Nietzsche, Whitehead, and the Problem of Nihilism

Dissertation, The Claremont Graduate University (1999)

This dissertation is a comparison of Friedrich Nietzsche and Alfred North Whitehead on the problem of nihilism. In this study, "nihilim" is understood as referring to the felt experience of meaninglessness and futility. The differences and similarities between Nietzsche and Whitehead are nowhere more apparent than they are within each thinker's respective views of, and responses to, the problem of nihilism. The most significant and profound difference revolves around the role God plays in humanity's assessment of the meaning and value of human existence in the world. Quite simply, Nietzsche thinks the Christian idea of God and the religious life it engenders have significantly diminished humanity's ability to view human life in the world as meaningful. In other words, the idea of God is one of the causes of nihilism. For Whitehead, in contrast, the meaning of human life requires the existence of God. Without God, there can be no sense of cosmic purpose and no grounds for aesthetic and ethical ideals. ;But within this substantial difference one can find an equally important and profound similarity. The God that Whitehead believes in, the God that overcomes nihilism, is not the God that Nietzsche indicts as the cause of nihilism. In fact, within Whitehead's writings one can find a critique of the traditional doctrine of God that bears much in common with the God indicted by Nietzsche. This common understanding arises from the fact that both Nietzsche and Whitehead are "philosophers of process." What I mean is that for both thinkers the categories of process---such as becoming and change---are primary. Both Nietzsche and Whitehead are spokesmen for the critique of the traditional scheme of Western thought that interprets reality in terms of the categories of static Being. One argument of this study is that in Whitehead's thought we can find a distinctly religious view of the meaning of human existence to which Nietzsche's critique of religion does not apply
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