Nietzsche reflections

In recent weeks, I’ve explored some philosophical work on Nietzsche, namely; the work of Leiter and Hurka. I present three thoughts. In a sense they are interrelated.

1. Nietzsche is not a systematic philosopher.

The commonality of so-called ‘continental philosophy’ (Leiter himself would probably discourage such a distinction for reasons interesting in itself) is that they are mostly unified in being anti-systematic, and I would go further to say, distinctly anti-Kantian (notable exceptions apply like Hegel). Nietzsche is suggestibly anti-systematic. Or is he? I would think so, however, there is some two senses in which we may consider the phrase ‘systematic philosophy’.

a. Contemporary philosophy: Nietzsche has a very interesting contribution to moral psychology and meta-ethics. Leiter & Knobe for instance has explored this avenue in an empirical manner. In addition, if we are to consider philosophy in a more Lewisian construal; of the interconnections of philosophical topics, and setting conditions explicitly of how one area can and should relate to another; there is certainly a lot to say of a ‘systematic’ contribution to Nietzsche’s philosophy especially in metaethics and normative ethics.

b. Philosophy as a system: I think the building of systems was associated with santimonious and optimistic reasoning so utterly detached from the world, that Nietzsche would highly be disdainful not only of the notion that ‘the proper philosophy’ (i.e. his) is a system, but even of persons considering his work as a system. This notion of Nietzsche as systematic is a dead end. But the distinction between a. and b. is important.

2. Nietzsche is a ‘Perfectionist’

The contemporary moral philosopher, Thomas Hurka is known for his position in ethics called ‘Perfectionism’. Now perfectionism seems to be a doctrine with many nuances; for instance, Hurka distinguishes between multiple notions of perfectionism. Nietzsche’s description of the eminent individual, the great genius; is one who works above the normal rules of the masses. Nietzsche’s notion of such an individual seeks their highest eminence, whatever end that may be; from a great poet (Goethe) to a great composer (Beethoven) or to a great leader (Napoleon?). I find Hurka’s interpretation of Nietzsche interesting, and it makes me a little more curious about Hurka’s own proposed model of perfectionism. Hurka calls his approach ‘neo-Aristotelian’ but acknowledges that forms of perfectionism, or the doctrine of one reaching their highest ability as a moral and ethical goal to span across the ages; from Aristotle to Aquinas to Marx and Nietzsche. A system of ethics based upon the highest eminence of an individual seems immediately attractive to me, but in the case of Nietzsche I consider a tension or systematic addition to the issue…

3. Two tier morality?

As a question of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and of society as a whole I wonder; can there be two tiers of morality? A law where the eminent, superior caste seek their own inner perfection and embrace virtues of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship, while there lives an underclass of society? I immediately think of a division of labour of a sort askin to say the Morlocks and Eloi of HG Wells’ Time Machine; or a Marxian class war; where there is a fixed ruling class and an immobile working class (and lets face it, social mobility doesn’t look so good these days). Can there be such a system of morality where one size does not fit all?

Within Nietzsche’s system, Leiter notes a certain equivocation. Nietzsche on one hand seems to promote the abandonment of traditional morality as it is normally construed, but yet promotes a moral system. One cannot damn morality and promote it at once (in the promotion of, say the master morality in Genealogy of Morals). Nietzsche is aware that not everyone can embrace the system of master morality, and while disdainful of slave/conventional morality, wouldn’t one need to support the other in some naturalised moral caste system?

It seems the case that Nietzsche made his philosophy for those who pursued the master morality, and it also seems the case that he was against the ‘wrong’ kind of person being part of the master morality. What counts as the wrong kind of person is unknown to me, but he does give a condition of exclusivity to higher morality. Is it the case that we require the philistine slave morality that he so hates? Is it possible that we require the slaves so that the master moralists can rule? It would seem almost prudent to give a system of control, a system of morality, to ensure that those who seek eminence do, but also preserve social order by having others who do not. Is it a matter of disposition and natural necessity that only a minority strive to leadership while others stay as worker ants? or a notion of idealised social order?

I feel immediately over my head in confusion here. Reading about Nietzsche seems to proffer more thoughts and explorations than answers, while reading Nietzsche himself provides humour and understanding of his disdain. For me, looking at the philistine objects of cultural veneration; where amateurism is celebrated and ignorance is the rule de jour seems to make me think that slave morality is all around.

Michael (following conversations with Destre)


4 thoughts on “Nietzsche reflections

  1. Thanks for this! I’ve studied these exact questions for years so I hope you don’t mind me (a total stranger) chiming in.

    I like your first point. It is one thing to say he has systematic contributions to make, another thing to say he has a system. The first thing is obviously true, the second is false. “The will to a system is a will to a lack of integrity” -N.

    Now, some clarifications: Nietzsche (as Leiter notes) speaks of his survey of the “moralities” of world-history. He clearly believes that there is something called contemporary or “modern” morality, which is slavish and Christian, but also that other moralities are of course possible: this answers one of your questions. A morality is any system of values and valuing, and so he can condemn one and recommend another without contradiction.

    Importantly, he does not advocate a return to Master-morality, a historical phenomenon which itself had many noble qualities (for example, that it recognized the concept of noble and base, higher and lower persons). He repeatedly calls (BGE 211 and 212) for new philosophers to fashion new values, a new morality, one which goes beyond what has come before.

    I believe that Hurka is wrong and that you are right about one important point: Nietzsche did not think that everyone ought to believe or follow his ideas. “The ideas of the herd should rule in the herd,” he says in The Will To Power, and it’s clear that he wants a new type of person to forge ahead without regard for those ideas. A brief characterization of this person is this: they are a “noble” or “higher” soul, a soul who has “reverence for itself”. They look to the future and create values rather than slavishly follow current value-systems: they go “beyond good and evil”. I love your main question here, though: does this not require some lower class from which to distance oneself, to achieve Nietzsche’s “pathos of distance”? I think the noble soul’s secret dependence on the herd-class is one of the great blind spots in Nietzsche’s thought, one of his great weaknesses.

    Anyway, I’m rambling, so thanks again for this post. I’ve just written some closely related stuff here:

    • I’ve nothing to say in response to comments. Except thank you for the illumination. I’m still trying to work out Nietzsche, unlike Friedrich I’m not ludid, like Friedrich, I don’t seem to have a systematic grasp on these issues. Comments always appreciated as it demonstrates I’m not writing just for myself (although I am partly).

      Nietzsche’s work is often confusing to me for many reasons: one is the fear of appealing to one of the common misconceptions about him from scholarly interpretations past; but also the vast difference of writing style between philosophy-as-prose and philosophy-as-analysis. Alas, it makes good leisurely reading.


  2. Haven’t read any of the commentators you flag here, but I’m very familiar with Nietzsche himself.

    I find it interesting that anyone would try and cast Nietzsche in modern terms (like continental philosophy) since Nietzsche himself started out just as a philologist. He read philosophy because they were some of the books in print. He ends up in the space of philosophy, but he wasn’t an academic philosopher. I believe part of the joy of Nietzsche is precisely that he *wasn’t* an academic philosopher, and could thus pave his own way with his ideas.

    Your point about Nietzsche seeming to propose an abandonment of morality, yet proposes a morality, is explored by Mary Midgley, who makes the point that Nietzsche’s allegedly anti-moralistic campaign actually proceeds on moral grounds. It’s a moral critique of the morality of his time, not a case against morality at all.

    And its interesting, this business of master and slave morality, because Nietzsche does knock the slave morality (i.e. Christian morals) but he also wants to maintain class distinctions, and speaks positively of the Book of Manu, from which the Indian caste system is drawn. There’s a tension here in Nietzsche’s ideas that is never quite resolved.

    I get the impression that he wants to want everyone to think for themselves, but what he doesn’t want is for everyone to be equal. He is an elitist, and would probably have been happy with the label, yet he still extends his critique to people who are not part of his notion of the elite.

    Perhaps the problem here is that because Nietzsche is not systematic, attempting to construct an image of his views within one system will inevitably fail. Perhaps we should look at the different strands in his thought as independent elements of his thinking rather than as part of a coherent programme.

    Best wishes!

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