Moray Coast

Friedrich Nietzsche - Study Notes


These notes are based in part on “Nietzsche” by Michael Tanner (OUP Very Short Introduction Series, 2000), augmented by material from other sources. Michael Tanner is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and a Lecturer in Philosophy.

Nietzsche was a poet, a literary critic and a literary theorist as well as a philosopher. Since these notes are intended to concentrate on his philosophy, I have omitted a detailed account of his work outside of philosophy as such, so this is not a full summary of Tanner’s book.

Born in 1844, Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran pastor and was educated at the Universities of Bonn and Leipzig. A brilliant student, at 24 he was appointed professor of classics at the University of Basel. His many friends included composer Richard Wagner and his intellectual interests comprised art, poetry, music and literature, plus philosophy. His health was never good and he had to resign from his professorship in 1879, spending the next ten years at resorts in Italy, France and Switzerland. He became insane in 1889 after contracting syphilis, and he died in 1900.

According to Tanner his work influenced ‘anarchists, feminists, Nazis, religious cultists, socialists, Marxists, vegetarians, avant-garde artists, devotees of physical culture and archconservatives’. In Europe his work influenced existentialists, phenomenologists, critical theorists, post-structuralists and deconstructionists. Even some analytical philosophers have found he was not so remote from their own interests. As Tanner puts it, Nietzsche had appeal for ‘many disparate schools of thought and anti-thought’.

The obvious question is why? What explains his appeal to such divergent groups? Possibly he had discovered some profound, universal truth, so profound as to command universal assent. If so, then he would have revolutionized the whole of human thought and he would have gone down in history as the most important philosopher of all time. But this did not happen – he has remained a somewhat eccentric figure, very much on the sidelines of mainstream philosophy.
A likelier explanation is that his thought – or rather, his thoughts – were so disparate that different people could read into his writings whatever they wanted to read into them. Maybe his writings were inconsistent, saying different things, and there is evidence for this. Most professional philosophers take particular care over logical congruity and consistency between one point and another; the ‘cardinal sin’ is to be caught in a self-contradiction, but this did not seem to worry Nietzsche. There can of course be differences of interpretation over a complex writer such as Kant, but few would accuse Kant of being inconsistent let alone self-contradictory. But on Tanner’s account, Nietzsche never produced, or attempted to produce, a cohesive set of ideas (let alone a system of ideas) where one point leads to another. In fact Tanner refers to ‘his frequently expressed loathing of systems’, especially Hegel’s.

Nietzsche’s most important publications (out of many) were probably The Birth of Tragedy (1872), a work of literary theory, and the epic poem Thus Spake Zarathrustra (1883-92), regarded by many as a masterpiece. Literature and poetry were his major interests; philosophy was more of a sideline where he produced no major work but a large number of essays of varying lengths, written at different times, published in books as collections of essays. They were often quite short, ‘verging on the aphoristic’, discussing a vast range of subjects. They were largely very negative in nature, expressing a dislike of contemporary civilization together with the view that ‘we are living in the wreckage of two thousand and more years of fundamentally mistaken ideas about almost everything that matters’.

In many cases his views are ‘vague, probably contradictory, reflecting frequent changes of mind’. All this makes the task of the scholar trying to summarize Nietzsche’s thoughts exceedingly difficult. I think it also explains how and why so many disparate groups have been able to quote Nietzsche as a justification (of sorts) for their own views.

Nietzsche was radically opposed to the ideals of the liberal enlightenment. He contemptuously dismissed democracy in favour of the ‘ubermensch’, the ‘Overman’, a sort of dictator; he was aggressively atheistic, attacking not only Christian ethics but also the utilitarian ideal of humanistic benevolence; he admired the unconscious and destructive side to human nature, despising the calm, conscious rational side. It is not clear whether his beliefs were attitudes, or whether they were the conclusions of reasoned arguments.

But he was a first-class writer of prose, and his mastery of language and style goes a long way to explain the appeal of his writings to so many people. It has been said, incidentally, that even though we cannot properly describe his writings as ‘philosophical’ in the modern sense of conceptual or logical analysis, Nietzsche could more appropriately be described as an essayist, an aphorist or a social critic in the tradition of Montaigne, La Rochefoucault and others (whom he had carefully studied).

On the other hand there are certain aspects of his views which are of philosophical interest. For example, against the positivist assertion that ‘there are only facts’ (and no objective values), he said ‘no, facts are precisely what there are not, only interpretations’. The difficulty is, if that statement is true then it is a fact itself, so he has in effect contradicted himself by producing a counter-example to his own argument. It is reminiscent of the so-called ‘liar paradox’, known since ancient times. If I say ‘the sentence I am saying at this moment is false’ then, if it’s true, then it’s false, and if it’s false, then it’s true. Somehow, I don’t think Nietzsche would have cared. I do not think the niceties of logical analysis had any interest or appeal for him at all, which makes him a somewhat unusual philosopher, rather like a physicist who can’t be bothered with mathematics.

It is possible of course that he was being disingenuous in saying there are no ‘facts’ – if you can argue this convincingly, then you don’t have to worry about awkward issues such as factual accuracy and you can be as imprecise as you like. The problem then is, you’re putting yourself on the same level as a hack-journalist. I hope Nietzsche wasn’t doing that.

Then again, perhaps we should take a more charitable view. Tanner records at p10 that Nietzsche was more inclined to assess metaphysical ideas ‘by their beauty rather than for their truth’. Maybe Nietzsche was a highly competent and accomplished poet and literary theorist who had wandered into philosophy by mistake.
He was an enthusiastic advocate of ‘perspectivism’, a view held by a number of philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein.

Logicians find it of interest too, whilst not necessarily subscribing to it. It is a truism, of course, that no one person perceives or experiences the world around them in exactly the same way as another person. Arguably, I can only experience the world around me from my own perspective – there is no ‘perspectiveless view’. Knowledge is always limited by perspective.

But if pushed too far, perspectivism can lead to fallacy. It is one thing to say that ‘the world’ as we perceive it can be interpreted through ‘different, alternative systems of concepts and beliefs’, but it is another thing to say that there is no way of determining whether any one belief-system is ‘truer’ than another, or that there are no ‘facts’. This building is quite large viewed close-up and it looks smaller from a distance, but its dimensions can be measured exactly and are nothing to do with ‘perspective’.

It is important not to confuse perspectivism (often called ‘relativism’) with Albert Einstein’s Theories of Relativity which were about space, time and velocity in the universe as a whole. Einstein was not writing about local perspectives or individual differences of perception.

Perspectivism is also associated with the notion that ‘what’s true is what’s true for me’ and I don’t have to question my own beliefs and I can cheerfully ignore the views of others. This can often be harmless enough, although there can be important exceptions. But what’s wrong with perspectivism considered as a serious philosophical thesis? Firstly, by its own ‘logic’ of asserting the validity of different perspectives, then other perspectives contrary to it such as objectivism must be equally true. But if objectivism is true then perspectivism is false, so perspectivism ends up refuting itself.

Also, look at the detail. Taking an example from religion, there is ‘monotheism’, belief in only one god, and polytheism, belief in many gods. On the ‘logic’ of perspectivism we should say they are both equally true. Unfortunately it does not make sense to say that there is only one god and that there are many gods. These are statements which cannot both be true; if one of them is true, the other must be false, and they could even both be false (maybe there is no god or gods at all). The same goes for anything else you wish to talk about. More broadly, it is arguable that perspectivism enables you to say whatever you like on any subject at all with no regard for awkward questions such as accuracy or veracity.

None of this should be confused, incidentally, with cases in everyday life where disagreement and disputes can involve all sorts of different points of view or ‘perspectives’ of varying validity. Conflict of interest can raise all sorts of dilemmas in relationships, ethics, politics and in law. But these issues, though very important, are not the same as what we are presently discussing, namely ‘perspectivism’ as a general theory of knowledge or of truth.

It should come as no surprise to learn that Nietzsche’s concept of truth was unconventional, paradoxical, bizarre, confused and confusing. The two ‘official’ theories of truth which have predominated in Western philosophy are the ‘correspondence theory’ and the ‘coherence theory’. The first defines ‘truth’ where a belief, an idea or a statement corresponds with whatever is observed through perception, discovery, investigation etc.. The second defines ‘truth’ as coherence between an idea or a belief with a body of other ideas or beliefs which are already known to be true. The full elaboration of both these theories is highly detailed and complex, but central to both of them is the concept of veracity which distinguishes truth from opinion, falsehood or conjecture. It is of central importance in science, law, ethics and our everyday lives.

From what I glean from Tanner’s book, there is no evidence that Nietzsche took any interest in either the correspondence theory or the coherence theory. They are mundane, almost pedestrian, after all – they are hardly exciting. Nietzsche regarded truth as a value, certainly, but this is almost a platitude. We can readily agree that truth is or ought to be a value in view of its importance and necessity in science, law, everyday life and so on.

Nietzsche emphasized ‘the will to truth’, ‘our fundamental value’. Again, if this means that truth is very important and that we should pursue it, avoiding falsehood, fallacy and conjecture, we can readily agree. But Nietzsche had very different ideas in mind. For him, what was true was whatever was ‘life-affirming’, so that ‘the basic value of truth is in fact derivative from other, more instinctive, values’. Here, he meant the instincts to survive and to dominate. So he was not interested in truth ‘as such’; he conflated it with questions of value. This is very different from the ‘impersonal’ definitions of truth we have just looked at such as the correspondence between a statement and a state-of-affairs, or the correctness of a definition.

So what were his own values? These were the values of his noble, dominant ‘superman’ who despised the wretched and the weak and came out on top of the struggle for life. As Tanner remarks, ‘such a philosophy would place itself beyond good and evil’. Nietzsche went so far as to say that ‘the falseness of a judgment is not for us necessarily an objection to a judgment’ (Tanner, p72). This puts him beyond logic too. This is all very interesting, but can we take him seriously? Why bother to think rationally about anything at all?

At this point we should take a closer look at Nietzsche’s views on ethics. But what is ‘ethics’ as a subject of study? Firstly there is descriptive ethics which gives an account of what different human beings or groups of human beings believe to be right or wrong, or good or bad. Then there is normative ethics which is to propose a particular moral principle or definition of goodness which human beings should follow, for example utilitarianism recommends that the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people should be the general principle to follow in human affairs. Analytical ethics concerns itself with the semantics of ethical terminology, for example does the word ‘good’ literally describe an attribute of a person or of an event, or is it more an expression of approval or preference?

But Nietzsche’s views on ethics do not fit easily into any of these neatly described ‘compartments’. Tanner says (p19) that ‘he was possessed by a vision of the world as a place of such horror that any attempt to give meaning to it in moral terms is simply impossible’. He angrily rejected explanations of suffering in terms of the good it does us as retribution for our wrongdoings ‘and the rest of the clap-trap that rings down through the millenia’. We shall return to this theme in just a moment.

Nietzsche did not write on ethics as a philosopher might on questions of moral terminology, or to propose some special theory such as utilitarianism. He was writing more as a historian of ethics and as a commentator. He was particularly interested in the relations between a doctrine or a belief and its historical or social origins – it was irrelevant or beside the point to make philosophical enquiries as to its objective truth or otherwise.

Nietzsche emphasized ‘the contingency of our historical position, and thus of our values’. He was not a moral nihilist but a moral relativist, although this did not mean he viewed morality as arbitrary or ‘just a matter of opinion’. He rejected the notion that morality is defined in terms of ‘the preservation and advancement of mankind’, but he accepted that morality is required by any society that is to survive. He also meant much more than this – morality should have a creative dimension; we should become ‘artists of life’, and there had to be ‘faith in opposite values’. This is not a contradiction-in-terms in a logical sense; it is the recognition that different, contrary values can each have importance in different situations, which is not an unreasonable view, as well as the recognition that those who hold different positions can learn from each other.

Having noted that morality in Western civilization was originally based on Christianity, he wondered what should replace Christian ethics if belief in God receded, as he believed was the case. His claim was that ‘God is dead’ (metaphorically, at any rate). His question then became, what should count as human excellence if the traditional Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity receded? Of course, he rejected the humble day-to-day virtues of ordinary people such as humility, hard work etc.; these were much too herd-like, a contemptible ‘slave morality’. Excellence, for Nietzsche, meant the ideal of a ‘new man’ whose virtues are achievement, dominance and leadership, ideals which set aside pity for the weak which he despised. Like Marx, Nietzsche had a deep sense of the crisis within 19th century industrial society, but whilst Marx glorified the proletariat, Nietzsche despised it.

On the other hand it is very understandable that suffering was central to his views on ethics and on God. His health had always been poor throughout his life and he had first-hand experience of pain and discomfort, which he bore with commendable stoicism. But it would be trite to ‘explain away’ his thinking on suffering as personally biased. The problem is how or why a supposedly benevolent and all-powerful deity should have created a world full of pain and evil, an issue which has always concerned theologians and philosophers of religion.

An answer sometimes given is to say that evil is the creation not of God but of human beings who possess free will and do wicked things of their own volition. But we can still ask, why did God create human beings like that in the first place? Nor is it clear how human wickedness can explain natural evils such as pain or disease, or disasters such as floods or pestilence, for which human beings cannot be held accountable. Although we can understand Nietzsche’s rejection of the idea that pain is God’s punishment of us for our sins, another point he could have made is how could this apply to the sufferings of animals who are non-moral agents but who can, it is believed, suffer pain? Maybe he did make that point – I don’t know.

There is an interesting difference between Nietzsche’s philosophy and that of most other philosophers. They, for the most part, seek to understand the world around us, but Nietzsche was more interested in changing the world around us. In many ways Nietzsche despised the world of learning ‘where everything becomes a matter for discussion and nothing for action’. He was scornful of university philosophers. Understanding the world is all very well, but his question seemed to be ‘what are we going to do about it?’ So his will to ‘truth’ was really about the will to power. His dislike of God was closely related to his alternative belief in destiny which, given the will, we can control for ourselves.

One note in passing, it is not clear whether he took any interest in ‘predestination’ or in ‘determinism’, both of which, in their different ways, are contrary to his belief in free will. Determinism is the thesis – or suggestion – that ‘free will’ is illusory; all events, including our thoughts, feelings and actions are all part of an unalterable chain of cause-and-effect stretching back into time indefinitely. How can this leave scope for human responsibility and choice? We feel we are ‘free agents’, but what if this feeling is illusory? Like Nietzsche we would probably reject the idea of determinism out of hand, but how exactly could we prove it is false? It is still being discussed.

Nietzsche took a great interest in language, as do many other poets, literary theorists – and philosophers. In his view, language does not ‘reflect’ reality, if anything it distorts reality, or even falsifies it. Of course, he recognized that language enables us to impose some sort of order and systematization of our raw experience so that we can control it. But language also distorts reality through over-simplification, and ‘rational thought’, for him, also distorted reality. The difficulty is, what do you replace it with? Or how exactly do you improve it? I think Nietzsche recognized there might be a problem here. Nietzsche preferred to believe in the ‘superior veracity’ of action and will. This sounds bold and imaginative but it is not clear how, exactly, ‘action and will’ can address problems in semantics or linguistics where a dictionary might be more helpful. He was, after all, talking about problems with language.
But ‘action and will’ are curious words to use in connection with semantics and related questions of logic and truth or falsity. I wonder, in fact, whether Nietzsche was entirely clear about the difference between questions of logic, concerned with reasoning, and questions of psychology such as ‘action’ or ‘will’. Traditionally the ‘laws of logic’ were held to be fixed and unalterable, for example the most basic one is the law of non-contradiction – to say that ‘everything is what it is not’ does not even make sense. But what if the ‘laws of logic’ are only the creations of human minds? This is the thesis of ‘psychologism’.

On this basis the laws of logic are in principle alterable and cannot therefore have absolute validity. Such a notion would be very agreeable to Nietzsche who believed in the ‘superior veracity of action and will’. Unfortunately, to abandon the laws of logic only leads to nonsense, for example ‘black cats are not black’. This is why the laws of logic cannot be ‘contingently’ let alone arbitrarily true: they are necessarily true, and cannot be otherwise. No amount of talk about ‘the superior veracity of action and will’ can make any difference.

Philosophers are perfectly well aware that ordinary language is frequently imprecise, vague, ambiguous and so on. There is no one panacea for this problem, although the development of symbolic logic in the 19th and 20th centuries went a long way to resolve various puzzles and ambiguities. Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Descriptions and Gilbert Ryle’s study of ‘systematically misleading expressions’ also made notable contributions. Philosophers and logicians have always taken a detailed, analytical approach, for example mathematician Gottlob Frege (the greatest logician since Aristotle), Wittgenstein, Tarski, Quine and many others. They had nothing to say about the ‘superior veracity of action and will’. I could be wrong, but I think Nietzsche had wandered into a deep, highly complex and specialized field of study about which he knew very little.

In appraising Nietzsche it is important to remember that he was first and foremost a literary theorist and a poet – of the highest competence. Poets, artists and literary theorists value creativity and the metaphorical, figurative use of language. By contrast scientists, mathematicians, logicians, lawyers, legal theorists and philosophers are more concerned with precision and the literal use of language.
As we have seen, Nietzsche also had deep interests in human society, its culture and its history, and he took a great interest in the historical and social origins of human beliefs. His views on moral relativism sounded cogent and constructive. He was a very perceptive social commentator - social commentary and philosophy are not quite the same thing, of course, although many philosophers have also been social commentators such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill or Bertrand Russell.

When Nietzsche asserted ‘God is dead’, I do not think he meant this as a literal statement of fact. He was writing metaphorically about the long-term decline in religious faith in the modern era, and its consequences worried him. These were perfectly valid concerns – if people no longer believed in a deity which prescribed the laws by which they should live, what would take its place?

For Karl Marx the answer was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Bentham and Mill proposed the principle of Utilitarianism, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, as the overriding principle which should regulate human affairs. I think Nietzsche would have rejected all these ideas, preferring his grand vision of the ‘new man’ who through will, strength and determination would triumph over fate and destiny. But it is not clear what exactly this would have meant in practical terms. Some people, rightly or wrongly, have suggested his thinking was a precursor to that of Mussolini or Hitler. We can only speculate.
March 2015.