After spending all week teaching Nietzsche I found a lot of my students were confused by his way of defining concepts. I spent most of class last night deciphering what he is saying. And this is no small task because he does not make definition easy. For a man with so many strong opinions he sure elides concrete terms. For example, the new philosopher. What is that? His definition boils down to a little of this (a man who rises above science), and a little of that (unconcerned with absolute truth), and maybe some of that over there (proponent of the will to power). Not to mention all of his negative definitions in which concepts are defined by what they are not, leaving a lot of space for what they might possibly be. To demonstrate this I drew a circle on the board. This is everything a philosopher could ever be. Then over here (darkening a part of the circle) is what he is not (didactic in a pejorative manner). Over here is another thing he is not (more dark space representing skepticism that inhibits action). So forth and so on… you get the idea… Eventually I was left with a smaller white circle within the original circle that has been shaded. That center circle is everything left, and thus through negation narrowed the definition to a more manageable size – basically a broad check list of ways to identify this new philosopher as to not confuse him with all those Nietzsche disapproves of.
I think I did well enough (at least in the general sense) with hardening some of his concepts, but this coming week I thought I might use a few different examples from parallel or similar theories that are a bit easier to understand. Then I can apply those to Nietzsche’s concepts. Because there are only so many pictures I can draw on the board.
As Chapter 9 of Beyond Good and Evil discusses the reasoning behind how we define ourselves, namely those considered noble, I can draw a parallel with Sartre’s idea on intersubjectivity in which he states “I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself except through the mediation of another,” and Gramsci’s hegemony that relies on the idea that those in the ruling class are there because society as a whole feels they should be there, further serving their own feelings of self-entitlement. I know this is a little back tracking since both of these men came up with their theories after Nietzsche, and were most likely (at least slightly) inspired by him, but combined I think they really get to the core of Nietzsche’s argument.
Yet this is in a way very appropriate. The book ends with an assertion of the difficulty to define anything. Language constantly fails to properly solidify concepts. In fact, the process of attempting to solidify concepts detracts from their purest form that does not conform to absolutes of any kind. Everything exists in a sort of gradient, fluctuating at different points. So to not be able to concisely define Nietzsche but rather rely on a compilation of knowledge from different sources serves to prove this point.
And when did my English class turn into a philosophy/theory course?