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(1844 — 1900)



Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Rücken, Prussia, the son of a Lutheran minister. He received his secondary education in Naumberg and then at the Pforta school before entering the University of Bonn. He stayed there only a year, giving up his study of theology but continuing with classical philology when he transferred to Leipzig in 1865. He was appointed to an associate professorship in philology in Basel in 1869 before he had taken his doctorate and was promoted full professor the following year. Apart from the year he worked as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian war he remained in Basel until 1879. (While there he became a close friend of Wagner — though the friendship broke down in 1878 on account of Wagner's nationalism and differing views on aesthetic matters.) Thereafter he spent his time travelling and writing. Throughout his life his physical health had been poor. It deteriorated further after his military service, and he suffered increasingly from psychological disturbance. In 1889 he became incurably insane.



[1] Nietzsche rejected all claims to universality or absolute moral standards. In his early writings [for example, The Birth of Tragedy] he argued that perfection should be understood in aesthetic terms — exemplified by the 'creative genius'. It is the function of culture to provide foundations for this; and such a culture would have to be one in which the Dionysian and Apollonian attitudes would be unified. The former is 'life-affirming', and represents, universality, emotion and excess, as expressed especially in music and tragic drama the absorption of oneself in the totality of things; the latter epitomizes coolness, restraint, measure, individuality. These are 'lifted up' (aufgehoben) and unified in tragedy. He rejects any notion of a purgation of emotions, such as fear and pity: any pleasure tragic drama produces is purely aesthetic (which displaces the 'scientific spirit'), and both pain and joy experienced in conflict promote in spectators a Dionysiac ecstatic feeling of identity with the universal. In tragedy Nietzsche does not look for 'poetic justice':

...existence and the world appear justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon. It is in this sense that the tragic myth has to convince us that even the ugly and dissonant are an artistic game, which the will, in the eternal abundance of its joy, plays with itself [sec. 24].

Tragedy in music was perhaps even more significant for Nietzsche in that he regarded it as a "re-working of the world, its second coat" [sec. 5].

Music and tragic myth are equally an expression of the Dionysian capacity of a people and are inseparable from each other. Both derive from an artistic realm that lies beyond the Apollonian. Both transfigure a region in whose joyful chords dissonance as well as the terrible image of world fade delightfully away [sec. 25].

What Nietzsche looked for is a higher kind of man — an 'artistic Socrates' — who will have the vision to rise above mediocrity, conventional value systems, even asceticism or self-renunciation [a], and whose rationalism might be blended with the tragic but without the supposition that knowledge is virtue and that it will necessarily lead to well-being. This view underlies Nietzsche's critique of idealism, Christianity, the natural sciences, and nation states and ideologies. It is left to the individual philosopher to articulate this vision and transcend his historical situation.

In later works [Human, All-too-Human; Beyond Good and Evil; The Genealogy of Morals.] Nietzsche traced the emergence of the concept of virtue from the notions of custom, authority, and then conscience. In his empirical analysis he distinguished two kinds of morality: 'aristocratic master morality' and 'herd' or 'slave morality' [Genealogy of Morals, I, 1-2]. The masters call themselves 'good' to differentiate them from the 'bad' low-minded common masses. The aristocrats affirmed beauty, nobility, fullness of life. As a result the slaves, feeling 'resentment' [ibid., I, 10ff.], reacted against this master morality, and developed their own system of 'absolute' values. Meekness, sympathy, humility thus came to be regarded by them as useful and therefore 'good' — as against the 'evil' strong virtues of the nobility. It is this herd morality which is particularly exemplified by Christianity, stressing as it does guilt, asceticism, poverty, chastity, punishment, and thence through 'internalization' or repression bad conscience [ibid., II]. However, Nietzsche argued that while the ascetic ideal, which he described as "world-denying, hostile to life, suspicious of the senses, freed from sensuality", is inherently self-contradictory in that it epitomizes man's 'sickness' (as does bad conscience), the priest is among the greatest conserving and 'yes-creating' forces of life — transcending the morality of the herd [ibid., III, esp. section 11]. What Nietzsche therefore sought is a 'transvaluation' of values. "God is dead" [Joyful Wisdom], that is, he is no longer worthy to be believed in and looked to as the source of all morals. Christian 'hostility to life' or 'nay-saying' is to be replaced by 'yea-saying' — we might say 'existential' — affirmation of the 'Will to Power' (or 'instinct to freedom', which is expressed throughout universe as a causal force) [see Will to Power]. His hero is now no longer the creative genius but the 'Superman' or 'Overman' (Übermensch) [ibid., II, 24; Thus Spake Zarathustra]. By this Nietzsche meant an individual possessed of the highest possible intellect, the greatest physical strength and will, the most perfect culture, who makes or defines his own values [b] in order to rise above the common herd. This is an ideal at which superior individuals should aim. Nietzsche combined it with the 'myth' of eternal recurrence [Ecce Homo] [c], which is demanded by what he called 'the principle of conservation of energy'. He regarded the myth as the highest formula of the yea-saying attitude which can be attained. Given an infinite universe all possible combinations of determinate 'centres of force' would have occurred again and again. An infinite universe would thus seem to be required to avoid any appeal to a transcendent deity.



[2] Although his commitment to such notions as the eternal recurrence and the will to power might suggest that Nietzsche's philosophy was in part 'metaphysical', his writings are generally anti-metaphysical in tone [see Beyond Good and Evil and The Will to Power]. He rejected the idea of spiritual or mental agencies, final causation , and the like, preferring to relate his views on mind, ethics and religion to a phenomenalistic epistemology grounded in the sciences, especially psychology and physiology [a]. He argued that the aim of knowledge is mastery. We seek to control, order the flux of Reality, namely impressions, sensations, ideas, thereby turning it into Being [b]. Science, he said, is the "transformation of nature into concepts for the purpose of governing Nature". It follows that for him there is no absolute truth, in so far as to know is to interpret or construct Being from Becoming — to adopt a 'perspective':

There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective knowing; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our 'concept' of this thing, our 'objectivity', be. [Genealogy, III, 12.]

[See also Joyful Science, sec. 374.] Truths are 'fictions' which are useful to us in the conduct of our lives [Beyond Good and Evil, 34]. Thus we can think of ourselves as a permanent substance, and we suppose the external world consists of enduring and causally connected substances. As he says [Will to Power, 477; see further 478-9]:

I maintain the phenomenality of the inner world, too: everything of which we become conscious is arranged, simplified, schematized, interpreted through and through — the actual process of inner 'perception,' the causal connection between thoughts, feelings, desires, between subject and object, are absolutely hidden from us — and are perhaps purely imaginary. The 'apparent inner world' is governed by just the same forms and procedures as the 'outer' world.

The 'spirit,' something that thinks: where possible even 'absolute, pure spirit' — this conception is a second derivative of that false introspection which believes in 'thinking': first an act is imagined which simply does not occur, 'thinking,' and secondly a subject-substratum in which every act of thinking, and nothing else, has its origin: that is to say, both the action and the agent are fictions.

Perspectives are not only functions of knowledge; instincts too have perspectives. Nietzsche argued further that the categories of reason and fundamental logical principles are fictions and perspectives — by using which the Will to Power — as a manifestation of, as it were, individual existentiality — can control the world of Becoming [c]. The theories and concepts of the natural and biological sciences are also said by Nietzsche to be fictional. We have to think of atoms as centres of force; physical objects are "dynamic quanta in a relation of tension to all other dynamic quanta"; while a living thing is "a plurality of forces united by a common nutritive process" whose behaviour can be described in terms of appropriation and assimilation of entities in the environment, or in other words as a manifestation of the will to power.



[3] Nietzsche warns against "seduction of language (and of the fundamental errors of reason that are petrified in it)" [Genealogy, I, 13] [a]. It is because of this that we have been led to invoke the existence of mental agencies, selves, substances, and subjective causes. We must be aware of the risk of taking the 'truths' which are expressed in language as being about 'Reality' itself rather than as being just interpretations. As he says, "A philosophical mythology lies hidden in language" (notes for The Will to Power); and he refers to epistemologists who have got stuck in the snares of grammar — the metaphysics of the people.



[4] Despite, or rather because of his doctrine of the Superman, Nietzsche does not dismiss democratic political systems. But he regards them only as supplying a broad base for the 'high culture' — which is 'transhistorical' and transcends all other 'relativist' cultures, and is a prerequisite for the ideal to be achieved, namely, the emergence of the 'super' individuals. This is supplied by the 'mediocre' masses, who continue to adhere to their own 'herd' values. But they must not inhibit the emergence of the higher type of man. If they do, their dominance must be removed by what Nietzsche calls 'new barbarians'. Ideologies and nationalistic systems are also rejected by Nietzsche, precisely because of their subordination of the individual to false ideals [a].



Nietzsche's philosophical views do not lend themselves to any ready or clear-cut division in so far as what he has to say about knowledge, ethics, language, and so on tends to be spread over a variety of writings. Moreover the task of classifying his thought is not made easier by his aphoristic style and often seemingly equivocal or contradictory assertions. And one must also take account of the ironic tone which some (particularly French) commentators have taken to be characteristic of his thought [see Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, p. 13]. Nevertheless he has exercised a powerful influence on many twentieth century thinkers, including Scheler, Jaspers, Sartre, and has contributed to the anti-positivism of the Frankfurt School, while his views of language anticipate the views of some twentieth century analytic philosophers.

The key concepts in Nietzsche's philosophy are probably the will to power, the Superman and his values, and the eternal recurrence. There are problems associated with all these.

(1) The concept of the will to power is used by Nietzsche in a wide sense to cover a range of phenomena relevant not only to man but also to life in general — instinct, 'yea-saying', resentment, evolutionary drive, progress, and so on. Although it was to become popular in Freudian and Adlerian psychologies, the use of such an all-embracing term is questionable. It can also be objected that it is no more than an unverifiable metaphysical hypothesis.

(2) While the concept of an ideal Superman is clear, the associated notion of a transvaluation of all values can be criticized. Is not the Superman committed to some 'absolute' or objective morality? Is he not otherwise doomed to existentialism? To say that each of his acts must by virtue of their being his acts be valuable seems unwarranted if not an empty claim. Then perhaps value for Nietzsche is arguably to be grounded in some concept of self-realization? But again it is doubtful whether this can be called a transvaluation of all values. (In this connection it should also be stressed that in view of Nietzsche's attitude towards ideologies — and indeed his rejection of anti-Semitism — it is wrong to regard him as having influenced Hitler, even though his later work may have been misappropriated by some National Socialists. Indeed he is notable for his his scorn for everything German.)

(3) Eternal recurrence. Nietzsche seems to believe that this is a concomitant of life-affirmation and progress towards the ideal of the Superman. But it is questionable whether the postulation of an infinite universe requires an infinite recurrence of a set of all possible combinations of events.



Nietzsche: (of many works) Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872) (The Birth of Tragedy); Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (1878-9) (Human, All-too-Human); Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (1882) (Joyful Wisdom [Knowledge]); Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-5) (Thus Spake Zarathustra); Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1886) (Beyond Good and Evil); Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887) (A Genealogy of Morals); notes for part I of a supposedly projected Der Wille zur Macht (1884-8) (The Will to Power), or, later, Der Wille zur Macht: Versuch einer Umwerthung aller Werthe (The Will to Power: an Essay towards the Transvaluation of all Values). This was never completed, and many of the notes were distorted through restructuring by his anti-Semite sister. But although unpublished by Nietzsche they are for the most part representative of some of his leading ideas. English translations are readily available. See especially Nietzsche: Basic Writings, ed. Walter Kaufmann, and the Penguin editions listed in the Bibliography.



J. P. Stern, Nietzsche.


A. C. Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher.

R. J. Hollingdale, Nietzsche: the Man and his Philosophy.

W. Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.

Collections of essays

B. Magnus and K. Higgins (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche.

R. Solomon, Robert (ed.), Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays.






Note: Nietzsche's thought being for the most part sui generis and iconoclastic, influences are not easy to identify, and they tend in general to be catalytic rather than relating to any specific content. He admired Socrates for his single-mindedness, his 'power', his capacity for 'suffering', but he rejected his emphasis on reason and his ethical absolutism. He was likewise attracted to Schopenhauer's doctrine of the will but utilized it to affirm life in contrast to Schopenhauer's pessimism. The more positivist tendencies in some of Nietzsche's philosophical writings may owe something to British empiricism or to Comte. He was certainly highly critical of rationalism and Greek and German metaphysics. [The selective references to Hegel may be taken to be representative of Nietzsche's rejection of Idealism in general.] Certain aspects of his thought, his aphoristic style and irony, and especially his warnings about the dangers of language suggest a possible influence on him of the writings of G. C. Lichtenberg (1742-99). However, it is more probable that the parallels can be accounted for in terms of a common response to 'problems of life' of similar personalities (cf. Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, for example). The impact on him of Darwin's The Origin of Species should also be noted.


[1a; cf. 1b 2a c 4a] Rejection of absolute moral standards; perfection to be understood aesthetically (the 'creative genius'), culture to provide the foundations; fusion of Dionysus and Apollo with Socratic reason








[1b 1d 2a-c]

[1c 6a 11d-g]

[1c 2a 3a 8b]






[1b; see also 2a c] 'Transvaluation of values' by the 'Overman' (God is 'dead' and cannot be appealed to); the 'will to power'








[6a-e 8a b 10d]

[6d e]

[1d 3a 3f]




[1c] 'Myth of eternal recurrence'


   [representative Stoic]




  [2a 3a 9a]


[2a] Rejection of metaphysics — mental agencies, final causes, etc.; ethics to be grounded in the sciences, esp. psychology









[1c 6a 9a]


[2d 6a-e, 10c d]


[1c 2a 5a 6d e]


[1c 5a]



[2b; cf. 2c] Aim of knowledge: control of 'flux of reality' (Becoming → Being), control of nature



Ortega y Gasset



[2c 3a]


[2c] No absolute truth; knowledge involves adopting 'perspectives', i.e., our own interpretations; manifestation of 'existentiality'








Ortega y Gasset


[1b 2a 3a]


[1c 6a]


[1c 2a etc.]



[2a 2c]



[3a] Language as source of error; 'philosophical mythology lies in language




[2a 3c]


[4a; cf. 1b] Democratic systems provide base for ideal, transhistorical 'high culture' — needed for emergence of the 'super' individual; rejection of ideologies and nationalisms



Ortega y Gasset

[sec. 14]

[7a b 7c 9a 9b]

[3b c]