Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Immortal Nietzsche

The following paper was written by an eleventh grade student in my Introduction to Philosophy class.  It deserves a wide reading.--Alice C. Linsley

Perspectives of the Immortal Nietzsche
John A. Williams

In 2009 I had my first run-in with Friedrich Nietzsche. While on a trip with my youth group to Ichthus Music Festival in Wilmore, Kentucky, I was walking around the merchandise tent with my youth minister when he saw a t-shirt that caused him to be overwhelmed with joy. It stated in bold white all-caps font against a black background:


My youth minister chuckled gleefully and commented on how clever he found the message. I asked him if Nietzsche ever claimed immortality (he would have had to for me to find the joke to be even remotely humorous). He gave me an odd look and a shrug. I knew little of philosophy as a whole apart from that it was a subject that was generally restricted to members of academia and I wondered why, of all of the atheist philosophers of history, this one, over a century after his career, was drawing the mock and ridicule of this festival of the faithful.
I later learned what I believe to be the reason. Although Nietzsche would have claimed not to be the killer of God, but only the deliverer of his obituary, he undoubtedly drove the nails into the coffin of Christendom, and has not been forgiven, even to this day, for his trespasses against the Church. One might ask, “How did he do it?” Most would say that his book, Antichrist, was his most effective assault on religion. I would disagree. Although Antichrist was his most explicit critique of Christianity, Nietzsche attacks all organized religion (and organized philosophy, for that matter) at its core by encouraging nonconformity and individualism, adopting skepticism and open criticism of authority as a way of life.          
 Nietzsche undoubtedly saw Kierkegaard’s attempt to reconcile Christianity with this new existentialism and the grief that it caused him[i]. Through his own existentialism, Nietzsche starts with a new premise, taking Kierkegaard’s work to its logical conclusion, not only rejecting the organization of religion, but the belief systems that built it; casting off Kierkegaard’s faith in paradoxes and encouraging his readers to develop their own existential perspectives.  This is the aspect of Nietzsche I wish to further explore with this essay. Nietzsche’s entire philosophy is built around a profound epistemological claim that everything that a person knows is built around the compilation of perspectives.
When considering the thoughts of any philosopher, there is always controversy regarding how much their social milieu affected their philosophy. In a British Broadcasting Channel documentary, Martin Heidegger said of Aristotle “He was born, he thought, and he died.”[ii], and explains that after we get that bit of biographical information out of the way, we can begin to explore his abstractions. Of Nietzsche I would state that he was born, he thought, he fought, and he died.
It can be said that Nietzsche was a social critic as well as a philosopher, which offers some insight on his continued relevance and influence. He spent his life philosophizing and creating concepts, and from them deriving applicable principles which he used to war against the culture which he perceived as anti-intellectual. His basic existential philosophies are timeless and easily observable in psychological observation and the human experience, but his expressions of these thoughts were fine tuned to break down the philosophies of the time that opposed his.
Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844 in Rokken, Germany. His father was a Lutheran pastor and he accepted the family religion until his college studies. It has been speculated that Nietzsche’s philological studies profoundly shaped his beliefs. Through his linguistic studies, he realized how morals were shaped through society and communication, and characterized two sets of observable moralities in every social: that of the master and that of the slave.[iii]
One part of Nietzsche’s personal life that must be considered to understand his philosophy is his sexuality. In his early life, he asked his love, Lou Salome, to marry him, and she declined.[iv] It is noted historically that Nietzsche was extremely unlucky with his romantic interests. When one hears theories (albeit disputed) about Nietzsche contracting syphilis at a brothel (which ultimately is speculated to have lead to his madness), it almost seems that he was cursed by sex. I would theorize that the social anxiety resulting from his trouble relating to women caused some of his negative (at best condescending) attitudes toward them. These attitudes also correspond with his infamous generalizations.
At first glance, it seems hypocritical that Nietzsche would categorize people, as Existentialism, the school of philosophy in which he is commonly categorized (and considered one of its fathers, particularly of its atheistic branch) is highly individualistic. This can be explained by acquiring an understanding of Nietzsche’s rhetoric. He was not a mathematician, and his arguments were not entirely comprised of fact and syllogism. He had no shame in not only disagreeing with, but openly ridiculing his opponents. Oftentimes, in attempts to make relevant observations of humanity as a whole, pure individualistic consideration and psychological evaluation was not an option. Nietzsche saw too many correlations within people groups for that, and was entirely content with depersonalization of humans when he perceived that they had forfeited their individualism. During his life, much as today, Nietzsche was a magnet for controversy, and he did not earn this reputation by being relativistic and sympathetic in his scrutiny.
I view Perspectivism as Friedrich Nietzsche’s primary contribution to the philosophical project. In this epistemological theory he explores human consciousness by explaining that everything that is knowable must be known through compiling numerous perspectives, and weighing them against each other in order to advance understanding. His views of identity, individualism, existentialism, and the ideal of the Superman are all derived from this base level theory.
What must be understood of Perspectivism is that it does not imply that all perspectives hold equal validity. Perspectivism is a development that is meant to help the individual come to terms with abstraction and explain the subjective in relation to the objective. Certain abstractions may be seen as invalid because they do not correspond with physical reality. This is because what exists in the abstract must be learned through an understanding of both the abstract and the physical.
The subjectivity in Nietzsche’s philosophy deals more with aesthetics and myth than with propositions. He by no means believed that truth was relative, quite to the contrary, truth in his view is supreme and ultimately beyond human grasp. The human, after all, is in too close relation to other mammals and too young in its own consciousness to grasp eternal truth. Everything that is eternal can only be reached through metaphor, an indirect sort of understanding.
What made his philosophy cohesive and set some perspectives on a higher plane than others was logic. If any perspective appears to be too closely related to a human construct or puts itself beyond question, it should be cast aside. If it puts a synthetic moral ideal like pity above a naturally observable function like the will to power, it should be rejected.
Through this insight into the basis of Nietzschean philosophy we can see why it was built into the philosophy that it was. It also decisively opposed Nietzsche’s two worst enemies; nihilism and dogmatism. Most empirically leaning individuals would agree with this Perspectivism, and most rationalists would at least agree that it is a well thought out empirical theory. When it comes to disparagement regarding Nietzsche’s philosophy, it usually regards the conclusions that Nietzsche reached as a result of having these fundamentals.
Ironically, much criticism of Nietzsche is made on the ground of his personal morality and how it affected his ideas, which is a concept that he came to reject altogether. For any other philosopher, moral criticism would be dismissed in favor of a valid criticism of fallacy and ideological inconstancy. I will offer Nietzsche the same courtesy.
My critique of Nietzsche regards his view of free will. In Beyond Good and Evil he dismisses either the idea of free or bound will as “boorishly simplistic”[v]. In this passage, Nietzsche reveals that he is capable of understanding paradox and, when he sees it valid, acknowledging it even if it jeopardizes his previous philosophies. In light of this, I must question his view on extra-dimensional existence. I would think that an analytical philosopher like Nietzsche would consider the possibility of entities that cannot be detected by any sort of human observation. I have yet to find evidence that he ever considered this question but, to be fair, I would not put it past him. I doubt Nietzsche considered any dogmatic view of spirituality, but it would not be shocking to find some consideration of phenomena beyond human understanding in his thoughts.
Nietzsche is one of the most thought provoking and culturally relevant philosophers of the 19th century. His Perspectivism has shaped much of western philosophy since his career and his contributions to existentialism have inspired countless individuals to take a more introspective approach to their time on earth. It is my opinion Nietzsche’s analytical approach, regardless of how I perceive his conclusions, is a vast assistance to any philosopher hoping to achieve a greater understanding and come to conclusions of people and ideas through their perspectives. Although, as the t-shirt states, Nietzsche is undoubtedly dead, his ideas live on and don’t show signs of dissipating any time soon. 

[i] McDonald, William, "Søren Kierkegaard"
[ii] Tranter, Rhys, "Human, All Too Human”
[iii] Wicks, Robert, "Friedrich Nietzsche"
[iv] Wicks, Robert, "Friedrich Nietzsche"
[v]  Nietzsche, Friedrich, “Beyond Good and Evil”

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Related reading:  Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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