Dexter, Democracy, and Nietzsche: Puzzling Through the Deep End of America's TV Obsession

By Maxwell G. Mensinger
2011, Vol. 3 No. 09 | pg. 1/3 |


Within the milieu of American television, the vigilante serial killer, Dexter, stands alone with one of the largest audiences. Why should a violent antihero, who stalks and kills other serial killers, be so appealing to Americans with a democratic, law-abiding background? Does this suggest a growing lack of confidence in the American justice system? Or does it provide cathartic satisfactions of dark, deep-seated urges muffled by democratic laws? Specifically, what characterizes this disciplined vigilante, and what motivates him to kill? More importantly, do antihero extraordinaires like Dexter deliver a sort of satisfaction or forbidden urge that Americans desire, but cannot attain in a civil order?


His gloved hands grip the blade, both fists, strong above his victim. The victim looks horrified, but that doesn't stop the knife that, after hovering momentarily in pregnant anticipation, descends quickly and mercilessly. The body is sliced up, packed into a few neat Heftys, and dropped into the bay. It's a cool Miami evening for Dexter Morgan: officer, family man, serial killer, protagonist. Not only is Dexter a protagonist, but his show, Dexter, has shattered the Showtime network's viewing records. The season four finale had three million viewers, and thousands more online. As a show, its fan base is growing rapidly, without showing any signs of receding. How, one may wonder, can such a decadent main character attract such broad popularity in a country with a firm lawful framework? Why would such immoral actions fascinate a population that enjoys arguably extensive freedom and wholesome communities? Why does Michael C. Hall, who plays Dexter, receive numerous awards for his performance as such a seemingly evil person? One thing is clear: people like Dexter. This essay investigates these questions, primarily using evidence from Nietzschean philosophy, in hopes of providing adequate answers to the above inquiries. First, Dexter is analyzed as a character; secondly, the current governmental and economic context of the United States is classified; and finally, the paper articulates exactly what it is about America that drives its desire for Dexter.

The Overman

Nietzsche has several characters within his texts. His most famous and most elusive character is the overman. Nietzsche's overman only exists as a character in Thus Spoke Zarathustra; his other books never, or very rarely, mention the overman explicitly. Zarathustra proudly declares “'I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome'” (Nietzsche TSZ 12). Zarathustra describes man as “'a rope, tied between beast and overman–a rope over an abyss...What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under'” (Nietzsche TSZ 13). Just as humans consider themselves above apes, “man...for the overman” is “a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment” (Nietzsche TSZ 13). Humans at their greatest simply perish to make way for the overman. Zarathustra loves him “'who works and invents to build a house for the overman and to prepare earth, animal, and plant for him: for thus he wants to go under'” (Nietzsche TSZ 15). Even Zarathustra himself is only one of the “heavy drops, falling one by one out of the dark cloud that hangs over men” that “herald the advent of lightning,” whereas the “lightning [itself] is called the overman'” (Nietzsche TSZ 16).

The overman lives beyond conscience, and beyond good and evil. One way of seeing the overman is literal. With such a reading, modern day people cannot possibly imagine such a man, what he would act like, or even what he would look like. The overman is a separate species in itself, superior in every way to man. The overman is a thing of the future; exceptional human beings can create, become, and overcome great obstacles, but their lives only serve as progress towards the grander transition of the human being into the overman. In other words, the overman exists outside of any human contexts.

Another way of seeing the overman, however, is as a state of mind. Above all else, people are limited by their temporal existence, and “the will suffers from its inability to change the past” (Havas 11). The cripple describes such frustration to Zarathustra:

Willing liberates; but what is it that puts even the liberator himself in fetters? 'It was' – that is the name of the will's gnashing of teeth and most secret melancholy. Powerless against what has been done, he is an angry spectator of all that is past...that he cannot break time and time's covetousness, that is the will's loneliest melancholy (Nietzsche TSZ 139).

Feelings of doubt, helplessness, regret, and transience are the real plagues to liberation. The cripple pines over the hump in his hunchback, or his blindness, etc., but all of this ties one inextricably to their past limitations. Regret for 'what could have been' represents a large, perhaps the largest, impediment to improvement, to saying 'yes' to life. One who is übermenschlich, that is, one with the overman mindset, works to exercise his will free regardless of such constraint, to recognize what he does as having value despite its imperfections and transience, and to exist in the moment independent of guilt or constraint. To put this thought simply, an übermenschlich individual recognizes the conditions of his existence, but does not care. Nietzsche describes such a person:

[One] could conceive of such a pleasure and power of self-determination, such a freedom of the will that the spirit would take leave of all faith and every wish for certainty, being practiced in maintaining himself on insubstantial ropes and possibilities and dancing even near abysses. Such a spirit would be the free spirit par excellence (Nietzsche GS 290).

Men must have issues and problems to overcome, for the overman itself is just a conviction, and “[men] of convictions are prisoners” (Nietzsche AC 153). No human being can escape the inalienable conditions of his existence, namely being perspectival and living temporally. Because of such permanent limitations, one can never truly transcend his human nature to become an overman. However, “Nietzsche holds that far from being a hindrance to agency, the situated, perspectival character of action is in fact a necessary condition of it” (Havas 21). As Zarathustra makes clear, every overman needs an “overdragon that is worthy of him;” greatness requires “[your] wildcats” to “first turn into tigers, and your poisonous toads into crocodiles; for the good hunter shall have good hunting” (Nietzsche TSZ 144).

This notion of overcoming and becoming suggests that one cannot be great unless he has conquered, and is conquering, growing issues. There is no 'overman' per se, unless we think of the overman as a state of mind, as being übermenschlich. Just as lightning strikes instantaneously and randomly, as do one's deeds in this temporal existence, it does so without regard to any target and without any deference to the past, present, or future. Lightning exists as pure energy, and emerges furiously from the ground reaching towards the sky. The overman as an agent appears idealistic and unattainable, whereas übermenschlich qualities and endeavors are entirely attainable, if not transient and only momentarily evident. One who possesses such attributes will henceforth be called a 'free spirit,' for such a man is attainable, yet still human.

‘Free Spirit?'

One might wonder why I choose the seemingly arbitrary ‘free spirit’ as the manifestation of the overman. The name ‘free spirit’ indeed requires more justification than just one quote from The Gay Science, but there are reasons why this title is sufficient for our purposes. Firstly, Zarathustra discriminates between the overman and the higher man:

The higher its type, the more rarely a thing succeeds. You higher men here, have you not all failed? Be of good cheer, what does it matter! How much is still possible!...Is it any wonder that you failed and only half succeeded, being half broken? Is not something thronging and pushing in you—man’s future…You higher men, how much is still possible! And verily, how much has already succeeded! (Nietzsche TSZ 293).

This distinction, present not only in this passage but throughout the fourth book of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, suggests that aside from the ideal of the overman, men can indeed be higher. These higher men are fallible, experimental, often erring, and far from over humanity. However, they are not herd animals, and they are certainly higher than last men. What makes them higher is that they are particularly übermenschlich.

A significant amount of scholarly research investigates exactly what Nietzsche means by ‘higher men,’ for the term is vague. Throughout his writings, Nietzsche discusses admirable traits and qualities, as well as various characters, both ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Weaver Santaniello identifies “eight supposedly ‘higher men’” in a particular study of Zarathustra, namely: ‘the soothsayer’, ‘the two kings’, ‘the conscientious of spirit’, ‘the magician’, ‘the last pope’, ‘the ugliest man’, ‘the voluntary beggar’, and ‘the shadow’ (Young 1). Broadly, Zarathustra teaches each what he lacks, and this knowledge helps to elevate them above mediocrity. These characters are, however, rooted in Nietzsche’s historical time period. This essay does not tackle an inquiry into all such specific characters because their existence simply proves that higher men can, and do, exist within Nietzsche’s texts as conceivable types of people.

A ‘free spirit’ embodies the qualities of a particular type of higher man. In relation to the previously defined übermenschlich qualities, one “could conceive of…pleasure and [the] power of self-determination…a freedom of the will” present within a free spirit (Nietzsche GS 270). The term ‘free spirit’ allows us to conceptualize the higher man outside of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is a concrete, workable manifestation of the broadly defined ‘higher man.’ Mark Jonas claims that the true self, or the “higher self,” is the “hope and the promise that one can become strong, whether one is a genius or the common individual” (Jonas 14). Again, this notion of übermenschlich struggle comes to define the individual as ‘higher,’ rather than some sort of physical or mental perfection. Such defining struggle presents itself in the character of the free spirit. From this logic, I argue that the higher man, or the ‘free spirit’ as he will be known henceforth, is an übermenschlic, realistic manifestation of the overman.

The Overman Clarified

We thus have two conceptions of the overman: the first is as an ideal which arguably no human can achieve. There are, then, no conditions upon which to identify a material overman, he is either a myth, or inconceivable, for the purposes of this essay at least. I will no longer address this literal conception of the overman. The other conception though, that of the free spirit, has several conditions we can identify. First, the free spirit strives to overcome his limitations, both temporal (like guilt or regret), and perspectival. Second, the free spirit's will expresses superabundant raw power, a vehement 'yes' to life. He perpetually works to overcome, discover, and express this power, and though he may falter, his ambition and will to power remains strong.

Third, as quoted above, this free spirit abandons “all faith and every wish for certainty” for he is “practiced in maintaining himself on insubstantial ropes and possibilities,” and is comfortable “dancing even near abysses” (Nietzsche GS 290). Such a person may still seek truth with the knowledge that he can never acquire it, and will still struggle against internal and external obstacles with the knowledge that he can never overcome all obstacles. Finally, though a free spirit recognizes his limitations, he still takes full responsibility for his actions, therefore imposing his will over the limitations by sapping their influence over him. The will, and the value of that will, are manifest in the struggle itself.

To clarify, a free spirit need not be devoid of morality. Indeed, the free spirit's morality is simply “no longer the bitterness and passion of the person who has torn himself away and still feels compelled to turn his unbelief into a new belief, a purpose, a martyrdom” (Nietzsche GS 286). In other words, the free spirit's morality must be grounded in the knowledge that “the way of this world is anything but divine,” or else one's morality will say 'no' to life as does the Christian's (ibid). Even more explicitly, he identifies “every healthy morality [as] governed by an instinct of life” (Nietzsche TI 174). Excellent people do not necessarily need to be beyond good and evil, they simply need to be excellent, which is to constantly struggle towards and aspire to greatness as described by the four characteristics above.

The Last Man

Another of Nietzsche's characters, the last man, appears only in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This model is completely separate, disgusting, and somewhat similar to the overman all at once. Zarathustra warns an audience that “'the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself...the last man'” (Nietzsche TSZ 17). The last men claim “'“We have invented happiness,”...They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one's neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth'” (Nietzsche TSZ 17). This last man lives solely within, and for the herd. As Zarathustra explains “'No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse'” (Nietzsche TSZ 18). Therefore, the last man is the herd animal par excellence. His extremely weak will to life makes him completely interdependent within his community. There is no individuality within the last man, just a sedated person content in his weakness and ineptitude. His inability to despise himself represents the complete loss of self, the capitulation of one's will in its entirety. Nothing is more pathetic than the last man. There is more to this last man, however, than Zarathustra's facial description. Later in his journey, Zarathustra encounters the ugliest man. The ugliness of this man will help us understand what makes the last men so reprehensible.

The ugliest man murdered God, and despises himself just as much as he loves himself. He hated God for seeing his essence, seeing his ugliness, and killed him in revenge.

“'How poor man is after all,' he thought in his heart; 'how ugly, how wheezing, how full of hidden shame! I have been told that man loves himself: ah, how great must this self-love be! How much contempt stands against it!...None have I found yet who despised himself more deeply: that too is a kind of height. Alas, was he perhaps the higher man whose cry I heard? I love the great despisers. Man, however, is something that must be overcome'” (Nietzsche TSZ 267).

This ugly man, the man who despises himself the most, resembles the last man in several important ways. Though the ugliest man lives in solitude, consumed by grief and self-loathing, does not the last man embody weakness and self-loathing as well on a fundamental level? Indeed, such self-loathing forced his hand in killing God, so that he could no longer recognize himself as ugly. This ugliest man killed God, then, because God's pity was a mirror which reflected his ugliness and his faults. To the ugly man, God “'had to die: he saw with eyes that's depths and ultimate grounds, all his concealed disgrace and ugliness'” (Nietzsche TSZ 266). In other words, the ugly man and the last man have both internalized the pervasive self-hatred that is so poisonous to life.

Therefore, the last man is just like the ugliest man, but more ignorant. The last man is even less aware of his ugliness, and has completely surrendered to his weakness. Whereas the ugliest man exiles himself to live alone in the spirit of masochistic self-hatred, the last man does not even recognize his weakness, and needs to live among others just like him to achieve happiness. Both the last men and the ugliest man, unlike the free spirits, have stopped striving for anything. None of the last men can ever be free spirits, for their existence is entirely passive; they have stopped struggling. Their sense of agency, will to life, has evaporated, and no responsibility can be taken for any action, for only the herd exists anymore. The last man, then, is everything the free spirit is not.

More specifically, there are several conditions upon which we may base our definition of a last man. First, and most importantly, the last man is the same as everyone else in the herd. Nothing distinguishes one member from another, for “'everybody wants the same, everybody is the same'” (Nietzsche TSZ 18). Second, the last man must exist for the herd. A last man cannot stand out in any way from any other person, or else he would go “'voluntarily into a madhouse'” (Nietzsche TSZ 18). With this standard, one could conceivably imagine a last man as an individual whose independent actions are done in the name of the herd, in which case he still has agency; this conception is undermined, however by the first standard, which eliminates any differences between last men.

Third, a last man does not seek truth or seek to overcome anything. He is content in his ignorance and “'still loves [his] neighbor and rubs against him, for [he] needs warmth'” (Nietzsche TSZ 17). In other words, this last standard suggests that the last man's existence must be passive, and the suggestion that a last man does not take responsibility for his actions reasonably follows, and is indeed inherent within this lack of agency. Lastly, because the last man is the most excellent herd animal, I will characterize him as an sick moralizer. As Nietzsche makes clear, the fact that a person “needs a faith in order to flourish...that [cannot] be shaken because [he] clings to it, that is a measure's weakness” (Nietzsche GS 287). 

Ecce Dexter Morgan

The antiheroic Dexter Morgan represents many things that Americans are not, and cannot, be. Independent of any image, or meaning Americans may project onto Dexter, he exists fundamentally within the show Dexter, and I will attempt an objective analysis of his character before theorizing on Americans’ fancy for him. A brief summary of Dexter reveals a man with an uncontrollable bloodlust. His mother was killed before him when he was a child, and he was adopted by the police officer who found him; when this officer, Harry Morgan, discovers Dexter’s bloodlust as a small child killing animals, he resigns himself to the fact that he cannot change this fundamental element of Dexter’s nature.

Instead, he teaches Dexter to harness his urges to do ‘good,’ (that is, to kill other serial killers). He teaches Dexter how to prove the person’s guilt, and then how to avoid capture. Dexter calls this method ‘The Code of Harry,’ which includes not killing innocents, and most importantly, not getting caught. We find Dexter in his mid-thirties working as a blood-spatter expert in a crime lab, courting a girlfriend and her kids, spending time with his friends and police officer foster-sister, and murdering baddies willy-nilly. When he narrates his thoughts to the audience, they feel as if they are delving into forbidden, exciting, illicit territory. Such is the necessary context of Dexter thus far.

Does the general character of Dexter reflect a last man's character? In order to solve this question, we must first parse through Dexter's background and compare it with that of a last man. When we find him at the beginning of the show, Dexter uses his father's code, a preordained rule of external laws, and feels bloodlust from a traumatic childhood experience; one could argue that neither Dexter's bloodlust, nor his unique code belong to him. From this conclusion, one may proceed to say that Dexter expresses the same contentedness and ignorance about his existence that a last man would.

Dexter, then, seems to satisfy the third qualification of the last man; more on this soon. With regards to morality, Dexter appears to correct “an imbalance in the world”, and to administer justice to protect the people of Miami (Dexter “About Last Night”). He even proclaims that he will “do what it takes to keep the innocent people of Miami safe” (Dexter “Go Your Own Way”).There are two last man-ish tendencies present in such a purpose. The most evident is his arguably sick morality. If Dexter goes through all his illicit effort, stalks criminals, proves their guilt, and executes them, then he seems to personify the last man, herd-like morality. Even more specifically, when preparing a kill room, Dexter hangs portraits of his victim's victims, so that before they die, his victims know that he is executing them to fulfill justice. The other last man-ish tendency here is thus: although he does not identify with the herd, and has trouble understanding people, one might believe that he longs to understand them. Therefore he longs for our first quality of a last man. His actions, too, are done in the name of the 'innocent people of Miami,' or in other words, for the herd, which satisfies the second quality of a last man. According to this interpretation of Dexter, he fully satisfies three of our last man conditions, and longs to satisfy the first one.

Before I label Dexter as a last man, however, I believe there is more relevant evidence to consider. At the end of season 2, Dexter delivers a soliloquy that captures his character quite well:

The code is mine now, and mine alone. So too are the relationships I cultivate. They're not disguises anymore...My father might not approve, but I'm no longer his disciple. I'm a master now, an idea transcended into life. And so this is my new path, which is a lot like the old one, but mine. To stay on that path, I need to work harder, explore new rituals, evolve. Am I evil? Am I good? I'm done asking those questions. I don't have the answers (Dexter “The British Invasion”).

This quote shows us a different side to Dexter. Unlike the quotes above, which were always said in conversation with another character, this quote is a soliloquy, recited only for the audience. In fact, the entire quote is an epiphany that occurs after escaping a seemingly inescapable situation. This is not any regular quote, but rather a climactic moment in the show and for Dexter as a character. Within it Dexter addresses: first, his adherence to his father's code; second, and somewhat related to the first, his independence as a person; third, his ambition; and fourth, his morality.

First, Dexter's view of his father's code of conduct has changed visibly from our earlier conclusion. In this passage, Dexter renounces his father's authority over his code, claiming “My father might not approve, but I'm no longer his disciple” (ibid). Dexter's exertion of his will over his preordained limitations (as determined by his father) show that he has wrested the authority his father had previously held over him, and assumed it as his own. Obviously, he still needs a code, or else he cannot exist as he does; this code is as necessary and unavoidable as developing a particular perspective, or even existing temporally. Without the code, Dexter would be caught, and cease to exist. These limitations, however, are now his, for as he declares, “[the] code is mine now, and mine alone” (ibid). By affirming his limitations, he exercises his will over them, effectively reclaiming control of them by way of imposition.

One might, however, argue that his use of a code whatsoever flatly disqualifies his free spiritedness. A code of conduct, like Dexter’s code, indefinitely limits one’s ability to pursue his desires with the animalistic ferocity characteristic of a free spirit. Is Dexter a slave to his code? Regardless of whether the code is his, can he really be free if he operates in such a technical or mechanical way? This opposition is merited, but not necessarily true. Though Dexter operates by a code, the code was developed reasonably to avoid capture. Each step is provocative and important, not arbitrary.

Dexter uses his code to channel his energy, not to demolish his desires. The code is but a vessel for Dexter’s ambition. Jonas articulates that the “goal of higher men is not merely to discharge their will to power in haphazard and impulse driven ways, but to moderate, control, and direct them thoughtfully, even rationally” (Jonas 9). If Dexter unleashed his energy without constraint, or without his methodical code, he would be captured and put to death. Such an end is not conducive to further living and further growing, which is why “one should use one’s reason to determine which expressions of power will lead to greater power, and which will lead to a diminution of power” (Jonas 12). Without his code and his routines, Dexter risks “coming undone,” as he calls it, and falling prey to his own powerful drives and desires (Dexter “First Blood”). Because a code is important, even preferable to a free spirit like Dexter, our main concern lies in whether the code belongs to him, or his father.

This newfound power, and his refutation of his father, also separates him on a fundamental level from his father, explicitly with the word 'disciple.' Clearly, Dexter has become an independent human being much more in the vein of a free spirit than of a last man. Indeed, he even reclaims “the relationships [he] cultivate[s]” (ibid). Dexter acknowledges his need for relationships with others, while simultaneously identifying himself as the one in control of those relationships, and further, as fundamentally separate from others. In no way does he actually long to be a part of the herd, for the herd has no individuality. His actions are also obviously not for the herd either, in that when he identifies his future course of action, he says “this is my new path” (ibid). Dexter, therefore, no longer satisfies the last man qualities of existing as the herd, existing for the herd, or living in a contented, ignorant state.

Rather, so far he more resembles a free spirit. Evidently, he satisfies the condition of knowing his limitations, and striving to overcome them. This is evident when he says “I'm a master now, an idea transcended into life,” for by declaring himself a master, he recognizes his value and the value of his work, regardless of its transience in history. He also feels no remorse or guilt for his actions; there is no sense here that he wishes he were different, only that he longs to change, or to “evolve” (ibid). Even the source of his bloodlust, the traumatic experience which caused it, does not change Dexter's attitude towards himself or others. He does not regret having bloodlust, or the alienation he sometimes feels because of it. The drive within his will is not fueled by a sense of frustration for 'what could have been,' or retribution for his mother's death; on the contrary, his singular motivation is to “work harder, explore new rituals, [and] evolve” (ibid).

From this conclusion, we can see that Dexter's will, like that of the free spirit, expresses a superabundant raw power. This is not an inherently destructive drive, though in Dexter it manifests itself in destruction. Rather, Dexter's drive is to become, create himself, experiment, and essentially to say 'yes' to life through the pursuit of his craft. This is not to suggest that Dexter never falters in this, for he encounters many obstacles, both personal and external. This statement, then, is a general characterization over time. Dexter develops, and grows stronger over the course of the show. His existence as a free spirit does not truly begin until his soliloquy above at the end of Season 2, but even so, the trajectory of his character throughout the 5 seasons so far shows Dexter constantly overcoming, growing, and learning. The last man does not grow or change, he has no need or desire to. The passionate ‘yes’ to life has left the last man, whereas one can see it fighting for expression within Dexter. Where the last man gives into temptation, morality, and laziness, Dexter avoids such temptations and wills himself towards a higher, freer spirit.

Just as a free spirit abandons “all faith and every wish for certainty,” so, too, does Dexter express a desire to rejoice even in uncertainty (Nietzsche GS 290). When Dexter says “Am I evil? Am I good? I'm done asking those questions. I don't have the answers,” he renounces society's imposed morality in favor of discovering his own more important truths (Dexter “The British Invasion”). He's exchanging questions that society finds important with questions that he's curious about, hence his drive to explore and evolve. Dexter’s “assessments of pleasure and pain have no cosmic...[or] metaphysical[] significance” to them, and he most definitely realizes that the world is not a divine place (Nietzsche WP 417).

This godless foundation gives Dexter an “awareness” of his “rare freedom [and] power over [himself] and over fate,” and this becomes his “dominating instinct;” an instinct he calls “conscience” (Nietzsche GM 60). Therefore, Dexter simultaneously affirms his own independent conscience, and takes responsibility for everything he does. In order to become übermenschlich, one must “establish a certain kind of relationship to others…[for] in relationship to others…the temporality of agency is…lived out” (Havas 31). As he notes, the answers to questions like “Am I evil? Am I good?” are of no value to him; only through “work[ing] harder” and “explor[ing] new rituals” will Dexter find any satisfaction. Like the free spirit, Dexter is “practiced in maintaining himself on insubstantial ropes and possibilities and dancing even near abysses,” for his serial-killing activities, like dancing, reject all preordained norms of everyday herd activity (Nietzsche GS 290). While the last man walks, talks, and remains passive and content in his fetters, Dexter dances, exuding creativity, expression, and the will to power in the pursuit of his passions. Though he may falter, his creative pursuit is overall steadfast and clear.

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