The son of a Protestant minister, Nietzsche was sent to the university to study theology, whereupon he lost interest in the subject, abandoned his childhood faith in God, and took up philology (the study of ancient languages) and philosophy. At the age of 25, he was granted chair of philology at the University of Basel. With poor health, Nietzsche resigned his position at the university in his mid thirties and spent the rest of his life traveling abroad (e.g., Italy) and writing eccentric books which were often read only by a handful of people. Nietzsche is supposed to have said of himself, “I have come a century too soon.” He often felt misunderstood and underappreciated, a feeling which contributed to his sense of total isolation and alienation from the rest of the intellectual community during his time. During his intellectual career, he embraced and then rejected the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and the friendship of the composer Richard Wagner. His brief courtship with the young and beautiful Lou Salome, one his protégés, ended in disaster. In the end, he worked alone, living out the last ten years of his life in insanity, cared for only by his sister.
In his books, Nietzsche’s singular task seems to be a total deconstruction of the whole of the philosophical tradition, both ancient and modern. For Nietzsche, philosophy merely represents another way of life, which is inherently no better than the unphilosophical. Underlying philosophy is language. Through language, we shape the world to our liking in an anthropomorphic fashion (in the words of Protagoras, “man is the measure all things”), using words to describe things the way we want to see them. Truth is merely an invention—a linguistic construction. It is a reification of that which ultimately has no ontological significance. That which is true is merely that which has triumphed as the leading metaphor or manner of description in a given society or culture.
In effect, Nietzsche proposes to reduce all knowledge to mere perspectives or interpretations, none of which converge upon any common, objective reality. For Nietzsche, truth is no more inherently valuable than untruth. As he writes in Beyond Good and Evil, “Why truth? Why not untruth?” Rationality is merely a façade. Underlying this façade are hidden desires, passions, and prejudices. What appears to be rational is really motivated by subjective, irrational impulses. Nietzsche’s self-imposed task is to peer beyond this thin veneer of rationality into the deepest recesses of the human soul. In doing so, he attempts to psychoanalyze all human activity in terms of an exercise of the will to power, calling for a new vision of humanity founded on the “superman,” the man who triumphs over the truths and moral principles of the “herd.” This will to power is the underlying principle behind all appearances, the thing-in-itself that lurks beneath our many masks. To be fully human is to exercise this will towards the end of self-creation, creating one’s own truths and values apart from the herd—in effect, going “beyond good and evil.” Thus human perfection is no longer achieved through the universal pursuit of wisdom or the good but through the struggle of a privileged few to supra-human greatness.
Understanding Nietzsche’s works is often a formidable task. While it is plainly clear what it is that Nietzsche seeks to dethrone (i.e., just about every other philosophy but his own), it is often less certain what exactly he advocates as the alternative. His constructive philosophy is highly nuanced and subtle, for it seems that Nietzsche loves to hide beneath many “masks.” Nietzsche’s approach is often more literary than methodological, Freudian than analytical, drawing upon both life experiences and psychological interpretation to direct his criticism. His rambling and often incoherent style renders the task of interpretation for the reader and objection for the critic extremely difficult. In the end, Nietzsche may be less of a philosopher than he may be a historian, sociologist, or visionary. Regardless, his thoughts have impacted the course of modern / post-modern philosophy ever since.
Nietzsche’s criticisms of traditional/modern philosophy (his deconstructive project):
4. free will
5. belief in opposites
6. transcendent values or higher beings (metaphysics)
7. ultimate end (teleology)
8. belief in essences (essentialism)
9. the “old soul concept” (soul atomism)
11. self-consciousness (ala Descartes)
12. pessimism (ala Schopenhauer)
13. false “free spirits” (his modern contemporaries)
Nietzsche’s constructive philosophy:
1. will to power
3. “philosopher of the future” / ubermensch
4. theory of eternal recurrence