Nietzsche's conceptions of philosophy : an essay in interpretation


No doubt one of the most tangible ways of making an introductory first approach to an individual philosopher's conception of philosophy is via his major themes. Can one argue with the suggestion that philosophy, however else one may think of it, has in its history almost invariably crystallised around a number of themes? I have two in mind - the themes of reason and truth. If it can be agreed that philosophy has, since its inception, made reason and truth the object of its discursive efforts, the locus of its institutionalised accounts, the vehicle for generating a sense of the questionable, wondrous and sublime, then perhaps we can use them to arrive at a first approximative understanding of the individual philosopher Nietzsche's conception of his enterprise. An answer to the question "What does Nietzsche provide us with in the w?y of thematic treatments of reason and truth?" suggests itself immediately. What he gives us are self-conscious, radical interpretations of the two, self-conscious interpretations in the sense that he is at pains to point out the interpretative moment of his dealings with reason and truth, in the sense, in other words, that he points to himself in giving his readers his accounts and is never far from allusions to his own partiality as someone giving an account; radical interpretations in the sense that his interpretations are intended to violently undercut other sorts of interpretations of reason and truth that he takes to be prevalent in the history of philosophy, both at the level of style and the not entirely separable level of content. To the extent that it is possible to talk about Nietzsche's overall picture of reason, we can say that he thinks of it, in dramatic contrast to the thinkers of the tradition, as a surface phenomenon of human life, often indeed as a vagrant surface phenomenon, almost, I should like to say, as a point of concealment for less than inspired men. Truth, to the extent that he can bring it into thematic focus, is for Nietzsche primarily a lived quality of human experience, the product of men's most active and vital experiences of life in the world, that which must be striven for and struggled with as well as that which stands in need of ongoing creation To the extent that he can bring it into focus truth might be said to be something along these lines for him. The caveat is crucial because there exists for Nietzsche, and that by virtue of his radicalism, the possibility that the topos "truth" can no longer be brought into thematic focus in a philosophically meaningful way. Nietzsche, at least some of the time, would prefer to speak of individual truths rather than truth as a whole, if by the latter we understand an account of the basic nature of reality, the underlying constitution of man or cosmos or man-in-relation-to-cosmos. A distinction emerges that will be of some significance as far as our division of the material to be considered as part of our investigation is concerned - the distinction between Nietzsche's sense of the philosophical past and his hopes for the philosophical future; his diagnosis, on the one hand, of the self-conception of individual past philosophers, distinct philosophical epochs and past philosophy as a whole and, on the other hand, his prognosis for the future of philosophy. On the diagnostic front we note a feature of Nietzsche's attempts to address the question "What did philosophy think of itself as achieving in the past?" This is Nietzsche's equal propensity to give highly particularised textual renditions of individual philosophers' self-images (- where the question of a philosophical self-image connects seamlessly with that of an intellectualised self-conception -) and to venture grand generalisations about the entire philosophical past. The impression this gives many readers can no doubt be disconcerting. The inalienability of the individual philosophical personality is affirmed almost at the same time as Nietzsche seeks to compress the history of philosophy into a unity underpinned by a core of motives and motivating self-delusions. On the prognostic front we note the prominence of the philosophical personality of Nietzsche himself in determining philosophy's future possibilities. What philosophy is for Nietzsche in this future-oriented sense seems to revolve around the question of what he himself can make it into. Considerations along these lines can turn in the direction of sheer megalomania and do so increasingly as Nietzsche approaches the end of his sane, philosophically conscious life. Yet even in the absence of the titanic urge to view himself as the crux of philosophical history, even when he isn't brandishing his philosophical hammer or shouting his Promethean defiance into the heady regions occupied by the Gods of the Philosophical Pantheon, Nietzsche nonetheless holds to the possibility of creating philosophy anew himself.' In order to bring into view other key thematic facets of the philosophical conception of a new Nietzschean type of philosopher, together with a sense of how the thematic concerns of such a philosopher emerge from the background of Nietzsche's thinking about past philosophy, we must venture some improvements to our list of philosophical themes. Before doing so, let us insist on the indissolubility of the diagnostic and prognostic aspects of Nietzsche's thinking about the nature of philosophy. Diagnostic and prognostic tendencies are inextricable. Nietzsche's determination to open up new philosophical possibilities follows from his perception of what he took to be the acute insufficiency of past philosophy's conception of itself. Or, to put it in a way which seems more appropriate to the unquiet spirit of Nietzsche's philosophy - Nietzsche believed that the fashioning of new philosophical self-images was dependent on a vast and hearty preliminary act of philosophical destruction, viz. of the false, hollow or hackneyed self-images of the philosophical past. Nietzsche's later thought and writing is full of the drama, the pathos, he takes to be attendant on this task of destruction. And the way he cane to conceive of his own project on the model of a process of radical destruction, a process to have its consummation in radical philosophical renewal, provides one of the main variables in the development of his own self-conception. The more radicalised the self-conception, the more obscure to him the depths of what he shares with, indeed owes to, the philosophical past. As well as being one of the main variabilities that shape Nietzsche's sense of himself as a philosopher, it strikes me as one of the main vicissitudes of Nietzsche interpretation. In its simplest form we can grasp the problem involved by surveying the thematic ground that Nietzsche shares with those philosophers whose treatment of individual themes he becomes more and more intent on subverting or annihilating

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