Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant, Abbott & Denis 2005, p. 81)

The conditions of life might include error.” (Nietzsche, F. W. et al. 2001, §121)


Both Kant and Nietzsche are seminal figures in western philosophy. The former’s Critique of Pure Reason has been described as the most important philosophical book ever written in Europe (Keurs 2006, p. 13) while the history of 20th century thought is believed to be unintelligible without considering the writings of the latter (Magnus 2010). Kant contributed to furthering the Enlightenment project of freeing men from fear and establishing his sovereignty (Adorno 1990, p. 3) by extending Rousseau’s understanding of freedom as “the obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves” (Rousseau & Cole 2008, p. 28) from the political to the ethical, the philosophy of religion as well as aesthetics (Beck & Cicovacki 2001, p. xx) using reason and seeking natural causes of experiences alone. Nietzsche on the other hand was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer and his idea of the Will – a groundless state of endless striving constituting existence as a state of suffering (Jacquette 1996, p. 283) at the foundational being of everything. In contrast to Schopenhauer however, Nietzsche places a great emphasise on the affirmation of the Will to life, what sustains it and in his mature philosophy turns the denial of the Will through compassion in Schopenhauer’s philosophy into its opposite: the embrace of suffering[1] and therefore life through egotistic self assertion[2] epitomized in the Will to power. The Will to power is equated by Nietzsche with the essence of life (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, II. §12) and he intended to utilize it in his unfinished project to re-evaluate all values (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, III. §27).

It will be the focus of this essay to briefly elucidate the biographical background as well as the philosophical influences leading to the formation of the two thinker’s own philosophies before elaborating in more detail how Kant as well as Nietzsche are grounding their critiques. The two approaches will then be compared to each other as well as critically evaluated.

The Chinaman[3] of Königsberg

Heine’s remark that “[t]he history of Immanuel Kant’s life is hard to describe, because he had neither a life nor history” (Heine, Hermand & Holub 1985, p. 203) is likely too harsh. The well known fact that during his life Kant never traveled very far from his hometown had more to do with him being a central figure of Königsberg’s social society and extraordinarily comfortable there (Kuehn 2001, pp. 134-5, 218-21) than with the mistaken idea of him being a boring and idiosyncratic recluse. Philosophically speaking it was Hume who woke him from his own dogmatic slumbers (Kant 1982, p. 6), and Rousseau’s Emile (Rousseau 2008) that deeply influenced his thoughts on ethics (Wood 2005, p. 7) the later fascinating him so much that he omitted his afternoon walk this once out of a thousand times to finish reading it (Wallace 2008, p. 28). It was one event in particular that proofed to be central to Kant’s formation of his subsequent ideas. It was the 1755 earthquake of Lisbon followed by a tsunami that took place during the early hours of All Saint’s Day and destroyed numerous churches (Pereira 2006, p. 10) as well as killing droves of church goers faithfully praying inside of them. While central figures of the early Enlightenment such as Newton (Mamiani 2002) and Leibniz (Leibnitz & Jaucourt 1734) where deeply pious men, the theodicy debate that ensued in the wake of 1755 Lisbon “sufficed to cure Voltaire” (Adorno 1990, p. 361) of similar notions (Voltaire 1985). The concept of the earthquake would later serve as inspiration for Kant’s philosophy of the sublime (Kant & Pluhar 1987, pp. 97-123) and let him to publish three essays on the Lisbon earthquake focusing exclusively on potential natural causes (Guyer 2006, p. 18) true to the battle cry of the enlightenment: “Sapere Aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!” (his emphasis) (Kant 2009, p. 54). In order to make it possible for men of the enlightenment age to do exactly that, a rational basis for experience had to be established. This was Kant’s project.

Enabling the autonomous individual

Kant argues that mankind’s escape from self-imposed immaturity by using one’s own understanding without guidance of another is what lies at the core of the Enlightenment (Kant & Reiss 1991, p. 54). Being greatly influence by Rousseau’s political ideas in his views which he transposed from the social to the individual, freedom for Kant was not the absence of laws but the adherence to self-imposed laws springing from ones own reason which makes the autonomous individual possible (Guyer 2006, p. 204). For Kant it is this process of reason and the free public use of it (Kant & Reiss 1991, pp. 55-7) which is in the inherent self-interest of the state for it alone ensures progress and flourishing (Kant & Reiss 1991, pp. 57-60). Kant would explore his idea of societal development over the course of history in another essay which he published the same year titled Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (Kant & Reiss 1991, pp. 41-53). Introducing 9 propositions in it he describes how through the application of reason mankind, despite numerous wrong turns, would inevitably progress along “a plan of nature aimed at a perfect civil union of mankind” (Kant & Reiss 1991, p. 51).

On this background, namely the autonomous application of reason in the individual and the anticipated positive effects not only on the level of the nation state when exercised freely in it, but for mankind as a whole as well, illustrates the central importance in Kant’s perspective to construct a solid a foundation as possible on which reason can be exercised. This is the grounding of his critiques, for anything but a solid foundation for the application of reason would not only turn true autonomy and freedom of the individual into a mere illusion as a result from misguided reason, but would at the same time retard the fulfillment of natures plan towards a perfect civil union of mankind.

Among the most influential of Kant’s concepts is transcendental idealism in which he essentially restated Platonism in Enlightenment terms (Guyer 2006, p. 51). It is the idea that we can only understand the world as it is represented to us in our minds (phenomenon) yet are unable to grasp the thing in itself (noumenon) (Kant & Politis 1993, A254/B310). A significant departure from Hume represents Kant’s demonstration of the existence of synthetic a priori truths (Kant & Politis 1993, A6-7/B10-17), propositions that are known to be true prior to experience and whose predicate concepts are not contained in its subject (e.g. 2+5=7). Put another way: statements that are true not because on their inherent meaning i.e. ‘all bachelors are unmarried men’. Hume thought synthetic truth to be impossible (Guyer 2006, p. 47) and considered math and physics to be analytical a priori truths. Kant placed ethics on a rational basis in the form of the categorical imperative (Kant & Ellington 1993, p. 30), the violation of which he held to not only be unethical but irrational as well. Even aesthetics could be put in a framework of reason for Kant, which he did for the beautiful, the sublime, genius as well as a deduction of taste among others (Kant & Pluhar 1987).

The patron saint of postmodernism

Having been born into a deeply rooted family tradition of Lutheran ministers, Nietzsche initially took up theology and philology at the university of Bonn in 1864 at the age of 20, where he would soon gravitate towards philology and eventually ended up focusing on it exclusively (Hollingdale 2001, pp. 21,31). Haven taken classes with both Ritschl and Jahn, Nietzsche would be at the frontline of what should become known as the Bonn philology war between the two and which would in the end escalate to involve the Bismark government in the Prussian house of representatives dividing liberals and reactionaries. Jahn, who a decade earlier was called to Bonn with the help of dean Ritschl, went behind his benefactor’s back to get his friend Sauppe appointed to Bonn. When Sauppe to Jahn’s surprise ended up declining the call, the enraged Ritschl, after haven gotten wind of the affair, started a slander campaign against Jahn for which he received a public reprimand from the ministry of education causing the matter to escalate politically (Emden 2008, pp. 23-36). Nietzsche, while asserting that Jahn was “unconditionally right” ended up being so impressed with Ritschl’s cunning, that he joined Ritschl when he left for Leipzig, leaving the righteous but utterly devastated Jahn in Bonn (Ross 1999, pp. 111-3). It is in this incident that the Nietzsche biographer Ross identifies the early origins of Nietzsche’s affinity to the Will to power. In the same year Nietzsche discovered Schopenhauer and the ‘funeral director perfume'[4] (Nietzsche, F. W. & Ludovici 2004, p. 69) of his philosophy should stay with him.

Preventing life’s self annihilation

What fascinated Nietzsche with Schopenhauer were two aspects of his pessimistic philosophy in particular. The first being Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will which he described as a senseless struggle for the continuation of life (Young 2005, pp. 74-7) with no regards for individual suffering as long as the circle of existence continues for the species as a whole (Young 2005, pp. 80-1) (Schopenhauer, Arthur & Payne 1966, Chp. 28). This circumstance was interpreted to mean by Schopenhauer that “essential to all life is suffering” (Schopenhauer, A. et al. 2010, end of §56). Schopenhauer himself was heavily influenced by the Upanishads in this regard and considered himself to be a follower of the in the west relatively unknown religion of Buddhism which has a very similar core tenet encoded in the first of the four noble truths. Nietzsche adopted the concept of the Will wholeheartedly. The second aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy important to understanding Nietzsche was that according to Schopenhauer the only way to escape this cycle of endless and meaningless suffering is through the active denial of the Will by transcending the egoistic individual through exercising compassion (Young 2005, p. 179). He justifies this approach by asserting, that the recognition of “the identity of one’s own inner being with that of all things” (Schopenhauer, Arthur & Payne 1966, p. 613) results in the realization that any affirmation of the Will to life and subsequent suffering caused in others is in fact equivalent to inflicting suffering on oneself. “Because the will according to Schopenhauer, is essentially unitary, the executioner comes to understand that he is one with his victim” (Deleuze 2006, p. 7).

Nietzsche accepts the argument, but rejects the adoption of Schopenhauer’s conclusion outright in his mature philosophy and turns it onto its head (Nietzsche, F. W. 2007, Morality as Anti-Nature, §5). For Nietzsche life and its affirmation represents the non plus ultra of philosophy and constitutes the grounding for his critique. It is on this basis that Nietzsche formulates his critiques of history (Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Breazeale & Hollingdale 1997), knowledge (Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Breazeale & Hollingdale 1997, p. 121), morality, justice, care for the sick (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, III. §§14-15), logic (Nietzsche, F. W. et al. 2001, p. 111) as well as reason and the grounds on which he embraces suffering. Central to Nietzsche’s understanding of life is what he dubs the Will to power (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008a, §259), a combination of the Schopenhaurian Will with his own understanding of the thirst to dominate and overpower (Nietzsche, F. W. et al. 2001, §13). It is the retardation of such power struggles that Nietzsche perceived to be equivalent to the retardation of life itself. Christian ‘slave morality’ (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, II. §11) as well as reason (Nietzsche, F. W. 2007, The Problem of Socrates, §6) in his view are nothing else but clever tricks perpetrated by the weak and meek on the powerful as a means of dragging them down to their lowly levels of degeneration. Similarly to him justice was a perversion, a making equal of that which is meant by nature to be fought out in unhindered power struggles for life to flourish (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, II. § 11). In suffering on the other hand, Nietzsche saw the principle hope for man to transcend himself and become a being of higher consciousness (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008a, §§225, 270) which he called the Overman. Unapologetic egoism in precise opposition to Schopenhauer’s denial of the Will through compassion, was to Nietzsche the very essence of a noble soul (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008a, §265) and therefore the antidote capable of reversing humanity’s descent along a slippery slope towards humanity’s self annihilation.

Life, reason, freedom, critique

Critique has the living critic as necessary precondition. In that regard we are unable to ignore Nietzsche. Yet “the conditions of life might include error.” Assuming this to be the case, any critical rational discourse would become impossible for one of two reasons. Either because abiding by the fundamental rules of logic would ultimately result in the self-annihilation of life through rational critique or because by disavowing the laws of logic one would be cutting the branch on which rational critique rests for it became permissible to affirm and deny the same property of a thing simultaneously (Heller 1999, p. 1). Vae victis. Might would be right and it is in the philosophies of Foucault and his concept of ‘power/knowledge’ (Foucault 1972) that such notions are being embraced. Heller for example is taking limitless freedom as the grounding of modernity (Heller 1999, pp. 13-5) noting “[t]hat freedom grounds means, namely, that everything is ungrounded. […] The moderns are sitting on a paradox. This is the constellation of the modern world: it is grounded in a principle which, in principle, does not ground anything; it is founded on a universal value or idea, which in principle negated foundation.” (her emphasis) (Heller 1999, pp. 14-5) Critique becomes meaningless in the face of absolute freedom. Absolute freedom however does not exist and consequences are a good candidate for bridging Hume’s is/ought gap by providing an overriding reason to react one way and not another (ought) in a given situation (is) (Smith 2006), consequences in particular that violate the conditions for our existence.

The critic thus has to ground critique on a hierarchy of conditions enabling critique to avoid a reductio ad absurdum, namely existence of the critic at the base of the hierarchy, the use of reason to enable discursive critique and freedom to exercise reason and formulate a critique without reprisal. There are two fundamental issues with such a hierarchy. One being that the use of reason might violate the conditions for the critic’s existence as suggested by Nietzsche and another that freedom as a foundation grounds nothing as suggested by Heller. To answer Heller, freedom would have to be bounded and bounded specifically by progressing upwards along the conditional hierarchy. First and foremost the non-violation of the conditions for the critic’s existence, followed by the adherence to the fundamental laws of logic and only then ensuring the freedom from reprisal to exercise critique. Before answering Nietzsche we recall his argument against reason being founded on the understanding that it obstructs the free unfolding of the Will to power and therefore life. As Santayana notes this idea “assumes, if it does not assert, that the source of one’s being and power lies in oneself. [Egotism] denies that we are created beings owing reverence to immense forces beyond ourselves, which endow us with our limited faculties and powers, govern our fortunes, and shape our very lives without our permission.” (Santayana 1939, p. 151) This perspective casts serious doubts on the Nietzschian understanding of life and what sustains it. Modern advances in our understanding of evolutionary dynamics, particularly in regards to multilevel selection theory (MLST) further support Santayana’s argument. MLST holds that blurring the lines between the self and the other does confer an evolutionary advantage on groups that promote notions of compassion and altruistic behaviour over other groups that do not or to a lesser extent (Wilson, Vugt & O’Gorman 2008). In light of our contemporary understanding of evolutionary dynamics and evolutionary adaptively in particular, Nietzsche’s stance against reason as well as large parts of his mature philosophy that hinges on his understanding of life becomes untenable justifying a grounding of critique in reason.


Having worked out the grounding in the critiques of Kant and Nietzsche by highlighting the concerns and motivations underlying their critical projects it could be shown that both reason and life are necessary precondition for exercising critique. The idea of freedom as well is central to both thinkers. In Kant in the autonomous individual enabled by reason and in Nietzsche in the anarchic freedom of egotistic self-assertion and rejection of reason. By reevaluating the basic tenets of these two seminal modern thinkers and reformulating them on the basis of our modern understanding of life and what sustains it, a way of grounding critique was proposed that retains the valid portions of their philosophies yet showed the pessimistic conclusions that led many modern thinkers to take “up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’” (Lukács 1974, p. 22) to be invalid and resting on mistaken assumption. Further analysis and exploration of these ideas will show the true potential of this approach.


[1] “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Nietzsche, F. W. 2007, p. 5), “Man, as the animal that is most courageous, most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering as such: he wants it, even seeks it out, provided one shows him some meaning in it, some wherefore of suffering.” (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, §28)

[2] “To refrain mutually from injury, from violence, from exploitation, and put one’s will on a par with that of others: this may result in a certain rough sense in good conduct among individuals when the necessary conditions are given […]. As soon, however, as one wished to take this principle more generally, and if possible even as the FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLE OF SOCIETY, it would immediately disclose what it really is–namely, a Will to the DENIAL of life, a principle of dissolution and decay.” (his emphasis) (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008a, §259)

[3] For an explanation of the term in this context see (Palmquist 1996). In the German language something is referred to as ‘being Chinese’ when it is unintelligible.

[4] While commonly translated as ‘cadaverous perfume’ or ‘bitter odor of corpses’ the original ‘Leichenbitter’ was in fact a public office common in Germany until into the 19th century who’s duties included informing relatives about the death of a loved on, delivery of funeral invitation, as well as hosting and organizing the funeral reception, functions that funeral directors commonly exercise these days. Understood in this manner, the passage can be interpreted more directly as a snipe remark towards Schopenhauer’s life denying philosophy, painting him as preparing and presiding over humanity’s self annihilation.


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