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Nietzsche: genius or idiot?

February 6th, 2006 · 6 Comments

A review of Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate by Lawrence Klepp takes on the Nietzsche myth, quote at end of post. I read half way through the book, quite long, and stopped, if only due to lack of time, and turned to R. J. Hollingdale’s Nietzsche (now in paperback, and it contains the claim that Nietzsche plagiarized his early prize essay in school!?).
Isn’t Nietzsche overrated?

Consider this from Hollingdale:

The most profound difference between Nietzsche’s mature philosophy and Schopenhauer’s is that Nietzsche’s is not metaphysical but materialistic, and his will to power an induction from observed data not a metaphysical postulate like Schopenhauer’s will to live. We have seen how Nietzsche was able to reconcile his enthusiasm for Schopenhauer with an admiration for F. A. Lange’s History of Materialism, and when his enthusiasm cooled he was led to adopt a position so like Lange’s that we are justified in seeing a direct influence at work. Lange was, like Schopenhauer, a follower of Kant, but with a decisive difference. According to Lange, ultimate reality is not only unknowable, as Kant maintained, but the very idea of it is a consequence of the way we think; that is, the concept of the thing-in-itself is part of the phenomenal world. Translated into Schopenhaueran terms, the will is nothing but one more idea. Because even the idea of ultimate reality must belong to the plane of appearance, says Lange, nothing meaningful can be said about it, and philosophers must concern themselves only with the material world-the world of phenomena, the only world we know. Although he occasionally forgets this and writes about the will to power and the eternal recurrence as if they were descriptions of ultimate reality, Nietzsche’s true position is in no
doubt: both are materialist conceptions as defined by Lange, and this is brought home very clearly by his general attitude towards the ‘beyond’, the ‘real world’ and the thing-in-itself: so far as we are concerned, he says again and again in different ways, these things do not exist. The most famous formulation of his ‘this-sided’ orientation is ‘God is dead': it is intended to imply all that ever has been or ever could be subsumed in the name ‘God’, including all God-substitutes, other worlds, ultimate realities, things-in-themselves, noumenal planes and wills to live-the entire ‘metaphysical need’ j of man and all its products.

If this passage is correct, then I wouldn’t call Nietzsche a philosopher of genius, but a real klutz, second rate. This is just mess of pottage thinking, the kind of thing that will have great appeal for positivistic culture–and, oh yes, Darwin idiots. The issue is not materialism, but getting Kant and Schopenhauer straight. Clearly Nietzsche was unable to do that, and the idea of the will to power as an induction from observed data is such baloney one is left speechless.
That Schopenhauer braved the mystery of Kant’s noumenon (he shows an invisible influence from Fichte) with his consideration of will could be called the beginning of the fiasco, but at least Schopenhauer was clear in his mind, and never tried to trash the basic insights of Kant.
What a tragedy! You don’t get lucky here, I guess. Such a small matter with such a horrific consequence.
Perhaps Lange is at fault here too.
But in the final analysis the confusion is Nietzsche’s on a question our age period apparently will never get straight.
The question of Kant and the noumenal is rarely understood and a figure who claims genius as Nietzsche did is simply pretentious in his realization at such a punk rock level.
I wouldn’t underestimate the bad influence of Darwin here either.
From the Review:

The decisive event in Nietzsche’s intellectual life had come in a used bookstore when he was 21. He picked up a volume of Schopenhauer by chance and was immediately transfixed by the dark, sardonic vision of the world as a phantasm driven by an irrational, malign cosmic Will, with the only escape in aesthetic experience, where the will is momentarily quieted in detached contemplation. Already devout about art and especially music (“Without music, life would be a mistake”), he was smitten with both the idea of redemption through art and the notion of a mysterious, pulsing force coursing through the world. But he eventually turned Schopenhauer upside down, transforming the futile willing that art allows us to escape into a Dionysian creative will, the “will to power,” that art and artist consummate.

For Nietzsche, the “death of God” had foreclosed the possibility of transcendence through a spiritual world, traditionally attained by renouncing this one and, with it, the life of the body and the senses. Art, which engages the body and senses but also involves a creative self-overcoming, a constant reaching into the unknown, becomes a way of giving life in this world a sense of transcendence. But the secular, progressive, democratic vision of social equality and technological comfort offered by socialists or welfare-state liberals would, by removing risks, challenges, and disciplines from life, remove with them the conditions for creative genius and the highest art, maybe even a higher humanity (the suspicious character known as the Ãœbermensch).

This accounts for the bombastic ranting of Nietzsche’s “atrocious anti-democratism,” as he himself put it, and the ranting accounts of his fascist fans, though after his breakdown the distortions and forgeries of his sister Elisabeth–who embraced (literally, she married one) the nationalists and anti-Semites he despised–in effect substituted the rant for the philosophy. Nietzsche proposed that all anti-Semites be expelled from Germany, denounced the proto-Nazi racial theorists of his day, and regarded the Jews as an essential component of the new aristocracy of “good Europeans” who, he hoped, would rescue European civilization from the “decadence” exemplified by both nationalism and socialism as well as artistic decline. Cate, like Walter Kaufmann, has no trouble separating him from his most toxic disciples. But his legacy is still ambiguous, and the shorter book by his German philosophical biographer Safranski does a more scrupulous job of sorting it out.

Nietzsche’s philosophy was the aestheticization of life. He thought life is necessarily shaped the way artists shape their materials, and once we admit this–and admit that it’s inherent in and essential to life itself–tonic, life-enhancing aesthetic judgments can be substituted for moral judgments everywhere, and a new, epic sense of politics driven by visionary artist-aristocrats will follow. Add to this Nietzsche’s mile-wide sadistic streak, his reiterated affinity (which appears only in his later work) for cruel barbarians, conquerors, strongmen, Cesare Borgia, and Napoleon, and you get a recipe for disaster. Cate deplores the “dangerous” passages in Nietzsche’s work, though he doesn’t quote some of the most dangerous, such as this one from Ecce Homo: “That new party of life, which takes charge of the greatest of all tasks, namely the improvement of humanity, including the relentless destruction of all that was degenerate and parasitical, will make possible again that excess of life on earth from which the Dionysian condition must once more grow.” While correctly arguing that Nietzsche’s ideal was not racist or nationalist or militarist, and that he couldn’t possibly have been a fascist, Cate fails to see the way in which his work nevertheless helped create the political and cultural atmosphere in which fascism and National Socialism emerged and won intellectual converts.

Tags: General · History

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bob the Chef // Dec 29, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    Nietzsche perhaps wasn’t so much a philosopher as a poet, with an intellect keen enough to see, or at least the balls to say, the hypocrisy of his day, and indeed our day, distilling form it the essential human condition w.r.t. God. Oh, yes, much of what he wrote is utter nonsense, and when I write what I’ve written above, I don’t write it absolutely or with an unshakable conviction in the wisdom of his words. Rather, there are central points, beneath all the rant and vitriol, which point to deep insight. He may commit errors of excess or deficiency, but the point of departure, that which he either exaggerates or understates, suggests at least a confused perception and awareness of essential truths about human relationships, motivation and purpose.

    Re: his induction from observed data, what the heck? How is the Will to Life any less induced than the Will to Power? Both are either the results of reflection, or imagination.

    An to be honest, any crushing force against Kant specifically and modern philosophy in general is welcome, particularly rationalism. Nietzsche is, in that respect, an enjoyable satirist. Some have even called him the only honest atheist to have every lived, for being the only one that understood the meaning of “unchaining the earth from the sun.”

  • 2 Darwiniana » Nietzche the decadent // Dec 30, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    [...] http://darwiniana.com/2006/02/06/nietzsche-genius-or-second-rate/comment-page-1/#comment-355523 [...]

  • 3 Thomas // Mar 9, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    @Bob

    So.. you consider Nietzsche worthy of study not because of what he wrote, but because of some parts of what you think he meant in what he wrote (“beneath all the rant and vitriol, which point to deep insight”) ?

  • 4 Darwiniana » Pop Nietzscheanism // Mar 10, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    [...] http://darwiniana.com/2006/02/06/nietzsche-genius-or-second-rate/comment-page-1/#comment-356689 [...]

  • 5 Ronald Bushnell // Jun 3, 2011 at 2:15 am

    Clearly Nietzsche had some serious issues with women; being the typical arrogant pig of a man of the time, turning his lip into a vagina facsimile. His simplistic rationalizations for the emulation of Darwin’s survival model as a means to achieve the over-man ignore, the obvious exclusion of the highest evolution of human spirituality, such as compassion and love; in his vision of the heartless creature that will exploit in its pure form for any advantage. Nietzsche entire approach seems to be an overcompensating reversal of all that is associated with the hitherto rise of man; not even fearing to exclude morality, rather than seeking to pull from the muck what is good to wash and take to the shop to refine. After reading his books, this humble artist has decided this man needs a good eyebrow trim. It would be interesting to to bring Fred into the present to see the advances in machine intelligence; and watch his expression as he realized that the over-man is coming soon.

  • 6 nemo // Jun 3, 2011 at 5:59 am

    good points: I am not sure why academia is so unwilling to expose the reality here. Will upgrade this comment to a post today. /nemo

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