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Heidegger on Nietzsche, Metaphysics, & Nihilism

bythesea [1]3,298 words

Spanish translation here [2]

One of Heidegger’s most striking claims is that modern nihilism is the consummation of Western metaphysics. Generally, people think of nihilism and metaphysics as polar opposites. Nihilism is associated with the dissolution of an objective world into subjective impressions, the transformation of objective values into subjective preferences, the loss of shared meanings and a common frame of reference. Traditionally, metaphysics upholds the objectivity of reality, knowledge, and values. But Heidegger argues that the metaphysics of objectivity actually leads to nihilism in the end.

To understand this argument, I wish to comment on one of my favorite texts by Heidegger, a pair of lectures entitled “The Eternal Recurrence of the Same and the Will to Power.” These lectures beautifully epitomize Heidegger’s vast two-volume work on Nietzsche, and they gather together and display the unity of themes discussed by Heidegger over a period of more than fifty years.

Heidegger’s thesis is that “Nietzsche’s philosophy is the consummation of Western metaphysics.”[1] [3] For Heidegger, Nietzsche’s philosophy represents the epitome of modern nihilism, the ultimate manifestation of the nihilistic impulse built into Western metaphysics from the very beginning. Heidegger’s claim that Nietzsche is the last metaphysician of the West is a stunning thesis, a thesis very difficult to defend, for Nietzsche is widely regarded as the first post-metaphysical thinker, not the last metaphysical thinker.


You can buy Greg Johnson’s Graduate School with Heidegger here [5]

Traditional metaphysics is constructed around the dualisms of permanence and change and of appearance and reality. The permanent is identified with Being, which is said to be a reality that lies beyond the world of appearances, the world of change, the realm of becoming. Nietzsche seems to overcome these dualisms by collapsing the distinctions between permanence and change, appearance and reality, Being and becoming. Therefore, Nietzsche seems to go beyond metaphysics.

How, then, does Heidegger establish that Nietzsche was the last metaphysician of the West? Another way of putting this question is: How does Heidegger establish that Nietzsche’s attempt to overcome metaphysics is a failure? What does Heidegger think that a genuine overcoming of metaphysics requires?

Nietzsche’s Metaphysics

When Heidegger uses the word “metaphysics” pejoratively, he refers to the metaphysics of presence: “These positions take the Being of beings as having been determined in the sense of permanence of presence.”[2] [6] Another word for the metaphysics of presence in the Heidegger lexicon is “Platonism.” Platonism cannot necessarily be identified with Plato’s own views. Platonism, rather, is the pervasive interpretation of Plato’s views in the tradition.

Platonism identifies Being with permanence as opposed to change, presence as opposed to absence, identity as opposed to difference. The latter terms of these pairs—change, absence, difference—are identified with non-being.

In the world around us, rest and motion, presence and absence, identity and difference are all mixed together. Thus the Platonist concludes that this world is not the true world; it is not the realm of Being, but the realm of becoming, which is a mere blurred image or decayed manifestation of Being.

Becoming is merely a veil of appearances that cloaks and hides that which is real, namely Being.

The Platonic realm of Being is identified as the place of forms or essences. The world of becoming is where we find individual men, individual dogs, individual chairs, individual tables. All of these individuals come into being, change, and pass out of existence. The world of Being contains not individual men, but the essence of man, or “manhood.” It does not contain individual dogs, but the essence of dog, “doghood.”

Forms or essences, unlike individuals, do not come into being; they do not change; and they do not pass away. While particulars exist in time, forms of essences exist outside of time, in eternity.


You can buy Greg Johnson’s From Plato to Postmodernism here [8]

Because particulars in time are infected with change, absence, and difference, we cannot have certain knowledge of them; at best, we can have only tentative opinions about things in the world around us. We can have certain knowledge only of the unchanging forms or essences in the realm of Being.

Heidegger holds that the metaphysics of presence—the interpretation of Being as presence—and also the Platonic distinction between the world of Being and the world of becoming is retained in Nietzsche’s allegedly post-metaphysical doctrines of the Will to Power and the Eternal Recurrence of the Same.

Nietzsche called the ultimate constituent of the world Will to Power. This is a highly anthropomorphized name for something that is neither a will (for there is no agent behind it that wills); nor is it “to power” (for it is not directed toward the goal of power, or any other goal). Will to Power is Nietzsche’s name for chaos. Heidegger defines the “Will to Power” as “the essence of power itself. It consists in power’s overpowering, that is, its self-enhancement to the highest possible degree.”[3] [9]

The Will to Power is the constant exercise of power as an end in itself.

The Will to Power makes possible the constant exercise of power by positing limits for itself and then exceeding them; Will to Power first freezes itself into particular forms and then overcomes and dissolves them.

The Will to Power is Nietzsche’s account of what the world is.


You can buy Jef Costello’s Heidegger in Chicago here [11]

The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is a concept derived from the ancient Epicureans and Stoics. Both the Stoics and Epicureans believed that the cosmos is finite. The cosmos consists of matter and void, and there is only so much matter and so much void. Matter, however, is not fully inert. Matter has both inert and non-inert dimensions. Matter has the tendency to remain at rest or in motion, which the Epicureans represented by matter falling through the void. But matter also has a non-inert aspect that causes it to swerve from its fall or to move from rest to motion by its own power. The Epicureans represented this aspect of matter as the famous “clinamen” or “swerve” of the atoms. The Stoics represented this as divine logos, which, following Heraclitus, they represented as fire. Matter, in short, is in some sense vital and animate; it is alive and ensouled. Matter’s vital principle allows order to form out of chaos. Matter’s inert dimension allows order to dissolve back into chaos.

Given a finite amount of matter and a finite void, the tendency of matter to both create and destroy order, and infinite time, the Epicureans and Stoics were forced to conclude that the random play of matter over infinite time not only gives rise to order, but gives rise to the same order an infinite number of times. Everything that is happening now has already happened an infinite number of times before and will happen an infinite number of times in the future. The Same will Recur Eternally, hence the Eternal Recurrence of the Same.

Woody Allen one remarked about the Eternal Recurrence of the Same, “Great. That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again.”[4] [12] Even worse, he has already sat through it an infinite number of times. It’s deja-vu all over again.

Nietzsche’s Will to Power corresponds precisely to the two aspects of matter discussed by the Epicureans and Stoics. The animate aspect of matter that gives rise to form and organization corresponds to the Will to Power’s tendency to posit order. The inert aspect of matter that causes form and organization to dissolve back into chaos corresponds to the Will to Power’s tendency to overpower and dissolve the very order that it posits.

Nietzsche holds that the Will to Power is finite and that time is infinite. Endlessly rearranging a finite Will to Power over an infinite amount of time means that the same kinds of order will inevitably repeat themselves, and they will repeat themselves an infinite number of times: Eternal Recurrence of the Same.

Just as Will to Power is Nietzsche’s account of what the world is, the Eternal Recurrence of the Same is Nietzsche’s account of how the world is.

Nietzsche claims to have abolished metaphysics because he abolishes the dualisms of appearance and reality, Being and becoming, presence and absence, identity and difference, etc. All of these pairs of opposites are found blended together in the Will to Power and the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. There is no realm of pure presence, pristine identity, total rest, and separate essences, lying behind the world that appears to us.

Heidegger’s critique of this claim is twofold. First, he argues that the basic elements of Platonism are still at work in Nietzsche. Second, he argues that Nietzsche really does not understand what it would take to overcome metaphysics.


You can buy Collin Cleary’sWhat is a Rune?, featuring extensive discussions of Heidegger, here [14]

How is Nietzsche a Metaphysician?

Heidegger argues that Nietzsche’s doctrines of Eternal Recurrence and Will to Power are metaphysical in two ways. First, the accounts of Eternal Recurrence and Will to Power still buy into the metaphysics of presence. As Heidegger puts it:

“Recurrence” thinks the permanentizing of what becomes, thinks it to the point where the becoming of what becomes is secured in the duration of its becoming. The “eternal” links the permanentizing of such constancy in the direction of its circling back into itself and forward toward itself. What becomes is not the unceasing otherness of an endlessly changing manifold. What becomes is the same itself, and that means the one and selfsame (the identical) that in each case is within the difference of the other. . . . Nietzsche’s thought thinks the constant permanentizing of the becoming of whatever becomes into the only kind of presence there is—the self-recapitulation of the identical.[5] [15]

Elsewhere, Heidegger writes:

Will to Power may now be conceived of as the permanentizing of surpassment, that is of becoming; hence as a transformed determination of the guiding metaphysical projection. The Eternal Recurrence of the Same unfurls and displays its essence, so to speak, as the most constant permanentizing of the becoming of what is constant.[6] [16]

Will to Power and the Eternal Recurrence of the Same, in short, think Being in terms of presence too, by making becoming itself permanent, by making becoming recapitulate the identical, by making the motion of becoming circular, thus bringing a kind of eternity into time itself.

Heidegger’s second argument for why Nietzsche is a metaphysician is somewhat strained:

From the outset, the Eternal Recurrence of the Same and Will to Power are grasped as fundamental determinations of beings as such and as a whole—Will to Power as the peculiar coinage of “what-being” . . . and Eternal Recurrence of the Same as the coinage of “that-being.”[7] [17]

Heidegger claims that this distinction is “co-extensive” with the basic distinction that defines and sustains metaphysics. “What-being” or “whatness” refers to the identity of beings. “That-being” or “thatness” refers to the existence of beings. To talk about the identity of a thing is to talk about what it is—as opposed to different things. When we talk about the existence of something, we are talking about the fact that it is—as opposed to its non-existence.

Now, in Platonism, the identity of a particular being is endowed by its form. A particular dog has its identity as a dog because it is related to the Form of dog, or “dogness.” A particular man has his identity as a man because he is related somehow to the essence of man, or “manhood.” A particular dog has his existence as a concrete individual dog because a bit of the material world has been “informed” by the essence of dog. So, for Platonism, the identity or whatness of a particular being is explained by its essence, and its individual existence or thatness is explained by its materiality.

Heidegger holds that this Platonic distinction is present in the distinction between the Will to Power and the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. Will to Power names the whatness or identity of all beings. Therefore, it corresponds to the Platonic form. Eternal Recurrence names the thatness or existence of beings. Therefore, it corresponds to the instantiation of the Platonic Form in the spatio-temporal-material world. Will to Power is the principle of identity. Eternal Recurrence is the principle of existence. This dualism, Heidegger claims, is not overcome by Nietzsche, so Nietzsche does not overcome metaphysics. (But can we really get “beyond” the distinction between existence and identity?)

Indeed, Heidegger claims that Nietzsche represents the culmination of metaphysics. To understand this, we must understand how, precisely, Nietzsche fails to overcome metaphysics. And to understand this, we need to know what Heidegger thinks a genuine overcoming of metaphysics would require. This requires that we delve into Heidegger’s most distinctive and inscrutable topic: “the history of Being.” Heidegger’s “history of Being” refers specifically to the history of interpretations of Being, i.e., the history of metaphysics.

What Constitutes a True Overcoming of Metaphysics?

Heidegger mentions the history of Being in a number of places in these two lectures:

What this unleashing of power to its essence is [i.e., that which gives rise to the interpretation of Being as Will to Power], Nietzsche is unable to think. Nor can any metaphysics think it, inasmuch as metaphysics cannot put the matter [die Sache, the topic] into question.[8] [18]

Metaphysics thinks about Being. But the mind cannot be in two places at the same time. Thus, if metaphysics thinks about Being, it cannot also reflect upon what makes thinking about Being possible. Metaphysics does not think about the conditions that make possible its various interpretations of Being. This is Heidegger’s topic. Therefore, Heidegger’s thinking occupies a place beyond metaphysics. Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that deals with Being. Heidegger claims, however, to be doing “fundamental ontology,” which deals with what makes ontology possible. Heidegger gives a number of names to the topic of fundamental ontology. Instead of talking about Being, fundamental ontology deals with the sense or meaning (Sinn) of Being,  the truth (Wahrheit) of Being, and the clearing (Lichtung) of Being.

For Heidegger, interpretations of Being have a history, and this history has a specific character:

This “selfsame” [Being interpreted as Eternal Recurrence] is separated as by an abyss from the singularity of the unrepeatable enjoining of all that coheres. Out of that enjoining alone does the difference commence.[9] [19]

Here Heidegger contrasts Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence of the Same with his own view of the history of Being as a sequence of unrepeatable contingent singularities.[10] [20] One of Heidegger’s terms for these singular, contingent, and unrepeatable transformations in the realm of meaning is Ereignis, which means an event, specifically a captivating and enthralling event, an event that catches us up and carries us away, giving everything a new meaning. Heidegger claims that the Ereignis also has an aspect of inscrutability:

Thought concerning truth, in the sense of the essence of aletheia, whose essential advent sustains Being and allows it to be sheltered in its belonging to the commencement, is more remote than ever in this last projection of beingness.[11] [21]

Aletheia is the Greek word for truth. The root of aletheia is lethe, which means concealment, hiddenness, or oblivion. The prefix “a” in aletheia undoes what follows it. Thus aletheia means unconcealment, unhiddenness, or undoing oblivion. But Heidegger also claims that every truth also retains or shelters hiddenness and oblivion within it.

Heidegger’s point again is that consciousness cannot be in two places at the same time. Therefore, every new interpretation of Being both reveals something about Being, but it also conceals. First, it conceals other possible interpretations of Being, which it rejects as false. Second, it conceals its own conditions, for if we are looking at Being under a new interpretation, we are not and cannot also be looking at what makes that interpretation possible.

But in Nietzsche’s case, there is a third kind of concealment, for by claiming that his new metaphysics is the overcoming of metaphysics, Nietzsche actually makes overcoming metaphysics more difficult because he fosters the illusion that metaphysics is already overcome, so we don’t need to inquire further about what metaphysics is and what makes it possible. Nietzsche therefore reinforces our oblivion of what metaphysics is and what makes it possible. But according to Heidegger, the only way to genuinely overcome metaphysics is to think about what makes metaphysics possible. Thus Heidegger writes:

Inadequate interrogation of the meaning of Nietzsche’s doctrine of Return, when viewed in terms of the history of metaphysics, shunts aside the most intrinsic need that is exhibited in the history of Western thought [i.e., the need to understand what makes metaphysics possible]. It thus confirms, by assisting those machinations that are oblivious to Being, the utter abandonment of Being.[12] [22]

It is at this point that we can understand why Heidegger thinks that Nietzsche is not only a metaphysician, but the culmination of metaphysics. Metaphysics thinks about the Being of beings, but it does not think about the meaning of Being, the clearing of Being, etc. Nietzsche is the culmination of metaphysics because Nietzsche not only fails to think about what makes metaphysics possible—what grants different interpretations of Being—he also makes such thinking altogether impossible because he fosters the illusion that metaphysics has been finally overcome.

But why does Heidegger believe that we can overcome metaphysics simply by thinking about the conditions that make metaphysics possible? To answer this question, we need to look at Heidegger’s account of the specific metaphysics that he hopes to overcome, namely the metaphysics of the modern technological age, the age of nihilism, in Heidegger’s words “the age of consummate meaninglessness.”[13] [23]

Consummate meaninglessness is equivalent to the interpretation of Being in terms of man’s own subjective needs: Being as certainty, Being as intelligibility, Being as availability and deployability for human purposes. The world is meaningless because wherever we look, we only encounter projections of our own overweening subjectivity and will to power. The essence of modernity is the idea that everything can be understood and controlled.

This view of the world is made possible by our failure to think about the source of this epoch in the history of Being, i.e., what grants it, what makes it possible. Heidegger claims that:

Trying to understand the origins of nihilism—the conditions that make it possible—forces us to recognize that there is a mystery that cannot be explained or controlled. And this encounter with mystery is alone sufficient to break the spell that everything can be understood and controlled. It is thus a real overcoming of metaphysics and of its culmination in the nihilism of technological modernity.

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[1] [26] Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. III: The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics, ed. David Farrell Krell, trans. Joan Stambaugh, David Farrell Krell, and Frank A. Capuzzi (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 161.

[2] [27] Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. III, p. 162.

[3] [28] Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. III, p. 163.

[4] [29] Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

[5] [30] Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. III, pp. 164–65.

[6] [31] Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. III, p. 167.

[7] [32] Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. III, p. 168.

[8] [33] Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. III, p. 164, second paragraph.

[9] [34] Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. III, p. 165, second paragraph.

[10] [35] One can ask, however, if Heidegger himself does not ultimately subscribe to a kind of cyclical history, since he seems to believe that (1) the pre-Socratic Greek sense of Being as the dynamic interplay of presence and absence is correct, even though it overlooked the conditions of its own emergence, and (2) that it is possible to return to this correct interpretation of Being, either (a) reflectively, with an appreciation of its importance in the light of the subsequent tradition, or (b) naïvely, though the liquidation of the present civilization and a return to barbarism, which may be the meaning of Heidegger’s famous claim that “only a god can save us now,” meaning a return to naïve belief.

[11] [36] Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. III, p. 165, third paragraph.

[12] [37] Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. III, p. 166.

[13] [38] Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. III, p. 174.