Nietzsche’s Warning Against the Moderns

Against Kant, to be more precise.

Let us make a rundown of what Kant did in the eyes of Nietzsche.

I. From synthetic a priori to decisionism

The story began with Kant faulting Leibniz for assimilating metaphysics to analytic judgments, even as he criticized Hume for failing to radicalize the germinal concept of the possibility of synthetic a priori (See Sebastian Gardner, Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason [London and New York, 1999], 138).

For Kant, against Leibniz and Hume, metaphysics is an example of synthetic a priori, and more than that, it is possible as a valid form of knowledge not just what is blindly presupposed in habit. But what exactly is the status of its possibility?

Recall here that the problematic of the synthetic a priori involves an impasse concerning the question, which is a valid starting point, the synthetic or the analytic?  The possibility of synthetic a priori must therefore exceed the synthetic-analytic distribution. Relying on Dieter Heinrich’s legendary lectures on Kant, Slavoj Zizek takes us into an adept summary of what is going on with Kant who is here facing a dilemma (the italicized words were quoted by Zizek from Heinrich):

“Kant starts with a cognitive capacity–the Self with its three features (unity, synthetic activity, emptiness) is affected by noumenal things and, through its active syntheses, organizes impressions into phenomenal reality; however, once he arrives at the ontological result of his critique of knowledge (the distinction between phenomenal reality and the noumenal world of Things-in-themselves), ‘there can be no return to the self. There is no plausible interpretation of the self as a member of one of the two worlds.” This is where practical reason comes in: the only way to return from ontology to the Self is via freedom: freedom unites the two worlds and provides for the unity or coherence of the Self–this is why Kant repeated the motto again and again, ‘subordinate everything to freedom’” (Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing. Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism [London and New York: Verso, 2012], 266); also, Dieter Heinrich, Between Kant and Hegel. Lectures on German Idealism, ed. David S. Pacini [Cambridge, Massachusetts, London and England: Harvard University Press, 2003, 52).

The impossibility of returning to the self in the final analysis requires a decision: the decision arises from the impossibility of deciding. Until the self decides it is practically a a non-self, a veritable ghost, that is vulnerable to appropriation. This is the vulnerability that the ascetic ideal (the subject of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals) takes advantage of, the body-self that does not know itself.

II. Kant’s resurrection of the ascetic ideal

Kant resurrects the ascetic ideal (this is quite familiar now)  through a correlationist strategy. We will find out what the real function of correlationism is to Kant’s oft-repeated call to “subordinate everything to freedom.”

Meillasoux (2007) defines correlationism as follows: “Correlationism consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another” (Quentin Meillasoux, After Finitude. An Essay on Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier [London: Continuum, 2008], 8).

This is quite simple to understand if we consider the relation between subject and object, or Man and the world whose relational form partakes of an elementary model as that which reflects a primary relation. Relations are absolutely primary, and there are only relations – so far, this is the metaphysical kernel of correlationism. This, for a good reason, destroys the unrelational nature of the metaphysics of substance. But having destroyed metaphysics in this sense, correlationism generates a new form of metaphysics, that is, the metaphysics of relation; psychologically put, the necessity of belongingness, i.e., a shared relationship. This already conveys a useful therapeutic function – one is assured that he is not alone. As Nietzsche says, nihilism has deep psychological roots. (But this is not the ultimate cause of nihilism).

Meillasoux adds: “[Ever] since Kant, to discover what divides rival philosophers is no longer to ask who has grasped the true nature of substantiality, but rather who has grasped the more originary correlation” (Ibid.). This brings us to Kant’s maxim “subordinate all to freedom.”

The trick is the exceptionalist metaphysics of a philosopher who wills himself to grasp a correlation. Hence, freedom exceeds the correlation. Kant had to set up the problem of correlation to replace the old substantialist problem only to affirm what substantialism affirmed all along (though negatively), namely, that a subject wills a substance (God in old metaphysics; Man for Kant).

But still for Kant the Man-category is derivative of self-critique, that it is only by self-critique that Man can exist as subject in reality. This is where Nietzsche faulted Kant. The Kantian self-critique is ultimately a critique of pre-critical, pre-modern values (both in theology and philosophy, especially those influenced by Cartesianism). In Nietzschean terms, this is expressed by way of confronting the question head-on: Does a critique of values have a value of its own (GM, Preface 6)?

More so, because it also concerns values, the question of the value of critique of values is no less a critique of moral economy (all morals are economic as all of economics is morality). If Man continues to be reactive because it remains hostage to pre-critical morality (theology and philosophy, and, economics, altogether in the Kantian sense), then what right has Man to undertake the critique? Who is this Man? What exactly must this Man possess to secure the right to carry out the critique?

Nietzsche saw the answer in the ascetic ideal which is associated with a more familiar Nietzschean concept, the death of God, roughly the collapse of meaning or value of existence whose most representative proponent is the ascetic.

The ascetic is the Man of Kant, in short.  But there are at least two types of ascetic: the pre-critical ascetic (theologian, philosopher, and economist or moral economist as well) and critical ascetic (presumably one who has followed the Critiques to the last words, at the ready to subordinate the pre-critical to freedom).

Freedom is the modern Man-category that will carry out the critique of values of the pre-critical. In short, the critical ascetic is charged by Kant with the responsibility to carry out the critique.

This expresses the whole project of modernity as Nietzsche saw it starting with Kant.

But there is always a twist.

III. Faith that is not commanded: Kant’s version of the ascetic ideal

The twist is the movement of the ascetic ideal from irrational or precritical terms of faith to “honest objective atheism” (GM, III 27). Kant gives us a hint for the necessity of this transition:

“[The] principle which determines our judgement in this is the basis – subjectively indeed as a need, but simultaneously also as a means of furthering what is objectively (practically) necessary … This faith is therefore not commanded” (Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans, Werner S. Pluhar [Indiana/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002],184).

But we  never asked ourselves why the transition is necessary. (Incidentally, Kierkegaard opposed this objective transition through his famous maxim – ‘subjectivity is truth; subjectivity is actuality’; see Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs, ed. and trans. Alastair Hannay [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009], 288).  

For Nietzsche, the transition is caused no less by the death of God, which signals the rebirth of the ascetic ideal, the secret jouissance of the pre-critical moderns that God must die of necessity so that the true essence of the ideal can be finally expressed in absolute human terms.

The transition would be accomplished by sorcery – extracting a spirit from the cranium of the dead, so to speak. This ideal or the spirit of revenge (against the living) prospers by refocusing the attention from heaven to earth not out of fidelity to the earth, rather out of pity for it having lost its transcendent meaning (GM, III 27).

Having rescued faith from its precritical condition, Kant gave the ascetic ideal a new lease of life in terms of obscuring the ecological background of moral reason, which to us is the ultimate desire of the ascetic – the active denial of the earth. 

In this light, what truly radicalizes Nietzsche’s genealogical project is the ultimate presupposition of all morals, that all morals have ecological roots.

Related post:

1. Dirty Secrets: I Love the Moderns

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