Nietzsche & Postmodern Politics



This course centers on the profound impact that Friedrich Nietzsche had on the development of political philosophy. Nietzsche has inspired those who support the radical leftist politics of absolute toleration and multiculturalism. He has left his mark on Marxist scholarship, feminist deconstructions of gender, and Green movements to preserve our ecology. He has also been a darling of the right. German authorities quoted him with approval during both the First and Second World Wars. He has been appropriated by just about every political ideology imaginable other than classical liberalism—the ideology that best defines the United States of America.

It was Nietzsche who taught the West to speak in terms of “values.” It was Nietzsche who inspired Freud and was responsible for splitting the psyche into the “id” and the “ego.” It was Nietzsche who caused theorists to put scare-quotes around “truth,” or to distinguish between “truth” and “the Truth” with a capital T—for a time, it simply wasn’t respectable to speak about the Truth, a sign of naïveté. The song “Mack the Knife” is based upon a Nietzschean character. More than any other thinker, it was Nietzsche who made the Crisis of Modernity an inescapable fact. Modern society was shaped by a man hostile to the form of politics that prevails in America.

We will grapple with Nietzsche’s thought and influence over the course of the semester. Nietzsche attempted to redefine politics and to a considerable extent he succeeded in doing so. More profoundly, he challenged the centrality of politics to begin with. We will look into how Nietzsche’s statements about morality, psychology, and even metaphysics could have had the political impact that they did. To this end, it is recommended that students have had some prior exposure to political philosophy, preferably through POLS 251 “Introduction to Political Philosophy.”

Attentive students can expect to leave this course with a greater understanding of the fundamental political problems as a result of a searching encounter with perspectives very different from their own. Students will have a deeper knowledge of what was said in the works which we will study, and will have the tools to be able to profitably read other books of philosophical interest.



  • Lawrence Cahoone, ed. From Modernism to Postmodernism. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. ISBN: 9780631232131.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1966. ISBN: 0679724656.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1967. ISBN: 0679724621.
  • Online Course Reserves
    • Allan Bloom, “Commerce and ‘Culture,’” 277–94, in Giants and Dwarfs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).
    • Jacques Derrida, “Sign, Structure, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” 278–94, in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (New York: Routledge, 1978)
    • Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 307–41, in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (1977; Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2008).
    • Martin Heidegger, selection from Introduction to Metaphysics.
    • Peter Augustine Lawler, “Conservative Postmodernism, Postmodern Conservatism,” Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2002): 16–25.
    • Richard Polt, “Metaphysical Liberalism in Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie,” Political Theory 25, no. 5 (October 1997): 655–79.
    • John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14, no. 3 (Summer 1985): 223–51.
    • Richard Rorty, “The Contingency of Liberal Community,” in Contingency, irony, and solidarity, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989): 44–69.


25% Attendance & Class Participation.
15% First Essay, 1000 words, due September 9 by 5:00pm.
30% Second Essay, 1500 words, due October 28 by 5:00pm.
30% Third Essay, 1500 words, due December 2 by 5:00pm.

Attendance and Participation

It is impossible to understand an idea without rolling it over in your mind, and this is most easily accomplished by talking about it to someone else. I will interrupt my lectures to ask the class questions, and you are encouraged to interrupt me to ask questions of your own.

This course centers around ideas that are found in classic texts of political philosophy. We will treat not only these ideas but also how to find them in the text itself. It is vital, therefore, that you have read the assigned texts at least once before I discuss them in the lectures. It is best to focus on what is confusing or counterintuitive, as this will help you participate in the class discussions.

Do not worry if you did not see everything in the book that I go over in lecture when you were reading it—that is what the lecture is for. Also do not worry if you do not understand everything after the lecture: this material is difficult, and careers are still made by answering questions about it. An indication of progress is that you are better able to articulate what is perplexing about the text than you were before.

Success in this class requires that you attend every scheduled class and participate knowledgably. Attendance will be taken before the start of each class. This also helps me learn your name. Students not in their seats when attendance is taken will be considered absent. Students who leave class early without prior permission will also be considered absent for that class.

Fruitful participation includes answering questions intelligently, probing and challenging what is said in a manner that shows knowledge and understanding of the text, and otherwise advancing the level of discourse in the class.

Students may earn a “C” by attending almost every class session and complying with basic expectations of decorum. Those who participate intelligently almost every week can expect to earn a “B” for this portion of their grade. Students who contribute to almost every class in a fruitful manner can expect to achieve an “A” for their attendance and participation.


You will write three essays over the course of the class on topics assigned approximately two weeks before they are due. The first essay should be roughly 1000 words (3 double-spaced pages) in length, while the last two should be roughly 1500 words (5 double-spaced pages). The best thing you can do for yourself is to see me during office hours to discuss the essay topic.

The authors we will read are difficult and sometimes contradictory. Some contradictions are the result of treating the same topic from different perspectives, neither of which is simply true. Nietzsche in particular wrote so as to be misunderstood except by those to whom he wished to speak. He sometimes says things he does not fully believe in order to provoke some readers to action. Class sessions will involve sifting the texts to discern their true meaning. It is this process of close and careful reading that you will be asked to replicate when writing papers and essays.

Bare summaries of the text will reproduce without resolving the difficulties in the text. This means that they will be as contradictory as the text they summarize. Even questions that appear to require a summary will hinge upon detecting, grappling with, and resolving the apparent contradictions within the argument.

Scholarship on Nietzsche’s political theory tends to be hit or miss, some of it blindingly excellent, some of it numbingly superficial, and some of it downright crazy. As a result, much of what you read in a library or on the internet may obscure rather than enlighten. All arguments in your essays should be drawn from your own encounter with the text, regardless of whether it conforms to some encyclopedia entry or notebook. Erudite misunderstandings will profit you more than dutiful repetitions of the correct answer.

Essays will be graded on the ideas they contain, but good organization and grammar are essential to getting those ideas across. All written work should conform to the rules of standard English, and students should also expect that better-written work will get a higher grade. Poorly-written work will suffer. A good (and brief) guide for avoiding the most common grammatical and stylistic pitfalls is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White; Fowler’s Modern English Usage is also a valuable reference concerning English composition, albeit more detailed. Essays should be submitted through Blackboard and will be run through SafeAssign.

Essays will warrant a “C” if they bare the marks of having genuinely grappled with the question and are relatively clear. A “C” should not be beyond anyone’s abilities. Short or impenetrable essays will receive a “D” or an “F,” as will those that demonstrate a failure to have read the text. Historically speaking, the only people to have failed essay assignments in this class are those who have plagiarized or did not submit the assignment at all. Students desiring a “B” will accurately describe the problems with the text, support their thesis with a variety of arguments, and ground those arguments firmly in the texts discussed in class. In order to earn an “A,” you must demonstrate real understanding of the issue and of the reasons why people might disagree with your thesis.

Essays will be penalized 3% per day if submitted late, including weekends and holidays, up to a maximum penalty of 21%. All essays must be submitted by the last day of class to be counted.


Course Expectations & Policies

ACADEMIC DISHONESTY: All work must be the product of the student’s own original effort. The undergraduate catalog states,

Good academic work must be based on honesty. The attempt of any student to present as his or her own work that which he or she has not produced is regarded by the faculty and administration as a serious offense. Students are considered to have cheated if they copy the work of another during an examination or turn in a paper or an assignment written, in whole or in part, by someone else. Students are responsible for plagiarism, intentional or not, if they copy material from books, magazines, or other sources without identifying and acknowledging those sources or if they paraphrase ideas from such sources without acknowledging them. Students responsible for, or assisting others in, either cheating or plagiarism on an assignment, quiz, or examination may receive a grade of F for the course involved and may be suspended or dismissed from the university.

It is the student’s responsibility to familiarize him- or herself with university policy regarding plagiarism and academic dishonesty. Students should take the university’s Academic Integrity tutorial ( Those uncertain how to avoid plagiarism should consult the resources that the Political Science Department has made available on its website ( All work will be run through SafeAssign.

APPOINTMENTS: I can arrange to meet students by appointment if the above office hours are inconvenient. Students are encouraged to come to office hours to discuss course material or any problems they might be having in the course. It is best to discuss incipient problems before they become large ones.

CANCELLATIONS: If I am more than fifteen minutes late to class, you may assume that I have been delayed and that class is cancelled. Leaving earlier than this risks being marked absent.

DECORUM: Use your common sense. Turn off your cell phones. Do not insult or threaten anybody, or use abusive language. Do not eat—it only makes the rest of us hungry. There is no nap-time. Refrain from private discussions, interrupting people, texting, surfing the internet, and in general anything that would disrupt the class.

INCOMPLETES: Incompletes will only be given in rare circumstances, such as illness, death in the immediate family, or other unusual and unforeseeable circumstances. Incompletes are given at the discretion of the instructor and only when it is possible that the completion of the remaining work could result in a passing grade. An incomplete must be resolved within the appropriate time limit or it will automatically be changed to an F. The student is responsible for seeing that incompletes are made up before the expiration date.

DISABILITIES:A student who believes that reasonable accommodations with respect to course work or other academic requirements may be appropriate in consideration of a disability must (1) provide the required verification of the disability to the Center for Access-Ability Resources, (2) meet with the Center for Access-Ability Resources to determine appropriate accommodations, and (3) inform the faculty in charge of the academic activity of the need for accommodation. Students are encouraged to inform the faculty of their requests for accommodations as early as possible in the semester, but must make the requests in a timely enough manner for accommodations to be appropriately considered and reviewed by the university. If contacted by the faculty member, the staff of the Center for Access-Ability Resources will provide advice about accommodations that may be indicated in the particular case. Students who make requests for reasonable accommodations are expected to follow the policies and procedures of the Center for Access-Ability Resources in this process, including but not limited to the Student Handbook.

A wide range of services can be obtained by students with disabilities, including housing, transportation, adaptation of printed materials, and advocacy with faculty and staff. Students with disabilities who need such services or want more information should contact the Center for Access-Ability Resources at 815-753-1303.

AWARDS: The Department of Political Science will recognize, on an annual basis, outstanding papers written in conjunction with 300-400 level political science courses or directed studies. Authors do not have to be political science majors or have a particular class standing. Winners are expected to attend the Department’s spring graduation ceremony where they will receive a certificate and $100. Papers, which can be submitted by students or faculty, must be supplied in triplicate to the department secretary by the end of February. All copies should have two cover pages—one with the student’s name and one without the student’s name. Only papers written in the previous calendar year can be considered for the award. However, papers completed in the current spring semester are eligible for the following year’s competition even if the student has graduated.

POLITICAL SCIENCE WEBSITE: Students are encouraged to consult the Department of Political Science website on a regular basis. This central source of information will assist students in contacting faculty and staff, reviewing course requirements and syllabi, exploring graduate study, and researching career options. Undergraduates may find this website especially useful in tracking down department events and for accessing important details related to undergraduate programs and activities. To reach this site, go to


Class Schedule

M2PM = Cahoone, ed., From Modernism to Postmodernism
OCR = Online Course Reserve
Required readings are underlined
Supplemental readings lack underlining

Unit I: Political Thought Before and After Nietzsche

08/22  Introduction

08/24  Belief in the Enlightenment

Kant, “What is Enlightenment” (M2PM 45-53)
Horkheimer and Adorno, “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (M2PM 159-68)
Lawler, “Conservative Postmodernism, Postmodern Conservatism” (OCR)
Study Questions:

  • What was the Enlightenment project? How was scientific progress to improve political life?
  • What was the relationship between the Enlightenment and religion?
  • What does it mean for something to arise from something else “dialectically”?
  • Is the Enlightenment project desirable if its dialectic leads to totalitarianism?

08/29  Belief in Liberal Legitimacy

Declaration of Independence
Lyotard, “Postmodern Condition” (M2PM 259-77)
Rorty, “Solidarity or Objectivity?” (M2PM 447-56)
Habermas, “Alternative Way Out” (M2PM 575-91)
Study Questions:

  • The Declaration of Independence declares that government exists in order to protect certain rights. What is the origin of these rights?
  • What is a “metanarrative”? What does it mean to lose faith in all metanarratives?
  • If natural rights are a metanarrative, can a revolution made in their name be justified? Are metanarratives necessary for political life?

08/31  Belief in Progress

Condorcet, “Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind” (M2PM 63-69)
Bell, “Coming of Post-Industrial Society” (M2PM 209-17)
Rousseau, “Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts” (M2PM 32-36)
Marx and Engels, “Bourgeois and Proletarians” (M2PM 75-82)
Baudrillard, “Symbolic Exchange and Death” (M2PM 421-34)
Study Questions:

  • What does it mean to believe in progress? What reason do we have for believing in it?
  • What role does a belief in progress play in justifying modern society? What role does it play in justifying political change?

09/05  [Labor Day]

09/07  Belief in Science

Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy” (M2PM 19-26)
Bordo, “The Cartesian Masculinization of Thought” (M2PM 354-69)
West, “Genealogy of Modern Racism” (M2PM 298-309)
Harding, “From Feminist Empiricism to Feminist Standpoint Epistemologies (M2PM 342-53)
Study Questions:

  • How are we to acquire knowledge about the world outside of ourselves, according to Descartes?
  • What is the role of the ego in Descartes’ account of science?
  • What would the implications for the modern scientific perspective be if Cartesianism did not arrive at knowledge but was simply the expression of a particular prejudice (male, white, European, etc.)?
  • What would the implications be for any particular scientific theory?

Unit II: Nietzsche’s Assault on Modernity and Morality

09/12  Metaphysics as a Mask for Morality

Beyond Good and Evil, Preface
Beyond Good and Evil, I 1-11
Study Questions:

  • What does Nietzsche mean by the “faith in opposite values”?
  • Why does Nietzsche say that metaphysics is a mask for morality? What is the value of metaphysics if it is a mask for morality?
  • How can philosophy be an expression of power?

09/14  Psychology as a Mask for Morality

Beyond Good and Evil, I 12-23
Study Questions:

  • What is wrong with saying that creatures strive for self-preservation?
  • What would it mean to have not taken the insights of empirical science and psychology far enough?
  • Why is it imprecise to call Nietzsche a relativist?

09/19  The Free Spirit

Beyond Good and Evil, II 24-44
Study Questions:

  • Why might there be a will to ignorance?
  • If the only opinions one can possess about the world are erroneous, why is there such hostility to possessing an erroneous opinion?
  • What is the relationship between the “free spirit” Nietzsche describes and “free thinkers”?

09/21  The Religious Essence

Beyond Good and Evil, III 45-62
Study Questions:

  • According to Nietzsche, why was the testimony of the saints accepted?
  • Why/How did Christianity sow the seeds of its own destruction?
  • What does it mean for the Enlightenment to be a post-Christian phenomenon? What does it mean for nihilism to be a post-Christian phenomenon?

09/26  The Natural History of Morality

Beyond Good and Evil, V 186-203
Study Questions:

  • What was wrong with Enlightenment attempts to discover the foundation of morality without questioning its content?
  • What similarity is there between someone who invents and spreads a moral or political code and an artist?
  • What does it mean for morality to be a kind of tyranny against nature?
  • If all life is a kind of tyranny, how can one prefer one moral or political code over another?

09/28  [Class Cancelled]

10/03  The Original Meaning of “Good” and “Bad”

Genealogy of Morals, Preface
Genealogy of Morals, I 1-5
Study Questions:

  • How does “bad” differ from “evil”?
  • What would it mean for “good” not to mean “good for another”?

10/05  The Origin of “Evil”

Genealogy of Morals, I 6-17
Study Questions:

  • What is the “slave revolt in morals”? How is it related to ressentiment?
  • How did the slave revolt in morals arise from priestly values?
  • How is slave morality an elaborate revenge fantasy, according to Nietzsche?
  • How did the slave revolt in morals deepen humanity?
  • What questions does the First Essay leave unresolved?

10/10  The Origin of “Guilt” and “Punishment”

Genealogy of Morals, II 1-15
Study Questions:

  • What is the difference between the conscience and the bad or guilty conscience?
  • What role did pain play in the development of the conscience?
  • What role did debts play in the development of guilt? How can guilt be conceived amorally?
  • If punishment did not begin with the sense that the guilty man deserved to be punished, how did it begin?
  • Why will punishment not awaken the guilty conscience?

10/12  The Origin of the “Bad Conscience”

Genealogy of Morals, II 16-25
Study Questions:

  • If the guilty conscience did not arise from the threat of punishment, from what did it arise?
  • Why did the creation of settled ways of life generate a desire for self-torture in man.
  • What is the relationship between self-torture and an awareness of sin?
  • What is the relationship between the Second Essay and the First Essay?

10/17  Asceticism and Philosophy

Genealogy of Morals, III 1-10
Study Questions:

  • What is asceticism?
  • How are artists not actually ascetic, even when they praise chastity, virginity, etc.?
  • How are philosophers not actually ascetic, even when they practice ascetic ideals?
  • Who is the real representative of ascetic ideals?

10/19  Asceticism and Religion

Genealogy of Morals, III 11-28
Study Questions:

  • How is asceticism the will to power turned in upon itself? What similarity does asceticism bare to the kind of self-torture described in the Second Essay?
  • How does the priests’ ministering to the sick serve the interests of the higher types of human being?
  • How does blaming someone for one’s misery assist in alleviating that misery?
  • How do different reactions to human suffering lead to different types of government?

10/24  Culture and Nationalism

Beyond Good and Evil, VIII 240-56
Study Questions:

  • Why must Europe be at the center of any revival of the human spirit? Why must “fatherland-ism” be overcome?
  • Why is no nation in Europe fit to form the basis of a new aristocracy?
  • Why does the increasing democratization of Europe foster the growth of tyrants?
  • What role do music and culture play in Nietzsche’s hopes for a revitalized Europe?

10/26  A New Aristocracy

Beyond Good and Evil, IX 257-96
Study Questions:

  • What is the “pathos of distance?”
  • What does Nietzsche call for, politically?
  • Why does Nietzsche not recommend a meritocratic society?
  • Why is widespread atheism only a transitional stage, according to Nietzsche?
  • Why do gods philosophize?

Unit III: The Crisis of Modern Political Philosophy

10/31  The Attempt to Maintain Modernity

Marinetti, “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” (M2PM 118-21)
Weber, “Science as a Vocation” (M2PM 127-31)
Freud, “Civilization and Its Discontents” (M2PM 144-48)
Study Questions:

  • What are the political implications of a heroic intensification of life?
  • What parts of Nietzsche’s critique of modern science does Weber take on board? In what ways does he still adhere to modern science?
  • According to Freud, why are people discontented with civilization? How can this discontent be overcome?

11/02  The Bifurcation of Modern Philosophy

Wittgenstein, “Lecture on Ethics” and “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” (M2PM 139-43)
Husserl, “Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology” (M2PM 149-58)
Study Questions:

  • What does it mean for meaning to be determined by “language games”? How can one make normative statements about politics or ethics if this is the origin of meaning?
  • What is phenomenology?
  • Why must modern philosophy turn to phenomenology in order to understand politics and society?

11/07  Heidegger Against Existentialism

Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism” (M2PM 174-94)
Sartre, “Existentialism” (M2PM 169-73)
Study Questions:

  • What is humanism? What is existentialism?
  • How are what passes for humanism and existentialism manifestations of modern society?
  • What does it mean for Heidegger that human existence is a confrontation with Being? What is the relationship between Being and God? Between Being and devotion to a political cause?

11/09  Technology, Anti-Technology, and Fascism

Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” (OCR)
Heidegger, selection from Introduction to Metaphysics (OCR)
Polt, “Metaphysical Liberalism in Heidegger’s Beiträge” (OCR)
Study Questions:

  • How does Heidegger’s use of “technology” differ from common English usage?
  • What does it mean that the essence of technology is “enframing”?
  • How is modern society “technological”? What alternatives to technological society are possible in the modern world?
  • What is the relationship between Heidegger’s thought and fascism on the one hand and environmentalism on the other?

Unit IV: Postmodern Political Thought

11/14  The Turn Left

Derrida, “Differance” (M2PM 225-40)
Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (M2PM 241-51)
Foucault, “Truth and Power” (M2PM 252-53)
Study Questions:

  • Why does Derrida choose the odd spelling of “difference”? What does he mean by it?
  • In what ways does Foucault follow Nietzsche?
  • Upon what grounds could Nietzsche criticize Foucault’s preference for more diffused distributions of power?

11/16  The Politics of Subverting “Symbols” and “Categories”

Foster, “Subverting Signs” (M2PM 310-18)
Derrida, “Sign, Structure, and Play” (OCR)
Butler, “Contingent Foundations” (M2PM 390-401)
Study Questions:

  • What are some examples of a subverted symbol or category?
  • What role is the subverting of symbols and categories supposed to play in bringing about political change?

11/21  Contemporary Democratic Theory

Rawls, “Justice as Fairness” (OCR)
Rorty, “Contingency of Liberal Community” (OCR)
Study Questions:

  • What are Rawls’ two principles of justice?
  • Why does Rawls insist that his principles of justice are political, not metaphysical?
  • How can a community survive if it holds its most basic principles to be “contingent,” approaching them “ironically”?

11/23  [Thanksgiving]

11/28  Reaction Against Postmodernism

Bloom, “Commerce and Culture” (OCR)
Postmodernism Generator (
Hassan, “POSTmodernISM” (M2PM 410-20)
Peter Lawler, “Conservative Postmodernism, Postmodern Conservatism” (OCR)
Study Questions:

  • Why is the meaning of “culture” obscure?
  • What is dangerous about a vague anti-commercialism
  • Why can we not dismiss criticisms of commercial society?
  • According to Bloom, what was the actual impact of Nietzsche’s philosophy? Why has it become a sort of Marxism?

11/30  Conclusion: Postmodernism and “Political” Thought

Luhmann, “Cognitive Program of Constructivism” (M2PM 496-511)
Nietzsche, “Zarathustra’s Prologue,” 1-5 (OCR)
Study Questions:

  • What is “political” about postmodernism?
  • How did discussions of politics transform into postmodernism?

Comments are closed.