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“Nietzsche – Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist” by Walter Kaufmann

January 30, 2013

An important and thought-provoking book for anyone wishing to get to grips with Nietzsche’s writings. Kaufmann does a good job of combating the various misleading interpretations which have dogged Nietzsche’s reputation over the years: that he was a proto-Nazi; a nihilist; a Social Darwinist; an irrationalist; someone who gloried in war and brutality; and so on. Indeed, whilst there are certainly many harsh (perhaps even shrill) comments in Nietzsche’s books, even a half-attentive reader will be struck by other, much warmer, remarks eulogising generosity, self-restraint and – perhaps above all – friendship. Making sense of these seemingly contradictory passages is one of the problems Nietzsche set his readers and Kaufmann’s book is substantially concerned with showing how they can be brought together in a coherent whole. His arguments are carefully constructed, backed up by quotes from the entire range of Nietzsche’s output (including notebooks and personal letters) and fleshed-out with an impressive range of scholarship.

All the same, while the book certainly increased my understanding of Nietzsche I can’t help thinking something was lost in the process. Nietzsche was a self-consciously enigmatic writer. He loved to shock, question and confound expectations. And he purposely chose to express himself in teasing aphorisms and ultra-brief essays rather than via weighty, system-expounding tomes. This (for me, at least) is undoubtedly part of his appeal. But the more Kaufmann arranges Nietzsche’s thought into a linear argument the more the magic seems to disappear. Nietzsche is robbed of mystery and emerges as just another philosopher – and not a particularly convincing one, either.

This is especially true of the extended discussion of Will to Power. As a metaphorical or “poetic” concept, Will to Power is intriguing and perhaps enlightening – it can certainly act as a useful corrective to sentimental clap-trap about the noble virtuousness of mankind. But when it’s arranged into a carefully constructed system which attempts to express the literal truth about the world then it strikes me as a patently implausible fantasy. Taken either as a metaphysical argument or a scientific theory (and it seems to wander uneasily between the two) it has nothing to recommend it other than the personal preferences of the author. (And the less said about eternal recurrence the better.)

I admire Nietzsche hugely for his style, courage, wit, contrariness, honesty, cheerfulness and psychological insight. But insofar as he was a philosopher at all, he was an anti-philosopher. To represent him as someone in the tradition of Kant or Hegel or even Socrates (who he undoubtedly admired) does him no favours.

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From → Philosophy

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