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 concerns an impasse concerning 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, so to speak. Until the self decides it is practically a ghost but that does not necessarily mean the self loses a body. The self is still embodied but as such is also vulnerable to external 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. (We will return to this aspect later).

II. Kant’s resurrection of the ascetic ideal

Kant resurrects the ascetic ideal through – this is quite familiar now – 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).

What this amounts to is simple if we consider the relation between subject and object, or Man and the world whose relational form partakes of a more elementary or primary model, that is, as always a relation of sort. 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 absolute necessity of belongingness, of a shared relationship. This has indeed a very useful therapeutic function – one is assured that he is not alone. Indeed, 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 someone or 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 as a subject 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)? Or, who will undertake the critique of morality? Here morality collapses the distinction between theology and philosophy understood as both pre-critical and still pre-modern despite Descartes.

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 (in the Nietzschean sense, as Deleuze pointed out to us in Nietzsche and Philosophy) 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 have 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 key to understanding this is the movement of the ascetic ideal from irrational or precritical terms of faith to “honest objective atheism” (GM, III 27). Kant could give us a lot of hints for the necessity of this transition, one of which is what follows from a subjective need to objective necessity:

“[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 have never asked ourselves why the transition is in the first place necessary. (Incidentally, Kierkegaard opposed this objective transition apropos 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 (modern) human terms. But the most revolutionary expression of the pre-modern jouissance lay centuries ahead.

This would be no less accomplished through conjuration that has a counterpart in sorcery – extracting a spirit from the cranium of the dead through which the dead is somehow resurrected in terms of a new object-relation (through the skull) to that which will never return as a subject-relation (the living body). Correlatively, the success of delivering faith from ignorance gives the conjurer-moralist the opportunity to restrain, to limit, even deny and suppress the vital power that by all means established the ascetic ideal even as it  negates its true source. 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 the transcendent meaning that used to support this loyalty (GM, III 27).

Having rescued faith from its precritical condition, Kant gave the ascetic ideal a new lease on life which greatly contributes to the nihilism of modern times which has come full circle 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. Therefore, the economic form of humiliating earth-values is no less an ‘ascetic’ ideal (as if we haven’t stressed the point that the economist is a moralist and vice versa).

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

Modernity: A Perverted Genealogical Hypothesis

Before concluding, let me offer an interpretation of Latour’s own concept of ‘we have never been modern’ through Nietzsche’s genealogical prism:

“Does one really in all seriousness still think (as the theologians deluded themselves for a while) that, for instance, Kant’s victory over the conceptual dogmas of theology (‘God’, ‘soul’, ‘freedom’, ‘immortality’) harmed [the] ideal? … What is certain is that, since Kant, all kinds of transcendentalists have once again won the day – they are liberated from the theologians: what luck! – Kant revealed to them the secret path along which they may from now on, in independence and with the greatest scientific respectability, pursue their ‘heart’s desire’ (GM, III 25).

As an anti-modernist Nietzschean, I understand Latour to be proposing this – the failure of modernity, or shy of the expression, corresponds to our awareness of what is at stake in the ascetic ideal – that it must not be allowed anymore to reproduce itself as Kant did when he delivered faith from its ignorance (its precritical condition), igniting the course of the modern phenomenon of the death of God as it revived the spirit of the ascetic who would have found in Kant’s Critiques the justification for an “objective, honest atheism,” yet a justification that must remain a secret lie.  For Kant, as for the ascetic, God is an absolutely necessary concept. Interestingly, the commons must be guarded against the awareness of this hypothesis, against learning the ‘weakness of the god-postulate’ (parenthesizing Caputo), the postulate of the ascetic.

But we can also say that the modern ideal (of Kant) is absolutely illusory, which does not mean that the ascetic ideal which gives the modern ideal its most profound expression (the prototype of modern nihilism is the ascetic) has never historically occurred. Precisely, that is the point.

The ideal will always be in excess of what it can promise and will therefore not become actual in the sense that one can call it his own, or his own ‘time or age’, his ‘environment’, his ‘model’, his ‘origin’. (Age, environment, model, origin: these are the terms of Nietzsche’s genealogy [GM, Preface]). Here, we interpret excess in the sense Nietzsche speaks of “a perverted genealogical hypothesis” (GM, Preface) – the hypothesis of modernity.

“We have never been modern.” At least, our nihilism has never been irremissible. In a sense, Nietzsche credits the ascetic (though for sheer rhetorical purposes) for showing us the dangers of nihilism or the (Kantian modernist) Idea – so that, it makes sense to say, we can refuse to ‘become modern’, to become an idea. We think this is the exact kernel of Nietzsche’s fascination for the Presocratics – in his words, “the republic of geniuses from Plato to Socrates.”

Deleuze and Guattari have at least provided us an initial description of this power to negate the ascetic in their concept of rhizome, which extends Nietzsche’s concept of power to form and shape independent of the ends of truth, organization and finality, but also a power to heal and forget (to heal our contamination out of prolonged exposure to modernity; forget that we have become modern out of our inevitable relation to history). Later, Deleuze would develop this concept into that of the power of the false.

But this is another matter.

Related post:

1. Dirty Secrets: I Love the Moderns

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