Heidegger on Nietzsche on Nihilism

Robert B. Pippin

The Paradox of Nihilism

The phenomenon that both Nietzsche and Heidegger refer to as “nihilism” is often understood as a historical event, an episode in late modern Western culture.1 The event is taken to be a widespread collapse of confidence in what Nietzsche calls our “highest values,” especially religious and moral values, at least among the educated classes in the latter half of the nineteenth century. These highest values have, according to Nietzsche, somehow “devalued themselves.”2

Heidegger, however, in his influential series of lectures on Nietzsche in the 1930s, correctly noted that Nietzsche himself did not treat the phenomenon of nihilism as a mere historical event.3 The phrase “the highest values devalue themselves” (die obersten Werte sich entwerten)4 already indicates that. Devaluation does not just happen. Heidegger elaborates,

In Nietzsche’s view nihilism is not a Weltanschauung that occurs at some time and place or another; it is rather the basic character of what happens in Occidental history [Grundcharakter des Geschehens in der abendländlichen Geschichte]. Nihilism is at work [am Werk] even—and especially—there where it is not advocated as doctrine or demand, there where ostensibly its opposite prevails. Nihilism means that the uppermost values devalue themselves. This means that whatever realities and laws set the standard in Christendom, in morality since Hellenistic times, and in philosophy since Plato, lose their binding force [verbindliche Kraft], and for Nietzsche that always means creative [schöpferische] force.5

As the passage indicates, there is an event (a loss of “binding force”), but it is not a contingent moment, like the moral disintegration that a plague or disaster can cause. Indeed, the “event” or the fate of Western history as a whole is itself at issue. That sort of event character is captured in its magnitude by the famous phrase announced in The Gay Science : “God is dead,” which Heidegger summarizes in an unusual way: “The Christian God has lost his power [Macht] over beings [über das Seiende] and over the destiny [Bestimmung] of man.”6 He puts it this way:

“Christian God” also stands for the “transcendent” [Übersinnliche] in general in its various meanings—for “ideals” and “norms,” “principles” and “rules,” “ends” and “values,” which are set “above” beings, in order to give being as a whole a purpose, an order, and—as it is succinctly expressed—“meaning.” [Sinn] Nihilism is that historical process whereby the dominance of the “transcendent” becomes null and void, so that all being loses its worth and meaning. Nihilism is the history of beings [die Geschichte des Seienden], through which the death of the Christian God comes slowly but inexorably to light.7

However, Nietzsche and Heidegger do not treat the crisis of nihilism as primarily an intellectual crisis, a problem of credible belief (although it is clearly also that). The situation is not described as analogous to a scientific crisis, for example, the result of anomalies, experimental inconsistencies, effective refutations, and arguments that generate skepticism about, and finally, rejection of a scientific claim. In Nietzsche’s case, he often treats the phenomenon of nihilism not as a crisis of belief or will, but as some sort of pathology of human desire; a collapse of desire altogether, or a growing self-deceit about what it is we really desire, or a self-abasing reduction in the ambition of what is wanted. A frequent image here is of “bows” that have lost their “tension,” as in, from Zarathustra, “Alas, the time approaches when man will no longer launch the arrow of his longing beyond the human, and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to whir,”8 and the striking claim from The Gay Science that “neediness is needed!” (Not ist nötig.)9 That is, we now find nothing truly needful, nothing important worth wanting, worth sacrificing for.

In Heidegger’s case, there are already indications of a similar characterization when he says that the highest values have lost their “binding force,” and that being loses worth and “ meaning.” In Heidegger and in general, meaningfulness (in the sense of what he calls Bedeutsamkeit) is not sustained by beliefs about what is or should be meaningful. (Meaning, in a sense we need to consider more closely, is found, present, experienced, or not.) A crisis in “meaning” is thus relatively independent of, deeper than, and presupposed, by arguments, evidence, and so forth. A practice that had made sense comes to seem senseless, something that can happen without a critique or an attack. And Heidegger had already said something striking about Nietzsche on nihilism that is relevant to this point. It slides by unremarked on, but it is immediately paradoxical. He had claimed that, far from being a matter of what can be believed or not, “Nihilism is at work even—and especially—there where it is not advocated as doctrine or demand, there where ostensibly its opposite prevails.” Nihilism is thus the sort of phenomenon that can appear, be “at work,” even if unnoticed. But how can people suffer unknowingly from the devaluation of their highest values? What could “at work” mean?

Even more paradoxically, Heidegger notes that nihilism is at work “where ostensibly its opposite prevails.” Intense, fervent dedication to a purported highest value (not the failure of desire but some sort of pathological intensification) must “now,” after “the death of God,” also count as nihilism at work. It might be that in many situations, class allegiance, say, becomes profoundly more important, perhaps fanatically so, just because of a growing suspicion of its irrelevance. Some sort of self-deceit and overcompensation is at work.10 But again, believing fervently in something that has no real ground of belief, or in a situation where more and more people are unable to see such a ground, does not look like any breakdown in “meaning.” Where is the “nihilism at work”?

However paradoxically put, though, Heidegger is responding to Nietzsche’s own formulations. When Nietzsche “stages” the announcement that “God is dead” in The Gay Science, presenting a minidrama of a crazy man and his auditors, the response the crazy man, der tolle Mensch, receives to his first announcement, that he seeks God, is mockery and indifference, not anxiety or despair or reassertions of God’s existence or some other basis for transcendent value (something objectively valuable, in itself; not because value has been conferred on it). Regarding the search for God, they say,

Has he [God] got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed.11

The proclamation that God is dead is met with silence. It is not as if no one believes the madman; they just don’t care.

Moreover, Zarathustra’s audience in the prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra is mocking and indifferent as well, as if the most prominent and disturbing manifestation of nihilism is the absence of any manifestation, and instead such large-scale indifference and self-satisfaction.12 Throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra, those “down below” whom Zarathustra comes to enlighten are “the last men,” potentially “last” because in their stupefied self-satisfaction they barely possess and are likely to lose what Zarathustra treats as the distinctive human capacity, esteeming (schätzen), or valuing, or at least the ability to value the highest values.

Now it is true that this may all be because of some sort of historical time delay. This delay may be the reason why the devaluation of the highest values does not yet “show up” in the everyday world. The madman puts it this way:

“I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.”13

But Nietzsche here poses his own (and largely unremarked on) paradox: if the time lag explanation were true, how could the crazy man emphasize that the death of God is a “deed,” and we all have done it. The deed may be “more distant than most distant stars,” but “ they have done it themselves.” (The problem of self-deceit arises again.) More generally, what could it mean to say that “the highest values have devalued themselves ”? It would seem to amount to a claim that some far-seeing individuals—the madman, Zarathustra, Nietzsche himself—have seen that commitment to such values is, at least by their lights, not credible or in some way now unavailable (in what they demand of us, we find the demand to be empty, baseless), and that it is inevitable that eventually nearly everyone else will realize this too.

Further, the implication of Nietzsche’s formulations is not that all value has devalued itself; only the highest values. After all, action as such is unintelligible without value of some sort. The bodily movements that make up action count as actions only if intentional. Action necessarily is an agent’s consciousness of action. (As Sebastian Rödl puts it, these are not two acts or elements, action and consciousness of action, but one act.)14 An action is not an event that goes on whether we are conscious of it or not. In such a case, there might be bodily movements, but if I am not conscious of doing it, it is not a doing. There would not be action. And since to have practical knowledge of one’s acting is not by observation or inference, but by being the agent who acts, just by being conscious of acting, one unavoidably is conscious of why, why it is at least better to do this (at least better for me) than to do nothing or to do something else. To be subject to this “why” question is to be implicated in some commitment to value, the value “behind” this action, here and now. This is partly why agents can still act intelligibly, even if no part of any answer they might give themselves to such a “why” question has anything to do with “highest values,” just “lower values.” That might be a manifestation of nihilism, that we no longer “launch the arrow of . . . longing beyond the human” (where “beyond the human” refers to something “higher” than the “human” or prosaic bourgeois values we find defended by Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill, Rawls, and so forth). That is, the fact that many do not interpret this as a great loss or lack, are not affected by the fact that where there once were “the highest values,” there is now, for them, “nothing,” is such a reduction in aspiration that it counts as something worse than mere nihilism: the embrace of such nihilism.

These are the issues I would like to explore further. They all need to be understood within some interpretation of what might be at stake in Nietzsche’s diagnosis of nihilism, and Heidegger’s version of that diagnosis. With such a simplified summary, we seem left according to Heidegger and Heidegger’s Nietzsche (certainly a recognizable Nietzsche) with a situation in which a self-aware elite has come to “experience” the self-devaluation of the highest values, although the nature of that experience is not clear. It is not a mere contingent event, something that merely happens to them. It is not an intellectual crisis, some philosophical insufficiency in the ground of some valuation. It is something like a failure of desire, but a failure also paradoxically manifest in an intensification of desire and in a redirection of its direction, “lower.”

Heidegger on Meaning and Mattering

What I want to show is twofold: aspects of Heidegger’s approach to these issues helps a great deal to clarify Nietzsche’s understanding of and diagnosis of nihilism. Yet when Heidegger in effect “turns on” Nietzsche (something more and more prominent as the lectures unfold from 1936 on), accuses him of nihilism, links him to a subjectivistic metaphysics, and so implicates him in the modern technological “enframing” of the question of the meaning of “Being,” he both distorts Nietzsche and misses an opportunity to make better use of Nietzsche’s diagnosis in addressing the central points at issue. The lectures cover an extraordinarily large amount of material, and there is no space to discuss some of the most interesting questions, but for our purposes, we need to examine three issues.

The first has already been signaled by the passage cited above from the 1940 lecture on European nihilism.

“Christian God” also stands for the “transcendent” [Übersinnliche] in general in its various meanings—for “ideals” and “norms,” “principles” and “rules,” “ends” and “values,” which are set “above” beings, in order to give being as a whole a purpose, an order, and—as it is succinctly expressed—“meaning” (einen Sinn zu geben).15

The fact that Heidegger summarizes the highest values that he lists as, most comprehensively, what “ gives meaning,” introduces the fundamental question of his entire career, since the lectures make clear that he wants to interpret Nietzsche as addressing (if incompletely) the most fundamental question of meaning, “the meaning of Being.” Second, we will then need to understand what Heidegger means by the claim that for Nietzsche the meaning of Being is “the will to power,” and, third, why Heidegger thinks that that claim reveals Nietzsche’s implication in the metaphysical tradition whose culmination (Vollendung) is the very nihilism at issue for both of them, and the stance of predatory subjectivity now unleashed on the earth.

The first point to be made is already controversial, the claim that Heidegger’s famous Seinsfrage, question of Being, is a meaning question, a question about the meaning of being. But in the lectures, he leaves little doubt that this is the fundamental question. Consider this dispositive passage from the first lectures in 1936–37, “The Will to Power as Art.” It addresses two of the questions just posed.

The expression “will to power” designates the basic character of beings; any being which is, insofar as it is, is will to power. The expression stipulates the character that beings have as beings. But that is not at all an answer to the first question of philosophy, its proper question; rather, it answers only the final preliminary question. For anyone who at the end of Western philosophy can and must still question philosophically, the decisive question is no longer merely “What basic character do beings manifest?” or “How may the Being of beings be characterized?” but “What is this ‘Being’ itself?” The decisive question is that of “the meaning of Being,” [Es ist die Frage nach dem Sinn des Seins] not merely that of the Being of beings. “Meaning” [Sinn] is thereby clearly delineated conceptually as that from which and on the grounds of which Being in general can become manifest as such and can come into truth.16

Although Heidegger had already, by 1929, begun to move away from the phenomenological approach of Being and Time (1927), and had pretty much rejected it by 1933, this sort of formulation about meaning as the central issue does not change. A typical formulation from Being and Time is as follows:

Basically all ontology . . . remains blind and perverted from its ownmost aim, if it has not already first clarified the meaning of Being and conceived this clarification as its fundamental task.17

In that work, Heidegger had proposed, as a preliminary way into the meaning of Being simpliciter, a phenomenological investigation of ordinary meaningfulness in our worldly dealings and in our self-relation, where phenomenological roughly means what it is like for us, for a human being—which Heidegger calls Dasein—to be out and about “understandingly” in the everyday world. Meaningfulness in that sense just means the unproblematic, immediate, unthematic intelligibility of what we deal with in our ongoing tasks and projects. This kind of intelligibility is just “familiarity,” of the unreflective sort. Heidegger’s main opponent in such an account is a kind of representationalism, which holds that such familiarity is a result of the having of representations or beliefs about objects, representations that bestow meaning by our conscious attentiveness to what things are for, how they are used, what successful use consists in, and so forth. This view is, Heidegger claims, phenomenologically false and ultimately creates an unnecessary and unsolvable skepticism about the relation between representations and the world. By contrast, meaningfulness, familiarity, the unproblematic intelligibility of entities in the world is a matter of our engaged, unthematic, skillful coping; competence or know-how, correctly using the hammer, not “following” a representation of how it is to be used. Dasein is always already “in-the-world,” does not originally or primordially represent objects in the world as objects of conscious intending,

Dasein’s intelligibility to itself is a different matter, but also not a matter of representation. Dasein is the only being for whom the meaning of its being is “at issue.” Wolves don’t have to determine what it means to be a wolf; they just are wolves. But the meaning of the being of Dasein is “to be,” possibility, a distinct modality of being Heidegger calls “existence.” (There is no fact of the matter or of nature that will settle what it is to be Dasein, always uniquely my Dasein. At his most extreme in making this point, Heidegger claims that Dasein is the “null basis of a nullity.”)18 This opens onto quite a complicated set of issues, but the problem in this context is the Heideggerian “meaning of meaning,” what we need to understand that claim about the meaning of Being in the Nietzsche lecture. A passage from Being and Time gives us a hint.

But in significance itself [Bedeutsamkeit], with which Dasein is always familiar, there lurks the ontological condition which makes it possible for Dasein, as something which understands and interprets, to disclose such things as “significations”; upon these, in turn, is founded the Being of words and of language.19

The hint in the passage is that Heidegger is aware that the question of the meaning of Being, the meaning of Dasein’s being, or the meaning of encountered beings, has a dual significance. There is “Bedeutsamkeit,” and there is “the Being of words and language,” and the claim is that the possibility of the latter is founded on the former. There is, that is, the linguistic notion of meaning, and the question is “What does the word ‘Being’ or the concept of Being mean, signify?” Or “What do we mean by ‘Dasein’?” When the question is, “Do you understand what a hammer is?,” it could be taken to mean, “Do you understand what the word ‘hammer’ means?” But there is also a much broader notion of meaning, something like “meaningfulness” that Heidegger designates as Bedeutsamkeit, translated above by “significance.” Questions about meaning in this sense would be “What did it mean that she didn’t show up for Thanksgiving?” or “What is the meaning of this?” or a claim like, “I didn’t understand the meaning of that activity.” Or, “After that, I found going to church meaningless.” This practical sense often refers to the goal or very “point” of some saying or doing. In this sense, understanding what objects around me mean is understanding how they fit into some structure of significance. They have a point within some more general purpose or end, itself intelligible in the light of higher order goals. And so, I understand the meaning of the lectern, the classroom, the building, the university, my way to school, by being able to navigate unproblematically and even for the most part unthinkingly, in such a familiar world. If, instead of a lectern, I one day stepped up to a child’s wading pool in the front of the class, I would not understand what its presence would mean, what to do.

As noted, in the quotation above Heidegger says that the Being of words and language, what it is to be signifying language, significant speech, is “founded” on significance, meaningfulness in this practical sense and that is a much more controversial claim. In the simplest example, the point he is making is relevant when we say in a certain context that we did not understand what someone meant by saying what she did, do not know how to respond to some speech act. The context can indicate that we do not mean that we do not understand the literal or lexical meaning of what she said; instead, we do not understand what she meant by saying what she said. We might say that we cannot see what the point was of her saying that then. It is in this context that we can say that we have to understand such an issue within the broader scope of the problem of practical meaningfulness or Bedeutsamkeit, the structure of implicit, presupposed purposiveness that is a necessary condition for this familiarity, the primordial level of everyday significance that Heidegger is investigating. That is the context in which the notion of a “point” to any linguistic usage is relevant; or, let us say, the context of “mattering.” Literal meaning would not be isolatable from this sort of context, goes the claim; language would be said to occur always already in a practical context like this, often not prominent (say in science textbooks or lectures), but always presupposed (textbooks and lectures have their point), often quite prominent (in cases of confusion or misunderstanding). Everything we do, including speaking to or writing for each other must be understood to occur in this purposive context, the context of mattering, revealing by what we do and say, and what we do not do and say, what matters and what does not, and thereby what makes sense and what does not.

So Dasein’s primary mode of intelligibly being-in-the-world is not representational or spectatorial, observational, but always practical, intelligible in terms of what has come to matter, in some hierarchy of significances. Accordingly, Heidegger insists, Dasein’s primary relation to the world in its intelligibility, in our understanding involvement, is not “knowledge.” It is rather determined by what Heidegger says is the very “being” of Dasein, what he calls “care,” Sorge, which we might also translate as “mattering.” Things and persons are intelligible, can be said to make familiar sense, in the light of what has come to matter or not. This entails that that basic relation to the world, always a matter of mattering, becomes a problem of knowledge only when this engaged involvement breaks down in some way, requires attention to what he calls the merely “present-at-hand” qualities of the objects. Here is a summary:

Proximally, this Being-already-alongside is not just a fixed staring at something that is purely present-at-hand. Being-in-the-world, as concern, is fascinated by the world with which it is concerned. If knowing is to be possible as a way of determining the nature of the present-at-hand by observing it, then there must first be a deficiency in our having-to-do with the world concernfully.20

If the question of the meaning of Dasein’s being can be understood this way—Dasein’s intelligibility to itself is a matter of its “care,” what is significant, what matters—then it might be possible to understand what Heidegger might mean by the question of the meaning of Being itself in a similar way. The question does not mean, “What is there?” (the answer to that, as has been observed, is easy: everything). It is not “what do we mean when we say that anything exists?” As just indicated, such an abstract noun would not exclude anything; and for that reason, according to Aristotle, there is no highest common genus. It does not mean, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” That presupposes we already know “what it means” for something to exist. But if we follow this practical sense of “means,” then we can roughly say that the question concerns the significance of there being anything at all, a horizon of the general significance of anything at all—the way in which we understand how the meaning of our own being “fits in” with there being anything at all—always already presupposed and taken for granted in our dealings with entities. It is something like the most comprehensive orientation in anything being able to matter; where our nested series of “in-order-to’s” and “for-the-sake-of which’s” ultimately point, even if obscurely and unthematically.

At this point we go a long way toward understanding the deeper point in Heidegger’s whole project if we simply note, with this material before us, that what has come to “matter” to us is not in any significant sense ever “up to us.” There may well be many things that we wish did not matter to us, that we know in some sense are insignificant. But they do matter. We may never avow such concerns and never act on them, but they have come to matter; they are what matters to us despite ourselves. We also can suspect that what we avow and do may actually matter to us for reasons other than the reasoned-out reasons we think we are acting on. And there may be many activities or ideals or goals that we convince ourselves ought to matter to us a great deal, and we may act to achieve some, but we can do so without such issues ever really mattering to us. (Something else is mattering perhaps, like our reputation.) This is something Heidegger calls the “thrownness” of human existence (Geworfenheit) and it is a point of perhaps the deepest affinity with Nietzsche’s own skepticism about our ordinary sense of the scope of conscious control and direction. But since we cannot simply decide what matters on the basis of some reflection on what ought to matter, how do we explain at the individual or social or even civilizational level, what has come to matter?

If we understand Nietzsche’s diagnosis of nihilism in these terms, then we can see that his view is in practice very like what the early Heidegger was suggesting: an interpretive account of basic mattering, where such mattering is itself treated as condition of sense, significance, and meaning. This would be Nietzsche’s “interrogation of the meaning of Being.” He calls these sources of mattering “highest values,” but that can misleadingly suggest that individuals bestow value in intentional acts of valuation. His practice suggests rather that what actually matters in a practice or institution is often hidden, requires the same sort of interpretive work to get at that is called for in understanding complex political struggles or ambitious novels or plays. (The value language is as misleading as inferring from his skepticism about conscious determination of these values that they are determined by forces like “drives” or “instincts” “behind our backs.” The way “what really matters” in doing something requires interpretive work, need not be the opening to an appeal to causal accounts, about which Nietzsche expresses great skepticism. They can be hidden, unavailable, and determinative even if still “inside” the psychological or existential.) So, for example, according to Nietzsche, after “Socrates” (and all that he embodies and represents), “knowing the truth” had come very much to matter; matter too much for our own good, Nietzsche wants to say; too much was expected of it. It mattered above all, as if nothing could matter unless we could know why it ought to matter, as if this was how anything could really matter. With the impossibility of ever providing such grounds, mattering looked as contingent and arbitrary as taste. Given the Christian and Platonic expectations, that result had to look like nihilism.

Heidegger Contra Nietzsche

At least this is what Nietzsche would look like from the perspective established by Heidegger around the time of Being and Time. But it is at this point that Heidegger’s deepening criticism of Nietzsche (and actually of his own position in Being and Time)21 is relevant. For Heidegger claims that Nietzsche has a sweeping “metaphysical answer” to the question of ultimate mattering, his own version of a response to the meaning of Being question: the “will to power.” To be precise, according to Heidegger, this answer is not one that addresses his own understanding of the basic question, but it is a penultimate or preliminary answer. Nietzsche is giving a metaphysical answer; one that tries to provide the “fundamental character” of all being, what would be more properly understood as the horizon of common or shared significance established by the realization of what there basically is, and what could thereby matter. This is the kind of answer, and its implications for Bedeutsamkeit with which we are familiar in philosophy and in the practical implications drawn: atoms in the void, extended and thinking substance, Berkeley’s ideas, ens creatum, a pantheistic God. Nietzsche’s answer in this list is supposed to be: the will to power.

Heidegger does not make the mistake of thinking that Nietzsche is trying to say that all of being should be understood as in some sort of struggle for supremacy, dominance, or survival. His interpretation in the lectures of the will to power is as metaphysical as he says it is. It is an account of ceaseless, purposeless becoming. Nothing can be said to be stable or secure; resistant, one could say, to the unlimited “power” of change, chance, and contingency. That power is all-powerful; it is the will power as the “basic character of Being.” According to Heidegger, Nietzsche takes his bearings from such a “metaphysics,” and on its basis proposes a “revaluation of the highest values.” This is, for Heidegger, a repetition of the cardinal error of the Western philosophical tradition. Here is an example of how Heidegger gets from his metaphysical reading to his indictment.

What is being contested is decided in advance: power itself, which requires no aims. It is aim-less, just as the whole of beings is value-less. Such aimlessness pertains to the metaphysical essence of power. If one can speak of aim here at all, then the “aim” is the aimlessness of man’s absolute dominance over the earth. The man of such dominance is the Over-man.22

I note that Heidegger does not help us understand why he thinks this view of “aimlessness” would then require “human domination of the earth.” It would not exclude it as a possible response, but why would it require it? This is only the first of the problems of reading Nietzsche this way. Here is a full statement of the criticism:

Consequently, in spite of all his insights, he could not recognize the hidden essence of nihilism, because right from the outset, solely on the basis of valuative thought, he conceived of nihilism as a process of the devaluation of the uppermost values. Nietzsche had to conceive of nihilism that way because in remaining on the path and within the realm of Western metaphysics, he thought it to its conclusion.23

Heidegger is saying that Nietzsche is captured by what he opposes. He sees that where there had been hoped for presence and ground—nature, natural hierarchy, the ends of our life-form, God’s will, our basic passions—there had turned out to be nothing stable, a chaotic void. This void must be filled. But for Heidegger, attempting to fill it at all, especially by some human self-assertion is itself an expression of nihilism (a forgetting of our passivity with respect to, dependence on, what could matter, the meaning of Being). Hence, Nietzsche is associated with what Heidegger regards from the thirties on as the most dangerous expression of this “nihilistic” response to nihilism.

The securing of supreme and absolute self-development of all the capacities of mankind for absolute dominion over the entire earth is the secret goad [geheime Stachel] that prods modern man again and again to new resurgences, a goad that forces him into commitments that secure for him the surety of his actions and the certainty of his aims.24

So Nietzsche is after all charged with being still a “philosopher of subjectivity” and “representation”; he is “a Cartesian.” But the subjectum is now simply the body, and we have not overcome nihilism.

I have been trying to suggest that this is a forced and unfounded reading of Nietzsche. Nietzsche is much better read in the terms of Being and Time, with the same refusal to see what he is doing as mere anthropology, or empirical psychology, concerned above all with how anything could matter (where that has to mean matter for us, even if hidden from us), and how mattering is a condition for the possibility of intelligibility. We all inherit the web of matterings and so meanings by the light of which we navigate the everyday world (the world that matters to us, the world of politics, friendship, romance, war, death), and Nietzsche’s attention to how an ideal or practice could come to matter and cease to matter (his genealogy) both do justice to the hiddenness of such mattering and its possible disclosure. Heidegger can only build a case for all of this being based on “metaphysics” by concentrating almost exclusively on the Nachlass, ignoring the published works, and forcing Nietzsche to play a role in the drama for which he is supremely unsuited: metaphysician. Ironically, it is Heidegger’s own hermeneutical framework from 1927 (which he explicitly disowns in the 1940 lecture), which is of great use in explaining Nietzsche’s project.

That is, just as a widespread forgetfulness about Dasein’s own being at issue for itself, an evasion of that burden, and a consoling normality in being “lost” in the world of das Man, the They, can help account for how this “tranquilizing” normalcy, the nonappearance of nihilism, is an instance of nihilism, the loss of meaning (Dasein is living as if it is not Dasein, a being whose being is always at issue); just as a fervent attachment to an ideal can be an instance of self-deceived desperation, a flight from a possible collapse of meaning, and so a nihilistic symptom; just as a settling for the “lower values” of tranquility, comfort, and consumption could be other signs of a self-deceived flight from oneself, Nietzsche can be viewed as in many ways, at least when compared with Heidegger of the twenties, more Heideggerian than the philosophical master of Messkirch himself. “Metaphysics” is of no importance for such an account. Or, it could be of importance but only on some understanding of the possibility of mattering, of importance, prior to and independent of any consolation in metaphysics.


1. Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche were published by him in a redacted form in two volumes in 1961, which have now been reissued again in the Gesamtausgabe, Vols. 6.1 and 6.2. I will cite the English translation first, Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vols. 1, 2, 3, and 4, trans. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperOne, 1991), followed by references to the 1961 edition, Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, Bd. I and Bd. II (Pfullingen: Neske, 1961). See Heidegger’s summary of the original coinage and use of the term by Friedrich Jacobi, especially in his letter to Fichte where he poses as the natural contrary of Idealism what he calls Nihilism (or “Chimerism”). Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 4, 3; Nietzsche, Bd. II, 31. Heidegger goes on in this first lecture to note the uses of the word in Turgenev, Jean Paul, and in Dostoevsky’s foreword to his Pushkin lectures in 1880.

2. Nietzsche’s account is strongly and surprisingly dialectical. It was the cultivation of “truthfulness” [Wahrhaftigkeit] about motivation required by Christianity and Christian morality that eventually produced too much truthfulness about the “low” origins of the “high.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kauffmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), 10; Der Wille zur Macht (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1964), 11.

3. “The devaluation of values does not end with a gradual becoming worthless of values, like a rivulet that trickles into the sand.” Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 4, 44; Heidegger, Nietzsche, Bd. II, 82.

4. Heidegger relies very heavily on the Nachlass collected as The Will to Power. Many scholars have shown how risky this is, even how perverse (since Heidegger rarely deals in detail with Nietzsche’s published works). Here, he is relying on Will to Power, §2. “What does nihilism mean?—That the highest values devalue themselves. The aim (Ziel) is lacking; the answer to the ‘Why?’ is lacking.” Nietzsche, Will to Power, 9; Der Wille zur Macht, 10 (T [translation altered]).

5. Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 1, 26; Nietzsche, Bd. I, 35.

6. Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 4, 4; Nietzsche, Bd. II, 33.

7. Ibid. (T).

8. F. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. A. Del Caro (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 9 (T); Also Sprach Zarathustra, Bd. 4, Kritische Studienausgabe, ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari (Berlin: de Gruter, 1988), 19.

9. F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), §56, 64; Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, Bd. 3, Kritische Studienausgabe, ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari (Berlin: de Gruter, 1988), 418. In Genealogy of Morals, §12, in commenting on the “stunting and leveling of European man,” he again suggests that nihilism is some kind of affective disorder, a fatigue or failure of desire. “The sight of man now makes us tired—what is nihilism today if not that? . . . We are tired of man.” F. Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, trans. Carol Diether (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 25; Zur Genealogie der Moral, Bd. 5, Kritische Studienausgabe, ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1988), 278. In the Nachlass, Nietzsche characterizes nihilism in a wide variety of ways, at one point saying that nihilism amounts to, all at once, “the repudiation of value, meaning, and desirability.” Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 7; Der Wille zur Macht, 7. I am grateful to Ken Gemes for some clarifying correspondence about this issue.

10. The question of reconciling Nietzsche’s frequent claims about the necessity of illusion, with his praise of an “intellectual conscience” and his insistence on exposing self-deceit, is a complicated issue. See Chapter 5, “The Psychological Problem of Self-Deception” in my Nietzsche, Psychology, First Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 85–104.

11. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §125, 119. Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 480–81.

12. See the account of “pale atheists” in Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, 110–13. Zur Genealogie der Moral, 398–401.

13. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §125, 120. Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 481–82.

14. Sebastian Rödl, Self-Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 17–64.

15. Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 4, 4; Nietzsche, Bd. II, 33 (T). In the first, more diagnostic part of the Nachlass organized as The Will to Power, Nietzsche frequently links nihilism to meaning and the loss of meaning, as in §12A, §25, §36, and §55.

16. Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 1, 18; Nietzsche, Bd. I, 26.

17. M. Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 31; Sein und Zeit (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1972), 11.

18. Heidegger, Being and Time, 331; Sein und Zeit, 285.

19. Heidegger, Being and Time, 121; Sein und Zeit, 87.

20. Heidegger, Being and Time, 88; Sein und Zeit, 61.

21. For Heidegger’s own association of Being and Time with the criticism he is making of Nietzsche, see Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 4, 141; Nietzsche, Bd. II, 194. The association is correct, but, I am claiming, his critique of what amounts to the perspective of the priority and autonomy of “the human experience of the human” in any question about what I am calling “mattering,” is misplaced.

22. Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 4, 82; Nietzsche, Bd. II, 125.

23. Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 4, 22; Nietzsche, Bd. II, 54.

24. Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 4, 99; Nietzsche, Bd. II, 145.

Robert B. Pippin - Heidegger on Nietzsche on Nihilism
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