Spontaneity, a core concept in Kant’s conception of thought and agency, had been of fundamental importance for German Idealism. But in the 1860s, in reaction to German Idealism and in the wake of positivism, spontaneity had become a problematic concept even for the first generation of the new “back to Kant movement”. The first section of this article deals with the particular significance of psychology in the early Neo-Kantians’ dismissal of Kant’s conception of the spontaneity of thought and will (§ 1). Against this historical background, it is not surprising that Nietzsche rejects the idea of an “absolute” or “free” spontaneity of the will. In 1880, a new conception of life as “spontaneous activity” emerges in his manuscripts. This naturalistic view, which he picks up from a philosopher of minor importance, Johann Julius Baumann, goes back to Alexander Bain’s theory of the “beginnings of the will”. The difference between Kant’s absolute spontaneity of representation and Bainian spontaneity of involuntary movements and activities is explained in detail (§ 2). The conception of “spontaneous activity”, which Nietzsche adopts before Daybreak, has an enormous influence on his further philosophical development, although his last writings seem to give up even this relative concept of spontaneity, which in the Genealogy is still of paramount importance (§ 3). In Daybreak, Nietzsche, who had already rejected Kant’s “radical evil” in the seventies, revises the issue in the light of his new conception of “spontaneous activity”: in the Genealogy, this explanation of one of two very different forms of “evil” is developed into a new argument against the freedom of the will, an argument which is, however, related to Lichtenberg’s criticism of Kant (§ 4). By analyzing the use of Kantian terms in the Genealogy, I show that this criticism of freedom squares well with the description of the “sovereign individual” as “responsible”, “autonomous” and “free”. I reconstruct the context of the description – an implicit rejection of Eduard von Hartmann’s criticism of the “absolute sovereignty […] of the individual”. Against Hartmann, Nietzsche employs a specific textual strategy, which consists in taking Kantian terms in an “anti-Kantian” sense and systematically cultivating the art of using “a moral formula in a supramoral sense”. The agent’s self-ascription of absolute freedom belongs essentially to Kant’s concept of moral agency, and the self-ascription of “freedom” to Nietzsche’s sovereign individuality. But the “freedom” the sovereign individual ascribes to itself and to its peers is not absolute spontaneity, which for Nietzsche is a self-contradictory concept; and this self-ascription of a rare freedom does not have the same function as the postulate of absolute freedom in Kant’s practical philosophy. It is, rather, the main way in which the sovereign individual’s “pathos of distance” is expressed, and hence a form of self-affirmation (§ 5).
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