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The troubled relationship between Nietzsche and Postmodernism.

Updated on October 11, 2014

Postmodernism is succinctly defined by Jean Lyotard as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” This is implicitly noted in the supposed weakness of language itself in conveying any objective meaning or notion of truth outside of ourselves. Upon what foundation do postmodernists build upon in rejecting language as a means in identifying truth? The answer lies within the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche who asked the question, “…what about these linguistic conventions themselves? Are designations congruent with things? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” What is to be made of the interpretation of his work within a modern setting? It was the German philosopher who championed the notion of perspectivism, the philosophical belief that interpretations and conceptions of truth depend on the perspective of the one who is observing; that there is no absolute truth outside our own perspective, its modern interpretation the very definition of postmodernism. I will attempt to show Nietzsche’s influence, good or bad, on the postmodern movement, whether such influence is actually warranted by his own writings or if there is any inherent contradiction by either Nietzsche himself or the postmodernists who claim him as one of their own. It can be truthfully asserted that if there is a beginning to postmodernism then it is to begin with Friedrich Nietzsche whose death in 1900 is significant to many as the starting point for the turn to a modern world.

Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals had a profound influence on postmodernist philosophers. The reason being that Genealogy insists and posits that there is no single origin of morality, that there is no objective point to build anything upon. There are varieties in the meaning of “good” and “bad” and that there are the hallmarks of opposition and diversity when encountering these ideas and there is a specific evolution in how these ideas were and are interpreted over the centuries. The conduit for how they are interpreted is through the relationship between the “master” class and that of the “slave” class. Secondly, Nietzsche addresses punishment and guilt in his second essay in which he states that concepts have a long history where the meaning has changed over time; the meanings of these concepts are defined and dictated by a “will to power” where the meanings are ascribed by the stronger wills that appropriate them. He ends with his third essay in which he describes the meaning of ascetic ideals. Claiming that ascetic self denial is a form of empowerment that leads to different manifestations among people, Nietzsche supports the view of some philosophers who employ such a ascetic ideal in that they view the surrounding world around them as illusory, this in turn fits within Nietzsche’s belief that it is always better to look at matters from as many different angles (perspectives) as possible.

Nietzsche’s argument is that we tend to compartmentalize concepts of morality such as good and evil as being grounded within some objective foundation (God, society, etc). He argues though that this is not the case and that the definitions of these concepts have changed over time, having contrary meanings to different people over the centuries. Thus he argues that this “genealogy of morals” is just that, an explanation that our understanding of these concepts are not fixed and do not exist independently outside of our wills. This “liberation” from objectivity is what postmodernists champion in determining how we look at concepts/ ideas, etc as opposed to the Cartesian model. Nietzsche defines this mode of realization, one of looking at something through as many views as possible, as perspectivism, “Everything is Interpretation: . . . Against those who say "There are only facts," I say, "No, facts are precisely what there is not, only interpretations." We cannot establish any fact in itself. Perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing. Insofar as the word "knowledge" has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise. It has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.”

The very concept of lineage within Nietzsche’s Genealogy have influenced 20thcentury philosophers such as Jacques Derrida who used the same practice in his own works, as well as Michel Foucault who invoked a particular form of genealogy when writing his two works Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality.Is there though suitable evidence to build a bridge from Nietzsche’s use of this method to those early post-modernist philosophers who helped create postmodern thought? According to Jurgen Habermas there is a link, drawing on Nietzsche’s fascination with the primordial he determined that for Nietzsche, “The more primordial is considered the more worthy of honor, the preferable, the more unspoiled, the purer. It is deemed better. Derivation and descent serve as the criteria of rank, in both the social and logical senses. In this manner, Nietzsche based his critique of morality on genealogy. He traces the moral appraisal of value, which assigns a person or a mode of action a place within a rank ordering based on criteria of validity, back to the descent and hence to the social rank of the one making the moral judgment.” Among the first postmodernist philosophers who took, as impetus, some of Nietzsche’s ideas was Michel Foucault whose Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality also uses Nietzsche’s concept of Genealogy to show that definitions of terms have changed over the course of time. In Foucault’s case this especially analogous with his depiction as to how punishment and guilt was perceived in the past in comparison to how it is now defined. It is at Foucault that we direct our gaze in recognizing Nietzsche’s influence on postmodernism.

I begin by looking at Foucault’s interpretation of the truism “knowledge is power.” He was fascinated by how power affects humans in general and also on an individual scale, believing that the phrase“might makes right” and “knowledge is power” may not be that different one from the other, their similarity being that both forces (physical and mental) are exerted by a powerful minority. If the question of deciding what is correct and true is decided upon by people and if they can convince enough people to accept the validity of their claim then this “truth” is more important than those who make an unknowable claim. It is in forcing the acceptance of their own interpretations of truth where the problem lies, a charge against the political and social realization of postmodernism.The problem lies within the fact that those who want to push their radical ideas through the conduit of postmodernism do so from the viewpoint of utter conviction and the belief that they alone possess the revelatory knowledge necessary to justify their actions. For them ordinary people have only the knowledge that is specific to their daily needs, occupation, temporal observations, etc. Those who do believe themselves to be imbued with the self-evident truths that justify their actions and their decision to resort to the means necessary to accomplish their goals. Foucault even used Nietzsche’s views on how the State viewed its own citizens. Since the masses had to earn their living and remained locked with a myopic view of their personal world, they were enslaved by the State or kept in line through repressive disciplinary measures that required obedience not only to the State but down to the individual level of what constituted as normalcy. Foucault described this policy as one of “governmentality” that was covered extensively in his book Discipline and Punish. In it he describes in detail how punishment and discipline has evolved over the centuries. At first present within the prison system, discipline has evolved over the last two centuries from that of being used to restrict reactionary behavior to that of not only restricting “abnormal” behavior against the State but also in rewarding proactive notions of obedience as evident in his use of how it is used in the educational system (the law punishes but discipline can reward acceptable behavior). Why the sudden change in the interpretation of truth, normalcy and what is considered abnormal? Because of Nietzsche’s hypothesis that language and definition are relative to the culture that it is used in. All norms, values, and notions of absolute truth are by-products of the particular framework they were derived and originated from. The attempts made in trying to communicate concerning the nature of truths and “how things are” is faulty in that they are derived from a linguistic framework that is governed by rules and regulations that has already determined what is true to begin with. Foucault calls such appeals to objective foundations as appeals to the metaphysical. Things change because the rules that governed them change over time; it is his view that language reflects the changes over the centuries in how we observe and make moral judgments. His writings on madness are indicative of this and of Nitzschean influence within his own postmodern stance.

Foucault looks at how madness is interpreted. His hypothesis is that we begin by excluding them from society, confining and locking them up. This began (at least in Foucault’s eyes) with the advent of leprosy and then the exclusion of outcasts, madness then underwent a metamorphosis into a cultural fascination and Foucault uses several literary examples (such as Shakespeare) in attempting to prove his point. Indeed in his book he claims that a “whole complex mechanism, embracing the development of production, the increase in wealth, a higher juridical and moral value placed on property relations, stricter methods of surveillance, a tighter portioning of the population, more efficient techniques of locating and obtaining information.” This is what Foucault has indicated is produced by the social imposition of collective discipline. Foucault argues that the policing of social control that has evolved over the last 150 years has resulted in an attempt to control every action and thought as is related to law and order. It is not merely the attempt to control crime however, it also attempts to apply these methods to that of state security. He uses the example of the Panopticon in how observation of adherence to disciplinary code is enforced by an all seeing eye. Certain behaviors that are considered beneficial are reinforced, this is almost (in Foucault’s eyes) represented verbatim in those capitalist factories where “docile” workers are turned into automatons who do what is exacted and expected from them. In an Orwellian sense, is this type of control merely a response to abnormal behavior (which then “logically” results in criminal intent) or is it something sinister in keeping everyone in line? This affected Foucault deeply because of his belief that our notions of what represented what was normal and rational was subjective and that thought and discourse would change after a period of time. At this point I have deep differences with him and his justification in legitimizing his views. Why? Because he builds on Nietzsche’s notion that “there are no absolutes.” This is problematic and Foucault represents the difficulty in understanding this view because his statement that “there are no absolutes” is in itself an absolute statement. He has to posit an absolute in order to even attempt to reject one.

He builds his justification for such rejection on his interpretation of “discourses.” He defines discourses as anything written, said, etc within the conduit of communication. He states that these discourses are defined by each era and the specialists who define what is accepted as “normal.” These discourses in turn change from era to era. Again he was influenced by his reading of Nietzsche’s views within the Genealogy of Morals. Adding to Nietzsche he believed that the human body was subject not only to the laws of physiology but also that of the influence of history as well, after time the body constructs resistances to eating habits as well as moral laws that restrict it. This belief by Foucault in which he built much of his philosophy on is based on Nietzsche’s use of his own interpretation of how “physiology” played a role in determining man’s psychological state. Nietzsche’s “will to power” is the embodiment of achievement, to expend all their strength as he details in describing it as the “optimum combination of favorable conditions which allow them to expend all their energy and achieve their maximum feeling of power.” As each living entity has different levels of this strength and the manner and ways in which to express their need to display their power under the best conditions, it brings them into conflict with each other. Each entity wants its own particular conditions, its own sphere of control in which to manifest this power. Nietzsche then carried these notion further beyong individual examples and claimed it affected different societies, organizations, even civilizations. Foucault built on this to suggest his own model of power structures in his History of Sexuality. He wrote “Power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization: as the process which, through ceaseless struggle and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or even reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate them from one another; and lastly, as the strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies.Power must not be sought in the primary existence of a central point, in a unique source of sovereignty from which the secondary and descendent forms would emanate; it is the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power, but the latter are always local and unstable… power is not an institution, and not a structure.”

Over time society began to normalize and itemize what it wanted to accomplish within its sphere of control. His interpretations of power and the existence of some agency that exerts control were, as Foucault stated, that “There is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives.” Curiously though Foucault never postulates who this agency is, only to infer that the individual is the alibi of power. He does believe that this power is not all powerful, that resistance is inherently part of the power equation. To him resistance was a necessary ingredient in the power equation, that “there would be no power relations, because it would simply be a matter of obedience. So resistance comes first, and resistance remains superior to the forces of the process; power relations are obliged to change with the resistance.”

This would explain his fascination with the Iranian revolution, which to him represented a break from the code of normalcy that he had written about. He saw no hypocrisy with his compassionate view of an Islamic regime that was in diametrical opposition to his own personal stance as a leftist homosexual, both of which would not have been tolerated by Iranian hardliners in power. It was the point that this break occurred against a modernist interpretation of what was a secular normalcy, something that he advocated. Only through the lens of perspectivism could he attempt to escape the hypocrisy inherent with his own personal actions and beliefs and his advocacy (or at least a tolerant acceptance) of a hostile, intolerant Iranian regime that would have condemned his own writings and his lifestyle as abhorrent and worthy of death.

Other postmodernist philosophers, such as Paul de Man, have argued that the very notion of literal truth cannot be obtained because all language is figural and is not capable of expressing it. The problem with this view (and in my opinion in all of postmodernism) is that Paul de Man cannot have it both ways; is not de Man using language to convey this notion that the use of language negates the objective observation of truth? De Man firmly puts Nitzschean discourse front and center by claiming that the “The question of the relationship between philosophical and literary discourse is linked, in Nietzsche, to his critique of the main concepts underlying Western metaphysics.” De Man, like most (if not all but linked by complicity) postmodernists rejects the possibility of progress because of the multiple views of interpretation brought forth by Nietzsche’s adherence to perspectivism. Countering de Man’s claims in involving Nietzsche within the paradigm of postmodernism is Richard Weisberg who forcefully claims that de Man deliberately distorts Nietzsche’s writings on the subject through misinterpretation, an argument that I believe in possibly only attributable to isolated passages. Even if Weisberg is correct in attributing de Man’s misinterpretation as being influential in bringing Nietzsche inside the postmodernist camp this in itself does not remove the fact that whether Weisberg is correct or not. it only addresses the question if he was a postmodernist as fits the contemporary definition (highly ironic concerning Nietzsche’s views on the use of language to determine such an interpretation); it does not address the question as to the influence Nietzsche has on the postmodernist movement, which is the subject of this critique.

Alexander Nehamas, a leading advocate of Nietzschean perspectivism, has embraced the postmodernist paradox he wrote about concerning the problem in deciphering Nietzsche within the movement itself by accepting that he “holds a number of positions which he seems to accept in all seriousness. Does he, or does he not, then, think that his views on the self, on morality, or on history, many of which are themselves at least apparently paradoxical, are true? If he does, how can this possibly be consistent with is view that all views are interpretations? If he does not, that is, if he does not think his views are true-why does he make the effort to present them in the first place?” Nehamas gets around this problem by interpreting Nietzsche’s writings in a unique and separate manner, by highlighting the difference between critical pluralism and critical monism. While Foucault would support the pluralistic view that many interpretations of the text could be correct independent of the author (indeed he sometimes alluded to this paradoxical view even toward his own writings) Nehamas attempts to prove that Nietzsche was trying to formulate a “second” Nietzsche within his writings, one that may not necessarily be that of the “real” Nietzsche but that of the one that Nietzsche tries to present to the reader. Nehamas argues that while many interpretations are possible he believes that a reconciliation is possible (though again contradictory) within perspectivism in that while there are possible hypothetical interpretations, they form a bedrock in which every direction is evidence of one will, one health, one soil, one sun. Nehamas is arguing that Nietzsche is channeling his desired interpretation of what he wants to present in the same fashion that Plato presented Socrates; the fact that Nietzsche was hostile in his own writings to Socrates himself further clouds the issue and once again we have a paradox; surely this attempt by Nehamas to rescue Nietzsche from the pitfalls of the postmodernist paradox only, if even indirectly, provides more proof for Nietzsche’s influence on postmodernism. The fact that Nehamas espouses perspectivism only adds to the confusion in that Nehamas attempts to provide this textual criticism as correct. Also problematic is the fact that as Nietzsche directly questioned the use of historical critique concerning language why then does Nehamas invoke Plato’s description of Socrates in the attempt to redefine Nietzsche’s meaning within his own writings? Is there any support for Nehamas? Or for the assertion as some philosophers have supported, that Nietzsche is not a postmodernist and that the postmodernist movement has hijacked his writings through gross misinterpretation as Richard Weisberg has argued?

There are certain motifs that we can build on. For starters we know that Nietzsche was not troubled by this seeming paradox in which he uses language to convey the inadequacies of language. Supporting Nehamas’ argument to a degree is Clayton Kloeb who argues that within Nietzsche’s text there are references that Nietzsche saw the notion of decipherability differently. In his work The Gay Science Nietzsche seems to state that objective truth can be recognized by writing that, “there are truths that are singularly shy and ticklish and cannot be caught except suddenly-that must be surprised or left alone.” In addition his use of poetry and aphorisms are numerous and legendary in conveying meaning. The reader of The Gay Science is to take the book in repeated doses, as if its hidden meaning will be revealed through interpolation.

Kathleen Higgins argues also that Nietzsche has been misinterpreted by de Man and his fellow postmodernists who have advocated an all consuming perspectivism and reject the need for a grand narrative in which referential points can be established. While she admits that there are indeed key similarities between Nietzsche’s perspectivism and rejection of values with that of postmodern doctrine (if it can be labeled as such) Higgins writes that“Nietzsche’s primary concern is the possibility of rich and meaningful subjective experience. His “postmodernist” critique of the dangers of “modern”pretentions serves this aim. And this same concern also leads Nietzsche to advocate certain decidedly non-postmodernist intellectual ploys: metanarratives and totalizing myths.” It is difficult for postmodernists to define themselves collectively as this entails unification, something that goes against the grain of postmodern identification, i.e. how can anyone in this group have the same subjective experience for example? The postmodernist, by contemporary definition (again another use sage of a paradoxical statement in the attempt to effective communicate the concept) is “different” from one day to the next making even the experience of a postmodernist being a communicative author under debate. Nietzsche however does not adopt this stance, he is, as Higgins described it, personally invested as the author, he writes with purpose as a singular entity that uses a narrative in order to communicate what he feels deeply inside. Higgins uses as textual evidence his statement that “Of all that is written, I love only what a man has written with his blood.” Higgins though answers the objection that in totality Nietzsche rejected metanarratives as being unfounded on any objective basis and she has simply circumvented that point. Her answer is that while Nietzsche is indeed in agreement with the postmodernist view that there is any epistemological foundation for asserting absolutes he did use such metanarratives as a means of a “personal creation.” Higgins believes the fundamental difference between that of Nietzsche and those postmodernists who claim him as their ancestral father is the way that they looked at metanarratives. It is in the acceptance of metanarratives; for postmodernists they are useless, for Nietzsche finds them important nonetheless because of the relationship between humans and these metanarratives. If epistemology does not provide an objective foundation for these metanarratives, as Nietzsche readily admits, then other fertile ground must be used to construct these metanarratives, primarily (in Higgins’s view) that of religious and aesthetic means. It is here that she accuses the postmodernists of being hypocritical both in their acceptance of Nietzsche as one of their own and in using their language in claiming him. By using key words such as knowledge, interpretation and what constitutes as real, postmodernists succumb to communicating within the very epistemological framework they claim to deride. She concludes her argument by stating as support for her view that Nietzsche is not a postmodernist by writing that “Nietzsche, however, sees the ultimate groundlessness of metanarratives to be no reason to reject them. Not abandoning metanarratives, Nietzsche enjoys the plethora of possibilities. Feeling no need to wage war on totality, “meaning” or the “real,” Nietzsche responds to his metaviews as an artist. Meaning is not an absolute, not a function of a firm m metanarrative. But Nietzsche concludes form this that we should see meaning itself as a temporal, creative activity. Far from battling against the metanarrative, Nietzsche sees metanarrative as an existential, subjective task for each of us.”But is this so? Is her criticism enough to dissuade the belief by many that Nietzsche was a postmodernist? Knowing that there are no ethical or epistemological absolutes does not mean that personal ones constructed for the use of a particular line of reasoning or motive are to be held as “closer to being true” than other positions. Higgins seems to be arguing that Nietzsche avoids the dilemma by espousing the belief that if one should live their life with the knowledge of no absolute truths to serve as a guide then one must look at the best way to live one’s life in the absence of absolute truth. And once again we come to same question, why is his view (or Higgins’s assessment of his view) deemed to be correct when admittedly there is no objective basis for it? This is especially true in light of Nietzsche’s own views concerning the matter when he writes that, “I shall reiterate a hundred times that ‘immediate certainty’, like ‘absolute knowledge’ and ‘thing in itself,’ contains a contradictio in adjecto [contradiction in terms]: we really ought to get free from the seduction of words!”

Finally, does Nietzsche’s writing fit within the paradigm of postmodern pluralism? Bernd Magnus has stated that the very definition of postmodernism as a philosophy is that it represents (at least to its practitioners) the very death knell of philosophy, i.e. the completion of philosophy, no knowledge is even inherently knowable or possible and that anything advocating the search for established dogma is useless. By pluralism I refer to the definition that there is no sole objective truth and no advocacy of tolerance for any competing but equally justifiable views. It is a stress on diversity without any regard to a solid objective foundation. Robert Solomon finds within Nietzsche’s work an inability to reside with postmodern beliefs, claiming that Nietzsche did indeed have an ethical system in mind and stood for something. Solomon argues that what was prevalent in almost all of his writings was a fascination for the past, an anxiety about what the future held; this does not make him a suitable representative for the postmodernist movement. His attacks on those philosophers who went before him were always followed by his own philosophical muse in determining what was a correct path to follow; this leads to the question as to what Nietzsche is actually being portrayed here. Within his own perspectivism he clearly advocated his own particular interpretation. Solomon removes him from the ranks of those who would claim that he was postmodernist by writing that “Nietzsche’s view is not perspectival or pluralistic except in a degenerate sense, that some people are undeniably better than others and the lambs have their outlook just as the eagles do...and if postmodernism was perspectivism without privilege or the doing away with elitism in favour of the vernacular, then Nietzsche should not be counted among the postmoderns.”

Jacques Derrida though embraces this pluralism in his own formulation of deconstruction. In talking of religious belief he uses Nietzsche’s perspectivism to re-interpret new “truths” within religious belief as well as the comprehension of text. Both Nietzsche and Derrida sought through the conduit of perspectivism, also identified as a pluralistic view by contemporary postmodernists, to deconstruct “the real” as they saw it and replace it with a new type of “higher humanity” one that was associated with a higher art, creativity, (and in Nietzsche’s case a higher account of textual meaning). He used this conduit of perspectivism to allow as many different interpretations and views as possible, to better draw out a more complete picture of what it was that represent the truth.

In the end it is apparent that rightly or wrongly, Nietzsche has had a profound influence on postmodernism. I have raised the key arguments concerning the validity of the claims made and while there is certainly some evidence to suggest misinterpretation of his writings I believe that his views on perspectivism and language are clear enough to connect his writings to the postmodernist movement. I believe Nietzsche himself would reply in the same manner he did, “Granted this too is only interpretation-and you will be eager enough to raise this objection?- well, so much the better.”


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    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 

      2 years ago from Australia

      A heavy read for this time of the evening, but worth the effort. A complex topic, but one in which your thoughts presented well.

    • Tom Groves profile image

      Tom Groves 

      2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Great hub; hope it's okay that I've linked it in one of my hubs about postmodernism.

    • Irob profile image


      6 years ago from St. Charles

      very good analysis


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