'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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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.
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: