ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JUNE 3 2010
Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical writings include a great deal of contentious claims and propositions. Is it possible to imagine someone disagreeing with at least a few of them? Of course. It is similarly possible for people to agree with a great many of his assertions. What is more difficult is identifying a decision procedure that will let us know whether or not we agree with Nietzsche. At one extreme, all of his propositions could aspire to be absolute objective truths, with universal validity, that anyone with sufficiently clear rationality and access to facts would agree with. At the opposite extreme, everything Nietzsche says could be a wholly idiosyncratic opinion, entirely rooted in his individual history and psychology, and agreement or disagreement is a matter of coincidence. Between these extremes lie several alternate epistemological schema, and perhaps it is one of those that will best allow us to determine whether or not Nietzsche should be considered. Over the course of exploring these frameworks, and whether or not they are compatible with Nietzsche's propositions themselves, we will explore several possible "outs" that allow one to easily disregard Nietzsche's writings without feeling that either Nietzsche or the reader is at fault for a misunderstanding.
First, it would be appropriate to identify some of the claims Nietzsche makes that one might find particularly disagreeable. Many of his most objectionable propositions result from his criticisms of modernity. He derides religion, contemporary and classical, for being life-denying and deleterious. Nietzsche is generally harsh toward major nationalities and ethnicities, most notable the English, the Germans, and the Jews. He routinely attacks the English and Germans for being participants in the modern attempts to find grounding for philosophical or moral beliefs, for being culturally decadent, for subscribing to life-denying values, for losing their nobility, and so forth. Nietzsche's anti-Semitic remarks can be even more severe, as in On the Genealogy of Morality in particular where he details their millennia-long campaign to destroy all that is noble in humanity. Many of his comments seem to indicate affirmation of racist ideologies, such as his apparent endorsement in Twilight of the Idols of eugenics and a caste-like system for wholly excluding inferior members of society. Several of these remarks have acquired a new level of repulsiveness in light of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. Since many of Nietzsche's claims were reiterated by fascists, their historical connection to atrocities makes them difficult to accept.
In addition to his criticisms of modern people and political inclinations, Nietzsche makes philosophical claims that can be difficult to accept. One of the fundamental propositions of Nietzsche seems to be perspectivism, though what exactly he means by it is not entirely clear, since he rarely elaborates the exact meaning of his definitions and inferences. It is clear that Nietzsche has little interest in finding any objective or universal truth, or anything which could be agreed upon by any possible observer. We may be inspired to reject this claim, on the grounds that it renders philosophical or scientific discourse (and much communication in general) banal.
The bulk of his principal project, the transvaluation of all values, is predicated upon a controversial historical account of morality. Instead of seeking a justification of morality in terms of rationality, divine command, or any other grounding, Nietzsche provides a mundane historical description of morality's origins. Morality in its original, superior form came from the self-affirmation of the nobles and their consequent condemnation of their inferiors. It was only in negative reaction to this noble morality that the nobles' inferiors, the slaves, constructed their own system of values. After convincing the nobles that they possessed free will and responsibility, the slaves were able to instill guilt and their own values in the noble class, thus gaining some respite from their oppression. Aside from the actual historical accuracy of Nietzsche's genealogy, his assertion that the noble form of morality is superior because it is proactive and life-affirming rather than life-denying can be objected to on egalitarian grounds.
One of Nietzsche's other principal ideas, the eternal recurrence of the same, is difficult enough to grasp before one affirms or denies it. Our best understanding of it is use as a hypothetical scenario to measure the quality of one's life. If one can contemplate the possibility of every event being repeated, endlessly, identically, and still affirm one's life, then one has achieved something. There are other possibilities of the idea. It could be taken as a literal physical or metaphysical property of the universe, that the same sequence of events literally repeats infinitely. This possibility has been explored in ancient philosophy by Lucretius, though in the context of space rather than time, and in contemporary physics under the name of the ergodic principle. If Nietzsche were making a metaphysical claim about the universe, he would not be making one entirely antithetical to current understandings of the universe. A still distinct way of viewing the eternal recurrence of the same is as a "sour grapes" story. The recurrent version of events is sometimes expressed with the distinction between "it was" and "thus I willed it", such as in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In this interpretation, the eternal recurrence is a fact of the universe, but our reaction to it constitutes a "sour grapes" story that allows us to reconcile our powerlessness with our pride. We are always powerless over the events of the world, but we can tell ourselves that we have power and chose the course of events that actually unfolded.
Of the three versions of the eternal recurrence here paraphrased, the first is the least easily dismissed. The latter two are far more vulnerable to the possibility of a factual dismissal, along the lines of "Actually, the universe does not work that way," or "Actually, people do not react to the universe that way." Such dismissals may not trouble Nietzsche, but they would trouble a reader who is concerned about whether or not Nietzsche is accurate. The first one, then, provides an interesting possible tool to judge our lives. As far as hypotheticals go, it can be a powerful one. It is straightforward enough upon first glance to be appraised readily, but the true implications of a recurrencenot just of past events, but events yet to come!are more subtle. It is possible that the implications are too subtle to ever be grasped, and so we may be unable to truly know how we would respond if the demon described in The Gay Science came to us and told us that everything would come to pass in infinite repetition. Nevertheless, the eternal recurrence of the same is an intriguing hypothetical, but still difficult enough to extract from Nietzsche's text that an affirmation or denial of the idea itself is difficult.
In general, though, most of Nietzsche's propositions and affirmations are difficult to accept or reject. At the very basic level, Nietzsche unequivocally rejects the possibility of truths that are definitive, objective, final, or universal. He is not interested in a morality that works for everyone, he is not interested in advancing the causes of everyone, and so any attempt to judge Nietzsche by how well he conforms to the actual reality of the universe he describes will be futile (at least according to Nietzsche). If we disagree with Nietzsche on this very fundamental level, then virtually everything he says can be safely rejected. His basic epistemology is wrong, and therefore his attempts to develop his arguments are entirely wrong-footed. By not grounding his propositions in factual or logical arguments, even in his more philosophically conventional works like Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche fails to approach the baseline standards of acceptable demonstration. It is a mark of definite failure that he makes truth-claims that can be refuted, without even attempting to provide a defense for them. If, as readers, we believe in something approaching an objective epistemology, then Nietzsche holds virtually nothing for us. He makes some potentially true indictments of modern society, admittedly, but so do many other nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors. Certainly, there seems to be nothing about his ideas (especially when they have been paraphrased) that would necessitate being expressed without proper logical backing. Are there any claims he makes that could not have also been made in more tempered language, with a stronger grounding in the fundamentals of philosophical discourse? Since Nietzsche does not even attempt to do so, if we judge him with an objective epistemology, he will come up fairly short.
If we attempt to go to the opposite extreme, and decide that the truth or falsity of a claim can only be determined internally by a conscious observer, and that opinion or personal preference is all that matters, we avoid definitive rejection but run into the quagmire of arbitrariness and banality. In this opposite extreme, where everything is just, like, our opinion, man, the question of whether we agree or disagree with Nietzsche's contentious claims becomes so idiosyncratic as to be incommunicable and trivial. Our decision of whether or not we agree with Nietzsche has no bearing whatsoever on how anyone else might choose to feel, and in fact would be virtually uninfluenced by the actual content of Nietzsche's writings themselves. There would be no point in discussing or critiquing Nietzsche's writings, since any author's opinion would surely be irrelevant to anyone but that author. It can be tempting to read Nietzsche this way, as it can be tempting to view any conversation that features a dispute of opinions, since such a stance removes any stigma attached to disagreement. Such a read may be more consistent with Nietzsche himself than an objective, universal analysis, since Nietzsche is explicitly opposed to those who seek objective truths and is more interested in personally-created conclusions and values.
But such a read is not entirely consistent with Nietzsche's own views, since he certainly does not seem to be ambivalent about whether or not anyone accepts his propositions. Using metatextual reasoning, on the grounds of his personal devotion to writing and rejection of the academic establishment, it seems that he was seriously concerned with his project and resentful of his works' poor reception. Nietzsche writes that his audience does not yet exist, but he still seeks an audience who will be capable of receiving and acting upon his ideas. While Zarathustra may speak from the overflowing within him, rather than out of a desire to effect change in the people he loves, it seems that Nietzsche is at least attempting to be persuasive. To read Nietzsche as someone only concerned with wholly private opinions is to react too strongly against universal epistemologies. We personally disregard that view of things, since it renders the entire enterprise of communication and analysis moot. If only our private thoughts matter, then pages of examination and evaluation are definitely wasted. For the sake of our own ego, we believe that it is ineffective to read Nietzsche from such an insular, independent perspective.
In between extreme subjectivism and objective universal thinking, there exist a range of possible intersubjective values. They may not be universally valid regardless of observer, and they may not even be valid for all human observers and thinkers, but they are held in common by groups of people. Perhaps it is upon these shared but not universal values that Nietzsche can make his case, relying on shared aesthetic and moral values to develop his points. That would certainly explain his pessimistic view of contemporary audiences as incapable of understanding his works; without the appropriate values shared by Nietzsche and his audience, no persuasion can be possible. Instead, Nietzsche must write philosophies for the future, which anticipate shifts in valuation that will result in greater common ground. Which values might Nietzsche be hoping to capitalize on? There are some that he states as explicitly as he states anything. Certainly Nietzsche writes of the affirmation of life as one of the highest ideals, and so the standard of life as good can be taken to be fundamental to understanding and assessing Nietzsche. With somewhat less clarity, Nietzsche asserts the value of noble life in particular, preferring the elite of humanity to its general population. The difficulty of determining what is and is not noble seems difficult, if not circular. Could it be that the noble is merely he who creates the value of nobility and himself? In some passages, it seems that Nietzsche takes this stance, and writes of the noble as the value-creator and the self-affirmer. Nietzsche also values aesthetics, and good taste, so any common ground should include some refined and discerning palette. He expresses this expectation in the preface to The Antichrist, writing that the book belongs to only those who are dedicated, above the majority of humanity, appreciative of new music, and self-reverential. There seems to be enough in Nietzsche to suggest that, on his texts' own terms, it would be most appropriate to judge them on intersubjective standards.
Even here, we run into problems. It is possible for readers to glean a set of intersubjective standards that Nietzsche is relying on. It is less apparent that Nietzsche himself has been able to develop his arguments in a way that actually relies on them. Intersubjective standards may be more difficult to express than objective or universal standards, but it is still possible to explain one's definitions and standards and to clearly develop propositions from those standards. Nietzsche's consistency actually makes it more difficult for us to judge him, even with standards that can be derived from the text; his disdain for the academic establishment and philosophical style lead him to reject it in his own writings.
A more fundamental barrier to adequate judgment comes from the fact that Nietzsche himself is questioning the value of all values. He explicitly states that he is questioning and destroying the value of concepts like truth, morality, and equality. His program is a transvaluation of values, a replacement of all contemporary values with ones that are better. The problem is that "better" is still defined in terms of some values, whose own value Nietzsche is unable to examine. Why should anyone agree with the value of nobility in favor of the value of equality? A variety of responses exist, perhaps most persuasively the idea that nobles positively affirm themselves, but that merely raises the question of why we should value those who affirm themselves. It seems that Nietzsche's earth-razing critique of all values leaves him with little to stand on, unless he is writing only for an audience that, essentially coincidentally, happens to hold the same values that he does. This is less implausible than the reading of his works as wholly idiosyncratic, but it does mean that agreement or disagreement with Nietzsche can be ascribed to the coincidental divergence of values.
There exist several reasons and excuses that one might have to disagree with Nietzsche, and all of these can be brought to bear in any of the examined judgmental frameworks. One common way to disregard the works of Nietzsche is to assert that he was insane, and such an unreliable thinker that anything he says cannot be taken seriously. Admittedly, perhaps some of ideas are valid, but presumably those will be reiterated in clearer, more compelling form by sane authors. We can therefore bypass the entire issue of critically assessing Nietzsche by saying that his psychological state precludes the possibility of his correctness. This may not be too opposed to what Nietzsche himself may have recognized, since he explores the constraints which physiological and psychological composition place on authors. Nevertheless, it is unfair to bypass a serious interpretation of the text by employing metatextual arguments.
A similar argument that works outside the text is the recognition that Nietzsche had a very narrow vision of who his readership could be. Since the vast majority of readers are not appropriate readers for Nietzsche, how can we blame ourselves or him if we do not agree with him? We reject his claims because we are incompatible readers, not because he is wrong or because he is right and we misunderstand him. This line of thinking allows us to guiltlessly disagree without condemning, to amicably disregard the text and walk away with a "let's agree to disagree." There are simply too many fundamental differences in worldview between the author and the reader, by no fault of either, for any understanding, communication, or persuasion to take place. If we think this way, then we are at least broadly working within the framework of Nietzsche's text and an intersubjective standard of judgment, since we are recognizing Nietzsche's derogation of most readers and the possibility that he relies on distinct but shared values.
A final possibility to render agreement or disagreement with Nietzsche a trivial matter is to entertain the notion that he was ironic, at least wherever it suits us. We can do away with his unpalatable claims regarding racial purity and the poisonous nature of the Jews by saying that they were an ironic expression of a critique of modernity, not a genuine expression of belief. His defense of eugenics is a satire of Enlightenment optimism, not an actual call for standardized breeding programs. Zarathustra is an inversion of the prophet archetype, a preacher who seeks no followers and expresses few ideas, who condemns those whom Christ beatified. The assumption of irony can allow us to selectively denature Nietzsche's texts, removing any particularly objectionable elements by revealing their double-edged and insincere nature. Modifications of this technique can work for other clearly non-ironic aspects; the assertion of non-politicality and extreme metaphorical nature allows a judicious reader to render much of Nietzsche harmlessly in line with the status quo. The will to power is not a political statement about how a certain group of exceptional people must actually dominate everyone else. Nietzsche certainly did not write Objectivist pieces. Instead, the will to power is a metaphorical explanation of the fundamental natural drives in people, and a call to personal integrity and value-creation. Nietzsche does not literally mean that the Jews are conspiring against all that is good and noble, he is merely using them as a metaphor for the general subconscious subversion of noble values. Disagreeable aspects of Nietzsche wither under the revelation that they are not meant to be taken as veridical, and we can happily look at his works as relatively harmless. This particular method of appraising Nietzsche is at least somewhat supported by the text, since there are clearly places, particularly in Zarathustra, where he is being extremely non-literal. With several passages that are explicitly non-literal, and some that are critical in a way that suggests ironic intentions, it is not entirely unmotivated to read Nietzsche as an ironic figure whose most contentious assertions are not what they appear to be at all.
Ultimately, none of these identified methods of reading and assessing imply a definite falsity to Nietzsche's claims. He is rarely internally inconsistent in ways that cannot be justified as playing with words and manipulating expectations, and even if he were his texts would indicate that he is not concerned with strict consistency. If we attempt to assess Nietzsche with his own standards, we will rarely find reasons to wholly and emphatically reject him. Perhaps more significant, though, is that we can easily find convenient ways to avoid affirming him. Whether we write his entire body of works off as failures of formal style, as the products of a deranged mind, or as so idiosyncratic that agreement or disagreement is based more on coincidence than justification, we can easily come up with reasons to refrain from embracing Nietzsche's claims. By interpreting him as a sufficiently ironic figure, we can transform the texts into ones we agree with without unduly distorting their contours. Admittedly, there are some people for whom Nietzsche can be evaluated in terms of his arguments set out. If someone actually is in Nietzsche's ideal readership, and holds the same values that Nietzsche does, then he or she can assess whether Nietzsche's propositions are defensible by those values. For most, however, the question of whether to praise Nietzsche or condemn him is made moot. Whether we disagree with him in a way that casts no aspersions on him or those who agree with him, or agree with him in an idiosyncratically incommunicable way, assessing Nietzsche leads to a non-committal place.