This article was last modified on June 9, 2007.


Selling Nietzsche Short

In the history of philosophy, the man who often stands alone is Friedrich Nietzsche. Honored by some, reviled by others… he is such a polarizing figure. Why do some people marginalize Nietzsche or try to simply discredit his value in modern society? I believe that while it can certainly be said that Nietzsche and his philosophy has its flaws, the man should be praised as one of the biggest philosophers and influences in the field.

The Marginalizing of Nietzsche

I have been aware of the Nietzsche’s second-tier status amongst intellectuals and educators for some time, but it came as a shock to me in the spring of 2007 when I was tutoring Introduction to Philosophy and I found that Nietzsche had been removed from the syllabus, despite my having been taught about him in the same class by the same professor. Bertrand Russell was present, Gabriel Marcel (a far more minor figure) and Erich Fromm appeared. But Nietzsche was absent, having been replaced by the virtue ethics of Aristotle and Alistair McIntyre.

So, now Nietzsche was being ignored by his own people (philosophers), further putting him in the category of people you quote for impressing 12-year old girls (as some great man once said, whose name I forget). I once took a class (“19th Century Philosophy”) where Nietzsche was covered and we were asked not so much about his theories, but simply “Is Nietzsche a Philosopher?” as if putting him in the class was a controversial move in the first place. Even liberal journalist Daniel Lazare weighed in recently with a derogatory dismissal, summing the man up as “Nietzsche, the favorite philosopher of overwrought 16-year-olds.”

Am I alone with Walter Kaufmann left to defend the man who gave birth to the 20th century?

Support for Marginalization

I understand why there is a push for the marginalization of Nietzsche. In fact, a few very good reasons exist. Not least of which is that, as Lazare implies, he is appealing to adolescents and yes, he has an adolescent style. But that is simply dismissing adolescence out of hand when surely Lazare recognizes the spirit of rebellion lies strongest in young adults.

The biggest complaint can be summed up as follows: Nietzsche has a poor system. Indeed, he really has no system, as much of his writing is either polemic or anecdotal, often in the form of aphorisms. Strong philosophers such as Hegel and Kant have a clear-cut system that can be followed logically — their points are made by the systems they create, rather than from their emotions and attitudes. While other great philosophers are not systematic (Bertrand Russell is largely a polemic writer and even Plato was primarily a writer of dialogs), this is a quality many have found to be very necessary.

The other great flaw with Nietzsche is that his ideas aren’t as crisp and clear, and in many instances may even be contradictory. Because Nietzsche wrote paragraphs at a time in many cases rather than entire books, his ideas aren’t tightly linked. And sometimes the younger Nietzsche can be quoted to argue against the older Nietzsche. Fro ma teaching point of view, this makes his ideas very difficult because a student can take nearly any position and support it with Nietzsche depending on the source.

Not that other philosophers haven’t changed their minds, and not that some sense can be made of Nietzsche if one goes through his work as a whole and deduces what is correct and applicable and what is simply error. Yet, it is understandable that teaching a man who is contradictory and largely seen as spouting off his opinions wildly would be frowned upon.

Why We Must Teach Nietzsche

Despite Nietzsche’s lack of system and difficulty to be taught in one or two class periods, his dominance over modern thought requires he be taught and the denial of Nietzsche to students is really a disservice if they are to understand philosophy, politics or history of the past one hundred years.

The influence of Nietzsche is amazing, and outside of the giants of Plato, Aristotle and Descartes, it may be the most influential in the world today. The political scene of the 1930s and 1940s were indirectly a work of Nietzschean thought, culminating in the National Socialist (Nazi) movement. Nietzsche was misquoted and misused by the Nazis (who adopted both his political ideas and love of Richard Wagner), but an influence just the same. An entire class could be devoted simply to the connection between them. And for anyone to deny that the Nazis played a key role in the 20th century would be asinine.

A case could be made that the biggest school of philosophic thought in the past hundred years (and still to some degree today) was existentialism, primarily that of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre and other existentialists owe a huge debt to Nietzsche (as well as Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky) for their groundwork in existentialist thought. Sartre could be seen as more directly influenced by Edmund Husserl (who was, in turn, influenced by Frege and Brentano) and Husserl should be taught (even if he is vastly more complicated than Nietzsche or Sartre), but to teach Sartre without Nietzsche (as the professor mentioned in the beginning is currently doing) leaves a large gap in the flow of thought.

While hardly academic, there is something to be said about Nietzsche’s influence on pop culture. His quotations are now in common usage by those who have never heard of him (“God is dead”; “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”) and many movies and songs have gained some insight from the man. I think this is primarily true of the 1990s, with the rise of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson and the very nihilistic themes they espouse.

The most important reason to teach Nietzsche, though, is that his ideas have merit on their own. His concept of the eternal recurrence is a legitimate ethical viewpoint, the revaluation of values is a hard-hitting look at historical morality, and his critique of Christianity and socialism is, if not through, sincere and as valuable today as it was then. The decline of religious authority in our daily lives along with the questioning of moral foundations is a philosophy that was a long time coming, and is something we must struggle to deal with. What is the grounding of morality?

Conclusion

I understand the position of those who wish to put Nietzsche in his own little box, or put him in the corner like a misbehaving child. There is something tempting about taking the odd man and removing him, or being afraid of the one who yells “fire” in a crowded theater. But to label Nietzsche in any of these ways without really looking at what he was saying is selling him short. Underneath the reactionary exterior is a man of wisdom and insight.

Teaching Nietzsche responsibly (that is, covering his theories fully and objectively) should be a part of any philosophy class’s curriculum. His influence on other philosophers, politicians and media figures is undeniable. Perhaps his impact is felt the stronger on adolescents and rabble-rousers, but even these adolescents grow up to be solid members of the community. To not understand Nietzsche is to misunderstand a sizable block of mankind.

Sources

Lazare, Daniel. “Among the Disbelievers,” The Nation. May 28, 2007.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

4 Responses to “Selling Nietzsche Short”

  1. James Skemp Says:

    Ah, but where would Kaufmann really be without Nietzsche?

    Seriously, I’m not sure I follow why it is that because he is quotable he should not be ignored. Shakespeare is quotable, but that doesn’t mean he’s a philosopher (although perhaps his writings are philosophical). The same could be said of Dostoevsky. Or Freud.

    While I agree that Nietzsche does do philosophy, perhaps you’ve hit on something that he is not one that can easily be cut into chunks, with one important exception; Beyond Good and Evil.

    As for Sartre, I’ve never taken a philosophy course that’s actually gone over his philosophy (and if I’ve taken one that’s touched on existentialism, I can’t remember it). In fact, with the exception of Descartes, I’m under the (mistaken?) impression that while the French may do philosophy, nothing has come from it since the time of Descartes – the rest is simply literature …

    Put another way; how many people would you have to stop on the street before you found a half a dozen people who could talk to you about existentialism?

  2. gavin Says:

    James, thanks for the response… you’re precisely the sort of chap I need to help clean this mess up.

    You’re right in suggesting Kaufmann’s career is largely due to his analysis and translations of Nietzsche, but his other work is notable, as well. For someone who really just leeches off Nietzsche, try R. J. Hollingdale (I may likely be misspelling this).

    The point, and I think you know this and are being largely sarcastic for the sake of argument, is not that someone is noteworthy as a philosopher because they are quotable. I would say that if someone is quotable, they should be discussed in their relevant field (English class without Shakespeare is pretty vacant) but this was not the overall point. I was just adding that as support for the idea that Nietzsche is the father of the 20th century. I do truly believe that he, more than anyone, had direct influence on those 100 years. (I think Dostoevsky and Freud should also both be discussed as philosophers, and have been, as you know. Freud’s religious commentary is quite cogent and insightful.)

    I agree that Nietzsche is often not easily cut into chunks, but I think you’ll find he’s more often easy to follow than in just Beyond Good and Evil. I’ve read all his works aside from Will to Power and many follow a single theme. His first one, The Birth of Tragedy, is probably the most fluid of them all. And as I already noted, Plato was not one to write out his beliefs directly (so far as I know) and is today concerned the greatest philosopher of all time by a large percentage of people.

    I have had Sartre in two courses, and I feel his work is important. You’re primarily right that the French philosophers are more often working in literature than philosophy, but don’t discount Voltaire, Camus, deBeauvoir, Stendhal, the Marquis de Sade, etc. You’re right many of these people work in literature, but they also have works of philosophy (which is not to say the literary works aren’t also philosophical).

    I don’t know how long it would take to find 6 people who know what “existentialism” is, but I do believe very much it wouldn’t take long to find 6 people who have existentialist thoughts or feelings — the absence of gods and the growing meaninglessness and absurdity of the world is something not hard to come by.

    Now I have to find how to address these issues within the body of the essay…

  3. Metanoia Says:

    I think the reason Nietzsche’s so misunderstood is because he represents such a radical departure from traditional analytic philosophy. He elevates passionate, experiential truth over frigid conceptual truth – as he says, the truth is that which is “life-affirming”. He wants us to see and experience the the world differently – this is the essence of his perspectivism. To that end, he engages in rousing and emotionally charged rhetoric, which, while perhaps lacking in logical argumentation, is certainly effectual in inspiring new perspective. I think you’re right – to dismiss Nietzsche is to dismiss an essential alternative voice in Western thought.

    On another note, it really is testament to the historical misunderstanding of Nietzsche that the ideas he’s most associated with – militant nationalism, anti-Semitism, and nihilism – are precisely those against which he fulminated.

  4. Metanoia Says:

    I think this quote from Daybreak is particularly relevant:

    “It is not enough to prove something, one has also to seduce or elevate people to it. That is why the man of knowledge should learn how to speak his wisdom: and often in such a way that it sounds like folly!”

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