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Nietzsche & Heidegger: Laminate or Separate?

Bill Cooke on the humanist value of Nietzsche.

The story of the long rehabilitation of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) after being unfairly implicated in the rise of Nazism is well known. But the time may be coming when another daring rescue operation will be called for. For several years now, Nietzsche has been hailed as one of the pre-eminent intellectual authorities for postmodernism. But since the ‘Sokal hoax’ in 1996, this eclectic miscellany of moods has come to look decidedly vulnerable and past its prime.

And to complicate matters still further, Nietzsche has been bound in an increasingly close association with Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). In most works of theoretical postmodernism, Nietzsche and Heidegger are discussed as its principal intellectual influences. And they are usually discussed together, to the point where David Farrell Krell has described Nietzsche/Heidegger as a laminate. Now, of course, Heidegger’s intellectual reputation has hit major problems of its own, and is struggling for its life. Even his admirers admit he was consistently anti-democratic, chauvinistic and anti-egalitarian. As Deleuze and Guattari lament in What is Philosophy? (1991): “It is not always easy to be a Heideggerian.” Most of them go on to insist that Heidegger is nonetheless essential reading for contemporary thinkers, and some, such as Julian Young, even argue that Heidegger can yet be put to work in the cause of liberal democracy.

This project seems to me to be desperate in the extreme. Martin Heidegger was so quintessentially anti-democratic and chauvinistic that rescuing him for democracy seems ill-advised and futile. But it is far from obvious that this is also true for Friedrich Nietzsche. At this point, we can start speaking of the two Nietzsches. There is the ‘hard’ interpretation of Nietzsche; the consistently anti-democratic Nietzsche who revels in cruelty, contempt for the Last Man and the virtues of suffering and war. This was the Nietzsche preferred by the Nazi theorists. But there is also the ‘soft’ interpretation of Nietzsche, from those who have seen enough value in his work to want to salvage sections of it in the name of liberalism and democracy. These interpreters include Walter Kaufmann and Ofelia Schutte. They have concentrated on the poetic existentialist Nietzsche, who both wrote some of the most devastating criticisms of the mediocrity of modernity and exhorted us to make the effort to rise above it.

Not unreasonably, this soft trend of Nietzsche interpretation has come in for criticism, not least because of the many aspects of this philosopher that have to be ignored while defending this interpretation. But if Nietzsche is to be rescued from an association with a discredited postmodernism, then it is precisely this soft interpretation that will need to be revisited (even if it does mean jettisoning significant sections of his work). If it was good enough for Michel Foucault to say he was just going to use Nietzsche how he saw fit, then it is good enough for humanists to do the same.

After all, have the postmodernist theorists not manipulated their Nietzsche as well? Postmodernist concepts, such as the aestheticisation of politics, require a selective interpretation of the will to power. And Dionysian man as the postmodernist hero requires a careful selection of which attributes are to be talked up. The other Dionysian attributes, the ones they prefer to leave out of the equation, such as cruelty, hegemony, oppression and so on, are those which they prefer to assign to ‘modernism’. Although in this vein, it is interesting that the more perceptive postmodernist theorists, such as Gregory Bruce Smith, recognise that there is something aristocratic about the genuinely postmodern.

So, it is far from certain that the emancipatory aspects of Friedrich Nietzsche can be salvaged without dragging in the detritus of domination with it. But, unlike Martin Heidegger, the effort is worth making. And there is the related point that it is considerably easier to separate Nietzsche’s solutions from his diagnoses than it is with Heidegger. Few interpreters, not even all the ‘hard’ interpreters, take Nietzsche’s call for a radically authoritarian and hierarchical social order seriously. And yet these people, correctly, read Nietzsche with the greatest of respect. But this is not as easy with Heidegger. It is a far harder task to separate Heidegger’s diagnosis from his prescription. He himself insisted that the two were intimately linked.

If Nietzsche can be rescued for humanism in the wake of the postmodernist shipwreck, then perhaps it can be done in these areas.

Clarity. Nietzsche was one of the finest writers in the German language (Luther-Goethe-Nietzsche?). He has a rare capacity to engage and inspire the reader, whether the reader is agreeing or rejecting what he is saying. But how many people can genuinely claim to have been fired up by Heidegger? As against the jargon-packed fog of much postmodernist writing, Nietzsche’s clear prose is invaluable. That Nietzsche’s writing makes it more approachable to the non-specialist, given his attitude to “the herd”, is ironic, to say the least.

Anti-modernity. Nietzsche and Heidegger were both avowed enemies of modernity and of democracy. Nietzsche saw the roots of nihilism in the Christian and humanist traditions. But unlike Heidegger, Nietzsche was never tempted to argue for, let alone actively take part in, statedominated forms of oppression. Much as he would have hated the idea, Nietzsche has more in common here with John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) than with Martin Heidegger. Nietzsche’s work, unlike Heidegger’s, allows for an individualistic interpretation, notwithstanding the violence this does to Nietzsche’s overall message. It is this strain of nervous individualism in Nietzsche that has been his principal source of attraction to liberals and humanists.

Nationalism. In few areas are the differences between the two men more sharp. Heidegger was an unabashed linguistic and cultural chauvinist. And when discussing Nietzsche, Heidegger felt justified in suppressing any mention of Nietzsche’s pan-European tendencies. Nietzsche, by contrast, was notoriously rude about the Germans and wrote specifically as a European.

Pessimism. Postmodernism is a culture of pessimism and did Friedrich Nietzsche not see pessimism as a preliminary to nihilism; that urge to the void that this philosopher devoted his career to combating? Heidegger’s focus on Being is gloomy and static, whereas Nietzsche’s focus on Becoming allows for growth, even optimism. And with a little reworking, Dionysus could well become the fulcrum for a lifeaffirming philosophy of the twenty-first century. Dionysus plus Prometheus.

© Bill Cooke 2000

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