conflict and paranoia


What kind of thinker is Nietzsche? If he is something more than a critic or a commentator what is his original contribution to philosophy? What are the most important things to say about him? If we can we identify a core principle or argument that deserves our attention, how do we distinguish this from what is inessential in his thinking?

Much can be made of transvaluation and the will to power as the cornerstones of his mature philosophy. Transvaluation is like a doctrine of radical egoism. Morality is far from abolished, but it is to have a new foundation, or one different from that given it by the received opinion of the nineteenth century. Inseparable from transvaluation is the doctrine of the universal will to power, which forms its basis. The arguments for and the explication of this concept should be distinguished from mere examples of its application. Taking his central commitment as the transvaluation of values, a lot of what Nietzsche says will be experimental, speculative suggestions as to how things will look after his projected counterrevolution and what new insights will be thrown up.

Will to power for him is a fertile theory applying to the whole of reality, and a source of all sorts of subsidiary speculations. One such is a story of the psyche as a struggle between a mass of separate drives, each with its own will to power. From the standpoint taken here this idea unfortunately serves to confuse his main argument. It is one psychological picture inspired by his general perspective. While offering a programme that many find absorbing and suggestive, it is a distraction from his central principle. Nevertheless some such idea may be what actually draws some people to him.
Insofar as Nietzsche’s will to power thesis makes no direct truth claim for itself we can say it is not a form of metaphysics. It would be a most obvious mistake to assert a metaphysical principle with the object of rejecting metaphysics. There is much evidence that on one level he indeed means to reject metaphysics, or at least that he is sceptical about its claims. He would not want to base his call to our attention on the soundness of some tenuous metaphysical argument. Yet Nietzsche does make a number of metaphysical suggestions inspired by the idea of universal will to power. Some of these are like scientific theories or hypotheses.

If it is not metaphysics, neither is the will to power theory to be thought of as strictly empirical. To present it as such would only be a rhetorical ploy. That all human beings desire power is neither a generalisation formed from examining a great number of individual instances, nor is it a verifiable, or falsifiable, hypothesis, even in principle. For Nietzsche himself there is certainty as strong as the hold on sanity. This subjective feeling must be distinguished from the revealed facts that are to be presented to others. Rather than either a metaphysical or an empirical thesis we call it a perspective.

This is how he puts it in Will to Power §689:-

If we translate the notion cause back into the only sphere which is known to us, and out of which we have taken it, we cannot imagine any change in which the will to power is not inherent. We do not know how to account for any change which is not a trespassing [Ubergreifen] of one power on another. (Instead of “trespassing” Kaufmann has “encroachment”).

In Beyond Good and Evil §36 he manages the transition from the psychic to the inorganic sphere and concludes:-

Seen from inside, the world defined and described according to its “intelligible character” would be simply “will to power” and nothing else.

As is plain from the word translated as “trespass” the will to power perspective is a conflict model. There are other perspectives we call consensus models. Different perspectives bring different perceptions. To claim as a truth that conflict is universal would be a dubious metaphysical generalisation. On the other hand we might see the attempt to deny the universality of conflict as the type of a metaphysical dogma. This lack of symmetry meets resistance and calls for clarification.
The consensus model is often counted a feminine perspective. Conventionally an overemphasis on aggression and conflict makes it difficult to understand women and girls. There is something to be said for this. Unlike Wagner, Nietzsche’s strength did not lie in seduction. However, disbelieving in conflict does not mean one does not practice it. Not all the stereotypes about women involve consensus. Competition between them is often said to be as or more intense than it is between men. Freud notoriously claimed that “women have but little sense of justice” and that this was “no doubt connected with the preponderance of envy in their mental life”.

Even when women are competing with each other for male attention, that kind of competition has little bearing on the recognition of will to power. To practice or embody conflict is not the same as affirming it.
We do not have to call the consensus model untrue. Conflict and consensus perspectives are opposed to each other. However the relations between them are not entirely reciprocal. No mere perspective can purport to reveal the whole of reality. A consensus perspective concentrates on what binds people together. All the facts that are thus revealed can be acknowledged on the conflict perspective, which may take a purely formal character. This does not work the other way round. On the consensus view it is difficult to accommodate the facts that are invoked in affirming conflict.

So these models are not symmetrical. To give an analogy, if you say you are not prepared to oppress and it is shown that in some respect you do, if you are not self refuted you at least have some explaining to do. If on the other hand you admit you are prepared to oppress and it is shown that in some respect you are not doing so, your claim is unaffected. Of course I do not mean to conflate all power with oppression, only to illustrate an analogous lack of symmetry.

Nietzsche appeared to share Schopenhauer’s disdain for the philosopher whose perplexity only springs from the words of other philosophers . For him a true philosopher is so possessed by his philosophical problems that they simply have to be answered. It is as though his salvation depends upon what he discovers.

Both models, conflict and consensus, interpret the same world. Each would point to phenomena which are real enough, whatever the perspective, if only clearly visible on one of them. There is no obligation to choose one or the other, though there may be the desire. Insofar as Nietzsche found the consensus model coercive and objectionable, he opposed it with a conflict one.

The conflict model reveals facts that are not to be discovered by a disinterested search for truth. It is very doubtful that led by such a motive one would know where to look for them. They are only revealed by the drive to establish truths that there is a powerful need for. Though not discovered by, they will naturally be of interest to a scholarly will to truth. Some of these discoveries just have curiosity value. Others do have a bearing, if only cumulatively, in the all important task of overcoming our enemies.
At its most innocuous the will to power theory has a purely formal character. Since every change is conceived as involving a trespassing of one power on another, everything can be looked at in the context of the suppression of alternative possibilities. Such a picture itself can offer insights into uncomfortable facts or ugly truths that it is desired to deny. For example it may support the regular identification in human affairs of an unmistakeable desire for power which is systematically ignored by those “superficial ways of thinking” “ which measure the value of things according to pleasure and pain” (Beyond Good and Evil §225). This desire is not just a matter of perspective, but a fact that is usually disregarded.

The philosophy of as if was devised by Hans Vaihinger (1852-1933) and expounded in a book of that title published in 1911. Vaihinger, like Nietzsche, was influenced by Lange, whose History of Materialism Nietzsche long used as his main source of information on the history of philosophy. In a letter of 1868 Nietzsche described that as
a book which gives infinitely more than the title promises, a real treasure house to be looked into and read repeatedly”.
Like Vaihinger Lange counts as a neo-Kantian, adhering to the critical rather than the metaphysical side of Kant. Vaihinger developed a philosophy of what he called fictions, ideas in science and other fields that though false, are serviceable, even essential, from a practical point of view. The last chapter of his book is devoted to Nietzsche, of whom he shows a rather one sided understanding. He was most impressed by the idea that Nietzsche periodically returned to throughout his career, that not only scientific concepts, but even those of ordinary language, systematically falsify reality. He believes that had Nietzsche’s career not been cut short by his illness he would have become reconciled to Kant, transcended The Antichrist, and come to see the value of religious fictions.
Vaihinger understands fictions as the same as perspectives, and does manage to establish Nietzsche’s interest in this idea. He does not think to apply his concept to the will to power, to which it is admirably suited.

An “as if” is stronger than a merely formal perspective. Applying it to the will to power we imagine the desire for power as always consciously felt. From here it appears that the motive behind some consensus view is never as innocent as it presents itself. Always there is the desire to triumph over an opponent, crush and humiliate him.

From a position of paranoid defensiveness all this is taken literally. Everyone is out to get you. Nevertheless, not even the most paranoid sounding expression of the will to power theory would claim a genuinely objective perception of universal hostility. While speaking “as if will to power were always consciously felt", we accept it is not. The purely paranoid position is explored but not fully inhabited.
On the paranoid view life is understood as a jungle of conflicting values and judgements. The idea that most people are out to crush and destroy you strikes some as quite a reasonable hypothesis. William Burroughs defined a paranoiac as “someone who has all the facts”. The natural objection that in reality most people are quite indifferent to you may seem in many ways a more disagreeable proposition. In one sense it is obviously true. However, insofar as their indifference frustrates my will they are implicitly hostile. If my will were known it would be objected to. Fortified by the prevailing morality the individually weak are collectively strong. My own will and desire will be overridden by that of the majority.

While the malevolence uncovered on the paranoid view is an extreme interpretation, it can still reveal valuable truths about the pressure for consensus. It can expose the grounds on which consensus is to be resisted. Beyond this, for philosophers it may be performing a comparable function to Cartesian doubt. Prepared to doubt everything, we are willing consider every opinion, every point of view, in its strongest most aggressive form. We divest ourselves of all basic security, even all commonsense. In such doubt is the origin of philosophy, or at least a certain sort of philosophy.

Consensus is only a subset of threatening opinions. We are surrounded by coercive demands. People expect us submit to their own value judgements. Against the pressure of alien will that can never be argued completely away, what security can we cling to? Any belief or theory we may have is opposed by another. What assurance can we have in the rightness of our own when under attack? On what firm basis can our opinions be grounded? By what right can we continue to believe what we believe? We try to forge intellectual tools to defend ourselves. We may attempt to devise some consistent philosophy, but that still needs a foundation of certainty. With the idea of universal will to power we can hope to bring to light the inconvenient realities that our opponents will only be able to deny by means of lying. To understand what is meant by lying we do not need to invoke a philosophical theory of truth. All such theories are more subject to doubt than the realities they are invoked to defend.

When Nietzsche writes about the lie in The Antichrist he does not appeal to any theory of truth. We might call it commonsense, but he would not want to invoke even that philosophical underpinning. Philosophical mediation is not required, and is actually to be avoided. His appeal is not via a theory, it is direct.

I call a lie: wanting not to see something one does see, wanting not to see something as one sees it… The most common lie is the lie one tells to oneself; lying to others is relatively the exception.

Turning to its psychological importance to him personally, what he sees he sees perfectly clearly. The suggestion that he might be wrong, is incomprehensible, intolerable. We may understand this from what Nietzsche says about the Aryan in his classification of religions. He is either on top or he perishes.

It is quite in order that we possess no religion of oppressed Aryan races, for that is a contradiction: a master race is either on top or it is destroyed. - Will to Power §145)

This we can take as applying to his understanding of himself.

For others to understand him, he says,

One must be accustomed to living on mountains- to seeing the wretched ephemeral chatter of politics and national egoism beneath one.- Antichrist

This definitely suggests detachment. Nonetheless even this disdain implies an inevitable political dimension to his conflict perspective. For one thing, without needing to specify what policies are involved it is resistant to the demand to acquiesce in simplistic ideas of progress. An idea of absolute progress retains its credit in many quarters, and such ideas are quite frequently canvassed. There is usually a refusal to admit the sheer facts of pain and frustration as some forms of life are being denied expression. In insisting on the existence of lost causes there are clear facts involved. To a great extent this must seem obvious. But there are powerful interests in opposing and negating this aspect of reality.

Ever the paradoxicalist, Nietzsche defends slavery on the grounds of humanity and tolerance.

..the “Abolition of Slavery” a so-called tribute to “human dignity” in truth the annihilation of a fundamentally different species (the undermining of its values and its happiness)…the insistence on spreading humaneness (which guilelessly starts out with this assumption that it is in possession of the formula “what is human” is all humbug, beneath which a certain definite type of man strives to attain to power: (Will to Power §315.

While Nietzsche’s idea of a lie is not dependent on any philosophical theory, philosophical theories may work hard to undermine it.

Metaphysics fights back against the attempt to use fact to undermine the consensus model, meaning to destroy and annihilate what are otherwise seen as realities. Hegel’s is very much a consensus model, committed to beliefs in absolute progress. Speculations about being and nothing, are at the heart of Hegelian metaphysics. Inconvenient facts themselves are argued away, as if by magic. So that is one good reason for Nietzsche to be suspicious of metaphysicians.

Such moves have a long and distinguished history. Before Hegel, for example, was the philosophy of the German mystic Jacob Boehme who influenced him. Boehme had an ingenious solution to a basic problem of theology, all revolving around the question of what is. If we can show that somehow evil is not, then God’s perfect goodness is not compromised. For Boehme evil is to be excluded from what we are to regard as the things that are. It is only those things that can really worry us.
How we determine to use words like “being” and “existence” decides what we allow to preoccupy us. “Being” allowed to some concept gives it solidity. That to which we refuse that status we can disregard. It becomes a mere cipher that cannot cause us real mental disquiet. Not everything can be reduced to a cipher, the mind looks for something it can treat as solid. If we do not want to accept the idealist thesis that the mind creates being we look for a substratum of that which just is. What determines its limits? How do we know there are any? Perhaps all that is needed for a substratum is that which could be, possibility rather than reality. Even in a world of possibility at different points there are moves which are prohibited, just as in pure mathematics, which we treat as analytic. People may try to overcome these restrictions by manipulating the concept “being”. Here too, the rules governing the use of the verb “to be” govern what are to be considered problems to be resolved and what is to be disregarded. On the usual underlying motives Nietzsche is scathing:-

Knapsack of the Metaphysicians.— Those who boast so mightily of the scientificality of their metaphysics should receive no answer; it is enough to pluck at the bundle which, with a certain degree of embarrassment, they keep concealed behind their back; if one succeeds in opening it, the products of that scientificality come to light, attended by their blushes: a dear little Lord God, a nice little immortality, perhaps a certain quantity of spiritualism, and in any event a whole tangled heap of 'wretched poor sinner' and Pharisee arrogance.-Assorted Opinions and Maxims §12, translated R.J. Hollingdale.

It may be asked whether Nietzsche himself also had a consensus vision. Might his philosophical and existential doubt have been stilled with some sort of consensus model, which coming from himself would not have been felt as an alien pressure? Love balances hatred. To be possessed of a philosophical problem so as to see one’s fate mixed with it, need not necessarily involve a conflict model, instead perhaps he could have found a solution in a kind of merger, or erotic relationship. Some look for consensus in a sort of erotic or familial model, as was communism in some of its forms.
Presumably Nietzsche would aspire to reach general agreement on the discoveries brought by his idea of will to power. To that extent he sought consensus. To suggest he goes further and seeks erotic unity is far more contentious, especially in the light of his stated objections to that feature of Wagner’s achievement. It does appear that conflict was essential to Nietzsche’s experience of reality. He needed to affirm conflict, because hostile consensus threatened him with a judgment he would find intolerable. Also it is hard to see how the merger or erotic relationship, could he have found it, though it might have stilled the mind, could have had much philosophical significance.

Despite Bertrand Russell’s silly assertion that Nietzsche felt “almost universal hatred and fear ” naturally he was not preoccupied with conflict for 100% of the time. In a famous passage in Beyond Good and Evil §290 he writes:-
One Thing is Needful. To "give style" to one's character that is a grand and a rare art!

One thing is needful” could imply something central to his message. Some critics have taken this passage to mean that Nietzsche understood will to power primarily in terms of working on oneself. The suggestion is that we do not seek satisfaction in just following our appetites, but turn everything we are into a work of art, as if how we live is also to give a message to the world. Everything we do is to have an additional layer of meaning. The person who succeeds in this will be highly charismatic. We look at all he is and does as if it has symbolic significance, and as if we can learn from his example. And much of what he is will be unexpected and surprising.

However it should be recognised that this working on oneself is not the primary meaning Nietzsche attaches to will to power. However dear this project was to him, that he sees it like this springs from a central perspective which applies to everything, and before he can be free to seek satisfaction in this way he has to clear away all demoralising and threatening ideas.
These could have been exacerbated by the recognition of the death of God. Atheism is understood variously either as a liberation or as an oppression. In the absence of divine authority you may feel liberated to think what you like, and set your own value on your life. Less consoling is the thought that God’s being dead deprives us of any trust that the world is ultimately good, and hence that there can be any escape from whatever state of demoralisation in which we happen to find ourselves.

Accepting that there are bad possibilities and good ones, it may seem we should be able to access good possibilities that have been well mapped out. Nietzsche himself had happily explored a few ingenious ones. But if I see my path as just one possibility it seems I must acknowledge there are others according to which mine is not possible at all. If we can conceive a good possibility, and see how it is possible to experience it, how can it be defended? It must in some way be transformed into demonstrable reality, the associated facts need to be extracted and made clearly apparent.

Nietzsche’s concern is to resist threatening perspectives, and to undermine them by bringing out realities to which they deliberately shut our eyes. He was not primarily interested in the actual content of the consensus, the specific moral and political doctrines the meanings of which are themselves hardly immutable. Essentially he is resisting a threat to the sovereignty and independence of his own mind. Politically speaking, his opinions were not altogether remote from what might be expected of a man of his time and class. He was not a fantastic romantic like King Ludwig.

In one of the Nietzsche biographies it is reported that he voted in some referendum against a proposal to limit the hours of factory workers. What are we to make of this? Does it mean he was inhumane, a selfish rentier allying himself with bourgeois exploiters? I suspect that it rather indicates his sympathy with the orthodox liberalism of the nineteenth century, the science of political economy as represented in England by the Benthamite school. It is wrong to see Nietzsche as completely outside mainstream political opinion. How this was to be understood and experienced was another matter.

Feeling besieged by the pressure of hostile prevailing values, Nietzsche opposes his conflict model. In defence of it he clings to obstinate facts, revealed by the perspective of universal will to power. As James Stirling, author of The Secret of Hegel says of his subject, Hegel, that he cannot be understood without reference to what he calls “the concrete notion”, so Nietzsche’s philosophy is best read in terms of his own lived experience, his personal resistance and achievement of mastery. Out of this grew his project of sharing his discoveries by means of a general reform, what he called transvaluation of values. Rather than simply working on himself, this self described untimely man would mount an assault on the zeitgeist.

John S Moore 2014

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