"Complete Nihilism" in Nietzsche

By Williston, Byron | Philosophy Today, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview
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"Complete Nihilism" in Nietzsche

Williston, Byron, Philosophy Today

Whatever I create and however much I love it- soon I must oppose it and my love; thus my will wills it. And you too, lover of knowledge, are only a path and footprint of my will; verily my will to power walks also on the heels of your will to truth.1

Nietzsche's assessment of modernity is ambivalent. On the one hand, he describes it as the age of the last man, the age of stifling mediocrity where the values of the herd have become universally triumphant; on the other, he describes it as a promising dawn, a re-awakening of humanity's full potentialities. He characterizes this new beginning as the liberation of the creative human will, which suggests that the power of creation had hitherto rested outside the human sphere, or at least that we had believed this to be the case, which for Nietzsche amounts to the same thing. Thus Nietzsche's narrative of the history of morality can be read as the slow but progressive unfolding of the self-consciousness of the human will.

However, since the history of morality is for Nietzsche the history of nihilism, the story of creation must also be told against this latter, more fundamental backdrop. That at any rate is the approach taken in this essay. My argument is that although Nietzsche himself speaks of nihilism as a merely "pathological transitional stage" in human history, to see the phenomenon of nihilism in this manner is to misconstrue its significance for Nietzsche's own thinking on the concept of creation and its function in human willing. I will show that truly authentic creation, as Nietzsche himself at his most challenging understands it, is solely the product of the valuative will to power of the "complete nihilist"; so that in dispensing fully with nihilism, taken in its most robust sense, one would also be eliminating the possibility for the creative human will to reach full maturity. To begin, we need to get clear on the concept of nihilism in Nietzsche's thinking.

A Typology of Nihilism

The problem of nihilism occupied Nietzsche throughout his career and might arguably be called his central philosophical concern. In the posthumously patched-together work The Will to Power, we find Nietzsche's most concentrated collection of reflections on the concept of nihilism. There he defines (one kind of) nihilism as "the radical repudiation of value, meaning, and desirability."3 He adds that nihilism, thus understood, is rooted in the Christian moral interpretation of the world. Thus he approaches the phenomenon as an "evolutionary" process, an historically determined continuum of types. For Nietzsche, recounting the history of morality is equivalent to showing how one kind of nihilism is replaced by another. The first, pre-modern type is what I will call "transcendental nihilism."

All efforts to posit a beyond, a suprasensory realm opposed to "this" world, result in transcendental nihilism, the nihilism of absolute values or "absolute spheres."4 Platonism, Christianity-- that "platonism for the people"'-and Kantianism are the most significant forms of this type of nihilism. In his succinct summary of Western morality in The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche argues that the move to the transcendent is the first step in "the history of an error." Platonism, positing the existence of a realm of pure Ideas, allows access to this rarefied world, but only for the assiduously schooled "knowers" Christianity also posits the existence of an otherworldly realm and holds it to be unattainable in this life, although the repentant sinner may attain it in the next. Kantianism for its part locates the beyond in the Ding an Sich and the a priori structure of consciousness. The true world here becomes epistemologically unreachable, though the thought of it is held to be an "imperative of morality. "6

As these examples illustrate, transcendental nihilism operates by moving life's center of gravity out of life itself. This is its most general characteristic, which is why Nietzsche can conflate its metaphysical and religious manifestations.

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