The Field of Nietzschean Interpretation
After More Than A Century of Living in the Post-Nietzschean Universe
This summer I will be leading a course on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, one of the most influential books to be written in the last two centuries of philosophy. The book is influential for many reasons: Nietzsche deconstructs Western metaphysics (e.g. Christian God and social structure), attempts a reconstruction with ideas of the overman, diagnoses the modern/post-modern human condition of being, and finally, offers this all in a novel and unrepeatable style of expression which explodes the coordinates of philosophy itself.
In this article, I want to deepen and complexify how we understand the possibility space for post-Nietzschean philosophy. This deepening and complexification is not a final, complete, or exhaustive list of great thinkers who have been variously influenced by Nietzsche, but rather a potentially useful tool to improve the way we think about Nietzsche today, and explore the different types of conversations which are possible. I will first present the list of thinkers who I think have both engaged Nietzsche, and also had an out-sized impact on the history of philosophy. Second, I will offer an overall representation of this list, with a higher-ordering principle with some of the categories I think may help us to think the “different Nietzsche’s”.
Sigmund Freud famously claimed that he didn’t read Nietzsche because he didn’t want to bias his discoveries in psychoanalysis with the intuition of the great philosopher. Nevertheless, in this same statement, Freud himself implies that Nietzsche is a precursor to the field of psychoanalysis. In Nietzsche, we already find concepts related to the unconscious psyche as constituting much human society, repression as a mechanism splitting subjectivity from within, libidinal drives as related to true motivation and dreams as containing personal life-meaning, as well as being part of a cathartic truth process. We also can’t ignore the fact that both Freud and Nietzsche share a basic deconstructive metaphysics: both are critical of normative morality, Christianity as the metaphysical foundation for society, and find a deeper truth in dimensions of the psyche that are often not even thought of before psychoanalysis. Considering these similarities, it could actually be accurate if we following Freud’s intuition that Nietzsche discovered by intuitive vision and poetic expression, what was also discovered by psychoanalysis via rational systematic inquiry.
The connections between Nietzsche’s work and Martin Heidegger’s work are too extensive and profound to really summarize in a single paragraph. Nevertheless there are some absolutely crucial points of contact that are helpful to briefly reflect on, if only as an entry-point for deeper study into Heidegger’s engagement with Nietzsche. Perhaps the most important of these points of contact is the philosophy of perspectivism, which suggests that classical objectivity is strictly speaking, impossible. However, both Nietzsche and Heidegger agree that a type of objectivity within perspectivism, is possible, depending on the particular value or end towards which, a being is oriented (i.e. being-towards-x?). In the largest and most profound possible context, the objectivity we have lost internal to perspectivism, is that of the loss of God, which objectively functioned as a supra-sensory ground and goal of all reality throughout much of Western history. For Heidegger, the loss of this ground signals the potential end of society based on unconscious metaphysics. From this Heideggerian perspective, we can interpret much of what Nietzschean philosophy offers us as, not objective facts, but rather hypotheses that are meant to burden us (beyond the pleasure principle?).
Nietzsche also had an outsized impact on the thought of George Bataille, who saw Nietzsche as ending the possibility for traditional religious belief in a monotheistic God who knows everything and exists in a separate world. Bataille also saw Nietzsche as opening the possibility for new idiosyncratic forms of godless mysticism hitherto unknown in the world. These new forms of mysticism, Bataille proposed, should be explored in spiritual life outside of religious institutions, and may be found by thinking through abstraction as confessional (i.e. what we speak/write is a confession of our depths), and erotic life as theological (i.e. how we use/direct our sexuality as our “God”). Both of these moves point us away from the use of traditional narratives (like the Christian metaphysics), but also point us away from the traditional use of narrative as such. For Bataille, what these moves affirm is the conditions of possibility for allowing us to say what has never been said before, or even what cannot be said.
For Rene Girard, his approach to Nietzsche is both deconstructive and personal. Girard focuses more on the way Nietzsche’s own personal relationships were marked by the emotional force of resentment, he cites evidence that his life was structured or overdetermined by mimetic (ideational) rivalries for greatness (Richard Wagner is perhaps the greatest example of these rivalries). Thus Nietzsche is presented as a historical person who ultimately struggled with madness and insanity, not because of some physiological origin (as is often claimed), but rather from his inability to deal with cultural conflicts and his psychological obsession with rivalry. Girard suggests that we can see Nietzsche as an extreme representative of normal human behaviour and tendencies, as well as evidence that envy and resentment still drive solitary genius.
Michel Foucault is yet another philosophical great who was profoundly influenced by Nietzsche. Foucault claims that Nietzsche’s approach and method of philosophy is the basic foundation stone of Foucaultian critical social theory, an approach and method that allowed him to break with the German “H-Triad” of Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger. This approach was based in the idea of the disunity of the subject, the will to power as constituting social knowledge, and the radical discontinuities that can emerge from subjective experimentation. In forwarding the idea of the disunity of the subject, we are dealing with a constitutively fragmented subject; in the will to power as constituting social knowledge, we are are dealing with a social field where what is presented as truth is usually a mask for unconscious power games; in the radical discontinuities that emerge from subjective experimentation, we are always dealing with the possibility of radical breaks and cuts in our experience of temporality as such. The Nietzschean method therein employed by Foucault was based on the understanding that truth is subservient to the task of active self-constitution under the will to power (as opposed to its repression), that truth rectifies itself on the basis of its own principles of self-regulation (as opposed to existing in a separate and self-sufficient ontological domain). For Foucault, these methods were essential for libidinal becoming outside of regimes of normative social power structure.
Albert Camus found in Nietzsche the premier diagnostician of the modern (or post-modern) human predicament, i.e. God is Dead. Camus proposed that this was discovered existentially in the souls of his contemporaries. The consequence of this existential soul-discovery means that there is no world unity, no final judgement, no absolute or permanent values. This, of course, contradicted the entire metaphysical foundation of the Christian world. In this way, for Camus, we must attack or negate all attempts to fill the void, we must rather confront the void with courage. This, of course, contradicted many of the metaphysical foundations that were proposed in the void of Christianity (e.g. Fascism, Communism, Capitalism etc.). Camus’ analysis of the human condition opens us, not to a new ideology, but rather to fact what is ultimately absurd, an exploration which pushes us to the most extreme forms of existence (what was previously barred by metaphysical projects).
Jean Paul Sartre:
One of the most famous existentialists of the 20th century, Jean Paul Sartre, found in Nietzsche an inspiration to approach the problems of existential nihilism and the loss of objective meaning. Sartre agreed with Nietzsche that the question of meaning is central to the phenomenon of nihilism. He ultimately committed to a form of atheism based on the idea that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose in the universe for humans, and that meaning and purpose are derived from a will to power. Where Sartre attempted to extend Nietzsche, is in the idea that to create values in these existential coordinates, we must use the will to power in a way that opens us up to a new project-based becoming. The consequence of a project-based becoming is that we move the will to power from an unconscious in-itself, towards a self-conscious for-itself. If we do not live up to this necessity, we will be controlled by the unconscious in-itself of an other’s self-conscious project as will to power.
Ayn Rand was enormously influenced by Nietzsche in the first half of her career. She referred to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a text that could replace The Bible as the foundational text that allows one to overcome desires for suicide in the self-organization of life to the overman as a process of self-overcoming. However, she also expressed extremely bitterness and resentment because, in confronting Nietzsche’s work, she felt that she had been beaten to all of his best ideas. From this place, Rand started to differentiate from Nietzsche, and developed her own philosophy which she titled “objectivism” (against Nietzsche’s aforementioned “perspectivism”). Objectivism argued that an objective perspective for human existence was possible, and based on a rational absolute organized by a telos towards happiness. In this philosophy much of Nietzsche’s eccentric madness and careless abandon, which deviated from the idea that reason was even possible at all, and that happiness was a pseudo-goal, was explicitly negated.
Paul Ricoeur used Nietzsche as a key foundation stone, along with Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, making triad that can be read together, for what he called the “hermeneutics of suspicion”. In this hermeneutics we should read texts with skepticism that exposes repressed meanings, unmask lies or illusions of consciousness in relation to theological issues and intellectual history in general. This school opens us to a new realm of ideological critique, where we should never believe the appearances of a text in a straight-forward way, but rather read the text as inherently curved/bent/distorted from within by either the logic of capital (Marx), the will to power (Nietzsche), or unconscious symptoms (Freud).
Yet another philosophical great who was strongly influenced by Nietzsche: Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze presents Nietzsche as a systematically coherent philosopher with a systematically coherent philosophy in combining the ideas of the will to power and the eternal return. However, Deleuze offers interpretations of both the will to power and the eternal return which were extremely unconventional at the time, and perhaps have since become standardized: the will to power should not be understood as power seeking but more about the overcoming of self-identity for difference; the eternal return should not be understood as the repetition of the same, but about understanding eternity as a process of becoming. Deleuze also suggests that Nietzsche is the most important philosopher since Spinoza, since both not only revolutionize theory, but also the very practice of philosophy itself.
The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung thought that Nietzsche’s famous “God is Dead” is not a dogmatic assertion by a mad philosopher, but rather the identification of a psychological fact. For Jung, Nietzsche represents the rise of psychology in its own right, a rise so strong that it threatens to swallow the whole of philosophy into itself. In Jung’s view, this rise of psychology is the only necessity after the response to Nietzsche’s call for an individuation towards the overman was met by the emergence of new philosophical metaphysics twisting Nietzsche into its opposite: a distorted rise of herd mentality and collectivism (e.g. evident in both Fascism and Communism). Thus, Jung’s Nietzsche does not so much extend philosophy, but end philosophy, and birth psychology proper.
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who based his career on a return to Freudian foundations, suggested that Nietzsche was one of the most important philosophers to reveal that the totality of metaphysics was a defensive symptomal structure. Lacan, following Nietzsche, thought that metaphysics was not produced by a will to knowledge, but a will to not-knowing truth. The knowing of truth is rather constituted by a will to corporeal thought: speaking the symptomal knot of sexual drives for the extended exploration of one’s own power and joy beyond pleasure. The will to power, its relation to joy in this life, is what is at stake in a philosophy which can include within itself psychoanalysis.
For Jacques Derrida, Nietzsche is a unique philosopher insofar as he adopts a totally anti-academic style, the way he undermined the very life-ways of scholars and intellectuals. This emphasis on deconstructing embodied performativity, is something that Derrida was aiming at, above simply deconstruction or reconstruction of abstract concepts. In terms of his actual philosophy, Derrida thought that Nietzsche was capable of deconstructing the entire Kantian tradition based on experience mediated by a priori categories of mind vis-a-vis an infinite noumena. Kant’s categories of the understanding presupposed notions like space, time, causality, and Nietzsche explodes these notions from within. Thus we can see Nietzsche as a model for the deconstructionist canon, an example of how deconstruction is done in practice. Here we are barred from a metaphysical real of the in-itself (e.g. understandings of infinity, immortality, etc.), and rather affirming processes of becoming with categories that emerge from that very process itself.
For the feminist scholar Luce Irigaray, Nietzsche is used as one of the philosophical greats whose work can be engaged in dialogue (others include Plato and Freud). Irigaray’s main concern is to open the problem of women in relation to both language and philosophy. She claims that the logic which dominates models of discursive coherence and closure amounts to a “death sentence” for woman, a death sentence that has been concretely expressed by past philosophers (including Nietzsche and his views on women). Nietzsche, as well as other philosophers, systematically define woman negatively, as man’s opposite-other, not-man, an object, not a subject. Through dialogue with Nietzsche’s use of woman as a category, she participates in a strategic re-questioning of woman’s position in a system of representation which depends on repressing her difference, claiming that she is a lack in discourse.
The philosopher Nick Land offers us a Nietzsche which attempts to develop a shamanic psyche in the sociotechnological age. This Nietzsche is an escape from philosophy as conceptualization for ulterior zones, and a total abandonment of “things-in-themselves”, whether a religious monotheist God, or the Kantian noumenal thing of ultimate reality. Here we can move towards what Land calls a-categorical invisible splendours, immense deathscapes without images, and a beyond of all integral truths. What brings these three categories, a-categorical invisible splendours, immense deathscapes without images, and a beyond of integral truths, together is the gap in the image of the concept, the fact that the concept is not-all, cannot totalize the field of understanding. The gap, the not-all, and the lack of totalization is where most psyche’s go “mad”, but where the shamanic psyche thrives, and can finally fly.
The evolutionary philosopher Daniel Dennett attempts to oppose the post-structuralist and deconstructionist interpretations of Nietzsche in favour of a scientific or Darwinian reading of Nietzsche. For Dennett the post-structuralist and deconstructionist interpretations of Nietzsche downplay the importance and the role that Darwin played in Nietzsche’s thought, and also the dimensions of Nietzsche’s thought that are more Darwinian than Nietzsche himself thought. Dennett suggests that Nietzsche was working in the direction and tradition of Darwinian science, as both were against Christian metaphysics. Moreover, Nietzsche idea’s of morality are fundamentally evolutionary in nature, and can be rooted and extended in pre-human sociobiological conflict. While Dennett admits that Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole is against a type of naive scientific objectivity, he argues that his work is still consistent within an evolutionary picture of the universe.
The transhumanist philosopher Max More claims that Nietzsche’s nihilism is only a transitory stage between the breakdown of religious interpretations of the world and the emergence of the transhuman being. In this sense Nietzsche is a figure between two-worlds: the world of the religious human, and the world of the transhuman post-human. For More, Nietzsche’s overman as the meaning of the earth is a notion that can easily be adopted to a modern scientific and technological way of thinking, where heroic self-transformation through overcoming is essentially connected to the potentials of the 21st century transcendence of humanity. For More, what Nietzsche essentially shares with transhumanism, is a radical contempt for our inherited evolutionary history and biological condition; where Nietzsche emphasizes the transformation of values, transhumanism emphasizes the technical foundation, for overcoming.
Continental philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has a complex picture of Nietzsche as a philosopher, sometimes using him as a foundation stone for his project, and other times suggesting Nietzsche as a mistake. Here we will emphasize the way that Sloterdijk views Nietzsche as a catastrophe in the history of language, ushering us into an age of narcissistic jubilation and ecstasy, forcing upon us the end of humility, abandonment of all sobriety for megalomaniacal individualism which now defines and destroys contemporary philosophy. This view of Nietzsche is supported through Sloterdijk’s interpretations and focus on Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the way that Nietzsche can be seen as an attempt at an egoic-individualist “fifth Gospel”.
Alain Badiou, another famous philosopher in the continental tradition, represents Nietzsche as the ultimate anti-philosopher. Nietzsche is described as a singular explosion of madness which opposes speculative nihilism for the radical act. Here Badiou claims that Nietzsche organizes his work under the banner of seven names, each of which are codes for different forces as truth: Christ, Dionysus, Saint Paul, Socrates, Wagner, Zarathustra, and Nietzsche himself. For Badiou, Nietzsche’s supreme act of the prophet, actor and name together end Christian enslavement to morality and reverses or transvaluates all values as a first politics. In this way Badiou suggests that we should not view Nietzsche as a project in-itself, but rather as the radical act that grounds any and all political projects.
One of the key figures in the emerging Slovenian school of philosophy, strongly inspired by Hegelian and psychoanalytic interpretations, suggests that Nietzsche is a philosopher whose time has finally come, only insofar as we view Nietzsche as someone who is unfashionable and out-of-place in any time. Zupančič frames Nietzsche as a metapsychologist who, like Freud, oscillates between idealism and nihilism, overdetermining the present society with a postmodern hedonism. For Zupančič, a Nietzschean philosophy can only be articulated, not as a unity of all things under the overman, but as the moment of a splitting of one (God) into two (overman). This ushers us into an era of irreducible difference and tension, the interpretation and motor of overcoming postmodern hedonism itself. Thus, what is lost in the Death of God is the loss of a unified totality; however, against the postmodern affirmation of multiplicity, Zupančič suggests that totality is riddled by the one that is two, with an emphasis on the primacy and importance of antagonism over plurality.
Ray Brassier is a philosopher of nihilism who suggests that Nietzsche’s framing of the problem of nihilism is the problem of what to do with time. For Brassier, Nietzsche opens time as a major sociohistorical problem without solution in a final state of knowing, reconciliation or culmination of spiritual development. This means we have to fully accept the loss of a transcendental guarantee, either in the form of God, or any other positive pay-off for the work that structures our experience of time. Here Brassier splits from Nietzsche by going deeper into negativity, as opposed to claiming that we can close off the problem of nihilism and time with amor fati as the love of fate and its metaphysical justification in the eternal recurrence. Brassier simply affirms nihilism as the truth and the most powerful transformative act: nihilism unbound.
Philosopher Alexander Bard starts with a meditation on Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is Dead” in his foundational work on the paradigm of Syntheism. Bard suggests that Nietzsche’s God is Dead is an incomplete paradigmatics which requires a deeper understanding of the historical process itself, as well as the way God functions as an ideological formation created by humans. Like Nietzsche, Bard agrees that the Christian God as paradigmatics is dead (i.e. sky father, creator of the universe, all-knowing being, etc.); but unlike Nietzsche, Bard suggests that the idea of God is ultimately undeconstructible (i.e. everyone’s unconscious always-already believes in God, everyone’s constructive projects are always-already attempts to achieve religion). he rather proposes that God can be consciously and affirmatively embedded as a foundation stone within a new paradigmatics (i.e. Syntheism). The Syntheist metaphysics sees God as the integral idea within a future hyper-technological humanity which is heroically-oriented towards the greatest conceivable project. For Bard, this project is the creation of God.
I will admit that this field, as complex and incomplete as it is, can still be constructively organized into a meta-structure of four basic categories. These four basic categories are not essentialized as the only way to interpret the list above, but rather used pragmatically to complexity and deepen the space of conversation that engages the post-Nietzschean horizon of philosophy.
New Nietzschean Metaphysics (spirit beyond religious in-itself)
Nietzsche’s End of Metaphysics (abandonment of in-itself)
Nietzsche as Diagnostician (modern human condition)
Nietzsche as Madman (false philosophical turn)
This way of thinking about Nietzsche and the post-Nietzschean field, is the general way I would like to approach new discussions about Nietzsche today. If you are interested in joining in, visit Philosophy Portal, and find out more about the new course on Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which starts July 15th 2022.