Much electronic ink has been spilled of late regarding the sources of the current radical movement sweeping the Western world. In countless popular articles and blogs, Karl Marx is often credited as the ancestral source of the current disorder, but there is another figure whose influence is at least as strong as that of the father of communism: Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. The latter’s influence on the philosophical thought of two of the key architects in the shaping of the contemporary mind, the French postmodernist gurus Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, was profound. The embrace and subsequent promulgation of deconstructionist ideas by university academics led to the widespread, if often indirect, dissemination of Nieztschean ideas among students as well as the general public.
The tumultuous decade of the 1960s witnessed a fundamental change in the structure of French philosophical perception. The Cartesian tradition of “clear and distinct thought,” which had reigned supreme among French philosophers since the mid-17th century, found itself being undermined by individuals who questioned its very basis. Foreshadowed by the Structuralist school of anthropology founded by Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1950s, the works of Foucault, Derrida, and others who would later be dubbed postmodernists represented an intellectual assault against the liberal, rational, and secular values that came to the fore during the 18th-century Enlightenment. Indeed, one of Foucault’s chief aims was the “deconstruction” of the traditional positive view of the latter.
Nietzsche was a revelation to both Foucault and Derrida. His ideas concerning the historical genealogy of morality, the transvaluation of hitherto accepted values, and the perspectival limitation on the amount of knowledge available to a given individual provided the two Frenchmen with a philosophical toolkit from which they were able to draw the concepts needed to articulate their respective challenges to the regnant systems of Western thought.
In his philosophical treatises Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche enumerated his vision of the development of modern morality. According to the German philosopher, this was the result of the machinations of a putative priestly class that deliberately inverted the traditional meaning of words and ideas through their moralization. In this reading of history, the Christian religion was used as a psychological weapon to inculcate in the formerly amoral ruling caste a moralistic turn of mind culminating in the creation of a ruinous “bad conscience.” History is thus a struggle between competing perspectives rather than a teleological process with a definite beginning and a predetermined end.
Foucault was inspired by the Nietzschean framework to develop his own theory of the historical process. The French philosopher views history as something whose very assumptions regarding truth and objectivity must be viewed with a skeptical eye. History must be viewed through the prism of interlocking social relations in which a hierarchy of power relationships is paramount. Claims of civilizational betterment through the amelioration of material ills, the increasing improvement in hygiene, the clearing of slums, and such are, in his view, a means of marginalizing specific groups of people from the public stage rather than an avenue leading to positive societal advancement. It is therefore necessary to give an ear to the voices of those groups whose voices have habitually been ignored by the majority (homosexuals, the insane, etc.) in order to form a counternarrative to traditional historiography.
In the case of Derrida, the German philosopher’s theories were used in an attempt to deconstruct the very idea of authority, initially in the areas of literature and philosophy. According to Derrida, the author of a work is not the sovereign arbiter of the meaning of his written text. Rather, said work becomes open to a multiplicity of interpretations based upon the unique viewpoints of each individual reader. Thus there can be no canonical evaluation of a work but simply various perspectives, all of equal validity. The author and the reader are therefore subsumed into an infinite number of textual relations in which no absolute standpoint exists. This point of view essentially eliminates the standard concept of subject and object, tending to view both of these concepts as artificial constructs that must be “decentralized” through the infinite possibilities of becoming/play.
The cultural impact of Derrida and Foucault on contemporary Western thought has been immense. It could be argued that part of this appeal lies in the peculiar form in which both men have incorporated Nietzsche’s views into their respective philosophical systems, since the former provided a potent form of criticism ideally suited to “smashing the idols” of the modern West. Indeed, many other postmodernist authors, such as Gilles Deleuze and Gianni Vattimo, have fallen under Nietzsche’s spell and dedicated some of their most important works to this supremely enigmatic figure.
It is certainly possible to find traces of the postmodernist version of Nietzsche in such current manifestations of radical thought as intersectionality, with its interlocking “genealogy” of power relationships based on race and class. Words are frequently emptied of their conventional meanings as part of the contemporary “transvaluation of values.” Objections to this verbal metamorphosis are frequently attacked from a moral rather than a factual basis. Academic disciplines and fields of cultural endeavor are frequently emptied of their historical content and instead replaced by shameless political propaganda. Thus, the plays of Shakespeare are taught as products of a racialist system of power dynamics while the Monticello home of Thomas Jefferson is transmogrified into a grotesque agitprop caricature of America’s third president.
The influence of Friedrich Nietzsche, while far from being the only building block in the edifice of present-day radical thought, certainly occupies an important place therein. While many of the German thinker’s concepts are filtered through the particular philosophic lenses of Foucault and Derrida, the pervasive presence of postmodernist ideas in daily life ensures that Nietzsche’s thought will continue to impact the world for many years to come, even if it is hidden in the shadows.