Nietzsche, Materialism, and Progress

In his final sane treatise, The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche praises Descartes as the first philosopher with the audacity to describe animals as machines, i.e., as material mechanisms devoid of soul (ยง14). As the pioneer of this ingenious and ultra-modern idea, however, Descartes, so says Nietzsche, lacked the necessary critical distance from his religious-metaphysical inheritance to take the next step, namely to concede that man too is unqualifiedly animal, and therefore also a machine. With this observation, Nietzsche situates himself firmly among the moderns, though in a decisively non-German sense of modernism. One might say that Nietzsche’s project was in large measure an attempt to expunge all philosophical Germanness (idealism, mysticism, collectivist progressivism, socialism) from any proper understanding of modernity — to purify modernity of its German corruptions. That is Nietzsche’s glory and his gift to mankind, though it is still largely misunderstood even by those who read him with seriousness, and distorted beyond all recognition by those who read him academically, i.e., without seriousness.

His underlying and almost debilitating modernism, however — his uncharacteristic faith in modern materialism as progress — remains. Perhaps we may explain this problem psychologically and idiomatically: You can take the boy out of Germany, but you can’t take the Germany out of the boy. 

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