• Richard Farr

Misunderstanding the Mensch

If you want to be misunderstood, a good strategy is to write with great pyrotechnic flair combined with great and deliberate obscurity, then go insane, and then have your literary estate overseen by a proto-Fascist sister with an axe to grind. Go Nietzsche!

In this podcast, philosopher Brian Leiter takes on the idea that:

  • The Übermensch is one of his central ideas or doctrines. It's only mentioned in Thus Spake Zarathustra; there, it's certainly one of the eponymous messiah's central doctrines. But the book is a parody of the New Testament and of religious texts generally.

  • N was an anti-Semite: What N is explicitly anti- is Judaism, because he holds it responsible for (what is even worse, he thinks) Christianity. But he's fulsome in praise of many individual Jews and withering in his contempt for anti-Semites. There is indeed one 'ethnic' group he really does hate, in an almost joyfully prejudical way, and that's... Germans. The egregious Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche edited those bits out; they would have given the Führer indigestion.

  • His central doctrine of all is the Will to Power. The book title was a later concoction, again Elizabeth F-N is to blame. In the late Ecce Homo, a sort of intellectual overview and autobiography, he scarcely mentions it.

  • His relativism about truth makes him a precursor of postmodernism: The claim is that he’s a radical skeptic about texts having meaning, per Derrida. But he was a philologist, and thought of philology as a Wissenschaft - a distinctive discipline with distinctive methods that could be used (carefully and well, or not) to uncover the true meaning of a text. In any case, his entire philosophical project is to show that we are objectively mistaken in accepting Christian values because that morality lies to us about the true nature of human flourishing. None of that makes sense if truth is relative or unknowable.

One thing Leiter says little about is that Nietzsche brought much of this misunderstanding on himself. Stylistically difficult philosophers must expect to be misunderstood; philosophers who also think of philosophy as a kind of watch-me-dance theatrical performance, more so.

Personally, I'm highly skeptical of performer-philosophers. Even the great ones (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard), and especially the lesser ones (half of all continental philosophers since Kant) strike me as rather sad figures - artistes-manqué. They should have gone in for stand-up or poetry slams instead. I'm reminded of a devastating put-down by J. Bouverese of Jean Baudrillard, who attempts, with a very relative degree of success, to compensate for the absence of properly philosophical argumentation by means of literary effects and for the absence of proper literary qualities by means of philosophical pretensions.

That's not a wholly unfair assessment of many long passages in Nietzsche - and of too many other people who enjoy the label 'philosopher' but lack the humility for long periods of sitting down quietly and thinking.

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