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Philosophizing against Philosophy: Nietzsche’s provocation of the philosophical tradition

By Volker Gerhardt


1. An artist as philosopher

Despite periodic doubts, Friedrich Nietzsche does indeed belong to the great thinkers. Even though his work remained unfinished in nearly every respect, and though many of his thoughts are exhausted in exalted gestures and there is in his writings not one insight which cannot be found somewhere else — despite all this, he has become a classic figure of philosophy. And though the jury is still out on whether the 19th Century is reflected in him in grand distortion, or whether he himself was just caricaturing it, his œuvre has long since become an integral part of the philosophical tradition. Within only a few decades of his reception, the provocateur has become a standard author, to whom journals, book series, research institutions and academic associations owe their name. Nietzsche simply cannot be ignored, neither by those who seek profound insights into human existence, nor by those who seek a pointed diagnosis of the times and their problems, nor again by those who seek the apex of human self-portrayal oder even just a judgement about philosophizing. He is the modern classic par excellence.

However one may estimate the value of this classic of philosophy who revolts against all things classical: Nietzsche is and remains an exception by virtue of his demand not only to be received as an artist, but to be himself a kind of art work. In the tradition of authors who were received through their work, Nietzsche has great predecessors, such as Plato, Seneca, Dante, Voltaire, Rousseau or Schiller. Yet with regard to the artistic form of his own existence, he is singular: his aesthetic will is not merely limited to his own musical, poetic, prophetic and aphoristic production. In his work, he seeks to achieve nothing less than the aesthecization of his own existence. Herein lies Nietzsche’s Romantic heritage. He takes up impulses from Novalis, Hölderlin, and Byron and is particularly close to Kierkegaard, of whom he presumably knew nothing at all. The Romantic period is the great water shed of European thought. It divides time between two-thousand five-hundred years of scientific enlightenment, on the on hand, and the much-sought culture of a secular unity of body and feeling on the other. Nietzsche is the first to have attempted to draw consequences from this for the intellectual history of epochs.

With this intention, Nietzsche attempts to give his very life an artistic form. In so doing, he does not orient himself on the closed composition of a single work of art. Neither the image nor the sculpture, neither the symphony nor dramatic poetry serve as his ideal. He is interested rather in the process of tragic action and events, such as are expressed in ever new configurations by the interplay between the protagonist of Attic tragedy and the chorus. Nietzsche aestheticizes the polarity between individual and collective into a hermetic event in which the individual climbs to the peak of his powers, only to necessarily fail. Construction and destruction, becoming and passing-away lead to a rhythm of return in which not only life is led, but cultures are also constituted. What is decisive in all this is not the end and point of termination, but rather the rise and decline of powers experienced in an historical act. His first work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), is dedicated to the presentation of this movement. The title of this book could be the baptismal verse for the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who wished to replace the once familiar tones of sacral choral and organ music with those of the music of Richard Wagner.


2. The question as to the value and meaning of life

It is hard to deny the claim that Nietzsche’s thought defies systematic order because it is too manifold, erratic and contradictory. And yet there are central interests, recurring themes and perennial questions which dominate his works. The first phase of his philosophical thought, beginning with the first Basel Lectures and the BT, and ending with Dawn, may be put down to the rubric of the formative question as to the value and meaning of existence.

The question as to the meaning of existence ties into long-standing topics in metaphysics. Yet the explicit thematization of “value” and “meaning” first occurs at the end of the 18th Century. “Value” is a term which arises from the field of national economics; “meaning” becomes current through the anthropological turn initiated by Kant, and is picked up by Schiller, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Feuerbach. With his monograph from 1865, Eugen Dühring attempts to give a philosophical answer to the question as to the “value of life".[1] Nietzsche demonstrates that his own approach is free from popular considerations in his answer to this question such as we find it in the 9th section of the second of his Untimely Meditations. Here Nietzsche brings the metaphysical horizon of the question as to the “world” down to the point of the existential question as to the meaning of the “self”: “Why the ‘world’ exists, why ‘humanity’ exists, this need not concern us for the present moment […], but why you, individual, exist, this ask yourself” (2. UM 9; 1, 319).

Because of the logical force of this turn to the individual self, Nietzsche cannot provide a general answer to this question, but only one which is related to the self, or rather: to himself, to him personally. This must be taken into account when one reads his answer, in which he refers to a general “you”: “why you, individual, exist, this ask yourself, and if no one can tell you, then try to justify the meaning of existence a posteriori by setting for yourself some purpose, some goal, some ‘therefore’, a high and noble ‘therefore’. Perish in pursuit of your goal – I know no higher life-purpose than to perish in the pursuit of something great and impossible […].” (2. UM 9; 1, 319).

Nietzsche’s answer to this question as to the meaning of life thus has two parts. In the first part, Nietzsche advises the individual to leave off from any meaning granted ‘a priori’ (such a meaning would, he argues, not even be intelligible as a meaning), and to set himself his own goals. These individual goals should be “high” and “noble”, und they should demand the best of the individual. In the second part of his answer, Nietzsche reflects on the consequences of a self-defined meaning of life for the world. In so doing, he remains true to his premise that there can be no pre-existing sense of existence. If, then, the ‘world’ in and of itself has no meaning, then there is nothing left of our own meaning. Thus even the “greatness” of a deed must “perish”.

With this a pattern emerges which Nietzsche was to repeat in questions concerning the meaning of culture, history, science, morality and art: he rejects the usual common-places, then denies that there is a generally binding answer, and demands in everything the productivity of the individual.

This bears the mark of heroism, yet it must lead to the destruction of all previous positions, for there is then nothing more in the world or in some state of affairs which would really be worth our effort. Nietzsche “denudes” and “unmasks” and reduces the pre-dominating views of philosophy, together with everyday beliefs, to trivial motives. “Self-preservation”, “inertia”, “weakness” or “vanity” are motives which Nietzsche invokes all the more gladly, the greater the social prestige of the opinion he seeks to destroy.

Beginning with Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche lays claim to the title of “psychologist”, and he professes a program of radical Enlightenment for which he invokes Descartes and Voltaire as authorities. At the same time, he calls the Enlightenment into question and thinks it is possible that understanding and reason are merely instruments of human self-deception. Even truth falls under the suspicion of being a particular kind of lie. This is of some consequence, for if Nietzsche’s critique were to forego the claim of being correct and justified, it would be meaningless. He must affirm that Enlightenment, reason and truth do in fact exist – at least for himself and his readers. In fact, in turning to that which is human, all-too-human, Nietzsche invokes great enlighteners from the first Greek sophistic movement to the European tradition of moralists. Gorgias, Protagoras, La Rouchefoucault and Voltaire are named repeatedly. This makes the discrepancy between his intellectual premisses and the emotional consequences of his message all the more apparent. Despite the self-contradictions to which Nietzsche falls prey in this way, and which significantly diminish the philosophical value of his critique, his aphorisms are nonetheless entertaining. They may also be witty and full of acumen, and they have certainly provided inspiration not only for literature and the fine arts, but also for psychology, particularly Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis.

The manner in which Nietzsche poses his questions concerning value and meaning is intelligible, but only in light of a pair of forces which we find even before the disillusionment of HA. It is with an antithesis arising from this pair that Nietzsche sought to explain the dynamic of Greek culture. All meaningful historical development arises from a conflict between two powers. The one power is productive and creative; it creates forms and makes bounded, internally meaningful units of experience possible. Its destructive antipode is the power which destroys all. Nietzsche calls the creative power "Apollinian"; the pleasurable drive to destroy unities of intelligible experience is called "Dionysian". Both pleasure-giving powers create, in their combative interplay, the epochal achievements of culture.

In the opening sections of the BT, Nietzsche portrays the dynamic polarity of Apollinian and Dionysian forces as a kind of dialectic which constantly creates anew through construction and destruction. It is the battle of these two antithetical principles which permitted the early Greeks to swiftly develop the simple song into artful poetry and then, later on, the all-encompassing art of tragedy.

As Nietzsche does not limit this description to the history of Greek culture, he postulates this dialectic as a kind of law of motion in history. It is a principle which he will later repeatedly place over and against the model of a continual increase in cultural achievements. He tends to think in cycles and especially in terms of renaissance, and he shuns the linearity of a continual progression. He nevertheless remains close to Hegel’s conception of history, because he assumes that the process of construction and destruction will yield an (albeit imprecisely defined) dividend. Dionysus and Apollo, too, are made responsible for the manifest development from simple odes to the stylized drama of choral poetry. Thus Nietzsche also takes the side of the power of Apollo, the power of endowing unities of experience with meaning. In the end, every destruction has the purpose of creating better conditions for more opulent growth. And yet this expectation of a continuing development of powers following intermittent decline is that which Nietzsche refuses to grant himself.

That is why he fails to adequately grasp historical events after the decline of Greek tragedy – a process which he cannot even understand in its causes, since he ignores the political factors which are connected with the decline of Greek city-states. Nietzsche blames the destruction of tragedy on one man against whom he brings the most ponderous of accusations, while at the same time transfiguring him into the saviour of humanity. It is Socrates who breaks through the dialectic of both gods of art, without being a disciple of Dionysus. For this act of destruction, which he supposedly accomplishes with nothing but his faculty of reason, he earns Nietzsche’s hatred. And yet despite his sin against tragedy, it is Socrates’ love of wisdom, truth and knowledge which brings it about that humanity has managed to fend off despair until 1872 (and thus has survived). This makes him what Nietzsche calls the “back-bone and turning point” of world history. If we are to understand the paradoxical answers which Nietzsche’s formulates in the 1880s in response to the questions of meaning of existence, we must first examine his contradictory stance towards Socrates.


3. Socrates, the disavowed hero

Socrates, whom Nietzsche often respectfully invokes as the founder of philosophical thought in his Basel Lectures, is presented in BT as an elemental force of theoretical thought to whom all things living and vital fall prey. He is, we read there, a “true monstrosity per defectum”, but one to whom we owe the discovery of theory. But with Socrates’ discovery of theory also comes the loss of productive vitality. It is no wonder, then, that Nietzsche later disparages Socrates as the “wisest gabber there ever was” (Gay Science 340; 3, 569), an “alley dialectician” (HA 1, 433; 2, 282) or as the professor of a “wisdom full of youthful pranks” (The Wanderer and his Shadow 86; 3, 592). At least he earns the honorary title of “free spirit” (HA 1, 437; 2, 284), and Nietzsche does not forget that Socrates is, along with Plato, a “doubter” and “innovator” (D 116; 3, 108).

The recognition and respect which is apparent in these statements is totally absent in Nietzsche’s later writings. Socrates there becomes a “pessimistic mole” (Beyond Good and Evil 208; 5, 137), the advocate of the “herd-instinct” (202; 5, 124), a “plebe” (191; 5, 112) and a “man of the mob” (212; 5, 146). Nietzsche takes no consideration of the fact that, as a sculptor, Socrates at least had learned a recognized trade. He finally loses all restraint and sees in Socrates’ acumen “the wickedness of the rickets” (Twilight of the Idols, Socrates; 4; 6, 69). He suspects that dialectic is “just a form of revenge” (ibid., 7; 6, 70), calls Socrates a “tomfool” und “rude” to boot (5; 6, 70) and asks – as if the answer were clear: “Was Socrates a criminal?” To say this of a man who was unjustly condemned to death and who obeyed the laws of his fatherland is a capital indecency.

And yet Nietzsche’s view of Socrates is marked by deep admiration. He came among the Greeks as a “force of nature” and put everything under his spell by means of “the upmost instinctive powers” and upon the basis of “divine naiveté”. The “terrific gear of logical Socratism” which Socrates set in motion has, according to Nietzsche, not only the brightness of consciousness, but also prepares “something quite enigmatic, unrubricateable, inexplicable” (BT 12; 1, 90 ff.). Nietzsche names numerous qualities which he himself values and which run counter to his claim that Socrates was really nothing more than a “superfoetation” of his own brain. To the contrary, it is rather the case the Socrates possesses a considerable amount of Dionysian potential.

According to Nietzsche’s own invective, Socrates is supposed to be nothing more than an over-cultivated faculty of reasoning. It is thus all the more amazing to learn what a world-historical achievement is attributed to him by his most severe critic – an achievement which resists being characterized only in terms of destruction. In fact, Nietzsche makes Socrates out to be the first ancestor of the world-historical turn in scientific culture! With the pleasure in the kind of contradiction which he himself wishes to sustain, Nietzsche calls him the “mystagogue of science”: Socrates is to have produced the “universality of thirst for knowledge” in the wake of which science would gain the supreme power over all things (BT 15; 1, 99). In his life and death, we are told, Socrates made “universality” exemplary. Only then did it spread “like a net of thought over the entire sphere of earth, with a regard for even the law-like regularity of an entire solar system” (BT 15; 1, 100).

Nietzsche continues this depiction of Socrates as the thinker of globality (not to say: globalization) with the conclusion: “whoever considers all this, together with the astounding height of our contemporary pyramid of knowledge, cannot help but to see in Socrates the turning point and backbone of so-called world history” (BT 15; 1, 100).

What is astounding about this diagnosis is the fact that Nietzsche recognizes the fateful necessity of this epochal shift. One need only cite Nietzsche himself in order to indicate that Socrates inaugurates here nothing less than the salvation of humanity:

"For [as Nietzsche concludes from his thesis that Socrates is the turning point and back-bone of world history] if one were to reckon the entire, unquantifiable sum of energy expended for this world-wide endeavour [of Socratic knowledge] and imagine it invested not in the search for knowledge, but in the practical, i.e. egotistical objectives of individuals and nations, then the instinctive drive to live and the pleasure of life would probably have been so decimated by general battles of extermination and continuing migrations that, given the practice of suicide, the individual might have preserved the last shred of his feeling of moral obligation by simply killing his own parents or his best friend, just like the inhabitants of the Fiji Islands: a practical pessimism which could give birth to a ghastly ethics of genocide based upon compassion […]” (BT 15; 1, 100).

Socrates is, then, the progenitor of a “world-wide endeavour”. If he had not existed, then he could not have seen to it that the destructive energies of humanity would be absorbed through the search for knowledge and the practice of science, and nothing else would have remained but to prefer death to life. For the “pestilent breath” of life would have been unbearable (BT 15; 1, 100). In this way, Socrates becomes the savior of human culture, and notice how: merely by means of the contradictions which he succeeds in generating and maintaining.

Were Nietzsche not so interested in the conservation of culture, then one might find a plausible motive for his sustained criticism of the historical founding figure of philosophy. But as he is concerned with nothing if not the future of culture, it is difficult to make sense of his opposition to Socrates. Nor can the adamant nature of his rejection of Socrates simply be put down to the fact that he seeks to save culture by other means and to give it new sensual and aesthetic impulses. For he must admit that Socrates is not without affective powers and drives, and that, as a sort of "mystagogue“, he disposes of poetic energies which allow him to transgress the boundaries of thought and enter upon the speech of myth. The young Nietzsche is also capable of appreciating Plato’s ability to amplify the teachings of his master, Socrates, particularly by aesthetic means.

What can one invoke, then, in order to explain Nietzsche’s sharp self-distinction vis-à-vis Socrates? Probably only the fact that in Nietzsche’s attacks the very “Sado-masochism against himself” was in evidence which the most perceptive person in his circle identified as the dominant characteristic of this thinker.[2] Nietzsche distances himself from himself. He does not want to admit that he is the person he is. In his battle with Socrates he goes on the defence against his own rationality, of which he indeed possesses much, but which runs counter to his longing for an aesthetic revolution in culture. He wants to be an artist, and it is on account of this somewhat Romantic but nevertheless existential claim that he distances himself from pure theory.

It is with this intention that he makes Socrates out to be the first “theoretical man” who destroys the very thing which can save humanity: namely, art. Despite all this, Socrates is the “back-bone and turning point” of world history. And since Nietzsche wishes to be such a back-bone himself and seeks, together with his “Vorkämpfer” and champion Richard Wagner, to bring about a cultural counter-revolution (BT Preface: 1, 24), he comes to identify himself with the ancient sage Socrates despite the differences with him which he so much emphasizes. This identification is founded in, among other things, his sense of their kindred sensibilities and mental virtues, such as a penetrating acumen, pleasure in criticism and a proclivity for irony.

This psychological reconstruction of a Sado-masochistic projection over more than two thousand years might be somewhat implausible, if not for the evidence [3], to which belongs a note from Nietzsche’s posthumous writings from the Fall of 1875. The note reveals at one blow the intimate aspect of Nietzsche’s own relationship to himself as it is manifest in his relation to his would-be opponent: “Socrates, I must confess, is so near to me that I am almost always fighting with him” (Nachlass 1875, 6 [3]; 8, 97).


4. Zarathustra’s dramatic calling

The meaning and importance which Socrates assumes in Nietzsche’s understanding of himself re-inforces our suspicion that Socrates is bound up with a principle which runs counter to the dialectic of Apollinian and Dionysian powers. The independent power of thought and the irresistibility of criticism and knowledge become manifest in Socrates, and both are capable of interrupting the organic rhythm of cultural progress without ending it. This is important and must be kept in mind, for according to Nietzsche’s own philosophy of history, which requires the ongoing shift and struggle between Apollinian and Dionysian powers, Nietzsche himself should not have written philosophical treatises. He should have written only poetry, he should have danced and sung, and besides this he could have perhaps also composed and performed music, but nothing more. For if we are permitted to take his years in Basel as the Dionysian destruction of classical philology and philosophy, to be followed by years of critique of every-day consciousness and the historical sciences, then as a sequel to all this Nietzsche should have created new poetic figures in which life would be seduced into its own self-continuation by means of art.

In fact, we can interpret Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra in just this way. Here we find the philosopher at work as poet, creating a dream-like figure who shows the way into a new future. The freely invented Persian wise-man emerges from the solitude of his retreat in the mountains, where he holds conversation with only animals and the sun. He descends into the lost world of mediocrity in order to make known the insight he has won in conversation with himself, the animals and the sun. It is this insight only, if anything at all, which can save men and humankind, held captive by their own petty industriousness. Among these men, then, Zarathustra searches for disciples who will spread a tiding for all those who no longer wish to be like everyone else. This circumstance explains why the book is “for all and none”, as we read in the second part of its title: it concerns everyone, but no one wishes to belong to the circle of those to whom it pertains.

The figure of Zarathustra is an Apollinian masking and transfiguration of Nietzsche’s own existence. Forced by his illness to abandon the low-lying cities and towns, Nietzsche indulges in the vision of a reception through others. They are to spread his insights, gleaned from a place high above humanity, in order that “man” may take advantage of a new historical opportunity, despite all his failures. His disciples proclaim “new virtues” written upon “new tablets”. Zarathustra comes down from on high as once Moses had done. Below, the throngs no longer dance orgiastically around a golden cow; they live in a city called the “bright cow”, a city in which a chaotic lack of orientation has come to predominate in the private sphere. The mass is entertained by cheap jugglers and magicians and, in a manner determined by their ressentiments, dismisses the teacher of new doctrines. Each pursues his own little happiness – and “blinks” (Z Preface 5, 4, 19). Great insights into epoch-making goals could only be bothersome interference for them.

And so Zarathustra, like Jesus of Galilee, must go from town to town in search of disciples. It is unclear right up until the end whether he will find even just one who will understand his teaching. The spectacular and ironical apotheosis with which the fourth and last book of Z closes gives us some indication of the scepticism of which Nietzsche is capable, even in his function as visionary. And yet it is a bit excessive for Nietzsche to believe that his myth-work could bring about a “new zero-hour” and lead to a “new era”. One-hundred twenty years later, we can still give no credit to this aspiration. While his interpreters attempt to read the book as a symphony translated into spoken language, the embarrassment of his compulsive imitation of the tone of ancient writings only grows.

Not just Zarathustra’s listeners, but Nietzsche’s readers, too, must feel an uncomfortable perplexity upon being told that those to whom his message is given are the “last men” whose historical mission has long since ended. These last men are admittedly “inextinguishable” and possess the longevity of the “fleas of the earth”, but they have become fruitless, unproductive and petty. They no longer have great goals, they no longer feel “chaos” within themselves, and they are incapable of giving birth to a “star” (Z, Preface 4/5; 4, 17 ff.). And so they are asked to overcome themselves, and to make way for a type of man who is greater. This is the “Übermensch”, a being about whom – as we might expect – one may say very little. But this much is clear: his distance to the “last man” is as great as that of man to ape (Z, Preface 3; 4, 14). It is small consolation when the listeners are told that they are “more ape than any ape”. But whatever the last men are, they are supposed to constitute both a “transition” and a “decline”, at best they represent a “bridge” upon which spirit crosses over to the "Übermensch"(Z, Preface 4; 4, 17). Man in the sense of the humanity of the tradition no longer has any value or meaning here.


5. Two doctrines

Zarathustra’s speeches are rich in insights. Their author deserves to be called wise, for he teaches us much and succeeds in making us reflect and have second thoughts. This is especially true in regard to the relationship between body and mind, for our dealings with ourselves and others, for our moral education, the importance of happiness, the primacy of the virtues or “serenity” in the face of our own destiny. (Whether we may say the same for his judgements concerning relations among the sexes, is a matter of some dispute.)

The author is chiefly concerned with two “doctrines”, the weightiness and abysmal depth of which he extols without being able to articulate the doctrines themselves in anything better than circumlocutions and intimations. The first of these doctrines proclaims the “will to power”. With this the secret of all living things is to be unlocked: every event, we are told, may be traced to a variety of powers which create through their opposition physical, physiological, social and psychological movements, and give rise to the variety of their actions and manifestations in all things great and small. That is why we are told time and again that “everything” is will to power (cf. Nachlass 1885/86 [31]; 11, 563).

From later remarks we know that Nietzsche developed this formula with the ambition of superseding the thesis of “force” as the ultimate unit of nature, a thesis tended by certain physicists who were contemporaries to Nietzsche. He seeks to “complement” the concept of physical force: it should involve not merely an “external” activity, but also an “inner” dimension. This means that mental and psychological factors are elevated to the level of elemental cosmic forces. Nietzsche seeks to overcome the separation of material and ideal, of body and mind, or of reality and ideas in this new foundation for all organic and physical movement.

It is in this intention that “power” and “will” are yoked together as “will to power” and made an elementary unit of force. The invocation of the will is intended to write anthropological perspectivism, from which no form of knowledge may escape, into the analysis of first conditions and principles. The entirety of nature and history is “thought through to its logical conclusion” according to “the analogy of man” (Nachlass 1885/ 36 [31]; 11, 563). There is thus no categorical difference between human action and physical movement. The mechanics of nature is translated into the elementary impulses of life without any sort of qualitative leap. Conversely, all processes of life, including those which are mental and psychological, directly affect physical processes.

Nietzsche could have spoken of “drive”, “instinct” or “longing” in order to express this unity in the dynamic of nature. But he is rather interested in emphasizing the reality of the variety and multiplicity of powers. That is why he chooses the formula of “will to power”, the constituent parts of which each already comprehend the thing that, when combined, is rhetorically amplified. For in the earnest application of the will there is always also an element of power, the power to realize one’s will. And the concept of power is incomprehensible without implicit recourse to that of a will which directs such power as there is. The slogan which expresses Nietzsche’s core concept is thus conceived with a certain rhetorical intention.

A difficulty in this concept lies in the fact that Nietzsche never tires of denying the existence of human volition. If it is true that man has no will, then even an “analogy” to man cannot be a basis upon which to ascribe a will to non-human events and processes. There are similar problems with his often repeated thesis that there is no such thing as freedom, while at the same time directing the highest theoretical and practical expectations to the “free spirit” and the responsibility of man which is derived from his freedom (The Genealogy of Morals, 2, 2; 5, 293 ff.). Here we can only rescue Nietzsche with his own thesis of interpretation, according to which “everything” is, in the end, only “interpretation". In the spirit of this thesis we could say that we may speak of “will” and “freedom” because they express interpretations which are involved in the human “perspective”. All talk of “freedom", “will” or “spirit” remains tied to this perspective; and apart from or outside of this perspective, there is quite literally “nothing". &mdashSuch a relativistic answer to these problems is possible, but is it hardly satisfactory.

But at least we may speak of both freedom and the will with regard to man and human beings. This leads us to conclude that invoking the “will to power” can only make sense from a human perspective. In reference to Nietzsche’s claim that “everything” is “interpretation” one could add that the “will to power” may be seen as fundamental just because it is the smallest conceivable unit of interpretation: will is an interpretation of power, and power is an interpretation of the will.

The second of Zarathustra’s doctrines is treated as a secret. The Persian hermit owes this doctrine to the animals. They have taught him in their speechless way, and as a result he is so moved that he lies for days in paralysis and can finally only stutter inarticulately (Z III:13; 4, 270 ff.). We may assume that this is meant to illustrate the impossibility of teaching the doctrine. Indeed, we learn from Zarathustra only little about it, and from its author Friedrich Nietzsche we hear of it only in posthumous notes. Nevertheless, the unspeakable insight which Nietzsche is supposed to have won while contemplating a pyramid-shaped stone formation at Silvaplana Lake is among Nietzsche’s most famous doctrines.

It concerns the “eternal return of the same”. The metaphysical kernel of the doctrine consists in the thesis that everything which was and is returns – exactly as it was and is. The thesis has only one meaning if everything (quite literally: really everything) repeats itself in just the way in which it was before. Only under this condition can the life of a particular individual be repeated; and this is where Nietzsche’s main interest lies. The doctrine is thus not concerned particularly with cosmic cycles or the repetition of certain types, but with the return of the identical and the very things which make an individual that which he is under the concrete conditions of his existence here and now. The thesis also means that the return occurs not merely once or twice, but “eternally”. And that means that everything must have already repeated itself infinitely often.

In his unpublished papers Nietzsche left notes which were supposed to prove, in the manner of mathematics and physics, the eternal return of the same. Few interpreters have found these sketches convincing, for the logical problem of recognizing a returning identical entity as such without having access to some vantage point outside of eternally returning worlds is insurmountable, and makes this whole business futile. In fact, the thesis may be neither proved nor refuted.

And yet, to judge from the few comments which Nietzsche makes in his published work, a proof is not what is required here. The mere thought that the possibility of the eternal return cannot be dismissed is sufficient. It is this thought which moves and disturbs Zarathustra so profoundly, and which Nietzsche held to be of existential import. For if we cannot exclude the possibility that everything we do in our life (and do freely) will be repeated infinitely many times, then even the most insignificant of our actions takes on the weight of all eternity. Accordingly, we must act with the awareness that everything we do can be willed by us in infinite recurrence. Every moment is seen within the perspective of eternity. That is why the idea of the eternal return is to be understood, in contrast to Kant’s “categorical imperative”, as “Nietzsche’s existential imperative".[4]

As compelling as this interpretation may be, it brings with it a twin regression behind the standpoint of Kant. For, unlike the categorical imperative, the “existential imperative” is not bound to a criterion of universalizability. It also assumes, with its invocation of eternity, the perspective of God. What is more, the advantage of existential relevance is already present in Kant’s own formulation, which always relates the imperative of reason to the “subjective maxim” of the individual in his actions.


6. Experimental answers to questions of meaning

Nietzsche’s later works may be understood as an attempt to find answers to the questions of meaning which he formulated in his years in Basel. The answers are developed in the spirit of a kind of “experimental philosophy” which Nietzsche, in borrowing an expression coined by Friedrich Schlegel, adopts in the 1880s. In Z we find the most general form of an answer when Nietzsche speaks of the “meaning of the earth” and seeks to commit man to the “earth”: “I say unto you, my brothers, remain true to the earth and do not believe those speak to you of super-terrestrial aspirations!” (Z, Preface; 4, 19). But what is the “meaning of the earth”? It is the “Übermensch”: “The ‘Übermensch’ is the meaning of earth. May your will say: may the ‘Übermensch’ be the meaning of the earth“ (Z, Preface 3; 4, 14).

To Nietzsche’s answers to the questions of meaning we may also count his “perspectivism” which is closely connected with the thesis that “everything” is “interpretation” (GS 374; 3, 626 ff.). Nietzsche developes his insight concerning the perspectival relativity of every perception into an elementary anthropological principle. According to this principle, man is constrained and conditioned in all his functions and capacities by his psycho-physical constitution. As we are told time and again in varying formulations, we cannot “look around our own corner”. Whatever we think we may “know” or express as “truth” is subject to the particularity of our nature, our social position and our historical development. “We see all things through a human head, and we cannot cut this head off” (HA 1, 9: 2, 29). From this it follows that truth and knowledge in the strict sense of these terms are not at all possible. Every concept and proposition, and in particular every theory, is the expression of a certain position in which the individual finds himself. Unfortunately, Nietzsche lacks the conceptual means to articulate the difference between knowing and other human functions. We read only that this is a process which transpires in language; we are never told what other features this process might have. If he had only just further pursued his own equation of “truth” and “lie” or his own demand for “truthfulness”, then he would have recognized that knowledge implies a relation between knower and world without which even mere conscious reference to things would be impossible.

It need not be especially emphasized that the thesis of an all-encompassing perspectivism is self-defeating. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would not permit the possibility of there being statements which bear meaning beyond the very instant in which they are uttered. Nietzsche nevertheless believes that custom and convention permit a certain uniformity, which in turn enables us to possess faculties of judgement and action for various and different situations. The motivator for the development of such “conventions”, he suspects, lies in the “inertia” of individuals who, out of mere sloth and laziness, prefer to make their judgements and actions predictable. Yet in so doing, they become prone to making statements which are supposed to make reference to fixed ontological conditions, and this robs us of the spontaneity and variability of existence as lived.

Herein lies Nietzsche’s explanation for his thesis, in equal parts bold and staggering, that the “worst minute of world history” was the one in which human beings discovered “knowing” (On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense 1, 1, 875). In the quest for truth, the “clever animals”, who are dependent upon their flexibility and mobility for survival, become fixated by constants which do not exist. The dynamic character of the world is poured into fixed terms and concepts, and under the influence of these human beings become estranged from their own living spontaneity, and so perish. The question is only: why hasn’t this long since come to pass, and how can Nietzsche dare present his diagnosis in the form of knowledge?

If we wish to save perspectivism from the fact that it is presented in the very medium of knowledge it is supposed to negate, then we must understand it as a thesis concerning the historical relativity of every meaningful proposition. It is in this version that Nietzsche’s perspectivism became an article of faith in the 20th Century. The truth in this commonplace of the relativity of all knowing lies in the fact that the “absolute” truths of philosophy and religion are robbed of their foundations. In this connection, Nietzsche popularizes the critique of knowledge of Immanuel Kant, to whom Nietzsche remained closely connected throughout his life. Yet if perspectivism is to provide an objection against the empirical and logical generality of human knowledge, it negates itself. The “meaning” of truth cannot consist in the fact that the concept of truth is empty, and merely presents an “illusion” in which we meet our demise. And yet we must recognize that this is Nietzsche’s view.

In opposition, or rather: in contradiction to this view of his, the later Nietzsche attempts to advertise a new sort of commitment and, with this, a new future for humanity. He makes himself into the embodied program for the “back-bone and turning point” of history which is to overcome the Socratic period of culture. In this connection he declares himself the consummator of Nihilism, the precursors for which we find in his perspectivist Relativism, his aesthetic Interpretationism, his Amoralism and his often repeated tiding of "the death of God" (GS 125; 3, 480 ff.). And yet, at the same time, he wishes to be the vanquisher of precisely this Nihilism! His “will to power” is supposed to herald in a “grand politics”. In the consciousness of the eternal return of the same, a love of fate is expected to grow, a love in which decisive action and the unconstrained delight in the beautiful are to be forged into a new unity and whole. Finally, the destruction of all received values is to be an epochal overture for the “re-valuation of all values”, which frees man from the baggage of theory and all ethical qualms in order that he may set himself about building a new order in the manner of a joyful and naive child. In this order, the “new virtues” overcome their cold opposition to beauty. Even more: In the new order man may succeed in overcoming himself, even if this success is achieved only by few. Inspired by Darwinism, Nietzsche conceives of man as an animal which is only an evolutionary “bridge” to a new being, one for whom a name has yet to be found. To judge by the description which Zarathustra gives of man, the appellation “Übermensch” can only sound as ridiculous in the ears of this future being as the title of “ape” sounds to human beings.


7. Reception

Nietzsche unifies the pre-dominant themes of both the 18th and 19th Centuries, of Enlightenment and Romanticism, and combines critical reason and mythopoetic longing. It is no exaggeration to call him the most influential philosopher of the 20th Century. He determined the ethos of youth movements and the cultural avant-garde well beyond the First World War, and he gave voice to the atmosphere of catastrophe after the defeat of civilization. He provided the anti-democratic and civilization-hating movements catch-words and slogans up until the Second World War, and inspired the Existentialism and Humanism of post-war society. Finally he became, in the last third of the last century, the preferred authority for all those who turned their backs on modernity, metaphysics, science or religion while at the same time wishing to somehow remain connected with one of them, some of them, or all.

The most important development in the reception of Nietzsche reception in the 20th Century is the attempt to produce a critical edition of his works. This project has put philological activities into motion which were, after Nietzsche, not even thought possible. By means of these activities, historically oriented research is now at the task of exposing the far-flung network in which Nietzsche is connected with his time and Western thought. It is by means of this research that Nietzsche has become the classic of thought which he now is. And he still has the virtue of speaking directly to whomever may read him.


Institut für Philosophie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin



  1. Eugen Dühring (1865): Der Werth des Lebens: Eine philosophische Betrachtung, Bresslau.
  2. L. Andreas-Salomé (2000/1894), Friedrich Nietzsche in seinen Werken, neu herausgegeben mit Anmerkungen von Thomas Pfeiffer, Frankfurt/M.
  3. Dazu: V. Gerhardt: Nietzsches Alter-Ego. Über die Wiederkehr des Sokrates, in: R. Reschke/ V. Gerhardt (Hrsg.), Jahrbuch der Nietzscheforschung 8, Berlin 2001, 315–332.
  4. B. Magnus (1996), Nietzsche's philosophy of the eternal recurrence of the same, Berkeley 1996.



a) Nietzsche’s Works

Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, hrsg. v. G. Colli u. M. Montinari, Berlin/New York 1967 ff. (weitergeführt von: W. Müller-Lauter (†), K. Pestalozzi, N. Miller u. V. Gerhardt) [KGW].

Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bänden, hrsg. v. G. Colli u. M. Montinari, München/Berlin/New York 1980 [KSA].

Briefe. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, hrsg. v. G. Colli u. M. Montinari, Berlin/New York 1975 ff. [KGB].
Sämtliche Briefe. Kritische Studienausgabe, hrsg. v. G. Colli u. M. Montinari, München/Berlin/New York 1986 [KSB].

Werke in drei Bänden, hrsg. v. K. Schlechta, München 1966.

b) Biographical Material

Andreas-Salomé, Lou, Friedrich Nietzsche in seinen Werken (1894), neu herausgegeben mit Anmerkungen von Thomas Pfeiffer, Frankfurt/M. 2000.

Janz, C. P., Friedrich Nietzsche. Biographie in drei Bänden, München 1978 ff. Ross, W., Der ängstliche Adler. Friedrich Nietzsches Leben, Stuttgart 1980.

Schmidt, H. J., Nietzsche absconditus oder Spurenlesen bei Nietzsche, 4 Bde, Kindheit und Jugend, Berlin/Aschaffenburg 1990, 1991 1993 1994.

Verrechia, A., Zarathustras Ende. Die Katastrophe Nietzsches in Turin, Wien/Köln/Graz 1986.
Volz, P. D., Nietzsche im Labyrinth seiner Krankheit. Eine medizinisch-biographische Untersuchung, Würzburg 1990.

c) General Works and Reference

Andreas-Salomé, L., Friedrich Nietzsche in seinen Werken, Wien 1894 (3. Aufl. Frankfurt 1983).

Ansell Pearson, K. (Ed.), A Companion to Nietzsche, Oxford 2005. Danto, A. C., Nietzsche als Philosoph, München 1998.

Figal, G., Nietzsche - Eine philosophische Einführung, Stuttgart 1999.

Jaspers, K., Nietzsche. Einführung in das Verständnis seines Philosophierens (1936), Nachdruck d. 4. Aufl. 1974, Berlin/New York 1981.

Kaulbach, F., Nietzsches Idee einer Experimentalphilosophie, Köln/Wien 1980.

Müller-Lauter, W., Nietzsche. Seine Philosophie der Gegensätze und die Gegensätze seiner Philosophie, Berlin/New York 1971.

Müller-Lauter, W., Nietzsche Interpretationen, 3 Bde, Berlin/New York 1999/2000.

Ottmann, H., Philosophie und Politik bei Nietzsche, Berlin/New York 1987.

Ottmann, H. (Hrsg.), Nietzsche Handbuch: Leben – Werk – Wirkung, Stuttgart/Weimar 2000.

Prossliner, J. (Hrsg.), Licht wird alles, was ich fasse. Lexikon der Nietzsche-Zitate, München 1999.

Safranski, R., Nietzsche. Biographie seines Denkens, München 2000.

Vattimo, G., Friedrich Nietzsche. Eine Einführung, Stuttgart 1992.

d) Interpretations and Studies

Abel, G., Die Dynamik der Willen zur Macht und die ewige Wiederkehr, Berlin/New York 1984.

Bueb, B., Nietzsches Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, Stuttgart 1970.

Colli, G., Nach Nietzsche (a. d. Italienischen v. R. Klein), Frankfurt a. M. 1980.

Colli, G., Distanz und Pathos. Einleitungen zu Nietzsches Werken (a. d. Italienischen v. R. M. Geschwend u. R. Klein), Frankfurt 1982.

Deleuze, G., Nietzsche und die Philosophie (aus dem Französischen v. B. Schwibs), München 1976.

Derrida, J., Sporen. Die Stile Nietzsches. Frankfurt a. M. 1969.

Figl, J., Interpretation als philosophisches Prinzip. Friedrich Nietzsches universale Theorie der Auslegung im späten Nachlaß, Berlin/New York 1982.

Gerhardt, V., Pathos und Distanz. Studien zur Philosophie Friedrich Nietzsches, Stuttgart 1988.

Gerhardt, V., Friedrich Nietzsche (Reihe Große Denker), München 1992, 2006.

Gerhardt, V., Vom Willen zur Macht. Anthropologie und Metaphysik der Macht am exemplarischen Fall Friedrich Nietzsches, Berlin/New York 1996.

Gerhardt, V. (Hrsg.), "Friedrich Nietzsche. Also sprach Zarathustra", in: Klassiker Auslegen, Bd. 14, Berlin 2000.

Heller, P., ,,Von den ersten Dingen". Studien und Kommentar zu einer Aphorismenreihe von Friedrich Nietzsche, Berlin/New York 1972.

Henke, D., Gott und Grammatik. Nietzsches Kritik der Religion, Pfullingen 1981.

Himmelmann, B., Freiheit und Selbstbestimmung. Zu Nietzsches Philosophie der Subjektivität, Freiburg/München 1996.

Höffe, O. (Hrsg.), "Friedrich Nietzsche. Zur Genealogie der Moral", in: Klassiker Auslegen, Bd. 29, Berlin 2004.

Klossowski, P., Nietzsche und der Circulus vitiosus deus (a. d. Französischen v. R. Vouillé), München 1986.

Löw, R., Nietzsche – Sophist und Erzieher, Weinheim 1984.

Löwith, K., Nietzsches Philosophie der ewigen Wiederkunft des Gleichen, Berlin 1935.

Magnus, B., Nietzsche's philosophy of the eternal recurrence of the same, Berkeley : Univ. of California Press, 1996.

Magnus, B., Nietzsche’s case, New York 1993.

Mann, Th., Nietzsche Philosophie im Lichte der heutigen Erfahrung (1947), in: Reden und Aufsätze, Gesammelte Werke in 12 Bdn, Bd. 9, Frankfurt a. M. 1960, 675 – 713.

Meier, Th. Nietzsche. Kunstauffassung und Lebensbegriff, Tübingen 1991.

Nehamas, A., Nietzsche. Leben als Literatur (a. d. Amerikanischen v. B. Flickinger), Göttingen 1991.

Pieper, A., „Ein Seil geknöpft zwischen Tier und Übermensch“. Philosophische Erläuterungen zu Nietzsches erstem „Zarathustra“, Stuttgart 1990.

Sommer, A. U., Friedrich Nietzsches „Der Antichrist“. Ein philosophisch-historischer Kommentar, Basel 2000.

Stegmaier, W., Nietzsches ‚Genealogie der Moral’, Darmstadt 1994.

Steinmann, M., Die Ethik Friedrich Nietzsches, Berlin/New York 2000. Tongeren, P. v., Die Moral von Nietzsches Moralkritik, Bonn 1989.

e) Historical Influences and the History of Reception

Cancik, H., Nietzsches Antike, Stuttgart/Weimar 1995.

Hillebrand, B. (Hrsg.), Nietzsche und die deutsche Literatur, Texte 1873–1963 u. Forschungsergebnisse, 2 Bde., Tübingen 1978.

Krummel, R. F., Nietzsche und der deutsche Geist. Ausbreitung und Wirkung des Nietzscheschen Werkes im deutschen Sprachraum bis zum Todesjahr des Philosophen. Ein Schrifttumsverzeichnis der Jahre 1867–1900 (Bd. 1) u. 1901–1918 (Bd. 2), Berlin/New York 1974 u. 1983.

Nolte, E., Nietzsche und der Nietzscheanismus, Frankfurt a. M./Berlin 1990.

Reckermann, A., Lesarten der Philosophie Nietzsches. Ihre Rezeption und Diskussion in Frankreich, Italien und der angelsächsischen Welt 1960-2000, Berlin/New York 2003.

Sandvoss, E., Hitler und Nietzsche, Göttingen 1969.

Schlechta, K., Der Fall Nietzsche, München 1958.

Schröder, W., Moralischer Nihilismus. Radikale Moralkritik von den Sophisten bis Nietzsche, Stuttgart 2005.