Nietzsche/Darwin Part X: Nihilism

Friedrich Nietzsche

Since Nietzsche, only in the modern era have ‘spirit” and “culture” been deliberately experienced as fundamental ways in which human beings comport themselves to both themselves and the world, and the word “values” used to describe such comportment. Indeed, such comportment is evaluated in all the areas of knowledge that are studied in the IB Diploma Program. This is part of the gradual movement from empiricism or positivism to historicism, a movement which Nietzsche saw as inevitable.

That we use the words ‘spirit’ and ‘culture’ to describe the Middle Ages or Greek civilization prevents us from understanding these eras since there is no “spirit” or “culture” present in them. It is through the language and thinking of Nietzsche that we have determined how we “know” and “understand” these historical eras and what we call our “personal” and “shared” knowledge in our own era. Nietzsche’s thinking and language permeates the social/human sciences and now has come to permeate the “hard” sciences through the discoveries of modern physics, particularly relativity and indeterminacy, and these hard sciences’ impact on chemistry and biology. As a teacher I have always been astonished at how the young were speaking the language of Nietzsche when they had absolutely no familiarity with him.

Nietzsche considers “nihilism” as that condition where the ultimate values devaluate themselves. The determination of values is grounded in a determination of whether and how something is—or whether that is is “nothing”—no-thing. There is a connection here to beings in their Being; they are not concepts of value since they are “no-thing”. Since “things” themselves have no values in and of themselves it is human beings who give the value to the things.

The “nothing” of nihilism is rooted in a judgement, assertion; it has its origins in “logic”. Nietzsche’s thinking illustrates that the essence of “nothing” cannot be understood but also that it will no longer be understood. For Nietzsche, the modern era is where human beings became the centre and measure of all things. This is not to be understood as an individual ego or subjectum but of human beings as the ground and aim of all Being. (See for example Pope Francis’ acceptance of “evolution” as a “fact”, although his interpretation is somewhat different than that understood by the scientists: the scientist understands evolution as a product of chance or contingency, the output of the chaos of existence and that it has no goal or aim in and of itself; Pope Francis must see evolution as part of the order of the world, an example of God’s will which, at some point in history,  gives the logos to human being, and this comes dangerously close to the blasphemy of thinking that one can make the will of God “scrutable”).

How does nihilism come to be? When Nietzsche writes that “God is dead”, he is not being trite in the manner of the 1960s hippie activist Abbie Hoffman who said: “God is dead and we did it for the kids”. Hoffman’s banality has been echoed by many since. With the death of God comes the devaluation of the highest value, the nullity of meaning and purpose for and in anything. This result is due to the fact that meaning was sought in all events and things and was not found. “Meaning” and “value” are synonymous in Nietzsche: what has meaning has value, and what has value has meaning.

“Meaning” also indicates “purpose”. We see purpose as the “why” of every action, comportment, and event. Nietzsche illustrates what meaning and purpose could have been: “the ethical world order”; “the growth of love and harmony in social intercourse”; pacifism, eternal peace, our globalization and our “international mindedness”; “the gradual approximation to a state of universal happiness”; the greatest good for the greatest number; “or even the departure toward a state of universal nothingness”. Any goal constitutes some meaning. Why? Because it has a purpose, because it is itself a purpose. Ultimately, it is the necessity of the will to will.

What does our reliance on mathematical physics and the everydayness of our comportment to things have to do with what Nietzsche understands as nihilism? Nietzsche can say it much better than I. Let’s have a look at a long passage from his Will To Power (#12) which presages the arrival of our modern era and gives us reasons why the corporation and social networks as institutions have come to dominate our social lives and our politics. Many more extensions to all the areas of knowledge and to all the areas of our current existence can be made by extrapolating on what is said here:

12 (Nov, 1887-March 1888) Decline of Cosmological Values


Nihilism as a psychological state will have to be reached, first, when we have sought a “meaning” in all events that is not there: so the seeker eventually becomes discouraged. Nihilism, then, is the recognition of the long waste of strength, the agony of the “in vain,” insecurity, the lack of any opportunity to recover and to regain composure—being ashamed in front of oneself, as if one had deceived oneself all too long.— This meaning could have been: the “fulfillment” of some highest ethical canon in all events, the moral world order; or the growth of love and harmony in the intercourse of beings; or the gradual approximation of a state of universal happiness; or even the development toward  a state of universal annihilation—any goal at least constitutes some meaning. What all these notions have in common is that something is to be achieved through the process—and now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing.— Thus, disappointment regarding an alleged aim of becoming as a cause of nihilism: whether regarding a specific aim or, universalized, the realization that all previous hypotheses about aims that concern the whole “evolution” are inadequate (man no longer the collaborator, let alone the center, of becoming).

Nihilism as a psychological state is reached, secondly, when one has posited a totality, a systematization, indeed any organization in all events, and underneath all events, and a soul that longs to admire and revere has wallowed in the idea of some supreme form of domination and administration (—if the soul be that of a logician, complete consistency and real dialectic are quite sufficient to reconcile it to everything). Some sort of unity, some form of “monism”: this faith suffices to give man a deep feeling of standing in the context of, and being dependent on, some whole that is infinitely superior to him, and he sees himself as a mode of the deity.— “The well-being of the universal demands the devotion of the individual”—but behold, there is no such universal!

At bottom, man has lost the faith in his own value when no infinitely valuable whole works through him; i.e., he conceived such a whole in order to be able to believe in his own value.

Nihilism as psychological state has yet a third and last form. Given these two insights, that becoming has no goal and that underneath all becoming there is no grand unity in which the individual could immerse himself completely as in an element of supreme value, an escape remains: to pass sentence on this whole world of becoming as a deception and to invent a world beyond it, a true world. But as soon as man finds out how that world is fabricated solely from psychological needs, and how he has absolutely no right to it, the last form of nihilism comes into being: it includes disbelief in any metaphysical world and forbids itself any belief in a true world. Having reached this standpoint, one grants the reality of becoming as the only reality, forbids oneself every kind of clandestine access to afterworlds and false divinities—but cannot endure this world though one does not want to deny it.

What has happened, at bottom? The feeling of valuelessness was reached with the realization that the overall character of existence may not be interpreted by means of the concept of “aim,” the concept of “unity,” or the concept of “truth.” Existence has no goal or end; any comprehensive unity in the plurality of events is lacking: the character of existence is not “true,” is false. One simply lacks any reason for convincing oneself that there is a true world. Briefly: the categories “aim,” “unity,” “being” which we used to project some value into the world—we pull out again; so the world looks valueless.


Suppose we realize how the world may no longer be interpreted in terms of these three categories, and that the world begins to become valueless for us after this insight: then we have to ask about the sources of our faith in these three categories. Let us try if it is not possible to give up our faith in them. Once we have devaluated these three categories, the demonstration that they cannot be applied to the universe is no longer any reason for devaluating the universe.

Conclusion: The faith in the categories of reason is the cause of nihilism. We have measured the value of the world according to categories that refer to a purely fictitious world.

Final conclusion: All the values by means of which we have tried so far to render the world estimable for ourselves and which then proved inapplicable and therefore devaluated the world—all these values are, psychologically considered, the results of certain perspectives of utility, designed to maintain and increase human constructs of domination—and they have been falsely projected into the essence of things. What we find here is still the hyperbolic naiveté of man: positing himself as the meaning and measure of the value of things.

Nietzsche sums up nihilism as of three types: the failure of a search for meaning and purpose; the failure of positing a “unity” in which human beings were seen as the “centre” of that unity (the humanism that arose from traditional Christianity once God was dispensed with) and the “ascent” to a “true” world beyond becoming (Being) i.e. the cosmological, psychological and theological worlds are worlds in which “nothing” is ever achieved.

Nietzsche states in Section B of note #12 above that the highest values are “categories of reason”. This expression means reason, rational thinking, the judgement of understanding, “logic”—all things the categories of reason stand related to and which determine what the things are and how they are. It finds its ultimate statement in Leibniz’s nihil est sine ratione—“nothing is without reason”; “nothing is without a reason (cause)”. Leibniz calls this “the principle of reason”. In our reading of Leibniz’s statement, if we put the emphasis on the words “nothing” and “is” we can begin to hear what Nietzsche intends in his statements. We can rearrange the statement to make it clearer: “Without reason, nothing is”, “Without a reason nothing is”. As Nietzsche states quite explicitly in the “Decline in Cosmological Values”, “Faith in the categories of reason is the cause of nihilism—we have measured the value of the world according to categories which relate to a purely fictitious world.”

Here, Nietzsche quite explicitly defines “faith” as a way of knowing; not as a relation to a “religious knowledge system” only, but to all manner of “systemic thinking”, to all metaphysical thinking which is based upon “results” brought about through reckoning and calculation and based upon “the principle of reason”. But is there not a contradiction here? Have we not already determined that for Nietzsche “technology is the highest form of will to power” and have we not already stated that the thinking involved in symbolic mathematical physics is one predicate of this technology and that it is based upon the principle of reason? The contradiction is resolved in Nietzsche’s statement regarding all human efforts using the principle of reason: “To stamp Becoming with the character of Being—that is the supreme will to power” (WP #617). Such “stamping” of becoming requires what Nietzsche called his most important concept, the eternal recurrence of the same, for its completion. That technology (enframing, framing) which brings to presence, fixates in terms of place, and makes permanent is the stamp (paradigm) which characterizes the nature of Becoming with the character of Being. But for Nietzsche, this stamping is an error. The delimitation of becoming, its defining and the setting of its limits through technology, is an error in which art is necessary lest we perish from the truth of this error. Art is one aspect of the logos of the techne + logos (the “knowing” and the “making”), the supreme form of will to power. This is what Nietzsche called “active nihilism”. Active nihilism sets out to define truth in its essence on the basis of that which lends all things their determinability and definition and this is what technology is.

Knowledge of the origins and of the necessity of values brings with it an insight into the essence of prior values and valuation. “Valuation” and “valuative thought” come not as “instinctive behaviour” observing itself i.e. not as algorithmic thinking and calculation, a “problem solving” that becomes “conscious” but rather that “consciousness” itself becomes “calculation” as instinct proper. The essence of values has its grounds in “constructs of domination”, the domination that solves “problems”. What Nietzsche sees as “untrue” is the fact that these values (primarily through the thinking of Kant and in the interpretations of that thinking) have been placed in a realm of “existing in itself” within which and from which they are to acquire absolute validity for themselves when they are really only a certain kind of will to power. Axiomatic thinking comes to dominate. What does this mean?

Nietzsche writes at the same time in his life (WP #1027): “Man is monster (beast) and overman; the higher man is inhuman and superhuman: these belong together. With every increase of greatness and height in man, there is also an increase in depth and terribleness: one ought not to desire the one without the other—or rather: the more radically one desires the one, the more radically one achieves precisely the other.”

Nietzsche’s concept of morality is not simply the distinctions between “good” and “evil” as these have been traditionally defined. Nietzsche’s conception of metaphysics is a “moral” conception where morality means “a system of evaluations”. Every interpretation of the world, including the scientific, is a positing of values and thus a forming and shaping of the world according to the image of human beings; it is a “moral” evaluation i.e. a system of evaluations. Man is, indeed, “the measure of all things”, but not as Protagoras understood this. There is no distinction between “facts” and “values” as is the faith and belief of the logical positivists. All evaluations are moral evaluations, thus values. Man in his freedom is bound by and bound to his own positings, what he conceives “truth” to be. This is what “the death of God” means: “first principles” (and “morality” is to be understood as based on “first principles”) do not require proof; they are transparent in themselves; they are “obvious”. This is what the word “axiom” means. “Survival of the fittest” is obvious; it is an axiom. It is a value estimation of being. This is what the word “axiom” means. Symbolic algebraic thinking evolves towards “axiomatic thinking”.  The theory of evolution is taught not as theory but as reality.

Plato began metaphysical thinking in the West with his understanding of beings as “Idea”. The ideas are the “one” in the many which at first appears in our experience of the many. We see many varieties of trees as we walk along a path and in them we see the “one” of “treeness” and so this “one” is. The treeness of the tree is the permanent and true of the tree as opposed to its fluctuating appearance in becoming in the many trees we see about us. The Idea is the essence of the specific tree, what it is of a tree that makes it a tree and not a rock.

In Nietzsche’s metaphysics of will to power, the ideas must be considered as “values”, and supreme values are the highest values. For Plato, the highest Idea is the idea of the Good. “Good” is what makes things “good for something”, and it is this “usefulness” which makes the thing possible; but this “utility” is not human-centred. From this “usefulness” is derived the concept of our “indebtedness” to the thing in its relation to us. If we think for a moment, all our issues with our environment such as climate change or the massive pollution of our rivers and oceans are the result of this lack of thinking and feeling of any “indebtedness” to nature for the things that have been given to us, the things that are not of our own making for we have considered them as “no-thing”.

If we think of our perceptions as composed of discrete pixels or data, a form is necessary to make them perceivable to us i.e. to “bring them to light”, bring them to presence for us, and make them be beings that are understandable to us. The data must be put into a structure that can be recognized so that it can “in-form” us through its “form” (in + form + ation, that which is responsible for the form so that it “informs”). Kant would say that it is the “I think” of the ego that renders the interpretation and thus gives the perceptions Being. Nietzsche interprets this subjectivity on the basis of will to power; it is will to power that provides the form that informs. What gets lost is the sense of otherness and our “indebtedness” or “owing” to the otherness that is not ourselves. The thing becomes a “dis-posable”. No-thing has been given to us that is not of our own making. Because we make it, we know it and if we do not know it, it has no being; it is no-thing.

Nihilism always means that there is no-thing/nothing to the thing, the being as such. From this we can see why Nietzsche would say that the Western thinking that finds its flowering in the technological viewing as such is nihilistic and floats upon a sea of nihilism. The “Wherefore? Whither? and What then?” receive no answer and become forgotten, not asked.

Plato’s concept of the Good does not contain “values” thinking. Plato’s “Ideas” are not values, for the Being of beings is not projected as will to power. On the basis of his own fundamental metaphysical position, Nietzsche regards the Platonic interpretation of beings as “Ideas” and that which is beyond the senses as “values”. Under Nietzsche’s interpretation, all philosophy since Plato becomes “metaphysics as values”, but again it must be emphasized that this is Nietzsche’s decision based upon a view of Nature (physis), a view which is totally alien to the Greeks. The perceptible, what is immediately present for us is measured against “desirability”, that which is “needful” and conceived as the “ideal”. We do not measure Nature; Nature measures us.

Nietzsche, however, conceives these “desirable” things as the “uppermost values” or “morality understood as the doctrine of the relations of supremacy under which the phenomenon ‘life’ comes to be—“ (Beyond Good and Evil #19) Nietzsche’s “de-struction” of this hierarchy and of the history of metaphysical philosophy is not directed toward an understanding of the past that is historiological in nature, but rather, toward that time which is to come. Because beings as a whole are conceived in the realm of the supra-sensuous which is conceived as ‘true being’, God, the moral law, the authority of reason, “progress”, the happiness of the greatest number become the ideals which have been established. These “ideals” become the preserve of those human beings that Nietzsche referred to as “the last men”, that is, the last men before the arrival of the “overman”; but the ideals of the last men are founded upon nihilism. The “overman” is the highest condition of human being as such for he recognizes beings as will to power and judges “their value for life” as their highest being.

The “devaluation of the highest values hitherto” is what is meant by Nietzsche’s most famous expression “God is dead”. Not only is the Christian God dead but all “higher principles” be they the “authority of conscience”, the “domination of reason”, the God of “historical progress”, “the universal, homogeneous state” are also dead. They come to lose their power to shape history. For Nietzsche, the positing of the uppermost values, their falsification, devaluation, de-position, the appearance of the world as temporarily valueless, the need to replace prior values with new ones, the new positing as revaluation, and the preliminary stages of this revaluation are the “logic” inherent in nihilism itself. For Nietzsche, the cause of nihilism is “morality” where ideals of truth, beauty and goodness are valued “in themselves”. When these values show themselves to be unattainable, life appears to be unsuitable and unable to realize these values. “Pessimism” is a preliminary form of nihilism (WP #9).

One can find among the first examples of this “devaluation” the writings of Machiavelli where political philosophy is designed to deal with human beings “as they really are” and not with human beings as “they should be”. The ideal is removed; the standard is lowered, the hierarchy of nature is removed, and a leveling takes place. Machiavelli could be said to be the step-grandfather of what we call today the human or social sciences. That Machiavelli was an “evil man” goes without saying…he himself claims so.

Nietzsche describes the arrival of nihilism in various stages due to the pessimism brought about by the inability to achieve the “ideals” which have been posited for the whole of beings. What he calls “imperfect nihilism” denies the highest values that have been held historically but simply posits new ideals in the old places. So, for example, “communism” comes to replace the early forms of Christianity. These halfway measures postpone the decisive overthrow of the uppermost values. Nietzsche called Kant “the great delayer”, and much of modern thinking uses Kant to retain some kind of faith in a “transcendental” “supra-sensuous” realm.

The thinking that Nietzsche affirms is that thinking which shifts the place where new valuations will become possible. “Values” are conceived as conditions of will to power and beings as a whole are thought of in terms of values. Our language of “empowerment” and “quality of life” are examples of the values-thinking permeating our modern discourse. The value of the totality of beings is captured in Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal recurrence of the same” i.e. the value of the whole cannot be determined but evolves perpetually.

Nietzsche conceives all “meaning” as “purpose” and “end”, and purpose and end are values. Therefore, he can say that “absolute valuelessness”, that is meaninglessness, “aimless in itself”,  is “a fundamental tenet of faith for the nihilist”. Today, science attempts to ignore its own crisis in its understanding of its meaning and purpose and it is indicative that science is will to power for its own sake, the simple will to will. As science, as knowledge, it is “useless” and “valueless”.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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