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  • Nietzsche’s Doctrines, Nietzsche’s Signs
  • Werner Stegmaier

1. Nietzsche's1 influence in the twentieth century was based mostly on his doctrines ("Lehren"). After a hundred years of research, the sense and coherence of these doctrines are not yet clear. Therefore, Nietzsche's philosophy is regarded by now as incurably contradictory or ambivalent. Contradiction and ambivalence have become the trademark of Nietzsche's philosophy.

Nietzsche's doctrines of the death of God or of Nihilism, of the Will to Power, of the Overman, and the Eternal Recurrence of the Same, are among the most powerful doctrines European philosophy has hitherto produced. They include a critique of metaphysics more severe than any before, a critique of morals more severe than any before, and a critique of logic more radical than any before. Together, as Nietzsche himself claimed more and more insistently, they make the sharpest of cuts into Occidental thinking from Plato onward.

Each of these doctrines seemed to be in itself easily understandable. In their outlines they have been understood like this:

1.1. According to Nietzsche's doctrine of "the death of God" or "nihilism," the supreme values of European thinking—in particular, the values of an absolute Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, the unity of which has been thought in the theologico-philosophical concept of God—have lost their value. If this God does not mean anything anymore, as one dared more and more to admit in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, "Existence" on the whole has lost its "sense and goal" (KSA 12, 5 [71]). Nietzsche's doctrine of the death of God or Nihilism has left a "desert"2 into which (as critics have objected)3 "postmodern arbitrariness" subsequently settled.

1.2. According to Nietzsche's doctrine of the Will to Power, the law of the more powerful alone prevails; every living thing endeavors to overpower others, and ought to do so. Law and morality, according to that doctrine, are means of Wills to Power, too–namely, those of the weaker ones, the "ones who came off badly" ("Schlechtweggekommenen"), who could in this way overcome the stronger ones. Law and morality, as critics say, have thus lost their legitimacy.

1.3. According to Nietzsche's doctrine of the Overman, strong individuals ought to rule the mass of weak ones. This doctrine particularly recommended Nietzsche's philosophy to racism, and remains politically dangerous, as critics object. [End Page 20]

1.4. According to Nietzsche's doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same, everything as it is now and as it is connected with everything else will return in an eternal circulation. The meaning of this doctrine, which Nietzsche called his "hardest ("schwerste[n]) thought" (KSA 11, 26[284]) and the "basic conception"4 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is something he never made clear himself. It is notoriously controversial both in itself and in its relation to the meaning of the other doctrines. The only thing that is clear is that, insofar as it makes an assertion about everything for all eternity, it is metaphysical itself—no less metaphysical than all the former doctrines of European philosophy. That is true for Nietzsche's other doctrines, too. Intended to criticize metaphysics, they contradict themselves; and, lacking recognizable systematic connections, they do not even measure up to the metaphysics they are meant to criticize.

2. Nietzsche therefore has failed as a teacher ("Lehrer"). And he himself allowed his character Zarathustra to fail as a "teacher."

Nietzsche avoided teaching directly himself. In this he followed Plato, who made use of the character of Socrates "as a semiotic" and of the dialogue as a literary form that suspended all doctrines—even the doctrine of "Ideas" attributed to him.5 Nietzsche used the character of Zarathustra and invented his own literary form combining the sound of the "gospel"6 with the "language of the Dithyrambus"7 and making speeches ("Thus spoke Zarathustra?") with dramatic action. He made his "son" Zarathustra proclaim those doctrines (besides many others), but denied him any success as a teacher. He did not want to be mistaken for him. He therefore wrote to his sister, whom he feared would do so: "Do not believe that my son Zarathustra...


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