On the aphorism

by Mike Norton

Karl Kraus claimed that “an aphorism never coincides with the truth: it is either a half-truth or one-and-a-half truths.”

They often seem to issue from beyond language, say what cannot be said, or at least gesture towards the mystery. That could be why the most famous lines of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus are the final two aphorisms, which are themselves about aphorisms.

6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions and then he will see the world aright.

7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. (Tractatus)

Thus, aphorisms are not to be read as dictums. They give a sign, but the sign is not where the meaning is. Also, the aphoristic style reflects the concerns of perspectivism for writing in general. In Reading Nietzsche, Bernd Magnus claims that aphorisms, instead of providing “unity, connection, totality, and closure,” are intended to atomize, for they divide and mark-off. They demand the reader to supply the missing “connective tissue,” the logical ligature that “transforms glistening shards into a single organic whole which subtends them.”

The aphorism may look simple, but its gnomic quality is to stimulate the reader to participate, investigate, engage – stop what they’re doing and look carefully. Given the original Greek term ap-horeizen, i.e., to set a horizon or a boundary, the aphorism does set a new horizon that forces the reader to reconsider the old ones. We should not confuse the aphorism with maxims or epigrams, which are themselves ideal examples of brevity where wisdom is articulated into 1 or two sentences, and intended to apply generally. An aphorism instead tells the reader an experience of glancing at the new, distant horizon. It is also a mistake to think that the aphorism is merely a literary form.

The aphorism is but one of the various ways Nietzsche writes against tradition, where the standard procedure of philosophy has the author telling the reader the conclusion and how s/he will argue for it. Self-sufficient insights, epigrams, maxims, fragments, and notes are the other ways, and they all require the reader to provide the missing logical ligatures – the connective that unifies the grand narrative of the book. As a result, the reader’s invented ligature is actually a paradox that both successfully establish and dissolve authorial identity and intent. That is why all writings about Nietzsche is always somebody’s reading, i.e., Heidegger’s Nietzsche, Deleuze’s, Derrida’s, and etcetera.

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.