book review

Nietzsche the Über-Libertarian

Nietzsche's Political Skepticism
by Tamsin Shaw

Reviewed by T. J. Nelson

book review

Nietzsche's Political Skepticism
by Tamsin Shaw
Princeton, 2007, 159 pages
Reviewed by T.J. Nelson

I 've always been puzzled by the popular idea that Nietzsche's philosophy was a forerunner to postmodernism. One po-mo website says: “Completely rejecting Kant's theory of transcendental categories, which are supposedly shared by all people, Nietzsche concludes that truth is nothing more than an illusion.” Another takes his idea that scientific concepts are chains of metaphors that evolve into hardened truths as implying that all concepts are merely relative. Here are some more passages that postmodernists use to claim Nietzsche as one of their own:

Philosophers ... pose as having discovered and attained their real opinions through the self-evolution of a cold, pure, divinely unperturbed dialectic: while what happens at bottom is that a prejudice, a notion, an 'inspiration,' generally a desire of the heart sifted and made abstract, is defended by them with reasons sought after the event. [Beyond Good and Evil]

One does not want to be deceived, under the supposition that it is injurious, dangerous, or fatal to be deceived.

Through immense periods of time, the intellect produced nothing but errors. [Gay Science, quoted by Shaw on p70]

But none of these statements support postmodernism in any way. All he was saying here was that humans deceive themselves. It's wishful thinking to claim that these passages, or anything else in Nietzsche's writings, deny the existence of truth. Modern neuroscience confirms the idea that we cannot directly be aware of the true nature of something—the thing-in-itself, or transcendent reality—but that we form a mental model of it instead. That's how our brain works; it doesn't mean our perceptions are illusions. It also doesn't mean that truth is relative.

Then there's the vitriol directed at Nietzsche by religious conservatives, who have abandoned Nietzsche to the far left with hardly any struggle. So nasty are the denunciations: “God is dead --Nietzsche. Nietzsche is dead --God; and the evident Schadenfreude in retelling how his ‘madness’ was due to syphilis—and the worst insult of all, calling him a postmodernist—that it's clear that many people find his ideas threatening.

Yet none of that is warranted either. Neurologists universally agree that Nietzsche did not suffer from syphilis, nor was he mentally ill. Many have concluded that he had a neuro­degenerative disorder, possibly CADASIL, a painful form of inherited early-onset vascular dementia. Others suggest that his early-onset dementia was caused by a brain tumor.

Most books on Nietzsche's philosophy make it sound like his ideas simply sprung from his forehead onto an unsuspecting world. Thus it was illuminating to find this humble little book, evidently derived from the author's Ph.D. thesis, that approaches his philosophy by asking about his political views. It turns out, surprisingly, that this is a very relevant question to ask. Shaw presents a convincing case that Nietzsche was very badly misunderstood.

Tamsin Shaw traces the religious antipathy toward Nietzsche to Karl Löwith and Leo Strauss, who took his famous statement about God being dead to be a doctrine advocating moral nihilism. For Strauss, Nietzsche was telling us the universe was meaningless; all value originates in man and the will to power, and therefore there are no right and wrong.

But in saying God is dead Nietzsche only meant that we can no longer rely on religion for moral guidance. This idea didn't arise in a vacuum; it was recognized already in the 19th century that Europe was becoming secularized. Post-Kantian philosophers recognized that this posed many problems, and sought to replace Christianity with a secular religion. Nietzsche did not create these problems; he searched for a rational solution.

The problems come from the question of moral authority. The central idea in religion is that all ideas about right and wrong come from God, who can't be reasoned with, can't be bargained with, and absolutely will not stop, ever. But as skepticism about religion mounted, the abyss of what we now call Nietzschean nihilism opened up: without God, is there a rational way to distinguish good and evil?

This question is as much political as moral. For Nietzsche the departure of God as an accepted authority demanded an extra-political source of authority in moral issues. Shaw says that Nietzsche saw philosophers as a bulwark against the ideological power of the secular state.

According to Shaw, Nietzsche corresponded with historian Jacob Burckhardt, who believed that modern states are illegitimate. Burckhardt said that rulers have seized power without having any entitlement to rule, and therefore must rule by direct or indirect coercion. He wrote: “Alongside all swindlers the state now stands there as swindler-in-chief.” Nietzsche echoed this sentiment, characterizing the original state as a “pack of blond beasts of prey.”

This view of Nietzsche as a defender of the individual against a predatory state, a libertarian à la Albert Jay Nock, or even a quasi-anarchist, goes far in explaining Nietzsche's motivation. Shaw says that Nietzsche knew if he gave up hope in grounding moral beliefs in any real normative authority this power would fall to the state, thereby undermining individualistic normative commitments, and make people cooperate in their own subordination.

Shaw says that Nietzsche wanted to justify giving philosophy authority over normative and factual claims. The early Nietzsche was optimistic about finding a way. But over time he lost hope that people have the reasoning capacity to benefit from the insights of philosophers.

Shaw points to recent work by Maudemarie Clark who showed that in Human, All Too Human Nietzsche renounced Schopenhauer's metaphysics and adopted the Humean assumptions that are in Schopenhauer's thought. Clark said that by the time he wrote Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche had endorsed a common-sense view of truth.

Almost all historians agree that Nietzsche was utterly committed to recognizing truth. His goal was not to deny that truth exists, but to demonstrate that courage is needed to endure it and Herculean effort may be needed to avoid self-deception. Shaw uses this quote twice:

A question ... refuses to be uttered: whether one could consciously reside in untruth? Or, if one were obliged to, whether death would not be preferable? [HTH]

Nietzsche was adamant in demanding that we find the strength to face up to unpleasant truths. This would be a pointless position to take if he believed that truth was only an illusion.

Why then do postmodernists claim Nietzsche as their founder? Maybe they misinterpreted him. Or maybe it was his claim that people cling to their illusions partly out of pride, partly out of a lack of intellectual integrity, and partly to facilitate social cooperation. Or maybe it was that Nietzsche came to despair that finding a rational basis for morality was possible. Surely, though, if it is an impossible task we cannot blame the messenger for telling us so.

Last edited dec 07, 2016 7:42 am

Books discussed

Nietzsche's Political Skepticism
by Tamsin Shaw

See Also

Nietzsche and the Girl from Treponema
Recent evidence proves that Friedrich Nietzsche's dementia was not caused by syphilis.

Book Reviews

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche

The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer

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