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Volker Gerhardt, Friedrich Nietzsche

München: C. H. Beck, 4th edition, 2006. 247 pgs. + 9 Pictures. ISBN 978-3-406-54123-0. Paper,14,90 €.

Reviewed by Nicola Nicodemo

Translated by Jacob Rump, Emory University

In his book Friedrich Nietzsche (originally published in 1992 and since reprinted several times), Volker Gerhardt makes it clear from the very beginning that Nietzsche is to be considered among the paradigmatic modern classical figures of philosophy. Nietzsche successfully becomes the symbol of his era by making his very existence a work of art. He is the one philosopher for whom pathos takes the place of proof: “The tragic, which he tried to express theoretically, is expressed immediately, in his [very] existence” (79).

This happens, according to Gerhardt, because Nietzsche is pursuing the question of the meaning of life: “The question with which Nietzsche dissects all the questions of philosophy in a radically modern way, is the question of meaning. He is the first to use the [...] formula of 'meaning of life' [Sinn des Lebens] literally” (67). The question of meaning constitutes, in effect, the basic philosophical problem that dominates Nietzsche's philosophy, from its beginning through his later works’ project of a “revaluation of all values” (67-75).

Having replaced the Kantian question, ‘What is the human?’ with ‘Who am I?’, Nietzsche directs our attention to the human as individual. He then exposits the subject-relative nature of values: Values are conceptions [Vorstellungen] that serve humanity by forming a horizon of activity [Handlungshorizont], and resist representation in terms of objective content. What alone is essential is their effectiveness. Thus, “it is nonsensical to speak of universal values in nature” (70). Not only is it impossible to determine the value of existence, it is difficult even to find meaning within existence. That is to say, if every action can be traced back to a prior purpose, then, in order not to fall into a regressus ad infinitum, one needs a final purpose. But when we ask ourselves about this final purpose, the question itself inevitably remains unanswered. “It is exactly the rationally-developed meaning of life that leads to absurdity! It is this most rational conclusion that brings Nietzsche to seek a life-fulfilling meaning —no longer in reason, but in art" (71). Gerhardt thus understands art for Nietzsche as the medium that allows humans “a successful inclusion in nature,” as he explains: “In falling back on himself alone, the human in no way comes upon a rational ground, nor even upon a  point of bare existence, but upon a form. [...] And only in his representative power, thus in something he himself first makes out of himself, does the individual achieve determination and meaning" (81). In this absolute self-referentiality, the individual transfigures existence into a meaningful event, into a form, conceived as the expression of all its vital force and as an aesthetic unity, in which it is able to come to full realization: as culture.

In this regard, the world and life are conceived as analogous to the work of art. Nietzsche's message, according to Gerhardt, is “art as life and life as art" (89). Whereas life, as an uninterrupted mode of process-oriented expressions of power, becomes “the elementary organization of existence in general" (87), art, taking recourse to drive, instinct, organic function or growth, is repeatedly traced back to life processes.  Art therefore becomes the organ of life.  It functions as a “stimulant to life,” a “catalyst for life” —as the late Nietzsche sought to express it—, as the single plastic power through which the human is able, by means of his needs and intentions, to confer upon his own life a horizon of activity, of sense and value.

Nietzsche puts a stronger emphasis than any of his predecessors on the body, sensuality, and, above all, on individuality. He does not simply reflect on sensuality, “rather he demonstrates what the senses accomplish as sophisticated instruments of psychological-philosophical analysis and as media of focused expression” (14). Nietzsche seizes upon the perspectival character of existence, and gives expression to the embodied basis of the mind [Geist] within life, a life which only ever emerges individually.

From this position, Gerhardt presents the Übermensch as a creator of values and “the sense of the earth” [des Sinns der Erde] and speaks in the plural of “wills to power” as sensually creative powers instrumental to life. The will is seen as a capacity [Vermögen] that allows each individual to create a sense for his or her life. Furthermore, “Zarathustra’s teaching” of the eternal recurrence of the same is understood as “a thoroughly individual experience” (195).  This “thought experiment,” according to Gerhardt, can only admit of an ethical consequence.  It could be considered as “circular-willing” [Kreisen-Wollen], within which the greatest human need for meaning—for the “will to power”—is satisfied, insofar as the human person recognizes the organic connectedness of life and experiences the historical meaning of his life within himself.

Gerhardt draws out the consequences of his systematic interpretation by characterizing Nietzsche as “a radical philosopher of the body [Leibphilosophen]” and as “an enlightener, who still succeeds in enlightening himself about the motives of the Enlightenment. He effectively broadens our understanding by means of examining its historical, psychological, and physical conditions” (205).

Nietzsche's genuineness seems now to consist in a “seemingly contradictory unity of work and life.” Through this unity, according to Gerhardt, we come to an immediate apprehension of the ambiguous character of life as simultaneously failure and success. From Nietzsche's oft-expressed motto, “set your own goals, high and noble goals, and pursue them to the grave” (Nachlass 1873; KSA 7:29[54]) one could conclude, with Gerhardt, that Nietzsche's life “arrives at its dreadful consummation in mental breakdown,” namely, “in self-chosen collapse [selbstgewählten Scheitern]” (217). But this absolute self-referentiality does not lead to nihilism directly, for Nietzsche, but to a morality that follows along a course of development more than a millennium in the making: "Understood in ancient times as successful self-mastery, morality was [later] in Kant, grounded upon the concept of autonomy or self-legislation, until the self-referentiality of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel in the end became self-determination" (128).

In this respect, Gerhardt seems to throw out Heidegger's ontological interpretation of Nietzsche, which would put the emphasis on the question of the being of beings.  Since “man finds his destiny only where he does not relinquish his sensibility” (72), the question of being in Heidegger's sense is meaningless, and is consequently to be replaced by the question of meaning. And that means that metaphysics has not reached its culmination with Nietzsche.

If it seems plausible to include Nietzsche's philosophizing in a Western philosophical tradition construed by Gerhardt as one of self-determination, it remains questionable how far and in what manner such inclusion is to be accomplished. To fully establish the many parallels the author seeks to draw—most notably among Nietzsche, Kant, and Hegel—would require a more detailed interpretation, one whose absence here is missed.

Where Volker Gerhardt succeeds, however, is in his presentation of Nietzsche’s thought as a radical philosophy of the body” (206). The center of his interpretation considers Nietzsche’s philosophy an Existenz-Philosophie, and indeed an Experimental-Philosophie.  Nietzsche is thus “considered as a unique thinker of individuality” (214). That is, he is interested in that which establishes a purpose, thereby creating value and giving meaning to life. Nietzsche's critique of morality and truth targets the effectiveness, indeed, the life-serving qualities [Lebensdienlichkeit], of truth, morality, meaning and value. In this way, Gerhardt’s interpretation places him alongside Karl Jaspers, Karl Löwith, Georg Simmel, Arnold Gehlen, and Friedrich Kaulbach, as understanding Nietzsche on a metaphysical-anthropological level. This allows him to speak of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche as the exemplification of the interrelation of art and life, which reveals both the sensuality and the (positive as well as negative) explosiveness of the human being’s artistic-experimental potential for the shaping of his or her own life.

Humboldt University of Berlin