TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Nietzsche's Will to Power and Heidegger's Metaphysics of Pain: A Response to Mitchell

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Erik Pomrenke looks at Andrew J. Mitchell’s “Entering the World of Pain: Heidegger” from Telos 150 (Spring 2010).

Heidegger’s thinking of pain allows for a positive revaluation of pain as openness, not closure, to the world. Andrew J. Mitchell contends in his “Entering the World of Pain: Heidegger,” that “pain is the surest sign that we wholly belong to this world; in fact, pain is nothing other than our contact with the world and our ‘openness’ to it.”[1] Mitchell situates Heidegger against two popular accounts of pain: Freudian psychoanalysis[2] and the humanist interpretation of pain as articulated by Elaine Scarry in her book The Body in Pain.[3] Both models oppose pain and openness to the world and therefore see pain as a withdrawal from meaning. Within psychoanalysis, this takes place in the disengagement of cathexis—divestment of libido from love objects. Within the broadly humanist account, world and body are opposed. When the body demands attention, it necessitates a withdrawal from and contraction of the world. Scarry’s thought is structured by such binary oppositions as pain and meaning, interiority and exteriority, and it will be the task of Heidegger’s thinking of pain to reconfigure these oppositions by holding up pain and language as co-original phenomena—a task that Mitchell illustrates by reading Trakl.

Heidegger’s understanding of pain, that it is not a sensation, is a seemingly radical claim. When Heidegger claims that “the essence of pain remains closed to every opinion that represents pain by sensation,”[4] he claims that we must not understand pain as something that we “have.” The false assumptions that saturate pain can be traced to the Greeks, whose zôon logon echon (a life form which has logos) would also serve as the basis for Christian anthropology. Here Mitchell addresses an interesting oversight in Heidegger’s analysis from Being and Time: in critiquing the notion of animal rationale inherited from the Greeks, the place of echon within zôon logon echon is glossed over. That is, instead of merely speaking of a rational animal, Mitchell poses the question on Heidegger’s behalf: what is the role of having (echon) for the kind of life form (zôon) that “possesses” logos? Just as humans or Dasein do not “possess” logos, neither do they “have” pain. For both Mitchell and Heidegger, the instinctive coupling of zôon and logos via echon is indicative of a metaphysical assumption that posits “a conception of the subject as possessing an interior. Concomitant with the anthropological view of pain as sensation is interiority as the site of reception.”[5]

Nietzsche posited a similar openness to the world through pain via his doctrine of will to power. Alongside eternal recurrence of the same, will to power represents Nietzsche’s least understood thought. In large part, Nietzsche theorizes will to power as an affirmation of the positive life-value of pain as a way out of Schopenhauer’s pessimistic hedonism. Schopenhauer is a hedonist, in that he values pleasure and therefore absence of suffering as the highest good. For Schopenhauer, happiness is the fulfillment of desire and suffering is the frustration of a desire, where desire is understood in its negative sense; that is, instead of desiring to repeat pleasurable experiences, Schopenhauer believes that our desire is based in lack and aversion: “All satisfaction, what is commonly called happiness, is really and essentially always negative only, and never positive. It is not a gratification that comes to us sui generis and of itself, but it must always be the satisfaction of a desire.”[6] Therefore, if happiness is the cessation of suffering, and desire necessarily implies suffering, then happiness must either be the satisfaction of all desire, or the cessation of all desire. Given Schopenhauer’s pessimism, the satisfaction of all desire seems to be an unlikely scenario. A critical revaluation of Schopenhauer’s thought by Nietzsche will then be the assertion of the positive nature of desire. Nietzsche’s will to power expands for the sake of growth, not to fill a hole or satisfy a lack. If to strive is to suffer, then Nietzsche will seek to revalue suffering in order to justify a life of endless striving.

Pace Kaufmann, will to power is not merely a form of psychological self-control. Instead, Nietzsche sees will to power as a metaphorical plurality. Its metaphorical nature is predicated on its plural nature—that is, there are no discrete things and entities for Nietzsche. Viewed as manifestation of will to power, the world is simply a field of flux, a diachronic process which can only be seen as stable when taken in a synchronic cross-section: “Everything that enters consciousness as ‘unity’ is already tremendously complex: we always have only a semblance of unity.”[7] Will to power should then be thought neither as a total and universal entity (something like Being), nor as a finite plurality of entities. Instead, will to power is an infinite multiplicity that manifests itself on all levels of the phenomenal world. Even the act of willing something rather simple, perhaps picking up an object, is not a unified phenomenon:

[L]et us say that in all willing there is, first, a plurality of sensations, namely, the sensation of the state ‘away from which,’ the sensation of the state ‘towards which,’ the sensations of this ‘from‘ and ‘towards‘ themselves, and then also an accompanying muscular sensation, which, even without our putting into motion ‘arms and legs,’ begins its action by force of habit as soon as we ‘will’ anything.[8]

Given this plurality which constantly becomes, metaphor acts as a means to secure meaning. Metaphor is what unites the complexity of the flux and allows us to consider it as an entity: “Willing seems to me to be above all something complicated, something that is a unit only as a word.”[9]

Interestingly, the body becomes a metaphor in Nietzsche’s thought as well. Will to power undermines states, entities, and bodies. Silke-Maria Weineck discusses the importance of digestion in her “Digesting the Nineteenth Century: Nietzsche and the Stomach of Modernity”: “Nietzsche proposes a new economy of the body’s relationship to the world, one that would complement and partially replace the various models of vision that had dominated modernity’s discourse of embodied and disembodied subjectivity.”[10] Nietzsche’s new economy between body and world is metabolic, in the sense that it is a constant exchange across a membrane. The German for metabolism is Stoffwechsel, literally an exchange of material, and this exchange of material renders the body as well, not a stable entity, but a dynamic process:

[I]t is precisely in Nietzsche’s tropes of digestion that the body becomes everything but finite. Nietzsche’s digesting body is permeable, unstable, invaded and inhabited by other (parasitic) bodies, constantly busy ‘changing stuffs’ which will in turn enter other bodies. . . . In classical terms, this is no longer ‘a’ body at all, but a dynamic process. Hence, the idea of a self-contained and self-containing body is relegated to the realm of the fantasmatic.[11]

The body is a “fiction added to the deed.” The ability to take things into ourselves and expel them is, at a basic level, an opening of the body to the world. We are not hermetic containers. Metabolism, of course, seems to be a rather pleasant form of openness, as we take great pleasure from nourishment and expulsion of waste. But there are less pleasant ways of being open to the world, and there seems to be a structural similarity between pain and metabolism, in that they both reveal the openness of the body. Pain and metabolism manifest will to power and show the body not to be a static thing, but instead the site of dynamic processes—quanta of tension—which are in constant balance with their environment, itself composed of dynamic processes as well. As such, both body and environment are always open to each other, whether through pain, metabolism, or otherwise. When Mitchell says that “Heidegger’s . . . notion of a self-enclosed subject . . . reveal[s] pain to be our opening to the world (that pain is not a sensation, in nothing internal),”[12] we should therefore understand this break with the self-enclosed subject as already being prefigured in Nietzsche’s will to power.

Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche present a thinking of will to power which directly influences Heidegger’s own thinking of openness and pain. Heidegger saw will to power as defining the basic nature of beings for Nietzsche. According to Heidegger, Nietzsche saw all Being as becoming, becoming as willing, and willing as willing power. That is however not to conflate Being and will to power, but to instead suggest that will to power represents something like a “closest approximation to Being,”[13] in which the flux and tension perpetuated by will to power comes very close to an essential and metaphysical Being.

Heidegger’s Nietzsche sees will to power as deeply connected to affect, passion, and feeling. Of course, this does not follow a traditional account. Rather, will to power, affect, passion, and feeling all fundamentally involve a moving out beyond oneself in that “the formal essence of the affect is will, but now will is visualized merely as a state of excitement, of being beyond oneself.”[14] This being beyond oneself is also the original opening of beings to the world and each other. Willing power and openness to the world share a similarly ek-static structure: “[t]hat we can be beyond or outside ourselves in this or that way, and that we are in fact constantly so, is possible only because will itself.”[15] Will to power is also will to pain, in the sense that will to power seeks to overcome the boundaries of the self. Will to power may be manifest in affect, passion, and feeling, but like pain, it is not a sensation. Pain is not a reception of a stimulus within a self-enclosed subject, but instead the relation of being always already open to the world. But if will to power is the basic characteristic of all beings, then is it contradictory to see it as merely an affect, passion, or feeling? According to Heidegger, this is only an apparent contradiction, because “if will is willing out beyond itself, the ‘out beyond’ does not imply that will simply wanders away from itself; rather, will gathers itself together in willing.”[16] Heidegger’s Nietzsche sees willing as a resolute openness to the world; this openness is both metaphysical and manifested in the positions of beings towards their world.

For both Heidegger and Nietzsche, pain results from the transgression of boundaries. It is painful when the environment imposes itself upon the individual, whether this occurs across a psychological defense mechanism like Freud’s Reizschutz, a protective barrier, or across the skin of the body. But in Nietzsche’s theorization of the will to power and Heidegger’s theorization of openness, this continual and painful invasion can be seen in a different light. Pain can instead be our very openness to the world: “the limit of a thing is not where it ends but where it begins, and the same holds true for us. Our limit is our opening to the world. Interiority as intimacy rips open the subject and empties it onto the world. Pain is nothing other than that from where we begin, this rip or tear.”[17] Mitchell rightfully points to the positive revaluation of pain that Heidegger’s thought entails, and by situating Heidegger’s thought in relationship to Nietzsche, the genealogy of a revaluation of pain becomes even clearer. Mitchell gestures towards a fuller treatment of Heidegger’s thinking of pain vis-à-vis Nietzsche and Jünger in his forthcoming “The Painful Overcoming of Metaphysics: Heidegger and Jünger,” a work that is sure to shed further light on Jünger’s reception of the metaphysicians of pain.


1. Andrew J. Mitchell, “Entering the World of Pain: Heidegger,” Telos 150 (Spring 2010): 83.

2. See Freud’s remarks in On Narcissism: “It is universally known, and we take it as a matter of course, that a person who is tormented by organic pain and discomfort gives up his interest in the things of the external world, in so far as they do not concern his suffering. Closer observation teaches us that he also withdraws libidinal interest from his love-objects: so long as he suffers, he ceases to love.” Sigmund Freud, On Narcissism, in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: Norton, 1989), pp. 550–51.

3. See Scarry’s introduction to The Body in Pain: “[p]hysical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.” Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), p. 4.

4. Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, trans. Peter D. Hertz (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 181. Translation modified by Mitchell.

5. Mitchell, “Entering the World of Pain: Heidegger,” p. 85.

6. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1966), § 58.

7. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1968), §489.

8. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 200), §19.

9. Ibid.

10. Silke-Maria Weineck, “Digesting the Nineteenth Century: Nietzsche and the Stomach of Modernity,” Romanticism 12, no. 1 (2006): 35.

11. Ibid., p. 36.

12. Mitchell, “Entering the World of Pain: Heidegger,” p. 83.

13. Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. 1, The Will to Power as Art, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991), p. 233.

14. Ibid., p. 46.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 51.

17. Mitchell, “Entering the World of Pain: Heidegger,” p. 86.

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