The Intellectual Poverty of the Nietzsche Hipster
by Benjamin Studebaker
I have been seeing a lot of casual quoting of Nietzsche lately, and I think I have discovered a new breed of amateur philosopher: the “Nietzsche Hipster”. The Nietzsche hipster loves quoting the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, embracing Nietzsche for the very simple reason that Nietzsche is very different from most other philosophers, both in the content of his ideas and in the style in which he conveys them (he is famously polemical). These Nietzsche hipsters are no different form hipsters in the ordinary sense–they are drawn to Nietzsche not because he has something worthy to say, but because he is different, against the mainstream, and radical. Nietzsche declares that “God is dead” and “Plato is boring”. He declares modern ethics to be a “slave morality” that keeps people down, and makes war on metaphysics (the notion that there is a truth that can be known) as a branch of philosophy more broadly.
It all sounds very exciting, but the actual philosophy of Nietzsche, when examined closely, results in one of two broad groups of interpretations, and I find neither commendable.
- Fascist Nietzsche: Nietzsche has a coherent philosophy, and it is one of proto-fascism.
- Nihilist Nietzsche: Nietzsche has no coherent philosophy beyond the rejection of previous philosophies, and is a nihilist.
Let’s examine the two broad tents of Nietzsche interpretation and see what Nietzsche has to offer.
The interpretation of Nietzsche as a fascist is more or less the interpretation offered up by Bertrand Russell in his A History of Western Philosophy. It goes something like this:
- Nietzsche declares all existing ethics and morals to be arbitrary and to serve the interests of the powerful, keeping the powerless in their place. This is called “the slave morality”.
- Nietzsche proposes that instead of embracing the slave morality, we become Nietzsche’s superman (the Ubermensch in the original German), who is unconcerned with popular ethics (things like compassion, kindness, mercy, virtue, temperance, or any of the values expressed in the ethics of the ancient Greeks, the medieval Christians, or the enlightenment liberals).
- The superman, liberated from the constraints of the slave morality, can then pursue his own power and desires uninhibited by popular morality, because he has “killed God” and all religious or otherwise socially derived ethics.
Bertrand Russell summarises it this way:
It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference. His “noble” man–who is himself in day-dreams–is a being wholly devoid of sympathy, ruthless, cunning, concerned only with his own power. King Lear, on the verge of madness, says: “I will do such things–what they are yet I know not–but they shall be the terror of the earth.” This is Nietzsche’s philosophy in a nutshell.
This interpretation was fuelled in no small part historically by Hitler’s affiliation with Nietzsche. For the fascists, Nietzsche quotes like this one were intellectual fuel:
The sick are the great danger of man, not the evil, not the ‘beasts of prey.’ They who are from the outset botched, oppressed, broken those are they, the weakest are they, who most undermine the life beneath the feet of man, who instill the most dangerous venom and skepticism into our trust in life, in man, in ourselves…Here teem the worms of revenge and vindictiveness; here the air reeks of things secret and unmentionable; here is ever spun the net of the most malignant conspiracy – the conspiracy of the sufferers against the sound and the victorious; here is the sight of the victorious hated.
If the fascist interpretation of Nietzsche is correct, his philosophy would most certainly be an abomination, and the Nietzsche hipsters would be inadvertent endorsers of fascism. That said, there is another interpretation of Nietzsche that has become more popular in recent years. But, while it’s certainly more benign than the fascist interpretation, it is still not the least bit helpful intellectually.
Holders of this view generally believe the fascist interpretations to be slanders of Nietzsche that have come about due to Hitler and company’s misreading of his works. They believe that what Nietzsche really means is:
- All socially constructed morals are in reality unprovable–morality is subjective, and if you embrace an ethical position just because it is the popular one in your society, you are embracing a slave morality that intellectually limits you.
- The superman or Ubermensch is just a person who makes his own ethics rather than accepts the ethics of the external society
- The various actual ethical positions Nietzsche takes (such as the one quoted above), are his own beliefs, but Nietzsche recognises that even his own beliefs are unprovable and the superman can adopt any position as long as it is his own and not the social default.
This interpretation assumes that Nietzsche’s moral scepticism just flatly contradicts the ethical positions that Nietzsche appears to take in his writings, that Nietzsche is just not a consistent thinker and that perhaps he even rejects consistency of thought as a desirable objective. Someone who thinks Nietzsche is worth reading and holds this view is certainly not a terrible person the way a fascist is, but the end result of this line of thought is nihilism–if all ethics are arbitrary, then all ethics are equal in value, which is just the same as saying that no ethic is better than any other ethic and consequently there is no basis for moral debate. This line of thinking leads to a society in which there are no external ethical constraints, where everyone does whatever he or she thinks best. It creates a society of individuals who cannot cooperate, negotiate, or come to agreements, and it leads to an anarchist society in which no law can have the moral force to bind anyone to anything. It suffers from an excess of individualism at the expense of the group and of the benefits that groups can provide to individuals. The advocating of not advocating a social ethic is very nearly as bad as the advocating of a malevolent ethic, because it leads to broad social misery just as swiftly. The sort of moral relativism expressed in this interpretation isn’t unique to Nietzsche either–observing that there is no way we can be certain about whether an ethic or a moral is correct or incorrect is typically one of the very first observations a person investigating ethics for the first time makes (I myself had my moment of “wait a second, morality has no objective basis” long before I read Nietzsche, at age 15). There are a great many people who think this view of Nietzsche is wonderful, and I would certainly never accuse such a person of being a Nietzsche hipster (though I would accuse such a person of being a nihilist, and reproach such a person for being so).
So on the one hand, it’s fascist, and on the other, it leads to a nihilist ethical vacuum where social cooperation and law crumble. Most importantly, both are miserable. The Nietzsche hipsters are either endorsing an ethic that is either fascist or nihilist or some combination of the two, or they never bothered to investigate the material to which they pay their homages. In either case, they strike me as quite silly.
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It seems to me that you have never read Nietzsche or know anything about what he actually said. These two ‘interpretations’ of Nietzsche you offer are utterly ridiculous and overly simplistic. Your definition of slave morality is also, just wrong. However, even if your wishy-washy interpretation of Nietzsche was right, and it was true that his philosophy has to lead to either fascism of nihilism (it’s funny because Nietzsche was quiet openly against both), this would not necessarily mean that I can’t like Nietzsche’s philosophy. It would be like saying that if I like Kant, I have to agree with the fact that masturbating is a violation of the Universal Moral Law. You go on about mocking hipsters but you just seem just as stupid and pathetic as them. Do you actually think that so many intellectuals (not hipsters) would be discussing Nietzsche if his philosophy was so easy to refute? You are an imbecile, I really suggest you give up philosophy and stick with conspiracy videos or politics.
How about instead of insulting and disparaging me, you give me your argument as to what you think Nietzsche believes, and then we’ll find out if I’m persuaded by it? Personally, I’m of the opinion that philosophers should be consistent and that they should be evaluated systemically. The fact that lots of people go in for Nietzsche’s silliness is no proof of the quality of his argument–plenty of other philosophers (notably Bertrand Russell) are extremely critical of his views, and for good reason. Let’s hear an argument, not a rant, please.
Lightly reading a philosopher, and then pretending to know everything about his works is probably the most hipster thing you can do! How about you actually read Nietzsche’s writings, and make us a better argument against doing so. Nice try kiddo ;))
I’ve read him–have you?
Perhaps a word from your cherished philosopher, “A stupid man’s report of what clever man says is never accurate. Because, he unconsciously translates what he hears into what he can understand.”
A man like you who can’t see beyond the labels like fascism and nihilism can’t really comprehend Nietzsche’s philosophy, so leave it.
I like how you trash two different interpretations of Nietzsche without posting your own.
Both interpretations seem to me to have some validity–Nietzsche could be taken one way or the other, it would seem to me. So what I choose to argue is that either way you look at Nietzsche, the ideas are still problematic.
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You’ve obviously never actually read Nietzsche then because both are absolutely absurd.
I have indeed read Nietzsche, and both the nihilist and proto-fascist readings have been and are widely shared in the intellectual community by scholars ranging from Bertrand Russell to Leo Strauss.
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While I certainly agree with your characterization of a certain type of person blindly following, your broad dismissal of Nietzsche falls down for the same reasons as Bertrand Russell’s criticism. It is true that there is some degree of nihilism in merely rejecting the moral status quo. Nevertheless Nietzsche is right to point out the logical problem of developing a coherent atheist morality. Russell simply saying ‘compassion is good’ provides no insight into how we can justify that as a concrete moral truth.
You have slightly confused the act of criticizing the follower with criticizing the original arguments.
I’m currently a bit too busy to cite the corresponding literature, but I trust you’ll be able to find it yourself. Anyway, here goes:
In Nietzsche scholarship right now, Brian Leiter may have the most solid interpretation of Nietzsche’s work. He actively fights against these two interpretations for a very good reason, namely, Nietzsche has been read as a _prescriptionist_ whereas he very rarely actually makes assertions. There are linguistic clues: passive voice, hypothetical entertainments (the word “may”), and strict contradictions. This emphasizes Nietzsche’s focus on _experiments_. We are not supposed to “take his word for it” that all morality or religion is silly, but rather take his hypotheses and test them. “Pursue your best or your worst desire, and above all, perish!” It’s a Gay Science for a reason, lighten up! Back to my point, though, a solid example is Daybreak 137: “To view our own experiences with the eyes with which we are accustomed to view them when they are experiences of others–this is very comforting and a medicine to be recommended.” Michael Ure recently published an article in which he claimed that this means Nietzsche RECOMMENDS distancing ourselves from our problems and others. But wait! This is only “to be recommended” and “a medicine” meaning what exactly? Do we administer medicine to the healthy? To the sick? Is comfort something we should ALWAYS seek? Be careful, and heed Nietzsche’s warning that we “should read [him] well!” otherwise the becoming-Nietzsche-hipster drive creeps from inside (and letting that run rampant may be dangerous). This is a short example, but I hope it at least urges you to reconsider your interpretation and dive back into the contemporary debate (I’d recommend Leiter and Berry for some direction) about Nietzsche qua mere palliative.
To be clear: I think the two interpretations of Nietzsche are way to positive for Nietzsche. Especially Nihilism. Nietzsche doesn’t like (a certain type of) morality, religion, etc. not because they are _intrinsically_ bad, but rather because he sees them as tending toward nihilism! His whole polemic was because he HATED nihilism. His project, the ER thought experiment etc., is to steer us away from nihilism. Granted, he might have failed, but keep in mind: very few have eyes to see or ears to hear him.
way too* positive. Oops.
Also, too be clear: there is definitely a Nietzsche hipster. Any college town, any pothead. It’s an epidemic. Thanks for shedding light. 😀
One final quote as I pass through Gay Science: “Even today you still have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, in short, lack of pain… or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of a bounty of refined pleasures and joys that hitherto have seldom been tasted. Should you decide on the former, i.e. if you want to decrease and diminish people’s susceptibility to pain, you also have to decrease and diminish their capacity for joy[!]”
The account of Nietzsche I’m currently most fond of is Parfit’s in On What Matters. You’re right that Nietzsche tries to get away from nihilism, but his framework ultimately does not allow him the necessary foundation from which to do that, in part because of his conflation of normative ought statements with descriptive commands. I submit that his good intentions are of little value because his ultimate failure to provide a robust argument against nihilism and skepticism has damaging effects on the moral character of his readership. This is why far too many of the people who read Nietzsche become Nietzsche hipsters.
Within Nietzsche’s system of thought, a true overman would be someone who creates their own life-affirming ethical system to follow and lives according to their own will – they wouldn’t just follow another person’s ethical system to the letter, even if that person was Nietzsche himself.
Also, Nietzsche’s admonitions of “the weak” are often misinterpreted as being a criticism of the poor, or the disabled, etc… but in actuality, Nietzsche argued that the weakest imaginable person is the “last man”. Someone who always takes the safest, most comfortable path in life, never taking the risk of coming into contact with real physical or emotional pain. Such weakness transcends the boundaries of class, physical constitution, etc…
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“Nietzsche is for intellectually poor hipsters!”
“Nietzsche was a nihilist!!”
“Nietzsche was a proto-fascist!!!”
all this was said while quoting Bertrand Russell.
Keep Russell in logic and mathematics and keep him away from other philosophical fields, as it is clear who was intellectually poor while writing this post.
After giving years to Aristotle, Plato and all philosophy in general, only then will you appreciate what Nietzsche was doing, and maybe then Philosophy will not be seen “dead” as it is done by Analytical philosophers.
P.S. Russell got even Marx all wrong, the guy was a typical Englishman.
Russell wasn’t “a typical Englishaman” – he was in fact an extraordinary man who was born in Wales.