Oliver Thorne – Nietzsche’s death of God: A comparative analysis of Nishitani Keiji and Luce Irigaray’s creative responses to the problem of nihilism

We have an obvious problem diagnosed by Friedrich Nietzsche, nihilism: the risk of losing all our values and even any possible transcendental or foundational truth. Therefore, according to Nietzsche we are faced with the need for a revaluation of all values in order to regain a valid existence. Nishitani Keiji and Luce Irigaray respond to this Nietzschean challenge creatively in two radically different ways: the former through the idea of śūnyatā (Buddhist emptiness) and the latter with the idea of sexual or sexuate difference. In my thesis I therefore ask:

1) Do Nishitani Keiji and Luce Irigaray’s notions of śūnyatā and sexuate difference both succeed in creatively overcoming the core problem of nihilism according to Nietzsche’s criteria?

2) How do these two proposals relate to each other? Are they really incompatible, thereby offering two different possible choices for salvation after the death of God?

3) Moreover, is the notion of śūnyatā able to stand up to the critical and affirmative perspective of sexuate difference? And, vice versa, is the idea of sexuate difference able to stand up to critical perspective of shunyata?

This final question is the fundamental critical point of my thesis. The engagement with it  will lead to a new creative cross-cultural philosophical-religious response to the problem raised by Friedrich Nietzsche: How do we live after God? Firstly, I want to assert that this interrogation is not only one for the Christian world, a problem for the ‘West’, for ‘Western’ theology and philosophy. My second claim is that the death of God is a death which affects men and women, so it must also become a dialogue between woman and woman, woman and man, and not only between man and man. It must be recognised that the development of Western philosophy as a metaphysics giving rise to nihilism is a masculine history. With this being said, I would like to try to slightly open up the comparison between the two chosen thinkers.

Friedrich Nietzsche is perhaps the most significant and controversial thinker of the 19th century. For Nietzsche, God is dead, and his entire philosophy is orientated to how to overcome the ‘shadow’ of this dead God (Aphorism 108, Friedrich Nietzsche (1882) The Gay science; Trans. T. Common, Mineola: Dover Publications, 2006). Nietzsche, saw metaphysics, truth, and all value influenced by Platonism and Christian morality. For him the whole history of Western philosophy is spoilt by nihilism which can only be overcome through its accomplishment and, perhaps, his doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence.

Luce Irigaray engages with Eastern traditions, which is one of the aspects that attracts me to her work. Many of her interviews and essays comment on Eastern cultures, Yoga, the breath, the elements, and what I find in her work is a mixture of these aspects and a notion of sexuate difference. She is deeply concerned about the problem of nihilism, and attempts to reach a beyond  East and West able to overcome it. My work then approaches the notion of sexuate difference in light of Nietzsche’s thought. If ‘sexual difference … is probably the issue in our time which could be our “salvation” if we thought it through,’ (Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. C. Burke and G.C. Gill, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press 1993, p.5), then I read this as it having the potential to be a creative overcoming of nihilism. And if, ‘the gender of God, the guardian of every subject and every discourse, is always masculine and paternal, in the West’ (op.cit,  pp. 6-7), the death of God according to Nietzsche perhaps implies a certain liberation for woman/women. Hence, a liberation also for man/men also: if sexual difference includes a between-two, woman and man.. Moreover, it provides the potential to overcome the shadow of the dead God, according to these words from The Way of Love: ‘In the dialogue between two different subjects, nihilism finds a positive fulfilment’( Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love. Trans. H. Bostic and S. Pluhacek, London; New York: Continuum, 2002, p. 167). Thus a ‘yes’ said to difference from the irreducible otherness of each other (see Luce Irigaray, Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, New York: Columbia University Press 1991).

For his part, Nishitani Keiji is a 20th Century Japanese philosopher who is dealing with the problem of European nihilism from a Japanese context. He is affected by the loss of values in Japanese society, which includes a loss of Buddhist and Confucian culture for him. Therefore, when he looks at the problem, he questions the European philosophical thought but when he looks to the overcoming of that problem, he goes back to his own tradition, and rather than going back to the Greeks, Nishitani Keiji considers Zen Buddhism. Nishitani Keiji posits that the notion of emptiness (śūnyatā) has a potential for replying to the prophecy of Nietzsche. He thoroughly analyses the relation of man to technology, of masculine subjectivity to desire (existential) and the relation of religion to sciences and he finds an inherent nihilism in all three: a trend towards abstraction, separating man from the world of nature leading to a meaninglessness. For him there is an absolute nothingness which undermines this relative nihilism. Then śūnyatā is a complete annihilation of inherent existence which results in an affirmation at the deepest ground of existence, allowing for liberation, compassion and happiness.

There are many possibilities in comparing the two solutions in light of Nietzsche’s death of God, including a retrospective critique of Nietzsche himself, something that both thinkers do. Here I will only say that I hold several hypotheses which critique and counter critique, from different perspectives, each of the thinkers discussed above.