Perlocution and the Rights of Desire: Cavell, Nietzsche, and Austen (and Austin)

  • Eric Lindstrom


Friedrich Nietzsche famously and mischievously begins the notorious Second Essay in On The Genealogy of Morals (1887) with an assertion that ties the proper breeding of mankind to the right to make promises. Nietzsche maintains: “[t]o breed an animal with the right to make promises—is this not the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man? Is this not the real problem which man not only poses but also faces?” Nietzsche’s language challenges its reader from the start to comprehend its various possibilities of mood and mode, rhetoric and grammar: is it a bold statement of authorial values or an ironic insinuation meant to trap the bad conscience of civilized man? More simply, is it a “real” question or a rhetorical statement? The passage loses no time in deploying some of the soldiers in the army of poetical tropes that Nietzsche unmasks as the producers of truth in his equally well-known short piece, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” (here prosopopoeia: speaking for nature).

Based on this small sampling, already we can sense fully how the “literary” intensity and instability of Nietzsche’s style are embedded in his very conduct of philosophy. The question marks on which the two sentences of this opening salvo end (or sort of end, as there are original ellipses “…”) may not indicate a question has been posed at all for the reader directly to answer. No question, at least, has been posed from the quasi-naïve and open premise that we tend to call a question on equal (epistemological) footing or in (sociable) “good” faith. Not a “real” question from Nietzsche, then; but all the more a real problem. A driving interrogation in fact: in light of what the next sentence calls the “countervailing” and saving “force of forgetfulness,” the conduct of the human will in verbal action becomes “the real problem” we both pose and face as linguistic beings engaged by what Stanley Cavell understands in the term moral perfectionism.