Sometimes the most dangerous and confusing word in the whole lexicon of philosophy is I. What the I and the individual both mean was no small topic to contemplate for the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche's approach to personal identity was influenced by the thought of his predecessor, Arthur Schopenhauer. Drawing on the Kantian notion of space and time as being properties that were only subjectively perceived by human beings but not inherent features present in the universe itself, Schopenhauer nullified the validity of the individual. Individuals derive their individuality and difference from others in that the progression of their lives takes place within a certain period of time and covers a specific trajectory in space. Space and time are the determinants of the unique biography of each person; a baby born in the 14th century in a nomadic tribe of herdsmen and one in the 19th century in a booming industrial metropolis can share no common biography, no common life. The time and place of their birth will set them upon dramatically different life paths. (Even in the extreme case of unseparated conjoined twins, they will be subjected to at least slightly different influences and their lives will still differ)

Schopenhauer, in conceiving of a plane of existence beyond space and time, sees that all these individuals with different biographies are metaphysically unified and not after all individual. In a domain free of human perceptions, the striving, desiring internal self behind the actions of all these different individuals is one and the same. However, for the denizens of the temporal and the finite, this one “internal self” of the will splits into an infinite number of separate wills, all scattered across the reaches of space and time and leading different lives.

Schopenhauer's philosophy deals with the question of how individuals can transcend the illusion of separation in the realm of semblance and perceive themselves as part of the one and unified will that is metaphysically real. Nietzsche adopts Schopenhauer's framework of the reality of oneness (the Dionysian principle) vs the illusion of the self (the Apollonian principle1), but does not privilege the identity-destroying domain of existence. Although in his earliest major work, The Birth of Tragedy, he delves into how the Greek Dionysian rites allowed individuals to lose their sense of self and accede to oneness via trance-inducing rituals such as drinking, dancing, raw displays of violence and unbridled sexual behavior, Nietzsche is more concerned in grounding the individual and not in dissolving him. In a later work, Human All Too Human, Nietzsche derides the metaphysical world of oneness as inaccessible and incomprehensible.

And yet what is comprehensible of the individual within the world of space and time is that he is subject to the causality of external forces; even the internal life of reflection and thought is nothing but the act of processing the person's biography, social relations, and progression through life. The internal self, conditioned by the external world, is always referring to the forces that shaped him even within his mental space. At no point can he withdraw from the impact of history; hence he is just a conditioned self, with no transcendent personality or character that is transferable to any other point in time. This interpretation destabilizes the I because it makes it seem like the individual itself does not do or decide anything. History acts and metes out various roles to individuals who merely act out the script.

Nietzsche, however, does not like the idea of an individual who cannot have any relevance outside of his own time and place; he prefers to confer an infinite status to the individual. He accomplishes this in a way that reaches back to the Schopenhauerean origins of his thought. Whereas Schopenhauer conceived of the spacio-temporal domain as a mere world of appearance where the one will was constantly reconfigured into different individuals relating to each other in different ways, Nietzsche decided that in this constant game of rearrangement, the metaphysical domain of oneness would eventually return again and again to producing the same states. It's like conceiving of the universe as a single kaleidoscope infinitely rearranging its colors and coming back to the same color arrangements over and over again. Or, to use an alternate metaphor, you might imagine an mp3 player in shuffle mode. It always has the same tracks that do not change, but offers to its listener, who can only listen to one track at a time, an endless set of playlists, with each of the playlists inescapably repeating after a while.

In this way, an individual exists infinitely, because his historical circumstances are bound to exactly repeat again and again and so are his actions. So while the individual is nothing but a product of his time, the places, the people, the events that surrounded him, all of them and he as well will recur in an infinite loop. (It's important to note that unlike the metaphors of songs and colors which can be featured in various combinations, each individual can only appear as part of a single combination in a particular historical period and his existence cannot occur outside of that context.)

This doctrine of eternal recurrence means a person can look back on his life and not see his unique and individual experiences forever vanish much like decaying flesh. Instead, he may consider his destiny to be forever enshrined into the annals of being, to be reincarnated anew with every fresh spin of the wheel of time.

1. Apollo is used by Nietzsche to symbolize the individual because he is a god of intellectual pursuits and the sun. His intellectual interests foster self-awareness and self-reflection while his light metaphorically reveals the world of space and time, otherwise obscured by Dionysus the god of intoxication. The revelers devoted to the cult of Dionysus relinquish the intellectual perception of self, time, and space and abandon themselves to dark, blind, and unconscious passion. The reference to both gods was unique to Nietzsche and did not appear in Schopenhauer's work.


Nabais, Nuno. “The Individual and Individuality in Nietzsche.” A Companion to Nietzsche. Ed: Pearson, Keith Ansell. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

Note: For these insights I am deeply indebted to the source above and can only wholeheartedly recommend it for further reading.

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