I’m currently taking a class about Heidegger’s unique understanding of history as it relates to his later philosophical writings. One of the texts we are reading is Volume 4 of his Nietzsche lectures, entitled European Nihilism. I began this little thing as some free form notes about some of the things Heidegger brings up in the first 70 or so pages of the work (specifically that the will to power is a metaphysical concept that arises after nihilism wreaks its havoc) combined with my own personal knowledge of Nietzsche’s life, times and philosophy. It morphed into something altogether different. There is a good chance I will write my term paper for the class on something relating to the topic, but I don’t think I could really use any of this considering its persuasive and not at all cited nature. It was a good thought experiment and a way of attempting to understand what Heidegger was saying. Unfortunately, it’s a little heavy on Nietzsche and light on Heidegger. This, too, shall pass.
Is it accurate or responsible for Heidegger to talk about the will to power and the historical nature of Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism as a kind of metaphysics when Nietzsche rejects such terminology? Nietzsche is very clear about nihilism arising and occurring due to a rejection of past values (from the perspective of the “God is dead” statement as a tipping point to the old values becoming meaningless) that leads to a necessary rise of a new value system in the form of will to power, but he is not clearly tying these new values into an explication of beings or the makeup of the world as such. Heidegger’s claim is that even though Nietzsche’s nihilism and will to power are expressly designed to move away from the values of the past and does not conceive these values as the definition of beings themselves qua being, what he is actually doing is creating a new conception of metaphysics (and, really, the last conception of metaphysics, as he refers to Nietzsche’s thought as the end of Western metaphysics) as evidenced by the way that other philosophers and thinkers during and after his time period begin to understand and approach metaphysics from a valuative perspective. Is it fair to discuss Nietzsche as a sort of metaphysician based on the thoughts and works of those that followed him, even if many of those thinkers may not even reference Nietzsche himself? Is this a case of Nietzsche overthrowing Western metaphysics through this perspectivism and subjective thinking that values themselves contain no meaning without relation to beings without realizing (or perhaps specifically deflecting or ignoring) that this new understanding of the world in respect to beings is in fact still a metaphysical system? Is this a veiled ontology? Are these values, especially considering that they only have any weight or understanding in respect to beings, simply an outward projection of the nature of beings themselves and as such a different way to approach the metaphysics of beings?
Nihilism begins necessarily from a point of negation. The philosophical understanding of the world has passed out of favor. It is no longer accurate; it no longer holds any meaning to beings. Nihilism arises because the old values held in high regard have lost their influence. From Nietzsche’s perspective, the old values of valuing those things beyond the self, above the self cease to impress, and it is necessary to overthrow that perspective, to negate it. Nihilism is the transitional moment that occurs when this negation happens. There is, for a moment, a life consistent entirely of no values or meanings, because they have been torn down, overthrown. The danger lies in stopping here. Nietzsche is quite clear that while nihilism taken as such would terminate once the values and metaphysics of the world have been negated, leaving the world a cold and empty place to be taken up by the existentialists of the twentieth century, its true purpose is to pave the way for a new viewpoint. A new set of values places the emphasis lower, closer to the ground as it were (if we’re thinking in terms of Aristotelian astronomy and its relation to the metaphysics of the age). The will to power, as the overpowering drive for the overcoming of the self to achieve greater things, the push toward the Overman, the understanding of will to power as a condition for self-preservation and the denial of the influence of the theological or spiritual realms, this becomes the source and relation between man and his values. It is a more organic, earthy, or instinctual perspective. Perspective itself becomes king. The objective is struck down. Nihilism is, in a sense, defeated, and the world regains new meaning and can move forth with an emboldened sense of personal purpose. Nihilism is a stepping stone.
The question, truly, is whether such a system that both requires a nihilistic destruction of the past and leads to a perspectival foundation of the future can be considered a metaphysical system. Heidegger certainly thinks so, and the arguments he makes are at the very least logical. While Nietzsche’s new conception of the world, and how beings interact with it, and how beings themselves are defined in relation to it is radically different from classical metaphysics, his system still is a conception of beings and the world and what they are and (in this case, due to the transition point brought on by the advent of nihilism) what they become. Is this not metaphysics? The significance of Nietzsche’s system is placed on values, but the values themselves are completely predicated on their relation to beings. You reach a point where the values and the beings themselves become indistinct, and even though the system is about values, the values are about beings, and you could make a syllogistic claim that as such the system is about beings. Is this also not metaphysics? It may be the case that this would be the first metaphysical system that completely and totally rejects any absolutes, objective truths, or a priori knowledge of the world (some systems may have rejected one of these propositions, but surely not all of them!), and as such, Nietzsche would have been hesitant to refer to a subjective metaphysical system as a metaphysical system. One can also think of things from the angle of Nietzsche as a sort of radical philosopher, and as such he would not want to think of himself or his system as a metaphysician or metaphysical because this would be too much of a reference or a calling back to the old ways he is trying so hard to destroy and overcome through the revaluation of all values that nihilism projects. What arises from the wake of nihilism is in a sense above and beyond classical metaphysics, and as such above metaphysics itself entirely. It is something new and wild, and heretofore unimaginable. It is the will to power.
Something else to consider, and it is a question to which we will most likely never know the answer, is why Nietzsche did not consider himself or his will to power to be metaphysical. There are numerous possibilities. Perhaps it just didn’t occur to Nietzsche that what he was doing in this post-nihilism world was metaphysics. This seems unlikely, considering that will to power is so heavily tied to the understanding and defining of the new valuation, and that it is an active trait that can be applied to any organic being in the world. The will to power is a concept that encompasses an understanding of both beings and the world. It is metaphysical to its core. It is exceedingly unlikely the Nietzsche could passively forget or overlook this. It’s far too blatant. What is more likely is the active choice to eschew the term metaphysics. And why wouldn’t he? The whole reason Nietzsche preaches the necessity of his particular brand of functional nihilism is to bring metaphysics back to earth. The etymology of the word meta (beyond) physics (nature. Beyond nature) must have been revolting to him. What can be beyond nature? All that we see, all that we interact with is within nature. Why would we even want to move beyond nature? It’s an empty proposition. It necessarily leads to nihilism! The will to power is instinctual. It is based in nature as this sense of overcoming and survival. The only reason man is considered paramount and the potential for an Overman even exists is because man has the unique faculty of being able to actively pursue the actualization of will to power. It is not metaphysical because it is entirely physical in its nature (pun intended?) and revels in the physical character of the world. Abstract absolutes like “Being,” “truth,” and “unity” are a waste of breath. Nihilism is the active death of metaphysics. It brings the whole enterprise to a close and builds something new out of its ashes.
So what we have is a situation where the classical definition of metaphysics both applies to the will to power as a system and is also defeated by it at the same time. Philosophically, metaphysics as the creation of a kind of world view that encompasses what it means to be and understand the world can contain Nietzsche’s conception of the will to power. This is where Heidegger’s point is made. He understands the will to power as metaphysics. But, if the arrival of the will to power is supposed to signal the death of metaphysics through nihilism, and it itself ends up also being a metaphysical system, is the will to power too destined to fail? Will it too become bloated and otherworldly, eventually valueless and require a new nihilism to break it down and build something new in the vacuum caused by its absence? Is this its own kind of eternal recurrence? A beautiful cycle of birth, maturation, decadence, death, and rebirth? A grand cosmic cycle? I certainly don’t have the answers. But it’s interesting to think about it.
This post was written to the tune of The Who’s Quadrophenia