‘According to Leiter, Nietzsche believes in a “Doctrine of Types,” according to which “Each person has a fixed psycho-physical constitution, which defines him as a particular type of person” (2002, p. 8). These type-facts are meant to be “physiological facts about the person, or facts about the person’s unconscious drives or affects” (Knobe & Leiter 2007), and they largely determine both what a person can do and what a person should do from the point of view of his own well-being.’ To support this interpretation, Knobe and Leiter cite Nietzsche’s claim that a

well-turned out human being […] must perform certain actions and shrinks instinctively from other actions; he carries the order, which he represents physiologically, into his relations with other human beings and things. (TI “Errors” 2)

[Then come passages that conversely support the social construction of character.]

“If someone obstinately and for a long time wants to appear something it is in the end hard for him to be anything else.” (HH 51)

“The reputation, name, and appearance […] of a thing […] nearly always becomes its essence and effectively acts as its essence.” (GS 58)


‘It may be hard to square the passages that support the doctrine of types with those that support the social construction of character, but here’s a try: Nietzsche thinks that many people have the precise character traits they do because they have been labeled with those traits. The idea is that type-facts limit the palette or menu of traits that someone could end up with, but do not uniquely determine how his character will develop. From that menu, social pressures select and shape the character that results.’

‘In a seminal study, Miller, Brickman, & Bolen (1975) compared the effects of labeling with those of moral exhortation on the behavior of fifth graders. Participants in the exhortation group were asked repeatedly by the principal, the teachers, and the janitor to keep their classroom tidy. The labeling group, by contrast, heard congratulatory (false) announcements of their above-average tidiness over the course of eight days. On Day 1, the teacher praised them for being ‘ecology minded’ and mentioned that the janitor had commented that theirs was one of the cleanest classrooms in the school. On Day 2, the teacher noticed some litter on the floor but explained, “our class is clean and would not do that.” On Day 4, the principal visited the class and commended their orderliness; after he left, the students actually complained that the teacher’s desk was not as neat as theirs. On Day 8, the janitors washed the room and left a note thanking the students for making their job so easy. After a brief improvement in their behavior, the exhortation group settled back into its old routine, but the labeling group exhibited higher levels of tidiness over an extended period.

‘Other experiments have corroborated the tidiness study with other trait attributions. Jensen & Moore (1977), for instance, found that children labeled as charitable donated more than those who were subjected to moral suasion. Grusec, Kuczynski, Rushton, & Simutis (1978) announced to experimental participants that a questionairre they had completed indicated either that they were competitive or that they were cooperative, inducing congruent behavior in a subsequent game. Grusec & Redler (1980) found that ten-year-olds who helped once and were then labeled (“You know, you certainly are a nice person. I bet you’re someone who is helpful whenever possible.”) contributed 350% more in a subsequent trial than students whose actions were praised after helping (“You know, that was certainly a nice thing to do. It was good that you helped me with my work here today.”) These are just a few examples, but the point should be clear: praise and exhortation are worse ways to elicit trait-congruent behavior than attribution. People become what they are by becoming what they are called.

‘Thus, while I agree with Knobe and Leiter both that Nietzsche believes in the doctrine of types and that there is strong empirical support for the doctrine of types, I think that they overlook Nietzsche’s insight into the social construction of character and the empirical support for the social construction of character. These two positions may seem to be in tension, but ultimately I think that both can be accommodated. Types are diverse. What counts as aggressiveness, neuroticism, extraversion, and so on differs from case to case and person to person. Character traits develop through the interaction of types and social influence, and even they exhibit a great deal of diversity. In a recent book, Adams (2009, p. 182) argues that courage should be divided up into “modules” that include physical courage, social courage, financial courage, and vicarious courage (the courage not to be overprotective or paternalistic). This echoes Nietzsche’s own distinctions between different types of courage.’

How One Becomes What One Is: The Empirical Support for Three Nietzschean Insights


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