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Category Archives: Nietzsche

The Súmbolon and the Gold Coin of Poetry

Súmbolon: A. tally, i.e. each of two halves or corresponding pieces of an ἀστράγαλος or other object, which two ξένοι, or any two contracting parties, broke between them, each party keeping one piece, in order to have proof of the identity of the presenter of the other (LSJ)

Some quotes from Nietzsche that I never tire of, and which work with the “eternal youth” of a metaphor. Written a year ago, but I nice follow up on yesterday’s musings on the wealth of philosophers.

“What is truth then? A mobile army of metaphors, metonomies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations that are elevated, transmitted, beautified in a poetic or rhetoric manner, and that appear to the people after a long usage as fixed, canonical and binding: truths are illusions of which one has forgotten they are illusions, metaphors that are worn out and literally became powerless, coins that lost their images and are now metal and no longer coins.”

“On Truth and Lie in the Extramoral Sense,” Nietzsche

Once we realize that power is a function of assemblage, then the “reality” of the súmbolon, the breaking of the event into the cause and its effect in a particular way so as to constitute an individual identification, a particular kind of assemblage, then the objective “falseness” of that division becomes the articulation of a means of power, a power valued by the sphere that produced it. The cause and its effect become the fulcrum of the “real”, the hinge upon which material power is leveraged, but also becomes the “sign”, the signifier of the social bonds, the omen which marks what is “true”, and identifies the user of the “true” as authenticated. We see this when the bond between a particular cause its effect is questioned, – which is one of the primary focuses of philosophy – the entire world that can be equationed, exchanged between two, comes into doubt. The knucklebone halves no longer match up, we do not recognize each other, nor therefore the “realty” in which that recognition would take place. When possessed of the halves of bone that form the súmbolon, one either must find new ways in which the two halves fit together, so that the seamless whole appears to be restored, or if believing too heartily in the “fact” of one half, one must search for the other half that matches. What is lost perhaps is that the súmbolon  is negotiation, an agreed upon act, an entered into pact or game, depended upon the coherence of “facts” over time. It is the ground upon with all else becomes exchanged. The social dimension of the “explanation” makes of the súmbolon, the cause and its effect, a kind of coin, that at an established value is passed around in guarantee, which allows the formal production of power, in real, material means.

“What is a word? It is a copy in sound of a nerve stimulus”

“To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor.”

“To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one.”

“On Truth and Lie in the Extra-moral Sense”

“[Valéry] contrasted the poetic word with the everyday use of language in a striking comparison that alludes to…the gold stanard: everyday language resembles small change which, like our own paper money, does not actually possess the power it symbolizes. The gold coins…on the other hand, actually possess as metal the value that was imprinted upon them. In a similar way, the language of poetry, is not a mere pointer that refers to something else, but like the gold coin, is what it represents”

“Philosophy and Poetry,” Gadamer

A related post, a theorization of Davidson and Vico: Davidson’s Razor, Vico’s Magnet


The Production of Constraints: Work and Annealing as “Freedom”

A thought-quote train, widestepping across peaks

Stuart Kaufmann, a theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher, inspired by Wittgentein’s Philosophical Investigations, writes in his own book Investigations, this about physical “work”:

“Work is more than force acting through distance; it is, in fact, the constrained release of energy, the release of energy into a small number of degrees of freedom.  It is the constraints themselves – with as Phil Andersons point out, a kind of rigidity – that largely constitute the organization process. But – and here will be the hook – in many cases it takes work to construct the constraints themselves. So we come to a terribly important circle, work is the constrained release of energy, but it often takes work to construct the constraints.”

This bootstrapping notion of work and freedom can be put into relation with two other quotes. On the notion of constraint which produces freedom,

Nietzsche writes,

Tethered heart, Free Spirit – If one tethers one’s heart severely, and imprisons it, one can give one’s spirit many liberties: I have said that once before. But one does not believe me, unless one already knows it -

Section 87, Beyond Good and Evil

And on degrees of freedom:

Spinoza wrote:

Whatever so disposes the human Body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great many ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or of affecting other Bodies, the more useful it is; on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful (E4p39)

The notion of constraint as vector of increase is ancient of course. One should add the voice of the Eumenides from Euripides’ play,


It bonds

σωφρονεῖν ὑπὸ στένει.

To temper under strain.

And Klytemestra:

ἄλγησον ἧπαρ ἐνδίκοις ὀνείδεσιν·

Sting your heart with real reproach,

τοῖς σώφροσιν γὰρ ἀντίκεντρα γίγνεται.

For in sobriety, spurred it is born to be.

Lastly, the computational process of Simulated Annealing, here described by Kauffman, and then Daniel Dennett:

Annealing is just a gradual cooling. Real physical annealing corresponds to taking a system and gradually lowering its temperature. A smithy hammering red-hot iron, repeatedly plunging the forming object into cold water and then reheating it and hammering it again, is practicing real annealing. As the smithy anneals and hammers, the microscopic arrangements of the atoms are rearranged, giving up poor relatively unstable, local minima and settling into lower-energy minima corresponding to harder, stronger metal. As the repeated heating and hammering occurs, the micoscopic arrangements in the worked iron can first wander all over the space of the configurations, jumping over energy barriers between all local energy minima. As the temperature is lowered, it becomes harder and harder to jump over these barriers…

- At Home in the Universe

The right level of explanation is the algorithmic level: As the metal cools from its molten state, the solidification starts in many different spots at the same time, creating crystals that grow together until the hold is solid. But the first time this happens, the arrangement of the individual crystals is suboptimal – weakly held together, and with lots of internal stresses and strains. Heating it up again – but not all the way to melting – partly breaks down these structures, so that, when they are permitted to cool the next time, the broken-up bits will adhere to the still-solid bits in a different arrangement. It can be proven mathematically that these arrangements will get better and better, approaching an optimum or strongest total structure, providing that the regime of heating and cooling has the right parameters.”

- Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

In annealing most important is the “cooling schedule” the methodology of driving energy into the system, and then letting it fall. This is what Nietzsche called tempo, “the patient ear to every staccato and every rubrato” (BGE, 246). What those that strain for the non-naturalization of rationality might have is the loss of the meaning of tempo, the “cooling schedule” of work and rule-following, semantic understandings.

How much is the thought process, and the life lived, like sword-making? How much is “understanding” and communication, even the most clear communications, a methodology of the heated and the cooled?-

The Coins of Others

Today while eating at our favorite greasy-spoon Andy’s my wife and I were discussing an everyday something that happened at her work, where she is a bartender. This is how she summed it when I asked her if she would:

Ricardo, a buser, appeared at the bar and presented to me a small, bronze coin, not unlike a penny. His English is not expansive and he told me in a somewhat confusing way that the coin had been discovered by someone in the kitchen or on the busing staff and that, though he liked it, the person who had found the coin had instructed him to give it to me. It was something of a gift.

I looked at the coin a bit more closely and realized that it was a Canadian coin. I showed Ricardo the image on the “heads” side of the coin, explaining that it was the queen, expressing to him that it was not a US coin, but rather a Canadian coin, and therefore had no worth for spending.

Ricardo was interested in this, not only because he was surprised to find it was a foreign coin, but perhaps also because he had appraised it as a gift. I accepted it happily and thanked him.

It was interesting to me that an object that began as a mistaken penny, a seemingly worthless piece of currency as it is, but was presented and passed on to me as a gift of some worth. That worth – the worth of a gift – is ultimately what was imprinted on the coin. It was deemed technically worthless by its status as foreign currency, but immediately took on a sort of exotic worth in the exact same process. Had the coin been something of worth in US currency, perhaps a quarter, or even a dollar coin, the gift would have seemed something entirely different – a payment; how does it feel to receive one dollar from someone with whom you work? The “worthlessness” as a penny and the worthlessness of foreign currency are both, seemingly, necessary for the gift to be received as a gift of any worth at all.

From our discussion it occurred to me that those that are lovers of philosophy are not unlike coin lovers. There is a certain sense, in reading the ideas of others–whether they be the largely discredited, though still taken to be influential views of people of the past (Descartes, Plato, etc.), or if they be the exotic ideas of contemporary schools of thought (Deleuze perhaps, or Zizek)–there is a sense that the foreignness signals something. Because these coins (ideas) are not a part of our regular currency, they evoke the whole series of relations which allows them to have functioned as coins (ideas) at all. If one has an ancient Roman coin in one’s hand, through its marks and significations, something of the whole of Rome comes before us. These are economies of thought. And whether we use them within our own economy, and our appreciation for them, operates somewhere between a “gift” and a “value”.

This brings to mind Nietzsche’s brilliant equation of truths with coins:

What is truth then? A mobile army of metaphors, metonomies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations that are elevated, transmitted, beautified in a poetic or rhetoric manner, and that appear to the people after a long usage as fixed, canonical and binding: truths are illusions of which one has forgotten they are illusions, metaphors that are worn out and literally became powerless, coins that lost their images and are now metal and no longer coins.

“On Truth and Lie in the Extramoral Sense”

In his analogy, Nietzsche does not deal directly with the notion of public minting. There is a way in which he imagines that coin-truths are minted in a metaphorizing process, by the imprints of experience: “What is a word? It is a copy in sound of a nerve stimulus,” and “To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor”.They have become blank, rubbed out from their images, in his imagining, and are circulating emptily, without force. But this is not really how truth-coins function. Coins function within an economy of marks. A blank coin does not circulate, and expressions of experience do not mint coins. What Nietzsche is drawing out is that via their marks, when coins circulate, they no longer are their marks seen as marks, as part of a specific economy in history. The marks circulate invisibly, so that a “dollar” becomes in a way, transcendent in its effect. When we encounter a foreign coin, a coin of others, we encounter the very minted aspect of our ideas, our truths, the associated and contractual relations which make up a criteria laden economy. The marks come out. And when we take up the coins of other currencies, we bring up the possibilities of our own currency.

As I have written elsewhere, Nietzsche did not come up with the metaphor of comparing truths to coins. He was responding to Plato’s Socrates, who talks of the trade of pleasures likened to the exchange of coins, in the purchase of virtue:

My dear Simmias, I suspect that this is not the right way to purchase virtue, by exchanging pleasures for pleasures, and pains for pains, and fear for fear, and greater for less, as if they were coins, but the only right coinage, for which all those things [69b] must be exchanged and by means of and with which all these things are to be bought and sold, is in fact wisdom; and courage and self-restraint and justice and, in short, true virtue exist only with wisdom, whether pleasures and fears and other things of that sort are added or taken away. And virtue which consists in the exchange of such things for each other without wisdom, is but a painted imitation of virtue and is really slavish and has nothing healthy or true in it…


Here, if we follow the analogy, we surmise that there is an official mind of real coins, in fear of a counterfeit minting by others. The “stamp” of currency, is that of Ideas, (instead of the stamp of Nietzsche’s nerve-stimulous). The reason I suggest indeed that we value the gift aspects of coins, of foriegn ideas, is neither to recieve coins of official and universal mint (transcendent ideas), nor coins of most naturalmint (nerve-impressions), though the ideational, and affective aspects of idea economies are always in employ, but it is to enter into lived economies of Sense, so that they reflect upon our own. In this way, value and gift coincide.

If we must ask, What is it that is impressed upon the metal blanks of our coins? We would have to say that the blank is never blank, and what is impressed is the repeat of folds in our bodies, made from creases of our shared criteria and Sense. A community of e/a ffects and distinctions.




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