Over the last two or three decades, the transformations in the modus operandi of European philosophy that followed after Kant have begun to receive renewed attention—and some long-overdue respect—in the Anglophone world. This revival of interest has not been evenly spread, however. One feature of the post-Kantian revolution that has been less well explored is the changed dynamic of philosophical succession: the manner in which major European thinkers, over the last two centuries, have responded to, and tried to outdo, the work of their predecessors. Thus, in the two decades of the 1790s and the 1800s, we find a range of procedures through which the successor to a major thinker tried not to refute his predecessor, in any straightforward sense, but to push that forerunner’s thought beyond itself. Fichte, for example, was convinced not that Kant was wrong, but that he had been insufficiently radical in the grounding of true philosophy (which was no longer to be mere love of wisdom, but a ‘theory of systematic knowledge’, a Wissenschaftslehre). Schelling did not dispute Fichte’s demand for an absolute originating principle, but thought that the Fichtean version was hopelessly one-sided; it needed to be driven beyond subjective idealism towards the ultimate identity of subject and object. Hegel made use of Schelling’s theorization of the absolute in his earliest publications, but then turned against it, arguing for a more complex conception of identity, which consisted in the immanent unfolding and reintegrating of difference.footnote1

These genres of pushing beyond, and others like them, applied by one European thinker to another, have been repeated numerous times over the subsequent two centuries of post-Kantian thought. Successful philosophizing ceased to be—in fact, as Kant himself appreciated, had never been—simply a matter of who could marshal the most cogent arguments. After Kant, the majority of leading European philosophers (the same does not apply to the Anglophone analytical tradition) realized that no thinker was ever going to carry off the prize of truth, or even some small fragment of it, simply by being extremely clever. There would always be a counter-argument lurking around the next corner. Philosophy would never progress by pitting case against case, contention against contention. And this view was reinforced by the tendency of post-Kantian thinkers to invoke the imprimatur of history, to claim that the basic philosophical quest had terminated in their work—that there was nowhere else to go. Faced with such pretensions, later thinkers had no choice but to discover ways of immanently subvertingnot merely arguing with—their predecessors.

These historical considerations are, I believe, highly relevant for understanding the strategy of Malcolm Bull’s mesmerizing Anti-Nietzsche. For they can help to make sense of a work that might otherwise be dismissed as an oddity, in the context of current Nietzsche interpretation. After all, Bull is not much concerned with Nietzsche as a profound intuitive psychologist, as the bane of universalistic moral codes (whether deontological or consequentialist), as the pioneer of genealogy as a critical method, or as the prophet of fashionable relativisms. All these foci of interest take Nietzsche to be an important contributor to the contemporary philosophical conversation. But for Bull he is something much, much more. Since it is hard to imagine what could supersede the complete evacuation of meaning from our inherited beliefs and practices, which is what Nietzsche announces, his nihilism functions, according to Bull, as the ‘limit-philosophy of the modern imaginary’.footnote2 Does anything, could anything, lie beyond it?

Bull’s answer begins, rather unexpectedly, with a discussion of the history of atheism and philistinism; the point being that, just as—for our ancestors—atheism was unintelligible, and just as—for us right-thinking, cultivated moderns—philistinism is destructive nonsense, so anyone who opposes Nietzsche, perhaps on political grounds, will have to come up with something that disrupts the common sense of nihilism. This cannot be a philosophical theory, since any such theory will be ripe for psychological unpicking, or genealogical undoing. Rather, Bull suggests, it must be a stance towards Nietzsche: that of ‘reading like a loser’. This type of reading, he argues, is both novel and potentially subversive, since in the past even the ‘disadvantaged groups [Nietzsche] went out of his way to denigrate’ colluded by ‘reading for victory, struggling to wrest success from the text by making themselves the heroes of Nietzsche’s narrative.’footnote3 The book then goes on to explore what reading like a loser entails, and exactly why it might throw grit in the cogs of Nietzsche’s project. Along the way, Bull is forced into a subtle confrontation with Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche. Indeed, Heidegger is, in a sense, the only serious rival Bull needs to see off, since he concurs that Nietzsche holds centre stage, that ‘with Nietzsche’s metaphysics, philosophy is completed. That means: it has gone through the sphere of prefigured possibilities’.footnote4 But if Nietzsche is the ‘last metaphysician of the West’,footnote5 and if the consequences of his thought are—as Heidegger believes—disastrous, then the requirement must be to exceed philosophy as such, to twist free of the metaphysical assumptions deeply embedded in Western culture. Bull, however, contends that this attempt fails, and that Heidegger ends up reproducing the political syndrome central to Nietzsche’s thought itself.

In the concluding chapters of Anti-Nietzsche, Bull seeks first to establish the very possibility of being the kind of loser who could resist the allure of Nietzsche’s rhetoric, shrug at his triumphalism. Crucially, this would involve a dissolution of the barrier between the human and the animal, which even Heidegger—to the detriment of his effort to overcome his predecessor—sought to uphold. Finally, Bull explores the politics of egalitarianism and anti-egalitarianism, arguing that mainstream modern conceptions of human and social equality are not up to the task of confronting Nietzsche’s visions of the base and the noble. Instead, drawing inspiration from thinkers as diverse as Vincenzo Cuoco, Babeuf and Marx, Bull contends that what is needed is an ‘extra-egalitarianism’ that constantly seeks a new, lower equilibrium at the level of the inferior and currently excluded. Such a process would extend the ‘desert of nihilism’ beyond even Nietzsche’s wildest imaginings, effectively making his own faith in the remedial powers of hierarchy, and his conviction that ‘fatigue is the shortest path to equality and fraternity’ boomerang against him.footnote6

In short, Bull well understands the post-Kantian game—and he is playing it for high stakes. Just as Hegel, concluding his lectures on the history of the discipline with his own system, announced that ‘Herewith, this history of philosophy comes to a close’,footnote7 just as Wittgenstein believed his Tractatus had despatched all the soluble problems of philosophy (he then went off to be a schoolteacher), and just as Sartre once declared Marxism to be the unsurpassable philosophy of our time,footnote8 so for Bull—as we have seen—Nietzsche’s nihilism fully occupies the philosophical horizon. Given this assumption, if one wishes to be ‘anti-Nietzsche’, it is no good merely struggling to come up with sound counter-arguments. Any such excogitations will simply be folded back into Nietzsche’s limit-philosophy. Thinkers opposed to Nietzsche will find themselves being held up as examples of ressentiment, of the envy that the enfeebled and existentially weary direct against those who are boisterous and brimming with a conquering energy; or as models of what happens when intellectuals delude themselves—for Nietzsche, Socrates was the first culprit—that logic-chopping could ever dam the force of life. More generally, if we accept Nietzsche’s demolition of meaning, as a precondition of opposing him, as Bull thinks we must, it seems that any expressions of bien-pensant horror at his nostrums for a decadent modernity—hierarchy, exploitation, slavery, racial domination, selective breeding and, if required, extermination—will end up striving vainly to restore what he has shown to be discredited: the notion of an intrinsic value or significance of the world, or at least the human part of it. Such anti-Nietzscheans (Nietzsche called them the ‘last men’) probably imagine that Article 1 of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ expresses some kind of objective truth.

So there is no point wringing our hands at the cruelty and brutality of Nietzsche’s solutions—and Bull’s deadpan recounting of the philosopher’s remedies makes this clear. Nietzsche knows as well as Walter Benjamin that ‘there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism’.footnote9 It is just that he thinks the pact is well worth it. He would have laughed at Benjamin’s ‘weak messianic power’—mocking it, perhaps, as the messianic power of the weak. Is it not obvious that ‘life itself is essentially a process of appropriating, injuring, overpowering the alien and the weaker, oppressing, being harsh, imposing your own form, incorporating, and, at the least, the very least, exploiting . . .’?footnote10