Tamsin Shaw, Nietzsche's Political Skepticism
Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-691-13322-5 $24.95
Reviewed by Saul Tobias
An increasingly large portion of recent publications in Nietzsche studies concerns Nietzsche's political thought. The main fault line in this scholarship runs between those who believe that Nietzsche provides a normative account of politics, including an account of the proper ends of government and of the institutional means for the attainment of these ends; and those who believe that no such positive account of politics can be found in Nietzsche's thought. On this basic question, Shaw sides with the skeptics, but not because, as others have argued, Nietzsche's intellectual commitments lie with metaphysics, or cultural and aesthetic philosophy, rather than with politics. On the contrary, Shaw insists that Nietzsche's interest in politics is longstanding and substantive. She offers a brief but illuminating account of Nietzsche's close identification with the political views of Burkhardt and the Basel School, which opposed Ranke's nationalist historicism and the Bismarkian pursuit of the Kultuurstaat ideal. Such views, which remain influential on Nietzsche's thought, are neither a- nor anti- political but represent a thoughtful defense of the appropriate ends of culture and scholarship and the dangers of a political appropriation of intellectual and cultural independence by the state.
Hence, Shaw does not dispute the seriousness of Nietzsche's interest in politics but rather shows that Nietzsche saw no way to square political realities with his philosophical and moral commitments. The core of her argument concerns the problem of normative political authority, and this is where her distinctive contribution to discussions of Nietzsche's political thought lie. Shaw argues that with the decline of religious belief, which effectively connected normative values to social and political institutions and justified certain political arrangements, politics and philosophy diverge onto different paths. Following secularization, the modern state, which cannot rule by force alone, must pursue legitimacy through appealing to values endorsed by the general populace. Ideally, these values would be consistent with philosophical and scientific truth, and in upholding these values, the state would appeal to its citizens' powers of reason, but this is rarely the case. For the most part, normative legitimacy and hence political authority are produced through forms of ideological persuasion that depend on appeals to emotion, tradition, and cultural and political prejudices. This is where politics fails for Nietzsche. Endorsing recent views concerning Nietzsche's moral realism, Shaw argues that Nietzsche upholds the belief that reasoned thought, when freed from the blinders of religious or cultural prejudice, can distinguish between true and false moral judgments. The problem is that such truth is difficult to obtain, available at best to those few who have the requisite philosophical experience, and, above all, is difficult to convey to a general populace lacking the requisite personal qualities or training. Hence Nietzsche's political skepticism: given his commitment to the philosophical pursuit of moral truth, no political dispensation, given its need for popular consensus, is likely to advocate unpopular or philosophically demanding views, such as those that Nietzsche might advocate, as the basis of its claim to normative authority.
Because Shaw's argument centers on the problem of political norms, most of the book is occupied with an analysis of Nietzsche's views on morality and the question of his moral realism or antirealism. As a result, the book engages only cursorily with the extensive secondary literature on Nietzsche's politics, and has little to say about the substantive arguments made in those works concerning the picture of political life and political institutions that may be constructed from Nietzsche's thought. The argument that Shaw makes and the evidence on which she draws can hence be countered by arguments highlighting different passages from Nietzsche's work that suggest his commitment to a higher unification of culture and politics, exemplified in a distinctive notion of Grosse Politik, or of a radical transformation of politics by leaders of exceptional power and charisma. These are certainly problematic notions in Nietzsche's thought, and their precise meaning for politics as conceived in the traditional western philosophical tradition remains unclear, but they nonetheless offer grounds for questioning the consistency of Nietzsche's skepticism regarding the inherent incompatibility of politics and higher moral or cultural commitments. Furthermore, Shaw views politics through the lens of classical political theory, which is concerned above all else with the origin and justification of political authority. Hence she overlooks the value of Nietzsche's thought for politics conceived as forms of individual and communal action that may affect relations of powers, the distribution of resources, or the institutions of the state, but which may not necessarily include a final account of the normative grounds of state authority.
Shaw's intention is to pose a narrowly delineated problem concerning the implications of Nietzsche's moral realism for the question of normative political authority. The result is a carefully written book that contributes a valuable strand to the increasingly variegated cloth of Nietzschean political thought. Yet the broader questions, provoked but not seriously addressed by Shaw's book, are these: if the moral values that Nietzsche may endorse are incompatible with politics conceived as the practical problem of the legitimation of state authority, does this mean that Nietzsche has no positive contribution to make to political thought? Or rather, does it mean that the meaning and scope of the "political" must itself be widened beyond that of classical political theory? If the latter is true, then the catalogue of scholarly work on Nietzsche and politics is likely to grow for some time yet.