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The Core Curriculum

Friedrich Nietzsche

1844 CE – 1900 CE

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Friedrich Hartmann, c. 1875 (Wikimedia Commons)Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Friedrich Hartmann, c. 1875 (Wikimedia Commons) Declaring himself a "misunderstood" and "untimely" thinker has not prevented Nietzsche from taking his place alongside Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud as one of the most influential figures in 20th century thought.  Largely eschewing systematic discursive or explicatory philosophical writing, the aphoristic style of much of Nietzsche’s work has allowed it to be appropriated by causes antithetical to his stated project – most famously by Hitler – but it has also proven of seminal import to philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.  Belying the misconception that a non-discursive stylistic approach indicates thought of a non-systematic nature, Nietzsche’s work has lately begun to be appreciated more widely and establish Nietzsche as a rigorous philosopher of the first rank.

Though most  infamous for the oft-quoted phrase “God is dead,” Nietzsche’s philosophical project amounts to much more than an excoriating critique of both religious and secular morality. From The Birth of Tragedy (1872) to Twilight of the Idols (1888), Nietzsche displays a profound concern with the deleterious effects on an individual’s vitality caused by the traditional social, political, philosophical and moral ideas prevalent throughout 19th century Europe. Holding it to be a fundamental cause of nihilism, Nietzsche rejects any notion of the transcendental (including God, the soul and the afterlife) as either the source or highest end of human existence, privileging in its place the expressive drives, instincts and related "epiphenomena" of the body. Constructing from this approach a "psychology" of the human animal, Nietzsche related these bodily drives in a causal fashion to the concepts, ideas and notions that comprise the explicit structure of our thought. The humanly constructed nature of our values and beliefs, our history and politics – viewed from both an individual and social perspective – becomes not just plausible, but a key factor in providing explanatory and informative significance to Nietzsche’s attempts to "diagnose" the "sickness" that had done much to eviscerate man as we find him within his modern milieu.

Consolidating the force of this genealogical project in influential concepts such as the will to power, and ressentiment, Nietzsche’s later writings yield insights on wide-ranging matters of philosophy, such as: epistemology – where Nietzsche held an explicitly perspectival notion of truth; existentialism – most notably his stated attempt to initiate the re-evaluation of all values; and even a famous thought-experiment – the eternal return of the same – designed as a means by which to evaluate the strength of an individual’s affirmation of life. It is this latter notion – the affirmation of life – which is perhaps the abiding concern of Nietzsche’s later philosophy, a fact which, along with his thoroughgoing iconoclasm, does much to explain the enduring fascination with his thought.


Works Cited

Wicks, Robert, "Friedrich Nietzsche," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).