Nietzsche's Philosophy of Affirmation: A Paradox Avoided

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Spiller, John David
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Gay Science , Conscience , Christianity , Yes-sayer , Affirmation
Yirmiyahu Yovel claims that "the need is growingly felt to consider Nietzsche not as a critic or a 'negative' reformer merely, but [also] to take his role as an affirmative thinker more seriously. [For] Nietzsche insists that his Dionysian message is fundamentally an affirmation, a new kind of 'yes'" (ix). The implicit idea that Nietzsche's critical endeavors coexist with or run parallel to or, perhaps, are intimately connected with some sort of affirmative ideal, to such an extent that it would be negligent or insufficient to concentrate "merely" on the former instead of the latter, is particularly interesting. For, in even the most casual of glances, one may nevertheless detect a basic tension between the no or negation of critical philosophy and the yes of affirmative philosophy. For Nietzsche to espouse both, as Yovel indicates, means that he argues in essentially different directions. The Gay Science, first published in 1882, pulls most greatly in these different or, better, opposite directions: indeed, in this book Nietzsche both claims that God and the divinely purposed world are dead (108-109) AND that some day he wishes "to be only a Yes-sayer" (276)1 - in other words, he is extremely negative regarding Christian metaphysics and morality and at the same time idealizes a sort of universal affirmation or yes-saying that ostensibly applies to Christianity and everything else. Just how these opposite directions within The Gay Science fit together is an important question. For on the one hand, Nietzsche says, "But the ability to contradict, the attainment of a good conscience when one feels hostile to what is accustomed, traditional, and hallowed - that is still more excellent and constitutes what is really great, new, and amazing in our culture" (297) - hence his own "contradiction" of, for example, Christianity. And on the other hand, he says, For the new year - ... Today everybody permits himself the expression of his wish and his dearest thought; hence I, too, shall say what it is that I wish from myself today, and what was the first thought to run across my heart this year - what thought shall be for me the reason, warranty, and sweetness of my life henceforth. I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer. (276) That Nietzsche "wishes" this "yes-saying" ability for others, particularly those higher and more advanced souls, is implicit. And so we see two contradictory philosophies emerge from within the same book of The Gay Science: the philosophy that one should not affirm everything but criticize "what is accustomed, traditional, and hallowed" AND the philosophy that one should try to affirm everything and accuse or criticize nothing, not even those who are critical themselves. Further examination reveals that this second philosophy may itself encompass the original two and demonstrate their contradictory nature. For consider the proposition "You should affirm everything," the basic proposition of section 276, summing up Nietzsche's wish "to be only a Yes-sayer" even regarding nay-sayers or "those who accuse." The proposition "You should affirm everything" we will call P. Now, "You should affirm everything" is expressed in opposition to "you should not affirm everything" or "it is not the case that you should affirm everything," which we will call ~P. Indeed, "you should" is a contrastive concept that has meaning only by contrast with "you should not": when Nietzsche says "I wish to be only a Yes-sayer," the "only" is meant to exclude or reject nay-saying. So, there is a sense in which "you should affirm everything" does mean rejecting positions that do not affirm everything. And yet, if you do take P seriously and affirm everything, perhaps you cannot avoid affirming ~P ("You should not affirm everything"), as Nietzsche indicates with his statement that he "does not even want to accuse those who accuse." But, indeed, for P to lead on to ~P seems both logically absurd and counter to Nietzsche's being "only a Yes-sayer": for (1) one cannot affirm both P and ~P at the same time without arriving at an absurdity according to the rules of logic and (2) thinking that affirmation is the "only" way to go surely entails that non-affirmation is not the way to go (and thus P denies or rejects ~P). Obviously, given that P seems both to reject and to affirm ~P, there exists an unresolved tension and thus incoherence or paradox in this expressed ideal of universal affirmation captured by P, and this incoherence reflects the basic tension between nay-saying and yes-saying. In this paper, I will examine Nietzsche's philosophy of affirmation, which takes its birth in The Birth of Tragedy and surfaces again and again throughout all of Nietzsche's major works. In doing so I will trace the background ideas that lead Nietzsche to this New Year's resolution and wish in The Gay Science; I will then offer a detailed explication of philosopher Wolfgang Muller-Lauter's arguments concerning such universal affirmation and its basic incoherence, arguments along the lines of that I have just given. Though Muller-Lauter aptly characterizes such an incoherence or paradox in Nietzsche's model of universal affirmation, I will offer arguments as to why Muller-Lauter's negative evaluation of Nietzsche's most mature affirmative philosophy is itself unsuccessful, thereby defending the ultimate coherence of Nietzsche's philosophy of affirmation.