Key Theories of Friedrich Nietzsche

maxresdefault.jpgGerman philosopher whose work has exerted an important influence upon a wide range of philosophical, literary, cultural and political movements in the twentieth century. Nietzsche (1844-1900) was born near the city of Leipzig, attended the famous Pforta School and subsequently studied at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig. At Leipzig he studied classical philosophy and first read the works of the German philosopher Schopenhauer. In 1869, at the age of 24, Nietzsche was appointed to a post at the University of Basel, Switzerland. A year later he was made a full professor of classical philology. Owing to ill health, he resigned from this post in 1879, and spent the remainder of his life living off the pension that the university had granted him. In January 1889, Nietzsche suffered a devastating mental collapse. Rendered a helpless invalid, Nietzsche was cared for by his mother and then by his sister until his death eleven years later.

In terms of published works, Nietzsche’s creative life spanned the relatively brief period of 1872 to 1888. Although there are a marked differences in style and approach between the young and the mature Nietzsche, the books published during this time are marked by a consistent concern with the nature of culture. Thus, Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872) represents an attempt to interpret the cultural significance of Ancient Greek tragic art (e.g. the Oedipus plays of Sophocles). For the Nietzsche of The Birth of Tragedy, as for the later Nietzsche, Ancient Greek art represents one of the high points in the history of European culture. The question addressed by The Birth of Tragedy concerns how one is to make sense of this cultural achievement. The predominant interpretation of Greek culture espoused by figures such as J.J. Winckelmann (1717—1768) and subsequently Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) held that Greek culture was the expression of a calm and enlightened simplicity, epitomised by the harmony of design readily apparent in its sculpture and architecture. Against this Nietzsche argued for the view that the formal simplicity and beauty of such designs could only be accounted for by way of reference to something more subterranean and sinister. The formal harmony of such artistic works, Nietzsche argues, is in fact the sublimated expression of a violence that permeated Ancient Greek culture. In order to explain the nature of such violence, Nietzsche introduces two aesthetic categories: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian represents a formalised aesthetic of constraint, a channel or structure wherein artistic expression is rendered possible (the ‘principle of individuation’). It is linked to the plastic art of sculpture. The Dionysian, in contrast linked to music and dance, represents violent and chaotic forces of becoming that embody a loss of the sense of self that characterises the Apollonian. In Greek tragedy Dionysian forces, Nietzsche argues, were harnessed by the Apollonian element, which provided a structural condition wherein the Dionysian could be given its fullest formal expression as art. In effect, Nietzsche’s argument is  that the great achievements of Greek culture were not the product of a harmonious rationality, but were in fact a direct consequence of the creative harnessing of inherently destructive forces present within the culture itself. Greek tragedy draws upon these Dionysian forces providing, by way of the chorus, the spectator with the metaphysical comfort

that life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable [. . .] With this chorus the profound Hellene, uniquely susceptible to the tenderest and deepest suffering, comforts himself [. . .] Art saves him, and through art — life. (Nietzsche 1968a, section 7)

Thus, Greek art attained its heights of expression because of a need to make the terrible, destructive Dionysian reality of life bearable: art attains its greatest potential when it both serves and expresses the needs of life. Later in this text, Nietzsche links his argument to contemporary issues in German culture, arguing that Wagner’s music can be understood as a means to ‘a rebirth of tragedy’ as providing the possibility for a rejuvenated German culture.

The Birth of Tragedy, it should be clear, is no work of philosophy. Indeed, the paradigmatic figure of philosophical reason, that of Socrates, is explicitly linked in the text to the destruction of the tragic form and the cultural decline of Ancient Greece. Nietzsche never abandons an ambivalent attitude toward Socratism and philosophy alike, but in his later work he does abandon his adherence to Wagner and to the Schopenhauerian elements evident in The Birth of Tragedy. Although two of the four Untimely Meditations (1873—1876) appear to celebrate these two men, it is possible to detect in the Meditation on Wagner the beginnings of Nietzsche’s rejection of him. With the publication of Human, All-Too-Human in 1878 the break with Wagner is complete, and in this book Nietzsche also begins the process of distancing himself from Arthur Schopenhauer and from the German nationalism evident in The Birth of Tragedy. Likewise, a new direction to Nietzsche’s thought is mooted in the form of a turn away from the aesthetic concerns of The Birth of Tragedy towards an interest in the nature of values. Thus, Human, All-Too-Human (1878) begins by making what seems to be a relatively trivial and general observation about the origins of important concepts: how can something originate in its opposite, such as truth in untruth, rationality in irrationality, or selflessness in selfishness? Nietzsche response to this question is twofold. First, he highlights the role of what he terms ‘metaphysical philosophy’ in the traditional understanding of these questions. In doing so Nietzsche initiates an approach to questions of metaphysics that he follows for the rest of his productive life. Metaphysical philosophy, it turns out, is committed to the view that oppositions are fixed in place — that reason cannot be derived from unreason, logic cannot have an illogical source, etc. This metaphysical view has been held because reason, truth and so forth have generally been attributed a ‘miraculous source’ underlying experience. Metaphysical philosophy thereby invokes what cannot be demonstrated by way of experience in order to justify its views. Equally, such philosophising effectively claims to have a suprahistorical perspective. For metaphysical philosophy, Nietzsche argues, the word ‘true’ is taken to mean what cannot change.

Nietzsche’s other response to his question involves opposing metaphysical thinking to what he terms ‘historical philosophy’. According to Nietzsche’s view, one ought to conceive of human knowledge in terms of a process of development whereby self-consciousness arises from the material conditions of life. One significant consequence of this process was to put in place assumptions that we are now unable to shake off. Thus, the manner in which we conceptualize our everyday experiences necessarily involves presuppositions that facilitate thought, and these presuppositions have their origin in the distant past of human development. Metaphysical philosophy is the uncritical inheritor of the assumption that the conditions of thought that govern us today are timeless structures upon which our knowledge of ‘reality’ rests. Metaphysical philosophers have taken these presuppositions as a ‘given’ starting point from which one then is able to embark upon the journey of inquiring into reality. In contrast, historical philosophy rejects this belief. Against such a view Nietzsche argues that reality is essentially characterised by change, that ‘everything has become’. Hence, we can have knowledge only of empirical experience, that is, of so-called ‘appearances’, not of a timeless reality. Historical philosophy, in turn, looks for inspiration to the example of the ‘natural sciences’ and seeks thereby to provide us with a new account of the nature of thinking and valuing. What is needed, says Nietzsche,

is a chemistry of the moral, religious and aesthetic conceptions and sensations, likewise of all the agitations we experience within ourselves in cultural and social intercourse, and indeed even when we are alone: what if this chemistry would end up by revealing that in this domain too the most glorious colours are derived from base, indeed from despised materials? (Nietzsche 1986, section 1)

As the chemical metaphor implies, what is in effect being proposed is a reductive account of the social domain of values. Values and feelings, like chemical compounds, may be susceptible to being broken down into their constituent parts by way of an analysis of their origins. The task of historical philosophy, therefore, is to provide us with an account of the basic building blocks from which the fabric of social life and thought is made. At the same time, this project involves abandoning the temptation to formulate universal knowledge claims about reality — all that historical philosophising can offer us is ‘little unpretentious truths [. . .] discovered by means of rigorous method’ (Nietzsche 1986, section 3).

The later Nietzsche departs to some degree with the views that are expressed at the beginning of Human, All-Too-Human. For one thing, his evident faith in the methodology of the natural sciences is tempered by an increasing scepticism with regard to their purportedly ‘objective’ status. As Nietzsche remarks in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), although we are often obliged to think of it as explaining reality, ‘physics, too, is only an interpretation and exegesis of the world (to suit us, if I may say so!) and not a world explanation’ (Nietzsche 1968a, section 14). The physical sciences can mislead us to the extent that we are inclined to believe that the concepts they employ designate states of ‘things’ and hence offer us explanations rather than interpretations. But even the notions of cause and effect, Nietzsche notes, are best understood as ‘conventional fictions for the purpose of designation and communication [. . .] In the “in-itself” there is nothing of “causal connections”, of “necessity” [. . .] there the effect does not follow the cause, there is no rule of “law”‘ (section 21). Science, it follows, does not offer us the ‘truth’ about the world. Rather, natural science offers one means among others of grasping our environment practically with a view to manipulating it. Nietzsche’s mature advocacy of science, in the sense implied by the title of his book The Gay Science (Die Frohliche Wissenschaft) (1882), implies rather more than the limited perspective denoted by the natural sciences. Science (Wissenschaft), as the later Nietzsche extols it, is as much a matter of sensibility as method (it is, to recall the title just mentioned, joyful’ or ‘gay’), and owes more to the notion of’scholarship’ or ‘scholarly inquiry’ than it does to the notion of a natural-scientific methodology.

The works Nietzsche wrote beginning in 1878 with Human, All- Too-Human and ending with the first four parts of The Gay Science (1882 — the fifth part was added in 1886) manifest other features that receive fuller expression in Nietzsche’s later writings. Thus, there is an ever more pervasive scepticism concerning traditional forms of philosophical inquiry (such as epistemology or moral theory) and a developing interest in psychology, physiology and power. Most famously, The Gay Science announces the ‘death of God’ (Nietzsche 1974, section 125). This, as Nietzsche comments later in the book (section 344, added 1886) is the ‘greatest modern event’. The event itself is characterised as a loss of faith in the Christian conception of God, and it marks the beginning of a period in modern European society wherein the moral ‘certainties’ that accompanied that faith must also, by the same token, be placed in question. It is this state of a loss of faith in moral values that Nietzsche baptises with the name ‘nihilism’. Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (consisting of five parts, written between 1883 and 1892), a work that is both philosophical text and bible parody, represents a sustained and often rhapsodic engagement with the nihilistic implications of the death of God. Perhaps most notoriously, Zarathustra announces the need for the ‘overman’ as the supreme goal of human existence. The highest kind of cultural attainment possible, the overman is a being capable of a creative autonomy hitherto undreamed of by the average person, for he or she is a being able to live joyfully in a world devoid of the religious and moral metaphysical certainties that characterise Christian belief.

Nietzsche’s rejection of Christian metaphysics entails for him not only a rejection of the moral tenets associated with that creed, but also a critical revaluation of the meaning of values as such. This revaluation is undertaken in the context of a developing theory of power. This theory holds that all identities are the product of relations of power (1968b, section 1067) and that life itself can, in turn, be understood in terms of the play of these relations. The term ‘power’ does not denote some kind of mysterious force that permeates independently existing ‘things’, but is in fact constitutive of entities as such. On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) provides ample evidence of Nietzsche putting the power theory to work. In this book, he takes his sustained critique of conventional religious and ethical systems one step further, and attempts both an analysis and critique of the genesis and lineage of ethical systems. Moral systems can, in Nietzsche’s view, be divided into two distinct and contending camps: ‘noble morality’ and ‘slave morality’. Each represents a different, and in the end incommensurable, realm of interests. Noble morality is an expression of the standpoint of aristocratic classes. It embodies the perspective of dominion and power and is affirmative in character in that it is rooted in the perspective of a dominant social grouping (that of nobles) which first affirms itself as ‘good’ and only then characterises those of a lower station as ‘bad’. This Nietzsche terms the ‘good-bad’ ethical system of evaluation. Slave morality, in contrast, is produced by those who encounter and evaluate the world from the perspective of the victim. The slave’s identity is constituted in the wake of their being a victim of power, helpless in the face of dominant social forces, and therefore incapable of taking any practical steps to rectify their victim status. In an act of impotent revenge the slave labels his or her oppressor as ‘evil’. It is only after this evaluative deed that the slave type affirms their own identity as ‘good’. Slave morality therefore embodies a ‘good—evil’ ethical system of evaluation. The slave’s conception of ‘good’ is a reactive response to the world, which first presupposes the identity of what is designated ‘evil’, as opposed to the active assertion of the ‘good’ made on the part of a noble or master. According to Nietzsche, Christian culture (with its roots located in the slave ethos of Judaism) is the prime example of slave morality, whereas the culture of Ancient Rome exemplifies noble morality. From this it is clear that Nietzsche regards the proper interpretation of the positing of values as a contextual issue. There are no ‘true’ values, since values as such have no meaning at all apart from the context of competing interests out of which they are articulated. In his late writings, such as Twilight of the Idols (1889), this viewpoint is developed ever more in a direction that implies an abandonment of the view that consciously held beliefs are autonomous ’causes’ in any meaningful sense of the word. Here, Nietzsche proposes a ‘symptomatic’ reading of values, wherein they are to be read as ‘signs’ denoting a variety of attitudes to life. This approach is in line with an earlier argument presented in Beyond Good and Evil, which holds that there are no ‘facts’ of consciousness upon which it would be possible to erect an objective theory of values or knowledge. Thus, he tells us, any account of knowledge that begins with the nature of self-consciousness ignores the fact that it cannot itself explain what self-consciousness is:

by far the greater part of conscious thinking must still be included among instinctive activities, and that goes even for philosophical thinking. We have to relearn here, as one has had to relearn about heredity and what is ‘innate’. As the act of birth deserves no consideration in the whole process and procedure of heredity, so ‘being conscious’ is not in any decisive sense the opposite of what is instinctive. (Nietzsche 1968a, section 3)

In other words, we need to learn how to draw distinctions. The act of giving birth does not, of itself, confer heredity upon the one who is  born, since important social and genetic factors do this. So, too, conscious thinking is not born of consciousness and nothing else. The genealogy of consciousness must also be understood in terms of its unconscious preconditions, for consciousness is something that emerges from unconscious conditions of thought. As Nietzsche puts it in a notebook entry dating from 1887-1888,

‘Thinking’, as epistemologists conceive it, simply does not exist: it is a quite arbitrary fiction, arrived at by selecting one element from the process and eliminating all the rest, an artificial arrangement for the purpose of intelligibility. (Nietzsche 1968b, section 477)

For Nietzsche, like Hume, we are instinctive or habitual animals. Most significantly, our habits are inseparable from the way in which humans use language. This is a view expressed as early as Human, All-Too- Human (see Nietzsche 1986, section 11). Language works by means of referring to our experiences, and because of this we fall prey to the belief that words actually refer to ‘things’ that exist independently of them. But, Nietzsche argues, even as we designate ‘things’ (and even the notion of a ‘thing’ is, after all, a kind of designation), we are actively imposing meaning upon our experiences by presupposing that there must be entities that correspond to the names we utter. It follows that we habitually understand words as representing in an unmediated manner the purportedly ‘essential properties’ of objects. Although this belief may be an essential precondition of language use, and to that extent is necessary as a precondition of such use, it does not follow that the belief is objectively true. Indeed, Nietzsche argues, names do not represent things (as metaphysical philosophy would assert). Rather, language expresses something essential about the relationship between humans and their environment: it is one of the ways in which we cope with our environment. A further implication of this view is that consciousness and language are intrinsically linked to one another. Thus, in The Gay Science, we are told that ‘the development of language and the development of consciousness [. . .] go hand in hand’ (Nietzsche 1974, section 354). Since we must think linguistically, our reason, too, is derived from the preconditions that facilitate language. Rationality, in other words, is a human achievement that springs from linguistic norms and practices (from human beings reacting in certain ways in relation to their environment). As with morality, therefore, the precise significance of reason needs, for Nietzsche, to be subject to a revaluation.

The culture of modernity is, for Nietzsche, bifurcated – it is caught between the two ethical systems he characterises in terms of nobles and slaves (although Nietzsche is clear on the point that the history of European culture, the prologue to modernity, is the history of the triumph of slave morality). Nietzsche’s concern with modernity, which he takes to be the nihilistic outcome of the triumph of Christian doctrine, has led many commentators to identify him as a key figure in the discourse of postmodernism (see, for example, Vattimo (1988), who claims that with Nietzsche ‘postmodernity is born’). Among thinkers associated in some way or another with postmodernism (and, by inference, the schools of structuralism and poststructuralism) Nietzsche’s influence is evident in the work a variety of thinkers. Michel Foucault‘s development of a variant of Nietzsche’s power theory and ‘genealogical method’ forms the basis for much of his critical discourse on knowledge. Gilles Deleuze and co-writer Felix Guattari embrace a Nietzschean ontology of becoming, and regard Nietzsche as a prime instance of their favoured model of nomadic’, anti-institutional thinking and, in A Thousand Plateaus, develop a psychological and physiological account of power relations in their attempt to provide a criticism of authoritarian discourse. Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida see in Nietzsche precursors of their own deconstructive approaches (although Derrida has come to view Nietzsche’s legacy with an increasing suspicion — see The Ear of the Other (Derrida 1988a)). Nietzsche’s work has also influenced the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, as is clear from Horkheimer and Adorno‘s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1973). This work seeks to trace the development of the Enlightenment in the context of a struggle for power which, they argue, in its aim to destroy the pre-scientific mythological discourse of theological tradition creates its own mythological structure of rationalist dogma in its place. Adorno’s later work — especially Minima Moralia (1978) and Against Epistemology (1982) – often demonstrates very Nietzschean tendencies (an aphoristic style in the former, and a critical attitude to foundationalism in epistemology in the latter).

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge


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