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Context : PostModernism

Quora Answer : Can we consider that Nietzsche is a postmodern philosopher? If yes, how and why?

Aug 13, 2020

It's better to think of it like this.

Nietzsche is a 19th century philosopher, responding to all the trends in philosophy and thought of the 19th century. He's part of that 19th century tradition (including Marx, Hegel, Darwin etc.) that takes history seriously and sees it as a productive force. History as a process of change and "improvement" or "creation" is a very 19th century idea.

At the same time, he rejects the attempts to find an impersonal logic or science of history as Hegel, Marx or Darwin do. Instead his idea of history is the history of great thinkers who impose new ideas through sheer creativity and power. Or rather, it's the idea of a kind of creative, productive, disruptive force ... a "will-to-power" which flows through the great thinkers who are mere vehicles for it.

In Nietzsche's view this force, power is everything. It's the only thing that matters in philosophy, science or any intellectual achievement. It would be crude to say his is a philosophy of "might makes true", but that is one reading.

It's important to remember that Nietzsche is not stupid or evil or mad (except maybe at the end of his life). He doesn't come to this position to try to show off or be clever (although he sometimes writes like he does). Nietzsche is very smart and well read, and knows the intellectual history.

This position is the end result of a process in philosophy, that starts with Descartes, of subjecting our beliefs to sceptical enquiry, and trying to justify why we should accept our "truths" as being the truths. And then failing to give justifications. Not through want of trying, but because all the other sources of truth : reason, experience, senses etc. are found wanting when tested to destruction.

And as Sherlock Holmes would put it "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth"

That's basically a Nietzscheian view of philosophy and of values. That all the other ways to ground it have failed. And the only theory that remains is "truth is just what some people manage to persuade everyone else the truth is"

So how did philosophy respond to Nietzsche in the 20th century?

Well, many just tried to dismiss him or thought him mad or evil. (It didn't help that the Nazis adopted him)

Others tried to account for him and slotted him into their world view. But mainly philosophers retreated into talking about logic, or language or analysing the forms of subjective experience. These were areas that were "safe" in that they didn't claim to talk about the world in itself. Just our subjective relations to it. And we could claim we knew about our own experience or language or logic, by definition.

The idea that we can't talk about the world as it really is, and can just talk about our subjective experience of it, has been around since Kant. And the recurring philosophical response to that is "if we can't talk about the world as it is, let's just talk about our experience of it and claim that that is all the world that matters". And that's what most philosophers did in the 20th century. Banned "metaphysics" or any speculation about what the world in itself was "really like".

Of course, most of these 20th century philosophers were not responding directly to Nietzsche. But they were responding to the same general crisis of the failure to justify our knowledge of the world, that Nietzsche was.

But there's another aspect of Nietzsche which is important. He was not a nihilist.

He didn't think that we should believe in nothing. Or in mere physical laws without values or norms. Instead he believed in the process or the will-to-power force. He believed in creativity. And, in a sense, in art and aesthetics. There was an aesthetic virtue in creating new values and ideas to save us from nihilism. A kind beauty in it.

As an aside. These ideas fed, via Heidegger, into existentialism. But in this form, the focus was on the individual person creating their own world. And Nietzsche's aesthetics seems to give rise to "norm" notions or ideals like "authenticity" and "grace" etc. aesthetic qualities of self-production.

Existentialism is NOT "post-modernism" however.

Another current from Nietzsche takes the impersonality of the will-to-power seriously. And it does that partly through Freud.

Freud is a medical doctor, a psychologist, who contemporary with Nietzsche, picks up on the idea of an impersonal force that drives people. He frames these as unconscious drives. And for the rest of the 20th century we get a new picture of the human mind. One which sees our conscious thoughts and decisions as emerging from the interplay of unconscious forces. What's really going on in the mind is these drives.

Now Freud's specific model of the mind is one of the "modernisms" that post-modernism is rejecting. But the idea of impersonal forces "machines" or "desires" survives.

And that's how we get to the "the post-modernists" (tm) : Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard, Baudrilliard etc. (Derrida does via a digression through language) are the philosophers who simultaneously pick up on a) a model of humanity not as conscious rational agents, but as the space in which unconscious cross-cutting historical forces or drives meet and interact. And b) the notion that philosophy implies an aesthetic response to this. You don't want nihilism or mere collapse into scientistic mechanical world of laws. There is still room for, need for values ... but those values emerge from the interactions of the impersonal forces. And are the result of a test of strength. In fact intellectual history is almost a kind of poetry competition, driven by the most productive, creative, protean forces.

Nietzsche was not, in any sense, a "post-modern" philosopher. He's from a different time and with a different set of concerns. But you can make a case that the most prominent post-modern thinkers take Nietzsche seriously, and try to do philosophy in light of how Nietzsche hints it should be done. As a kind of aesthetic activity, the protean invention of new metaphors and models. Rather than by trying to ignore or reject Nietzsche.

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