Nietzsche and Stickiness


I propose that human knowledge systems possess a ‘stickiness’ that Friedrich Nietzsche understood in his own writings. This stickiness can also be explained as a phenomenological eternal recurrence. That is, that extant human knowledge tends to recur even when plausible new knowledge is introduced. Stickiness is important to explore because the concept implies that once knowledge becomes it may remain knowledge for a considerable duration. This includes palatably less desirable ‘beliefs’[1] about race, class, and despotism, to the hypothetically more desirable ‘‘belief’s’ of democracy and equality. As Nietzsche discovered in his writings, killing God and replacing whole theological ‘‘belief’’ systems with a ‘free spirit—naturalized human—overman’ was a radical undertaking that could take many years if not centuries.


Fundamental human knowledge associated with God and morality has a stickiness quality that enables it to endure over time and recur from generation to generation; sometimes in duplication; sometimes moderately evolved. However, a theory of stickiness should not be considered as the gluing of things together. Stickiness implies adherence, attraction, and connectivity and, in a cosmic sense, that the fundamental forces of atoms can be bonded over vast periods of time if not in penultimate perpetuity. Yet at the same time, stickiness implies that the bonding is not a seal or a permanent adhesiveness but is something that could be dramatically altered given the right conditions. For human knowledge, I suggest such an altering must come from some event, condition, process, movement, or coming-into-being more profound than gradual evolution or the subtle changes that have occurred in persistent human knowledge over the generations of civilization.

What is required cognitively is what Walter J. Freeman described as ‘unlearning’ (Freeman 2000, 149). I will suggest that the process of unlearning and a subsequent relearning was what occurred within Zarathustra during his ten-year seclusion in his cave as mentioned in the final aphorism of book four of The Gay Science (Nietzsche 1974), repeated again in the beginning of the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche 2005). The actual process of unlearning and relearning that Zarathustra endured I believe was outlined in the prologue of Nietzsche’s earliest aphoristic work Human All Too Human (Nietzsche 1996) on the becoming of the ‘free spirit’.

While Nietzsche understood the inherent stickiness of human knowledge systems he did not explain this as a manifestation of eternal recurrence (hereinafter ER). Yet the ‘belief’ system for the existence of God, for example, has persisted for millennia and the stories, teaching, and learning associated with the kernel[2] of this knowledge passed down from generation to generation. I consider this to be a case of practical eternal recurrence.

It is likely also the case that ingrained human knowledge requires something (event, catastrophe, miracle, etc.) to dissolve the stickiness of such powerful ‘beliefs’ as God so that new knowledge can evolve or become[3]. I will show through Nietzsche’s own published works how he evolved his thinking on what events, intervention, or being-becoming might un-stick long-held eternally recurring human knowledge systems. For this I will explore the mechanism and processes he considered both to soften or even break the stickiness of old knowledge and to bring about the conditions to enable stickiness for new knowledge. I will do this through (in chronological order): Human All Too Human, The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Ecce Homo and Ecce Homo. In each he proposed not a divine intervention, nor a global catastrophe, but an intrinsic transformation in human thinking, first from the emergence of ‘free spirits’[4] (Nietzsche 1996, 283), second, the naturalization of humanity after the death of God (Nietzsche 1974). third, through the teaching and adventures of ‘prophet[5]’ Zarathustra (Nietzsche 2005), and finally through one of his last works, Ecce Homo: his life-work summary from the once and future ‘prophet’ of the ‘prophet’ Zarathustra (Nietzsche 1967). Dementia cut Nietzsche’s ‘going under’ short.

The Concept of Stickiness

The term stickiness has been variously defined for uses in chemistry, physics, economics, and business knowledge. The concept of stickiness in business knowledge is relevant to this discussion. Eric von Hippel first defined stickiness in the context of business information:

We define the stickiness of a given unit of information in a given instance as the incremental expenditure required to transfer that unit of information to a specified locus in a form usable by a given information seeker. When this cost is low, information stickiness is low; when it is high, stickiness is high. (Von Hippel 1994, 430)

The experience in business is that not all knowledge is sticky. In this context stickiness means transferability e.g. from one person to another. A low cost, low stickiness environment could be where the individual who gains knowledge during the course of business has no incentive to provide it to others within the firm—knowledge is slow to transfer and by definition is not very sticky. A high stickiness environment might have incentives to share or teach information; or, the sheer cost of obtaining the information is such that management’s attention to knowledge transfer within the business entity is high. Crises can often push up the cost and stickiness of information as more and more attention is paid to information acquisition and transfer at the expense of other activities.

One challenge to employing the theory of stickiness in the context of knowledge and knowledge systems is the temporal difference between fundamental ‘belief’ systems such as God and morality and business practices. Business tends to consider the environment in the short-term and in economic terms which can change rapidly and frequently. Morality and ethics, on the other hand, are typically seen as being derived from religion and/or law, both long-lived systems that are difficult to change. In addition, religion has at its core an eternal quality. Moral code and law, in its purest sense, is a discourse of continuity where incremental change is hard fought, and often persists independent from economics or the other volatile activities of humanity.

I suggest that morality and religion as knowledge systems are so sticky they can be described metaphorically and even phenomenologically as eternally recurring (recurring with each generation). Traditional philosophy is also sticky because it has been built on foundations established in the classical world, and where changes to the canon have been mostly incremental.

Nietzsche wanted to radically challenge and change the world of philosophy and existing knowledge systems—to unstick God and traditional moral thinking. These knowledge systems are so ingrained, so costly to maintain economically and spiritually, and are so sticky that Nietzsche’s challenge was to find a way to overcome this stickiness. For this Nietzsche needed to evolve humanity from where it was ‘stuck’ into a higher form of existence and being that would no longer need this knowledge and even shun it. I suggest that the tools he proposed for doing this were no less radical than a prophesized apocalypse[6]. Unlearning is one of these powerful tools.

The Unlearning Process

Walter J. Freeman explained that Russian behavioral scientist Pavlov first discovered evidence of unlearning. Pavlov taught dogs to perform a task and then subjected the animals to so much stress they literally collapsed. During this post-learning ordeal the dogs forgot all they had been taught (learned) but could be taught the same task or different tasks again without the interference of previous learning. Pavlov called this ‘transmarginal inhibition’ and determined that the benefit to this unlearning was that the animals could be retrained without the additional steps required to unlearn the old behaviors. I. e., if the dog was trained to salivate when a bell rang, it could be taught to salivate by another stimulus after experiencing transmarginal inhibition without having to first to reverse the prior learning (Freeman 2000, 149). Freeman explained that subsequent research has discovered that the process of unlearning and new learning is common in human socialization processes including: rites of passage, the military sports, gangs, fraternities, corporate training and other ordeal-like endeavors that are intended to change not only behavior but knowledge itself. Freeman suggested that the process of unlearning is, “essential for the formation of cohesive social groups based on deep trust. (Freeman 2000, 151)” As a cognitive neuroscientist, Freeman explained this process through neurochemistry and psychology:

The variety and ubiquity of neuromodulators suggests that unlearning, which is a prelude to learning new assimilated meanings through cooperative action, is brought about by the release of one or more neurochemicals in the brain. It seems to me that the action of such chemicals can loosen the synaptic fabric of the neuropil and open the way to the dissolution of beliefs and their replacement by new ones. We experience the process as a religious or political conversion and remembering the light that came, or as falling in love and remembering the song they played. (Freeman 2000, 151)

If there can be a process of becoming ‘born again’ into religious faith, then Freeman’s research suggests that, given the right conditions, one could unlearn the ‘born again’ process and become a Nietzschean ‘free spirit’ without the shackles of God or good and evil.

Modern science appears to have outlined the process of unlearning and new learning that is similar to that which Nietzsche prescribed a century earlier for his ‘free spirit’ and overman to become. I believe that Nietzsche’s ‘gift to the world’—Freeman’s ‘light that came’ or ‘remembered song’—was his Zarathustra which he wrote in fiction, verse, and bible-like revelation so that it would be accessible to the masses but also be informative to other philosophers. It was to be his effort to bring about the apocalyptic great unlearning and great new learning in the form of a ‘great noon’[7] for humanity.

Unsticking Human Knowledge—Nietzsche’s Unfulfilled Life-Work

In his introduction to Human All Too Human, Richard Schacht summarized and paraphrased the challenge of the ‘free spirit’ that Nietzsche laid out as harbingers of change for human knowledge:

…’we free spirits’ first have to become ‘adventurers and circumnavigators of that inner world called ‘man’ as surveyors and [measurers] of that ‘higher’ and ‘one [above] the other’ that is likewise called ‘man’ – penetrating everywhere, almost [!] without fear, disdaining chance and accident in it and as it were thoroughly stifling it. (Nietzsche 1996, xviii, Preface, emphasis in original)

I suggest that Nietzsche embarked on this project innocently enough and with some naivety that this task could be accomplished by the ordeal of and proselytization by ‘free spirits’ alone. As his writings progressed and he engaged in the intellectual battle towards changing human behavior he began to understand the stickiness of the major ‘belief’ systems (God and morality) he was trying to dismantle. I believe that he came to eventually understand that the stickiness of old knowledge would take an enormous amount of human and then superhuman cognitive effort and discourse to both unlearn the old and learn the new concepts and ideas.

That Nietzsche eventually employed a superman to overcome humanity and the ‘belief’ in God and good and evil, I suggest came both from frustration with the stickiness of such knowledge, and from a recognized need that some form of monumental change or event would be necessary to unstick (and unlearn) this knowledge in any reasonable amount of time. 

The ‘Free Spirit

If philosophy for Nietzsche revolved around “things human” (Nietzsche 1996, xviii, Introduction) then  Human All too Human is an early foray into the major systems of knowledge that he would consider more deeply in other works, including but not limited to: morality, religion, aesthetics, power and freedom, and the state. It is not in the scope of this paper to explore the depths of his treatment of these topics. However, what is important to the present study is the establishment of the ordeal of the ‘free spirit’s’ coming into being Nietzsche laid out in the preface. This ‘free spirit’ was something that Nietzsche hoped his writings would pollinate into becoming, “…perhaps I shall do something to speed their coming if I describe in advance under what vicissitudes, upon what paths, I see them coming… (Nietzsche 1996, 6, Preface)” He had not yet killed God[8] but in Human All too Human in the section, ‘Religious Life’, he intimated his skepticism about the tenets of religion.

Nietzsche’s expressed desire that his teachings and writings to be a kind of path towards a new spirituality—the ‘free spirit’—suggests an apocalyptic process of unlearning and new learning. Of course, the word Apocalypse in the original Greek meant revelation. The apocalypse that Nietzsche thought he could hasten into being with his writing would not be one of the destruction of the world as some theological ‘beliefs’ require, but a revelation born through a liberation that he himself would enable through his writings in Human All too Human. Consider the neurochemical transformation that Freeman required for unlearning to pave the way for new learning as a kind of cognitive apocalypse that Nietzsche’s ‘free spirits’ would have to endure. While Nietzsche did not conceive of these neurotransmitters, the process he described of breaking down the old to pave the way for new knowledge appears to be quite similar.

Nietzsche laid out the form of this apocalypse towards becoming ‘free spirit’. First, there is a fettering, a tearing asunder of the soul. This convulsive and “sudden terror and suspicion” de-centers the individual from what had been loved, “…a lightning bolt of contempt for what it called ‘duty’…(Nietzsche 1996, 7, Preface)” Nietzsche understood that the unseating of an embedded knowledge system requires torching the existing catechism before one can have the capability of accepting or considering an alternative. Walter Freeman described this unlearning as, “…an essential precursor to new learning leading to socialization that takes place through cooperative and nurturing behavior. (Freeman 2000, 11)”

Nietzsche also understood that for the ‘free spirit’ to become after this unlearning, it needs to be nurtured, supported and provided with time for the new learning to replace the old. This nurturing requires introspection as well as support. In Aphorism 4 of his preface of Human All too Human, Nietzsche laid out the requirements for productive reflection. I suggest that this productive reflection or explication of the relearning  in Human All too Human was the environment and the process of being becoming superman that in Nietzsche’s later works (The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra) Zarathustra endured during the first ten years of his solitude in his cave. Consider the following summary of the ordeal of becoming a ‘free spirit’:

…it is still a long road to that tremendous overflowing certainty and health which may not dispense even with wickedness, as a means and fish-hook of knowledge, to that mature freedom of spirit…In between there may lie long years of convalescence, years full of variegated, painfully magical transformations ruled and led alongside by a tenacious will to health…There is a midway condition…it is characterized by a pale, subtle happiness of light and sunshine, a feeling of bird-like freedom…One no longer lives in the fetters of love and hatred, without yes, without no, near or as far as one wishes…as everyone who has at some time seen a tremendous number of things beneath him… (Nietzsche 1996, 8, Preface, emphasis in original)

Nor is the ordeal over yet. After experiencing the unlearning and the new learning to become a nascent ‘free spirit’ or the Zarathustran ‘overman[9]’ there is a period in the ‘convalescence’ where, “…the free spirit again draws near to life—slowly, to be sure, almost reluctantly, almost mistrustfully. (Nietzsche 1996, 8, Preface)”…“And to speak seriously: to become sick in the manner of these free spirits, to remain sick for a long time and then, slowly, slowly, to become healthy, by which I mean ‘healthier’, is a fundamental cure for all pessimism…(Nietzsche 1996, 9, Preface, emphasis in original)”

In aphorism 5 of the preface of Human All too Human the retrospectively reproduced and re-engaged ‘free spirit’ emerges into the world from isolation (Zarathustra emerging from his cave); and in Aphorism six of the preface begins, “…to unveil the riddle of that great liberation which had until then waited dark, questionable, almost untouchable in his memory. (Nietzsche 1996, 9, Preface)”

The ‘free spirit’ must then be prepared to engage the world. Zarathustra, when he made the decision to commence his first ‘going under’ (Nietzsche 2005, 7, Prologue), decided that it was time to reveal the revelation—his apocalyptically derived understanding to others. Both the ‘free spirit’ and ‘Zarathustra’ would say, “’What has happened to me’, he says to himself, ‘must happen to everyone in whom a task wants to become incarnate and ‘come into the world.’ (Nietzsche 1996, 10, Preface, emphasis in original)”

As revealed, this is no small endeavor. This is the endeavor of a single person who would become a ‘free spirit’ (or a superman)—it suggests nothing about the complexity of this apocalypse for the masses in order to unlearn old and learn new fundamental systemic knowledge in order to ask a question such as: ‘what does existence mean for humanity after the death of God?’ Both Freeman with his unlearning and Nietzsche with his process for becoming a ‘free spirit’ have only described the ordeal of the individual—what about changing the knowledge base of all of humanity?

Becoming a Naturalized Human

In  The Gay Science Nietzsche announced that ‘God is Dead” but he understood that this statement would ring falsely for many for many years to come because, “…given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.—And –we–we still have to vanquish his shadow too.(Nietzsche 1974, 167, Aphorism 108)” It is in this aphorism that Nietzsche expressed the problem of stickiness of human knowledge. In  Human All too Human not only would the ‘free spirits’ have to go through a profound, lonely, and long ordeal to be prepared to proselytize the apocalyptic fettering at the beginning of the re-learning but this same process likely would need to be engaged for centuries (Nietzsche 1974, 168, aphorism 108) (and by the masses!) before the whole unlearning and new learning could become as sticky as the prior ‘belief’ e.g. God. If the unlearning in  The Gay Science was the death of God, the new learning from this revelation would need to occur in a process of ‘naturalizing humanity’ i.e., “When may we begin to ‘naturalize’ humanity in terms of a pure, newly discovered, newly redeemed nature? (Nietzsche 1974, 169,Aphorism 109)” Through the process of the new learning, Nietzsche asked humanity to throw off anthropomorphic ideas about nature and  discard the humanistic laws of nature in favor of a better understanding of nature’s necessities.

This whole new learning, as Nietzsche developed it over the course of his writings, requires the shaking of the foundations of metaphysics, religion and ethics. I am convinced that this task is beyond what many people likely will to want to fathom, let alone participate in the apocalyptic process Nietzsche proposed as necessary for the ‘free spirit’ to become. Enter the superman, the overman, the ubermensch, the first born of the successor to man—Zarathustra.

Enter the ‘Prophet’ Zarathustra

Among my writings my Zarathustra stands to my mind by itself. With that I have given mankind the greatest present that has’ ever been made to it so far. This book, with a voice bridging centuries, is not only the highest book there is, the book that is truly characterized by the air of the heights-the whole fact of man lies beneath it at a tremendous distance-it is also the deepest, born out of the innermost wealth of truth, an inexhaustible well to which no pail descends without coming up again filled with gold and goodness. Here no “prophet” is speaking, none of those gruesome hybrids of sickness and will to power whom people call founders of religions. Above all, one must hear aright the tone that comes from this mouth, the halcyon tone, lest one should do wretched injustice to the meaning of its wisdom. (Nietzsche 1967, 219, Preface)

If Nietzsche’s goal for Thus Spoke Zarathustra was to give humanity a masterpiece above all masterpieces and something that soared above mankind…with a result that left mankind far below—he needed to avoid producing a metaphorical Icarus whose wings were capable of aspiring to new heights but was ultimately doomed when the wax holding his feathers together was melted by the overwhelming power of the sun.

The ordeal of becoming an individual ‘free spirit’ Nietzsche outlined in Human All too Human. In The Gay Science the extent of the ordeal for humanity to throw of the shackles of the anthropomorphic world derived from God was outlined in its full stickiness (shadows on cave walls) over centuries of time. I suggest that the ‘free spirit’ was not strong enough in name and in constitution for what was necessary to erase the shadows of God from the caves of believe in humanity. Nietzsche needed to overcome humanity with an evolved human—a superhuman—a much stronger and resilient individual. This would be someone with compassion and the ability to engender the deep trust Freeman required for his process of unlearning and new learning to be effective in a societal knowledge structure.

With the moniker superman, Nietzsche sent Zarathustra on a ‘going under’(Nietzsche 2005, 7, Prologue) to bring the apocalypse of his ten year ordeal of ‘going over’ to the people. Throughout his journey, Zarathustra ran headlong into the stickiness of old knowledge, first at the village of the tightrope walker where his message was ridiculed, and lastly (in the story) as he metamorphosed from camel to lion in sight of the third metamorphoses—child (Nietzsche 2005, 25, Book 1, On The Three Metamorphoses)  where he realized that the ‘higher men’ to whom he had tried so hard to reveal his vision had failed to understand his teaching (Nietzsche 2005, 279, Book IV, The Sign). With this epiphany Nietzsche sent the nearly thrice metamorphosed Zarathustra from his cave without ever concluding the story or Zarathustra’s quest (Nietzsche 2005, 281, Book IV, The Sign). I contend that the lack of conclusion to Thus Spoke Zarathustra suggests that Nietzsche had begun to understand the enormity of the task he outlined in The Gay Science.

Consider also that Nietzsche’s solution to produce (to create) a successor to man evolves not through a Darwinian process of evolution or even genetic mutation, but as Nietzsche produces with Zarathustra—a pure evolution of his mind into a new being and a new becoming as a result. Nor is the irony lost on the reader that the ancient Zoroastrian prophet known as Zarathustra who first united the deities into a monotheistic god would return again (ER?) to kill God (unlearn God) and seek again to engage humanity in this new thinking.

What this evolvement to superman requires is that the current mind of the human is capable of making such an evolutionary leap (consider the Zoroastrian primordial intellectual leap from many gods to one God) with the brain power humanity has acquired over the past five hundred thousand years.[10] Even with this considerable new capacity to think and to be the only being that knows it has ‘being’,[11] the ordeal required as Nietzsche outlined in Human All too Human, The Gay Science, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra asks whether evolving a successor race through sheer brain power alone may still require additional evolutionary steps, including further changes in the human’s capacity to think, reason, and understand. We have no evidence of such a cognitive evolution in any other species. Yet we do know that the process of unlearning and new learning is available to many animals and humans produce profound cognitive changes. This question results, ‘Is Nietzsche’s creation of the successor race through the mind before changes in DNA a new process—a new methodology for evolving life—or is this just another manifestation of Freeman’s unlearning which is far from a higher-order function?’

While this may seem like wild speculation to some, I believe that Nietzsche was searching for just such a process to speed the progression of overcoming man into becoming superman….and that this was necessary because of the enormity of the problem of stickiness in the traditional and historic human ‘belief’ systems of God and good and evil.

Nietzsche was no fan of Darwinism (Richardson 2002; Call 1998; Forber 2007). However, John Richardson suggested that Nietzsche’s notion of ‘will to power’ may bring both scientists closer, “By seeing will to power as an ‘internal revision’ to Darwinism, opposing the latter’s stress (as Nietzsche thinks) on survival, but assenting to its uses of natural selection, we can ground or naturalized that notion congenially to Nietzsche and to us. (Richardson 2002, 537)” It is likely that Nietzsche’s concept of will to power is a necessary function for the overcoming of man into becoming superman. The extent to which the will to power is at work within the process of unlearning and new learning is something that deserves further study.

Nietzsche as ‘Prophet’

In the end, I believe that Nietzsche understood that his failing health and the limited distribution of his work made it impossible for him to become the ‘prophet’ of the ‘prophet’ Zarathustra. He began Ecce Homo with the strongest of statements, “Seeing that before long I must confront humanity with the most difficult demand ever made of it, it seems indispensable to me to say who I am. (Nietzsche 1967, 217, Preface, emphasis in original)” Nietzsche began his own going under in summary of his body of work. Ecce Homo is, I suggest, a prolegomenon: not unlike Kant’s Prolegomenon for Any Future Metaphysics (Kant 1997); an attempt by Nietzsche to make accessible his entire body of writings. Throughout Ecce Homo Nietzsche combined autobiography with lecture about his key concepts, and, more importantly for this paper, the explication of the tribulations of humanity required to replace old ideas with new. For example…

Nietzsche acknowledged the ordeal that faces the willing, and the personal required effort to maintain optimism even in the face of adversity:

Every attainment, every step forward in knowledge, follows from courage, from hardness against oneself, from cleanliness in relation to oneself. (Nietzsche 1967, 218, Preface, emphasis in original)

For it should be noted: it was during the years of my lowest vitality that I ceased to be a pessimist; the instinct of self-restoration forbade me a philosophy of poverty and discouragement. (Nietzsche 1967, 224, Why I am So Wise, emphasis in original)

Nietzsche even intimated that one must have continuously suffered in life to understand the meaning of Zarathustra, “In order to understand anything at all of my Zarathustra one must perhaps be similarly conditioned as I am-with one foot beyond life. (Nietzsche 1967, 226, Why I am So Wise, emphasis in original)” This suggests that the process of unlearning to begin to appreciate the apocalypse that precedes new learning is harsh, long, and at least for Nietzsche, unforgiving in its pain.

This apocalyptic epiphany Nietzsche called ‘the great noon’. “My task of preparing a moment of the highest self-examination for humanity, a great noon when it looks back and far forward, when it emerges from the dominion of accidents and priests and for the first time poses, as a whole, the question of Why? (Nietzsche 1967, 291, Dawn, emphasis in original)” Zarathustra referred to the ‘great noon’ throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra and in the closing lines of book four even said when he left his cave having metamorphosed from camel to lion in sight of his third metamorphosis into child[12], “…arise now, arise, you great noon! (Nietzsche 2005, 281, The Sign, emphasis in original)” Thus the great noon would be an apocalypse that would bring about the metamorphosis[13] of human to superhuman.

The overcoming of pity I count among the noble virtues: as ·’Zarathustra’s temptation” I invented a situation in which a great cry of distress reaches him, as pity tries to attack him like a final sin that would entice him away from himself. To remain the master at this point, to keep the eminence of one’s task undefiled by the many lower and more myopic impulses that are at work in so called selfless actions, that is the test, perhaps the ultimate test, which a Zarathustra must pass-his real proof of strength. (Nietzsche 1967, 228, Why I Am So Wise, emphasis in original)

The equilibrium Nietzsche strove for was to be honest about the task at hand, but not to paint the goal (the great noon) as being so high it could be unattainable. To keep the aspiration as high as possible above mankind and to provide a kind-of rocket-boost to get there, his Zarathustra needed to be a will to power in and of himself that would be difficult for even the most timid to deny. Nietzsche explained, “Verily, a strong wind is Zarathustra for all who are low; and this counsel I give to all his enemies and all who spit and spew: Beware of spitting against the wind! . . . (Nietzsche 1967, 235, Why I Am So Wise, emphasis in original)”

Nor is this the end of the message in Ecce Homo. Nietzsche cautioned against falling into great imperatives on the journey because they may mischievously hide true goals and meanings (Nietzsche 1967, 254, Why I Am So Clever); that the despising of the little things (e.g. the necessities of nature vs. the anthropomorphic laws of nature) was to despise the basic concerns of life (Nietzsche 1967, 256, Why I Am So Clever); and he wanted his readers to be adventurers, “bold searchers, researchers, and whoever embarks with cunning sails on terrible seas… (Nietzsche 1967, 264, Why I Write Such Great Books)”.

Nietzsche did not recoil from criticism. He understood the need to overcome doubters, naysayers, and dogmatists in order to unstick old knowledge. In ‘The Untimely Ones’ in Ecce Homo he outlined the ‘assassination’ attempts against his work. There is no question that Zarathustra faced similar criticism, especially in his first foray going under where his message is given unto ridicule and he is advised by a fool to leave town (Nietzsche 2005, 16, Prologue).

Finally, the most abysmal idea in Ecce Homo and the greatest weight (Nietzsche 1974, 275, Aphorism 341) are the ER to which Zarathustra is no stranger:

Zarathustra is a dancer -how he that has the hardest, most terrible insight into reality, that has thought the “most abysmal idea,” nevertheless does not consider it an objection to existence, not even to its eternal recurrence-but rather one reason more for being himself the eternal Yes to all things, “the tremendous, unbounded saying Yes and Amen. “Into all abysses I still carry the blessings of my saying Yes.”- But this is the concept of Dionysus once again. (Nietzsche 1967, 306, Zarathustra, emphasis in original)

This abysmal thought is the ER that permeates Nietzsche’s work. I have suggested that stickiness is a kind of ER in human knowledge structures. Yet this ER is conditional and depends for its existence upon the stickiness of its knowledge in the face of competing facts, ideas, and understandings. Because knowledge is sticky and possesses the ability to recur over vast durations—change requires Freeman’s process of unlearning and new learning. Because ‘belief’ systems are often systemic throughout populations, Nietzsche’s slowly fading shadows on a cave wall metaphor is an appropriate description of a systemic unlearning and new learning required to remove stickiness.


There are advantages to stickiness. While there have been catastrophes of major and minor importance that have affected the existence of small populations or large; since recorded history, humanity has existed in a fairly consistent environment. Retaining proven knowledge systems during challenging periods probably has saved humanity from massive behavioral swings over time. As humanity becomes ever more entangled globally, knowledge stickiness, in spite of rapid technological change, is probably necessary to mitigate potential bipolar swings in behavior. Long-held ‘belief’ systems are part of that mitigation process. At the same time, this stickiness can serve to hold back or even prevent new concepts from becoming.

The importance of stickiness extends beyond the concept of eternal recurrence and presents a challenge to all philosophical advancement. What is remarkable about human knowledge is its stickiness and that it appears that there must be a radical disturbance of the fulcrum of knowledge (unlearning) before stickiness can be loosened enough to provide the environment for more than incremental change.

Nietzsche saw the problem of stickiness and attacked it gently at first (‘free spirits’), and then radically, through a new kind of evolution. Nietzsche’s evolution was not Darwinian—it was cognitive through the power of will. I believe he understood that if he, Nietzsche (Zarathustra), could envision a life without God or good or evil, then he thought there were others that could as well. Yet he had little faith in humanity. He devised the superman to overcome humanity. This superman would not likely have any different genes than humanity but would use the powers of thought (and free will) that humanity already possessed to break free from the limiting shackles of a metaphysical God and morality. While he constructed this overman in the form of Zarathustra and explained, as best he could, the process of becoming superman and what humanity could become if endured this process successfully, he never succeeded in reproducing the superman. Nietzsche had little or no following during his lifetime.

Nietzsche’s work has begun to receive the attention it deserves. However, the concept of stickiness, especially in fundamental knowledge and other human activities, represents a significant challenge towards overcoming (unlearning and new learning) inequities and iniquities born of centuries-long knowledge systems and resulting attitudes and behaviors.

A question that is derived from this discussion is whether humanity’s recent evolvement of a large forebrain is adequate to produce a superman—an overcoming of man without the Darwinian requirements of genetic mutation and selection over time. While Nietzsche theorized his Zarathustra as metamorphosing into such a superman over ten years, could there be others who could do the same and, if so, could this be accomplished by more than a few, or is this capacity available to humanity at large? We know that under the right circumstances (the apocalypse of unlearning; becoming a ‘free spirit’) the ability to metamorphose knowledge is indeed possible and is fundamentally a part of the cognitive process for many species, including humans. What we do not have yet is a mechanism that is not divisive (brainwashing, Nazism, etc.) to bring about such changes in mass.

Nietzsche himself never engendered a radical change even in philosophical circles. However his writing and the circumstances of the century that followed his death may, in fact, serve as at least a partial catalyst towards what Nietzsche hoped would be a radical overcoming of humanity into what it could possibly become.


Call, L. 1998. “Anti-Darwin Anti-Spencer: Friedrich Nietzsche’s Critique of Darwin and ‘Darwinism’.” History of science no. 36:1-22.

Forber, P. 2007. “Nietzsche was no Darwinian.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research no. 75 (2):369-382.

Freeman, Walter J. 2000. How Brains Make Up Their Minds. Edited by Steven Rose, Maps of the Mind. New York: Columbia University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1982. Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. Bloomington, IN: Bloomington Indiana Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1997. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Translated by James W. Ellington. Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1967. On The Genealogy of Morals & Ecce Homo. Translated by Walter Kaufman, & R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Random House, Inc.

———. 1974. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House.

———. 1996. Human All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Edited by K. Ameriks, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2005. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by Clancey Martin. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics.

Richardson, John. 2002. “Nietzsche Contra Darwin.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research no. 65 (3):537-575.

Von Hippel, E. 1994. “” Sticky information” and the locus of problem solving: Implications for innovation.” Management Science:429-439.

[1] This paper is about knowledge. I use the term ‘‘belief’’ as a convenience for systems of knowledge that are often termed ‘belief’s. It is not within the scope of this paper to review the literature on the different theories of knowledge versus ‘beliefs’.

[2] There are many different theologies, religions, sects and factions of religious thought. For purposes of this paper the kernel of the knowledge and or ‘belief’ system is associated with a monotheistic God in the European tradition. By extension, I believe that Nietzsche would have a problem with all deities as such but it is not within the scope of this paper to detail the differences.

[3] This paper does not advocate for or against God. I merely suggest that any successor ‘belief’ found to be important would require significant effort, first, to unlearn God and second to learn, accept, and practice the new ‘belief’.

[4] In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche clarified what he meant by ‘free spirit’ “The term “free spirit” here is not to be understood in any other sense; it means a spirit that has become free, that has again taken possession of itself.” (Nietzsche 1967, 283, emphasis in original)

[5] Nietzsche abhorred the word prophet, in fact in Ecce Homo, he said about Zarathustra, “Here no “prophet” is speaking, none of those gruesome hybrids of sickness and will to power whom people call founders of religions. (Nietzsche 1967, 219, Preface)” While Nietzsche undoubtedly wanted to distance any thought of Zarathustra as a religious figure, I am using the term ‘prophet’ because Zarathustra is a singularity that wants to become a race. Nietzsche is the other possible ‘prophet’ in Ecce Homo but I suggest that because of his dwindling physical and emotional state and the fact that Zarathustra is his creation, there is only one Zarathustra—therefore what is he but a prophet…

[6] Apocalypse for certain religious sects involves catastrophe and the judgment of souls for eternity—in many cases leading to the end of the world. Apocalypse for Nietzsche, I suggest, is the death of God and the advent of the superman—the overcoming of man for a new kind of being that would become. 

[7] See the section Nietzsche as Prophet in this paper for a discussion of the ‘great noon’ or ‘great noontide’.

[8] Not until The Gay Science which was published six years later.

[9] The overman, superman, ubermensch of Zarathustra I believe is a more powerful term to ascribe to the ‘free spirit’. I suggest that the overman, etc. is Nietzsche’s evolution of the free spirit into something more impressive and powerful which he had begun to understand would be necessary to unstick the old knowledge.

[10] . “In the past half million years, the human forebrain has grown faster than any other organ in any other species in Earth’s history. (Freeman 2000, 106)”

[11] (Heidegger 1982, xxiii, Translator’s Introduction)

[12] As Nietzsche ends Thus Spoke Zarathustra with Zarathustra leaving the cave, we are left wondering whether the journey metamorphosed into a lion would be a final journey or whether this would become like an eternal recurrence for Zarathustra—over and over again. Zarathustra is mortal so, if this were intended by Nietzsche to be the eternal return of the overcoming then the line ‘my children are near’ (Nietzsche 2005, 280, Book IV, The Sign) suggests that the day that begins for Zarathustra that would come into a great noon would require disciples to continue the recurrence and eventual emergence of supermen.

[13] One might want to replace ‘metamorphosis’ to ‘evolution’. I suggest that evolution requires genetic change. The overman becomes through thought, contemplation and will but retains the same genetic structure it is born with.

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