Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Friedrich Nietzsche: godfather of postmodernist relativism or warrior of enlightenment ? By Patrick West

The German philosopher is not the proto-postmodern relativist some have mistaken him for. I believe that it’s time that the great man and free-thinker par excellence was reclaimed by the school of the Enlightenment. 
Since his death in 1900, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has had the unfortunate distinction of being blamed for three catastrophes to have befallen Western civilisation. He was blamed for the First World War, when his inflammatory and bellicose writing became cult reading not only for Europe’s restless youth, yearning for blood sacrifice at the beginning of the 20th century, but also for a German military class adjudged to have initiated that catastrophe. As if being charged for one world war wasn’t bad enough, Nietzsche was also blamed for the Second World War, with his talk of superior ‘Supermen’ [Übermenschen] crushing the ‘decadent’ and ‘weak’ selectively appropriated by Hitler and the Nazis. This was despite the fact that Nietzsche loathed German nationalism and especially despised anti-Semites for their pathetic resentment.

And thirdly, in the past 50 years, Nietzsche has been blamed for a more silent disaster: the rise of relativism and the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth. Seldom now, especially in academia, do you now read the word ‘truth’ written without those doubting – and even contemptuous – inverted commas. One of the most resilient doctrines of our times is that all knowledge depends on who is saying it and for what motive. This relativism is invariably traced back to Nietzsche.

This is largely to do with French philosopher Michel Foucault’s rehabilitation of Nietzsche.
Foucault’s writing on power and knowledge in the 1960s and 1970s, which has been widely disseminated in society ever since, drew upon quotes from Nietzsche that ‘truth’ stems from the desire for power and has no eternal objective foundation. In his landmark lectures, ‘Truth and Juridical Forms’, delivered in 1973, Foucault said of the myth of ‘pure truth’: ‘This great myth needs to be dispelled. It is this myth which Nietzsche began to demolish by showing… that behind all knowledge [savoir], behind all attainment of knowledge [connaissance], what is involved is a struggle for power. Political power is not absent from knowledge, it is woven together with it.’

When you hear cries on campus or in academic literature these days that knowledge, truth or science are but ‘white’ or ‘male’ inventions, look no further than Foucault to discover from where this rhetoric came. And because Foucault is open in his debt to Nietzsche, he helped to raise Nietzsche to his current status as the godfather of postmodernist relativism. He has consequently been maligned as the source of our nihilist discontents. In Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), a key work in the Culture Wars, Bloom complained that Nietzsche was behind the emergent spirit of nihilism in academia, the fount of the corrosive culture of relativism eating away at the values of liberal democracy. ‘Nobody really believes in anything anymore’, wrote Bloom, ‘and everyone spends his life in frenzied work and frenzied play so as not to face the fact, not to look into the abyss. Nietzsche’s call to revolt against liberal democracy is more powerful and more radical than is Marx’s.’ Elsewhere, in Experiments Against Reality (2000), conservative commentator Roger Kimball damns ‘Nietzscheanism for the masses, as squads of cozy nihilists parrot his ideas and attitudes. Nietzsche’s contention that truth is merely “a moveable host of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms”, for example, has become a veritable mantra in comparative literature departments across the country.’ More recently, Peter Watson opened his 2014 work The Age of Nothing with the following questions on the book’s very first page: ‘Is there something missing in our lives? Is Nietzsche to blame?’ Read more: