Nietzsche’s thought might be understood to be centred on his phrase “God is dead!” (and we have killed him).
By this we might take Nietzsche to be more than simply acknowledging a shift towards a secular or scientific worldview, and more than acknowledging the rational and materialist currents of the Enlightenment as given in figures such as La Mettrie.
Nietzsche is saying something more like ‘The Gods are dead!’ where ‘The Gods’ are those overarching principles of human understanding and organisation that we have inherited in one way or another from Plato and from Christianity.
If one equates the ‘Gods’ with the ideal forms of the good, beauty, truth, and justice, then we might begin to understand Nietzsche as claiming that a civilizational era has passed, been shown to be empty, and that a radical new beginning from the ground upwards is required.
Nietzsche effectively charges philosophy with the role of gatekeeper to an entire civilizational epoch that began with the Greeks. Nietzsche effectively calls ‘The Decline of The West.’
For Nietzsche, this is no small matter.
The death of God, or of the Gods, leaves us without moorings. Without our familiar orientations to the good, beauty, truth, and justice, we are adrift. We no longer know how to know, nor how to act.
Nietzsche traces diverse underlying assumptions of western thought, but key for Nietzsche is the ‘despisers of the body’ and the other-worldly orientation of both Christianity and philosophy. Whether the other world is that of platonism or of the christian afterlife, Nietzsche diagnoses a refusal of human-being as bodily, natural being.
Herein lies Nietzsche’s answer to the death of God: the celebration of one’s life as life.
This lies at the heart of Nietzsche’s ‘will-to-power’ or ‘will to life’ and doctrine of the ‘superman.’
Whether Nietzsche elevates will-to-power as another ‘God’ or not, might be much disputed.
Nietzsche’s thought might thus be taken to engage a deep critique of western thought and culture, and a corresponding constructive project of renewal.
Nietzsche’s ‘anti-philosophical’ metaphilosophy (philosophy of philosophy) may be taken to inaugurate the critique of roots that is taken further by Heidegger, and later Derrida. Those other critics of roots – the underlying assumptions of a civilizational worldview – such as Deleuze and Foucault may also be traced to Nietzsche.
Arguably, Nietzsche’s critique is still radical if one takes the mainstream of western thought to lie within a platonic-aristotelian humanistic framework that places truth (reason), the good, beauty, and justice above and outside of us but uniquely accessible to human-beings. Only those critiques that emanate from Marxism, in the form of a radical materialism and anti-humanism, match Nietzsche in their consequences for human self-understanding.
Nietzsche thus attempts to follow the consequences of the challenge to the platonic ‘Gods’ and the christian ‘God’ through a critique of nihilism – his key anxiety – and a model for meaning-creation out of oneself.
‘overcoming metaphysics …’
What is not a unity is treated as one, and what is not procedural is treated as such – thus the critics of western thought isolate certain elements of its traditions (namely the platonic-aristotelian) and then seek to undermine them through a counter-metaphysics that is non-unitary and non-procedural.
The so-called ‘destruction’ of metaphysics is not that, it is more like a kind of changing of its underlying assumptions such that concepts such as substance, unity, identity, and so on, truly reflect reality, and a refusal of foundations of knowing guaranteed by such concepts. We can no longer be taken to know reality in any transcendental or true sense. Our knowing is arbitrarily constitutive of reality, there are thus several ‘realities’ – this is Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivalism’.
Later philosophers, such as Foucault, begin to refuse any clear distinction between philosophy proper and history of ideas, and begin to analyze the knowledge-constitutive practices of philosophy, science, law, and so on in their claims to truth. Such claims to truth amount to setting certain concepts at the centre of a practice and proceeding to reinforce them thereon. Reason has played this role since Plato, is carried from Aristotle through to Descartes and Kant, and currently resides in contemporary science both in its empirical and a priori (mathematical, theoretical) forms.
However, if not truth-orientated reason, then what?
It is here that Nietzsche’s claim (and that of Heidegger) that we have identified thought with reason – the doctrine of the logos from Heraclitus and Parmenides onwards – takes force. If we are to think, it will be ecstatically, and thus as poetry – not a seeking of some other world, but the ecstatic presentation of of our worldly immediacy. One might think, by way of illustration, of haiku – short poems that are ‘world stating’ as is. (This is also the sense of Heidegger’s understanding of truth as ‘unconcealment’ or ‘revealing’). But also of the vague boundaries between poetry and argument in early Greek philosophy. Arguably, the dialogue form of Plato is the step from the discursive, ‘rational’ poetry of pre-Socratic writings ‘on nature’ to the more linear, argumentative and categorical style of Aristotle and subsequent western philosophy.
Being is revealed in and through beings but is not exhausted by them (is this rather like God being revealed in and through beings but not being exhausted by them?), furthermore Being is revealed through non-being or nothingness. We cannot get at Being directly, this would be to treat of Being as a being, nor can we get at Being through philosophical-scientific analysis as though a some thing. However, Being is that which is most fundamental and yet that which cannot be stated. Heidegger’s problem is that he tries to think Being, and yet it seems that Being cannot be thought. At least not in any traditional, philosophical sense. We can, however, think from Being, but not to it (as object of thought). This thinking from is not a rational process of philosophy, it is more like a poetic process of philosophy. We are not doing philosophy in the aristotelian-rational, axiomatic-deductive framework. Heidegger has no objection to such a rational framework if it is understood clearly to be a technical means (it is perhaps this distinction that Habermas occults in ‘Philosophical Discourse of Modernity’).
Nietzsche is engaged in a kind of self-overcoming of western philosophy (i.e., western modes of thought and thinking), that Heidegger takes up, and which is prosecuted with vigour by later thinkers such as Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, and, arguably, Rorty.
The civilizational consequences of this critique of roots, and the question as to what it is that is constructive that emerges from it, are questions that remain. Are we to seek meaning in any ‘platonic’ sense, as that which stands outside of us? Nietzsche’s answer is somewhat equivocal. In his ‘myth of eternal recurrence’ he appears to restate something akin to a platonic ideal – except that this ideal is something like the ‘best possible life’ that one could choose, and affirm to choose.
One might surmise that in overcoming platonism, one would accept the spontaneous, messy, contingent, and unpredictable and begin to work with, rather than against, error as the grain of existence. In short, to frame and state what appears as is.
The existentialist idea of the absurd, for Nietzsche, is perhaps too close to the nihilism that he wanted to overcome. And Zen was not available to him. This ultimately left him with Art. One had to make of oneself a kind of art. Whether this opened him, once again, to platonic reification, or the hypostatisation of oneself as one’s ‘life’, remains in question.
For Nietzsche, as for Heidegger, and their subsequent followers, western science remains metaphysical in the platonic-aristotelian mould – it continues a rationalist tradition that affirms foundations and a reality graspable in its fundamentals by reason and thought (logos). Arguably, even empirical investigation is only to open and reveal the transcendent logos.
A ‘scientific’ philosophy, such as that of Analytic philosophy, remains, finally, at odds with Nietzsche – for better or for worse.
However, if we refuse the idea of western thought as shaped by a platonic-aristotelian (socratic) framework, and take it to be vastly more diverse and differentiated than this, then both Nietzsche and Heidegger’s philosophies appear more rhetorical, and perhaps ‘ideological,’ rather than ‘critical.’ Perhaps, this latter point forms a core principle of Habermas’s critique of the (Heideggerian) ‘overcoming of metaphysics’ in ‘The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.’
Deleuze was perhaps more alive to the more likely plurality of western thought than as it is presented by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and even, apparently, Derrida. None of whom, it seems have overcome the Greeks. Such ‘overcoming’ remains part of the ‘crisis’ rhetoric of philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger.
A more general unframing of thought is now underway, as the civilizational traditions from which philosophy, in all its varieties, has sprung are receding into the further horizons of history – both Nietzsche and Heidegger prefigure this unframing.