality and temporality (space and time being, originally, the largest obstacles for infantile drive satisfaction, and thus causes of displeasure).

Now, for Freud this active power of projection is instrumental in the development of our sense of the world:

“The projection outwards of internal perceptions is a primitive mechanism, to which, for instance, our sense perceptions are subject, and which therefore normally plays a very large part in determining the form taken by our external world.” (Freud, 1990, pg.80)

However, because the results of the process are not given a priori, the precise outcome of what is projected, what is introjected, and what the skin of the I incorporates, is not a foregone certainty:

“Under conditions whose nature has not yet been sufficiently established, internal perceptions of emotional and intellective processes can be projected outwards in the same way as sense perceptions; they are thus employed for building up the external world, though they should by rights remain part of the internal world.” (ibid)

Putting aside Freud’s curmudgeonly question of “rights”, it should be clear that insofar as the subject-object division, the inside and the outside, is something produced through the subject’s development, on the run so to speak, then it is just as likely that there is variation between individuals, and between peoples, as to what constitutes the subject, and accordingly what constitutes the world. In Totem and Taboo (1990), for example, Freud presents a theory of ghosts being a sense of “guilt” (as a reliable component of mourning) placed ‘outside’ into the world (pg.76). Today, not believing in ghosts, we have nowhere to place this negative feeling but within ourselves. Perhaps mourning today is harder because of this, or perhaps easier; the key point is that it is fundamentally different, not just in its particular quality, but even in the site of where it takes place — its position vis-à-vis the body surface. Most sensations that we today think of as “inner” possess the possibility of this ambiguity of location. Pure visual sensations, on the contrary, are, for the most part, always “projected” out, because they fall most closely into the original rule of the division: amenability to muscular modulation.

From its initial division, the ego develops out of “its nucleus, the Pcpt system” (Freud, 2003, pg.115) atop the Id (the vortex of drives) “rather in the way that the germinal disc sits on the top of the egg” (ibid). It is “not sharply separated from the id, but flows down into it, such that both then merge” (ibid). It’s this lack of sharp separation that blurs the boundaries of the I, making its domain ambiguous, such that a feeling of guilty self-reproach (as may be found in mourning) can either form part of the inside, emanating from the depths of the subject, or be projected outwards into the apparition of a vengeful spirit. All that is required is a minor alteration in surface tension, a contraction, an expansion.

From this point, Freud then joins Nietzsche in that the ego is further crystallized upon this surface differentiation by the turning in of undischarged drive (most famously the unsatisfiable drives of the Oedipal drama). Nietzsche writes:

“All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward-this is what I call the internalization (Verinnerlichung) of man: thus it was that man first developed what was later called his “soul” The entire inner world, originally as thin as if it were stretched between two membranes, expanded and extended itself, acquired depth, breadth, and height, in the same measure as outward discharge was inhibited.” (GM2.16)

Freud’s analysis of this part of the process is more or less his entire oeuvre, and thus beyond the scope of this article. However, we have developed our concept of projection, and its role in distinguishing and distributing the subject’s thin beginnings across a portion of the world, establishing an inside and outside, and also indicated that owing to the active and creative nature of this process, that precisely where that line is drawn is prone to variation.

Nietzsche’s Cultural Typology

That the processes of projection, in regards to its content, is not fixed but may attribute “objectivity” to a whole host of contents is central to Nietzsche’s reading of the history of metaphysics:

“Because we have for millennia made moral, aesthetic, religious demands on the world, looked upon it with blind desire, passion or fear, and abandoned ourselves to the bad habits of illogical thinking, this world has gradually become so marvellously variegated, frightful, meaningful, soulful, it has acquired colour — but we have been the colourists: it is the human intellect that has made appearance appear and transported its erroneous basic conceptions into things.” (Nietzsche, HatH.16)

And, simply:

“The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.” (GS.130)

This making of the world such and such should not strike us now as the least bit strange — anything we find in the world is what we have projected out there. The ‘world’ itself is constituted through the originary division into subject and object, with creative and active processes assigning individual forces to one or the other side, constituting the subject as the division. These subjects, in examining the objects now before them find themselves repeated, allowing Nietzsche to point out:

“Is it any wonder that what they [the metaphysicists] rediscovered in things later is only what they had put into them in the first place?” (TIFourGreatErrors.3).

The active expression, “to put into”, is where Nietzsche departs sharply from Kant. Kant’s projection, the “illusory property”, comes necessarily through the structure of apperception. As transcendental, what finds itself as presented as being “outside” the subject is bundled in with the necessary conditions of possibility for there to be experience at all (most notably, the pure forms of sensibility). That is, the subject, in being constituted the way they are, discovers that through this constitution various features of the world have already been arranged, posited, and related: time and space, causality, objecthood. By emphasizing the active and creative process of putting into, Nietzsche emphasizes the dynamism of this process, as well as the possibility of variation.

If Freud can be seen as sketching a mechanism of the micro-processes of subject formation within a Nietzschean paradigm, it is Nietzsche that addresses the fundamental questions of the macro-processes that this formation occurs within. Freud, as a clinician, had an ideal for the ego — it’s positioning and division. During the day it was his charge to treat those cases where the division had gone “awry” (it was the study of neurosis that suggested the projection hypothesis). This pragmatic focus meant that he glimpsed only dimly what Nietzsche saw all too clearly: that these creative and active processes of subject formation had no “normal” state that they tended towards, but we’re constantly transforming. What’s more, the manner in which the inner and outer distinctions were made is a long developed cultural inheritance:

“That which we now call the world is the outcome of a host of errors and fantasies which have gradually arisen and grown entwined with one another in the course of the overall evolution of the organic being, and are now inherited by us as the accumulated treasure of the entire past — as treasure” (HatH.16)

Individual psychological pathologies, in being pathological, indicate that something has gone terribly wrong relative to an inherited “blue print” for subject formation practiced by an epoch and a people. Earnestly believing in the malevolent presence of ghosts, that is to say, projecting outward the guilty self-reproaches of mourning, for example, is abnormal to the extent that it does not find agreement in the methods of division practiced by the culture one now finds oneself in. In a way, it is a matter of indifference to the sensation itself whether its origin is placed in the core of one’s self, or cast out into the world as an angry spirit that then presses upon one. Each has its own share of truth, its own uses, its own time and place and sympathetic community.

To Freud’s picture, then, we add the Nietzschean modification that the formation of the subject, its division into inner and outer dimensions, is taught by its culture. How does this happen?

“What group of sensations in a soul will be the first to wake up, start speaking, and making demands is decisive for the whole rank order of its values, and will ultimately determine its table of goods.” (BGE.268)

We can take an agnostic attitude towards this “first awakening”, that it is, for example, a matter of chance or an impenetrable complex. In the finest of degrees of specificity that certainly may be the case. However, we can indicate that the wakening of this group of sensations, this commencement of its speech and demands, how these are carried out, in each and every individual case is preceded by a long period of gestation and listening to the calls and summonings of the parents, and those in the world around it in its first moments, weeks, and months. So which group of sensations “speak” first happens within a context already determined for the subject prior to its original division into subject and object. Furthermore, as this process is ongoing, this group of sensations, and its subsequent partners, followers, masters and underlings (“ — our body is, after all, only a society constructed out of many souls” (BGE.19)) disperse and arrange themselves in line with how they are called by others, where they can find expression, and through what means they may find satisfaction.

“When individuals have lived together for a long time under similar conditions (of climate, soil, danger, necessities, work), there arises something that “understands itself ” — a people. In all souls, an equal number of frequently recurring experiences have gained an upper hand over ones that occur less frequently.” (BGE.268)

And thus a ‘type’ of subject formation is engendered and preserved.

This has become quite abstract. Let’s ground things by looking at a couple of concrete examples. Think for a moment about the word “Sad”, and the attendant feeling to which it refers. Now, all of us are familiar enough both with the word and the state it denotes that we can reliably communicate to others that we are sad, and, from our various experiences and accumulated wisdom, then go about doing whatever it is one does when they’re sad. But how did we learn the name for this state? Obviously, the process of education and definition differs markedly from our learning the words “ball”, “large” “dog”, even “seventy two”. Because the emotion cannot be indexed directly through ostensis, the term needs to become associated with secondary visible characteristics, as well as the interpretation of events. “You must be sad (given the circumstances)”, “you look sad (insofar as you are crying)”.

Now imagine (putting aside the fact that “sad” is, at first, just a binary couple with “happy” used to describe the whole gamut of negative feeling) that this word/concept didn’t exist, instead, that the collection of events thought to reliably engender sadness, as well as the visible secondary characteristics that denote it, were divided among three other terms, themselves including pieces of what we call in English by other names. In what way could the value and quality of what we refer to as sadness go on unchanged?

This is precisely what one finds in learning a new language — most tangible things can have their names translated easily (though classes of things often show variation), but the names to call up our inner experiences show a tremendous diversity. For example, the English word “frustrated” (the highly agitated state of being unable to achieve some change or goal), translates to the Chinese 沮丧 (jǔsàng). However, this word then coincides with English translations of “depression, dismay, disheartened, dejection, gloominess, lethargy”. In what sense is the same emotion being named here? None at all. Absent is the irritability, the goal, and, most significantly in a Nietzschean analysis, the outward, aggressive orientation of the emotion.

This is not the case of just being a poor translation — there is no corresponding name for the emotion of frustration in the Chinese language. Instead, there are a collection of adjacent emotions and circumlocutions (for example, an elegant verb to describe the situation of “having experienced an unexpected set back”: 受挫, Shòucuò). What does this mean? Is frustration, that palpable rage with an object or situation that presses one to hit the side of the TV, or vent their wrath on an innocent keyboard, foreign to the middle kingdom? People still carry out these actions, however, the sense of them, for themselves and for onlookers, are clustered into different relations with other affective states. In short, the particular complex, the collection of feelings, actions, and situations that count as engendering “frustration” have no voice, and no presence as an event within the Chinese subject. Pieces of this emotion, tied up in other alliances do have voice, and thus carry with them an overall different sense.

If we follow Nietzsche in asserting that even seemingly simple emotions are in fact granular, composed of countless currents which are folded together through habit until they feel simple (HatH.14), then we realize that there are as many ways of clustering the drives into a taxonomy of states as there are ways of dividing $1,000 into n sets, allowing for fractions of cents. Which is to say, an infinite number of ways.

“Using the same words is not enough to get people to understand each other: they have to use the same words for the same species of inner experiences too; ultimately, people have to have the same experience base.” (BGE.268)

What Nietzsche seems to be suggesting here is that the work of culture, that the demarcations and designations of a given language signify, cuts very deep indeed — right down into our most intimate inner experiences. So, it is not just the flat topography of what is inner and outer that is distributed through the work of projection in the founding of the subject, but through culture and language drives are clustered and grouped within this topography.

A certain empirical weight is added to these considerations by the phenomenon of cultural somatization. Kleinman (1977) postulated a phenomenon whereby well documented psychological conditions may manifest vastly different symptoms across cultures, especially as physical sensations (hence “somatization”). This was discussed recently by Love (2017), exploring the phenomenon of Chinese somatization of depression. In China, diagnoses of clinical depression have traditionally been low, but what appears to take their place is another condition (neurasthenia) whose symptoms are manifested as physical body sensations (fatigue, headache, insomnia, chronic pain, etc). Love writes that neurasthenia has all but disappeared from western diagnostic practice (where it is now believed to be an antiquated, inarticulate description of a host of ailments), but the list of symptoms were accurately describing a condition in Chinese psychiatric outpatients.

“In 2000, Shirley Yen and her colleagues from Duke University found more somatic symptoms among Chinese students seeking counseling. In 2001, Gordon Parker, at the University of New South Wales, compared depressed Malaysian Chinese with depressed Euro-Australians. He found that the Chinese reported physical complaints more often on their questionnaires, while the Euro-Australians group more frequently reported states of mind and mood. In a follow-up study in Australian primary-care settings, they found that the more Chinese-Australians became acclimated to Australian society, the more they reported psychological rather than somatic symptoms.” (Love, 2017)

Now, methodological questions aside, isn’t this diversity in the expression of symptoms exactly what we would expect to see in the Nietzschean subject? The (imperialistically tinged) trap is to think that these somatic manifestations are masking the true emotional depression beneath, that somehow experiencing depression as an anomalous force issuing out from the depths of the self, gluing one to one’s bed in fatigue, yet keeping one up all night through insomnia, is somehow the more “correct” interpretation of the forces at work, than feeling a fatigue issuing “inwards” from the outreaches of one’s body. But the only difference here is the assignation of the phenomenon to the “inside” or “outside” of the subject, and with it the subtle assignation of responsibility…

This is only a limited case, but already shows the explanatory advantages of the plastic Nietzschean subject, who inherits a blue print for arranging the forces of the world vis-à-vis a surface from the environment it develops in. Specifically the forces and drives that are addressed by others and given means of expression in the ways on hand. The transcendental subject, on the other hand, needs to erect countless mediums within itself such that its own inner sensations can manifest themselves to it in such a myriad of ways. It needs to adorn itself in so many layers of “cultural attire” when perhaps it is just simpler to say that this “cultural attire” is placed directly onto a field of impersonal forces and drives, demarcating people.

From here, we can gain an understanding of Nietzsche’s, at times problematic, discussions of human types. If different cultures and different ages:

1) divide the ‘subject’ and the ‘world’ thinly or thickly in favor of one or the other,

2) make this incision at differing parts of a topography,

3) cluster differing collections of drives into unities on the surface of this topography that are called up by single names, and acted out through a unified set of habits (of mind, speech, and action),

4) and individuals mutually reinforce these onto the next generation through the kinds of processes of subject formation that Freud described,

then we can understand Nietzsche’s discussions of “types” as referring to differing, broadly stable configurations of forces circumscribed by a primordial division of subject and object.

It’s in this light that The Genealogy of Morals needs to be read, with its talk of breeding, and the cultivation of memory through punishment, and the ascetic type: not as a phylogenetic development, nor a mere cultural-social development, but as the development of the subject and world through the varying distributions of forces on either side of a shifting differentiation between them.


It could be argued that this line of inquiry is dangerous, and we should read Nietzsche’s talk of “types” as being more archetypal, or metaphorical. However, this is unfounded. It’s precisely in the Nietzschean insight that we and our world are produced by the culture that we are born into as we produce and perpetuate it, that we inherit a blue-print of a stable configuration which each of us repeat just being what we are, and that there is no transcendental guarantee that beneath all of this is a basic, Cartesian universal soul, that we discover just how high the stakes involved are in the business of culture, and our relating to each other and the world. This forecloses the possibility of much that seemed innocent, superfluous, or periphery being taken as a matter of indifference. We can neither trust that the world, nor our own souls, will ‘take care of themselves’, as there is nothing more to them than our act of dividing them in the particular way we do, and holding them in this way in order to be at all.

John C. Brady is a perennial student of philosophy and educator situated in Beijing. He gets most of his reading done in traffic jams. He is also a co-editor of this magazine, by way of full disclosure.

Works Cited

Freud, S. (1990). Totem and taboo. New York: W.W. Norton.

Freud, S. (2003). Beyond the pleasure principle and other writings. London: Penguin Books.

Freud, S., & Frankland, G. (2005). The unconscious. London [etc.]: Penguin Books.

Kant, I., & Weigelt, M. (2007). Critique of Pure Reason. London: Penguin Books.

Kleinman A. M. (1977). Depression, somatization and the new cross-cultural psychiatry. Soc. Sci. Med. 11, 3–10 10.1016/0037–7856(77)90138-X

Love, S. (2017). Do Cultural Differences Change What Depression Feels Like?. The Atlantic.

Nietzsche, F., & Hollingdale, R. (2003). Beyond good and evil. London: Penguin.

Nietzsche, F., Williams, B., & Nauckhoff, J. (2006). The Gay Science (5th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, F., & Samuel, H. (2003). The genealogy of morals. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.

Nietzsche, F., Faber, M., & Lehmann, S. (2004). Human, all too human. London: Penguin.

Nietzsche, F., Hollingdale, R., Tanner, M., & Nietzsche, F. (2003). Twilight of the idols and The Anti-christ. London: Penguin.


January 2018


Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf — Accepting the Shadow

by Frank Breslin

The Limits of Dialectics: Logical Necessity And Empirical Contingency

by Antonio Wolf

Nietzsche and Freud on The Subject as Territory

by John C. Brady

On Absurdity. Adorno, Beckett, and the Demise of Existentialism

by Timofei Gerber