Nietzsche and Nihilism

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Pejman Yousefzadeh has been posting at Right Reason about his reconciliation of Nietsche with conservatism. His latest post looks at Nietzsche and Nihilism, and he asks for others' thoughts on this issue that divides Nietzsche scholars. I haven't spent a lot of time reading Nietzche, but I did spend some time reading him recently to prepare for two hours devoted to him in a Human Nature course I just taught, and I do have some thoughts on the different ways to take him. My understanding is that there are Nietzsche scholars who take all three approaches I'm about to outline, and I have no view on which is correct. I'm not even going to find textual support for any of them. I just want to outline the three ways of taking him in response to Pejman's request for how people might take him on this issue.

Nietzsche does state in several places that there are no moral truths independent of which things people happen to call good and bad, right and wrong. This is the position that philosophers usually mean by the term 'nihilism'. Nietzsche speaks of the master morality, which involves the strong and noble arbitrarily assigning their own characteristics the category Good and slaves' characteristics the category Bad. In response, the slave morality responds by doing the reverse. In his initial discussions, it sounds as if he thinks both master and slave morality are these artificial constructions that society has arbitrarily assigned value to, with no inherent moral value in anything.

But then in other places he talks about how bad Christianity is, and certain characteristics of both master and slave morality get negative evaluations from him. He speaks of how good certain characteristics he likes are, e.g. being strong and not submitting to others' wishes, setting one's own path and defining one's life autonomously, and so on. He then speaks of a position he calls nihilism as bad and worth avoiding, and he sometimes sounds like he's condemning the position that there is no good and bad when he does that. But he does this while saying Christianity and slave morality are versions of nihilism, which makes me wonder if nihilism for him isn't not valuing anything but just not valuing what's really good as good. But if that's right, then there is something good in itself.

The question, then, is how to fit these two together. I'm not going to put it past him just to be inconsistent. He eschewed systematizing, and saying contradictory things might fulfill his desire not to allow people to put him into systematized categories. But there are two other ways to deal with this. One is to take him less seriously in his nihilist claims, and the other is to take him less seriously in his denials of nihilism.

If we take him less seriously in his nihilist claims, then he is perhaps saying that <i>moral</i> notions like right and wrong are arbitrary, and <i>some</i> claims to good and bad are also arbitrary and artificial, but there are some things that are good and bad in other, non-moral senses. Some Nietzsche scholars take him to hold that there is aesthetic value but no moral value.

If we take him less seriously in his denial of nihilism, then he really does think nothing is good or bad in itself. When he denies nihilism, he denies claims that something is bad or wrong, and he sees that as negative thinking, while really anything can be positive or good. Nothing is good in itself. We just assign such values. If this is right, then Nietzsche really is a nihilist, and his denial of things he calls nihilism is just a denial of particular views about which things are bad and wrong. If nothing is good or bad in itself, then anything can be treated as good if we want to, and there's nothing inappropriate about that.

1 Comments

Interesting. Most of the fans of Nietzsche whom I encountered during my undergrad would have agreed with your fourth option IMO.

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