In his Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche describes three epochs of moral development: the pre-moral, the moral, and the extra-moral. For the purposes of my freedom research I want to focus on the third of these epochs, the extra-moral, an epoch in which, according to Nietzsche, the unintentional behind the intentional, the unconscious urge beneath the motive, determines “the decisive value of an action.” In Nietzsche’s estimation, the conscious motive – of decisive value in the moral epoch – is merely a “surface and skin” that hides the actual nature of the act. It was Nietzsche’s firm belief that the extra-moral epoch was just beginning to dawn in his lifetime.
A number of years ago, while I was teaching a philosophy class to high school seniors, I had an exchange with a young woman about this dawning epoch. I argued that we can get below this surface and skin through a radical sort of self-reflection, whereas this student, let’s call her Janet, thought that the layers of surface and skin go all the way to the bottom, that self-knowledge is never founded on bedrock. In fact, she proposed – more as a thought experiment than anything else – that maybe there is no bottom at all, or as Gertrude Stein said, “there is no there there.”
For years, many prior to this exchange, I have been seeking to corroborate in my inward experience what has been a gut feeling at least since my early twenties, that all limits to knowledge, whether of the self or of the world, are artificial, are human made, and therefore, can be disassembled by anyone who takes the time — often decades — to do it. The actor in this act of disassembly is the there there. And this discovery that there is a there there is the beginning of freedom and truly moral action.