Nietzsche Friedrich(1844-1900) German thinker of the late 19th century who expressed the sharpest and most alarming doubts about the rationalism, humanism and scientism which he proposed had become the ‘common sense’ of the West, about the ‘plausibility of the world’. This common sense, he suggested, meant a world of circumscribed possibilities and outcomes, framed by a single objective truth, prescribing essentially limited forms of human practice and endeavour. He regarded such assumptions as removing responsibility for actions, and as leading to a MASS SOCIETY of mediocrity, hypocrisy and failure. What is truth but ‘a mobile army of metaphors, METONYMIES, anthropomorphisms?’, asks Nietzsche. Truths are illusions when one has forgotten that they are illusions. He challenges objectivity by revealing the desire for power behind claims to knowledge, and by showing the impossibility, as well as the poverty, of a rationalist ethic. To both he opposes the open horizons of art, and of a striving for an excellence and superiority beyond the possible, with a necessary competition and élitism. The supposed political implications of this, including spurious links claimed by NATIONAL SOCIALISM, made him a favourite target, often unread, for liberals of all persuasions. Nevertheless, his ideas have influenced many sociological writers, notably WEBER and SIMMEL, and are echoed in the writings of leading theorists of POST-STRUCTURALISM and POSTMODERNISM, especially FOUCAULT and DERRIDA, whose views often draw directly on Nietzsche's work.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000