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Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton Classics) Paperback – October 20, 2013
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"Illuminating."--New York Times
"Mr. Kaufmann has produced what may be called the definitive study of Nietzsche's life and thought-an informed, scholarly, and lustrous work."--The New Yorker
About the Author
Walter A. Kaufmann (1921-1980) was professor of philosophy at Princeton University and a world-renowned scholar and translator of Nietzsche.
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Top Customer Reviews
Every philosopher leaves some wiggle room for competing interpretations but this seems to be especially true of Nietzsche. The Nietzsche you get depends a great deal on the interpreter. As Alexander Nehamas points out in his Foreword to the new edition of Kaufmann's Nietzsche, "Kaufmann's book brought about a radical reversal of the popular image of Nietzsche as a ranting, totalitarian, anti-Semite and gradually made it possible for philosophers...to take him seriously once again" (v). This makes Kaufmann's book historically important. However, Kaufmann was so successful in destroying the image of Nietzsche as a "ranting anti-Semite" that one might ask: is Kaufmann's book still relevant? If all Kaufmann did was debunk the myth of Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi this book would be of merely historical interest. However, Kaufmann's interpretation of Nietzsche is both interesting and still cuts against the grain of many modern interpretations of Nietzsche.
So, what picture of Nietzsche do we get from Kaufmann in this book? Kaufmann is particularly eager to debunk the myth of Nietzsche as a Dionysian reveler, a celebrator of chaos, a defender of the unbridled passions against anything - or anyone - that would seek to place a check on those passions. This view is still a very popular view of Nietzsche and is often espoused by philosophers who have been influenced by Deleuze's interpretation of Nietzsche. I happen to love Deleuze's interpretation of Nietzsche, and I think it is more subtle than what I have presented above, but there is no doubt that Deleuze celebrates the Dionysian side of Nietzsche. Kaufmann argues that Nietzsche had a more nuanced view of the Dionysian as early as The Birth of Tragedy - what he was really celebrating in that book was the union of the Apollonian and Dionysian in Greek tragedy, not the Dionysian in distinction from the Apollonian. Kaufmann also argues that the Dionysian eventually came to represent for Nietzsche the dialectical union between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, as opposed to only one term of the dialectic.
Kaufmann is equally eager to debunk the notion of Nietzsche as an irrationalist Romantic. Kaufmann sees Nietzsche as an empirical/experimental philosopher and a rationalist. According to Kaufmann, Nietzsche attacked systems - and Christianity - mainly because they were based on first premises that were supposed to be a priori and beyond question - or based on unquestioned faith. Nietzsche wanted all premises to be subjected to experimental evaluation. Nothing was beyond question. Kant is an illuminating example. Nietzsche often attacked Kant and his notion of the categorical imperative. Readers of Nietzsche who are interested in giving free reign to their passions and selfish impulses often take Nietzsche's attack to be an attack on morality or law tout court. But, if we accept Kaufmann's reading, what Nietzsche was really attacking was Kant's failure to question the origin of the values he took for granted. He simply took the moral principles of his own time and culture as unquestioned and based them on the eternal nature of Reason. Nietzsche wanted to submit even our most cherished values to experiment and rational critique.
Kaufmann's study is presented in chronological order. Kaufmann believes that many misinterpretations of Nietzsche result from the fact that interpreters pay too little attention to the development of Nietzsche's thought. So, Kaufmann begins with the early books - The Birth of Tragedy, Untimely Meditations, Human, All Too Human - and moves all the way through Ecce Homo and The Antichrist. This is an illuminating way to progress. We can see, for example, how the notion of the will to power grows out of Nietzsche's desire to provide a naturalistic ground for values and morality (at least in Kaufmann's interpretation). The metaphysics of The Birth of Tragedy was still dualistic, the Apollonian was viewed as a separate force from the Dionysian. The taming force of civilization was anti-naturalistic. The will to power solves this problem. It is a naturalistic force as well as being a fundamental drive towards self-overcoming. There is no need to introduce a second force since the fundamental drive of life itself is self-overcoming.
Kaufmann interprets Nietzsche's famous doctrine of the Overman in terms of his interpretation of the will to power. The Overman "has overcome his animal nature, organized the chaos of his passions, sublimated his impulses and given style to his character" (316). We can see how far we are, in this interpretation, from the celebration of Nietzsche as the Dionysian reveler. For Deleuze, for example, the Overman is the one who affirms the eternal recurrence of difference by affirming chaos against all imposed identities - including the identity of the subject. For Kaufmann, the Overman is the opposite: he is an orderer of chaos, a person who is able to "become themselves" by giving shape to their own character. Kaufmann holds Goethe up as Nietzsche's primary example of the Overman in that sense.
Alas, I do not have time - or the inclination - to summarize all of Kaufmann's book. Kaufmann does have some very interesting things to say on the Eternal Recurrence, Nietzsche's repudiation of Christ, and his admiration for Socrates, but I will let the interested reader discover that on their own. I do not always agree with Kaufmann's interpretations but he definitely presents an interesting perspective on Nietzsche. I also think it is still a necessary perspective since there are so many simplistic interpretations of Nietzsche floating around. There are very few people who still interpret Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi, but there are still people who interpret Nietzsche as an amoral celebrator of unbridled passion and the drive for power, or as a teenage angst-ridden attacker of "the herd", and as long as those people are around Kaufmann's book will serve as a necessary corrective.
It is clear from a mere perusal of the book that Kaufmann devoted much of his life to the study of Nietzsche, who was a difficult and somewhat opaque character, who fought with his mother and sister, and had a tendency to state his case in strong, sometimes extreme, language. For these reasons, he was not well understood and attracted considerable criticism. In fact, he became a hero of Nazi ideology, when some of what he said was either misunderstood or taken out of context. Much of this misunderstanding is owing to his sister who was an ardent Nazi, and who published re-written pieces of his work. Nietzsche abhorred the German state and anti-Semitism. His use of the term 'blond beast' was thought to praise Aryan purity, when, in fact, it had reference to the male lion.
The book begins with a history of Nietzsche's life: born 1844 and died in 1900, having slipped into insanity on about 1889. He was made a full professor of classical philosophy at the age of 24; traveled extensively in Europe, and suffered from ill health. He never married, but he proposed twice to Lou Salomé, a bright, strong-willed woman who was seventeen years his junior.
Nietzsche wrote fifteen books, there are also his lecture notes, his letters and his personal notes. Rather than deal with each of his works one-at-a-time, Kaufmann addresses themes of Nietzsche's work. This is a better approach since Nietzsche made changes to his views from time to time. Nietzsche was a doubter, a questioner, who took nothing at face value, yet he avoided the label 'nihilist' by attempting to establish pieces of a structure to replace what he had torn down. He was anti-Christian because for him it placed too much value on faith and not enough on good works, and he called himself the Antichrist as a result of inconsistencies he perceived in Christ's messages and actions, and because he refused to accept Christ's divinity. While he averred that 'God is dead!' because he thought people had turned their backs on God, it is not clear that Nietzsche was an outright atheist. He seems to have had a belief in the possibility of God.
One of his better known ideas is that the basic human urge (more important than sex) is the Will to Power. By this somewhat confusing term he meant striving to overcome the faults and weaknesses in ourselves to become as valuable human beings as we could be. For Nietzsche there were three categories of humans which exhibited extraordinary value: artists, saints, and philosophers. When one had overcome one's faults and weaknesses, one became an 'úbermensch' - literally an 'over man', which has unfortunately been translated as 'superman', which wasn't at all what Nietzsche had in mind: a sustained, an arduous, personal striving for self improvement which leads to happiness. Coupled to Nietzsche's concept of the úbermensch was the idea of 'eternal recurrence'. This latter was the unconditional and infinitely repeated circular course of all things; unfortunately, even if one assumes that time is infinite, this has been proven impossible.
Kaufmann is at his best shedding light on Nietzsche's intentions, his values, and his thought processes. As a result there is an enormous amount of detail in the book: footnotes and quotations from a wide variety of sources. Occasionally, the logic of an argument becomes murky, but Kaufmann's straightforward approach clarifies both the distinct character and the great contribution of this philosopher, and restores his stature in the face of unjust criticism, poor health, broken friendships and little happiness.
If one wants to understand Nietzsche as a whole philosopher, this book - rather that any two or three of his own books - is the one to read.