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Beyond Good and Evil

How to free yourself from philosophical dogmas and assert your own values

By Friedrich Nietzsche
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Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche

Beyond Good and Evil (1886) provides a comprehensive overview of the concepts and themes of Nietzsche's philosophy. It’s a work that dramatically parted ways from the Western philosophical tradition of the time, mocking philosophers for their narrow-mindedness and throwing into disrepute such fundamental concepts as truth, self, and morality. It has since proven to be one of the most influential texts of the nineteenth century, planting the seed for many European philosophical movements that followed.

Key idea 1 of 8

It’s impossible to do philosophy without making assumptions.

Ever since the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes proclaimed “I think, therefore I am,” much of Western philosophy has been obsessed with beginning the philosophical process from “first principles” – that is, doing philosophy without taking any unwarranted assumptions for granted.

As we’ll see, Nietzsche cast doubt on the idea that it’s even possible for a philosophy to avoid presupposing anything. And he poked fun at pretty much every philosopher for secretly smuggling prejudices into their philosophies.

In particular, Nietzsche felt that the entire Western philosophical tradition was pervaded by a superstitious faith in the dogmas of Christian theology. Even as conscious faith in Christianity was waning in nineteenth-century Western Europe, philosophers continued to take such notions as the “soul” and “morality” for granted in their secular philosophies.

To Nietzsche, philosophers were being disingenuous. They claimed to present the unbiased, indisputable truth, but all they really did was dress up their own prejudices as rational arguments. This is what Nietzsche meant when he claimed that every philosophy is but an autobiography of the person who created it.

The key message here is: It’s impossible to do philosophy without making assumptions.

Let’s go back to that proclamation, “I think, therefore I am.” For many of Nietzsche’s predecessors, this was an example of what’s called an “immediate certainty” – that is, an idea so obviously true that it doesn’t need to be justified. You know that you are thinking; therefore, you know that you exist. It’s as simple as that – or so the reasoning goes. Descartes built his entire philosophical system on this one, supposedly indisputable, axiom.

But hold up. Is the claim “I think, therefore I am” really so obvious that it can’t be doubted?

On the contrary, Nietzsche claimed. This little sentence actually contains a lot of unjustified assumptions. For starters, it assumes that there exists an “I” that does the thinking. But who knows? Maybe the thinking is producing the “I.” 

The proposition also presupposes an understanding of the concept of thinking. But how do you know that what you’re doing right now is thinking? Maybe you’re feeling, or doing something else entirely!

When a philosopher claims that something is obviously true, that’s enough reason to raise an eyebrow. If an idea appears obvious to them, it’s probably just so ingrained in their worldview that they can no longer see it for what it really is – an unjustified prejudice.

Over the next few blinks, we’ll take a look at how Nietzsche sought to expose some of these unjustified prejudices that constituted the background assumptions of the philosophers who came before him.

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