Volume 8, 2016
Nietzsche’s Interpretation of Chladni’s Sound Figures
Friedrich Nietzsche's reference to Ernst Chladni in ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’ (1873) could easily be overlooked as a casual analogy. Yet it emerges from a systematic engagement with the nascent field of acoustics. Chladni was among the discipline's founding fathers, having honed the application of rigorous empirical testing to sound and music. His name is most enduringly associated with the discovery of the 'sound figures', which rendered sound visible for the first time. To produce them, Chladni scattered sand onto a metal sheet. A note was then emitted by playing a violin bow against its side. The resulting oscillations prompted the sand to settle in a range of symmetrical patterns. The natural beauty of the shapes made them quite famous. Yet they also represented a mystery. Though the formula for calculating the oscillation of single strings was reliable, it could not easily be reconciled with oscillation in two dimensions. In lieu of an explanation, the sound figures became the object of speculative attention. Their existence posed a difficulty for the quantitative ontology of rationalist metaphysics. The inheritors of Schelling, for example, saw in the sound figures an undeciphered language of nature. But Nietzsche was implacably opposed to this position: for him, nature contains no inherent meaning, no rational order, and no divine teleology. The ‘book of nature’ was at best an anthropomorphic projection, and at worst a theological dogma. Thus reframed, Chladni's sound figures confront us not with the infinite mystery of nature, but our own cognitive impotence. The following essay therefore elaborates the provenance of Nietzsche's sound figure analogy: a rare intersection of scientific experiment and speculative philosophy.