Sunday, June 12, 2011

Thoughts on Nietzsche

I sent in my paper for a course on Nietzsche that I've been taking with Ryan Coyne, thus ending my first year of studies as a doctoral student (and maybe my recent absence from blogging?).  I had read a bit of Nietzsche before, but this course was a good chance to get into a representative spread of his texts and familiarize myself further.  We read Birth of Tragedy, the "Truth and Lying" essay, Daybreak, Gay Science, Beyond Good & Evil, Genealogy of Morals, Twilight of the Idols, and Anti-Christ.  After a more limited personal engagement with his other works in researching for the paper, I think that the course bibliography was well chosen.  Of course there are holes, and one unread text or another might seem to be "essential", but given that we're working with a ten-week quarter system, I think the selections were well made.  There was also ample reference to the notebooks, Ecce Homo, and other works during lectures and discussion, so doors were open to further reading on one's own.

I thought I'd share a few thoughts on Nietzsche that occurred to me over the semester, with the caution that this spring has been my only extended and solid engagement with Nietzsche, so there is surely more and better to be said on all of these points.

§ I won't get into my paper topic too much, but I decided to write on Nietzsche's philosophy of science through the lens of some paragraphs from The Gay Science.  I had three main reasons for writing on a topic like this.  First, I wanted to avoid any discussion of Nietzsche and theology/God/religion/etc..  There is obviously a lot for a theologian to write on Nietzsche, and theologians should surely be doing this, but I wanted to get out of that mindset and write more about Nietzsche on his own terms.  I didn't want to just come at him with issues that I had because of my own theological concerns.  Second, I wanted to avoid the doctrines that Nietzsche is best known for, that overtook his later works, and that have created a thicket of various opinions on The-Meaning-Of-Nietzsche.  Again, it's not that these doctrines are unimportant or that a complete picture of Nietzsche's thought could be achieved without them.  But I wanted simply to think alongside Nietzsche in a more mundane way and draw out some themes that were less liable to distortion at the hands of their own importance.  Third, I wanted to pick a topic that could seep out into his wider oeuvre rather than pinpoint a single problem for a surgical encounter.  I find that I can quite readily identify problems in texts and play with them, modify them, "solve" them, etc.. This approach, I think, comes naturally to the genre of the research article, and when article-length engagements are the bread and butter of scholarly writing, one's mindset is shaped much more according to article-length problems.  I wanted to resist that approach and write on something that could expand to a more widely interpretive scope as an exercise in engaging with a thinker rather than just being a wonk of theoretical puzzles.

§ On Nietzsche as a theologian (to indulge, since I actively tried to avoid the theological cookie-cutter throughout the semester): it is impressive how much Nietzsche lends himself to theological considerations, and how much he himself acted as a theologian.  By way of preface to a reflection on God and the devil in Ecce Homo he writes the following warning: "Theologically speaking -- listen carefully, because I do not speak like a theologian very often --" The only problem is that this simply isn't true.  I found that Nietzsche quite often spoke like a theologian.  I daresay one could guess that Nietzsche's father was a Lutheran pastor without any biographical familiarity; simply by knowing Nietzsche's thoughts on morality or the Crucified, it was obvious enough. 

§ An interesting paper, if someone hasn't already written it, would consider the move from "nay-saying" to "yea-saying" made by both Nietzsche and Barth over the course of their respective careers.  The comparison could draw some unexpected and provocative connections between the two thinkers. The identity of the Anti-Christ might also play heavily into this comparative intellectual biography, though obviously in very different ways when one man self-identified with what the other man feared around many corners.

§ While I found a good bit of Nietzsche needlessly bombastic and was at times unsure that his aphorisms went much deeper than a certain cleverness of style, I am convinced that Nietzsche deserves all of the shelf space he is given in the philosophy section of the average Barnes & Noble, or all of the naive enthusiasm he meets in the freshman student taking Philosophy 101.  Nor can his scholarly reception be explained away as mere postmodern trendiness; he belongs in the pantheon, and far from one of its lower seats.

§ Two articles that I enjoyed reading for my paper were Werner Stegmaier's "Nietzsche's Doctrines, Nietzsche's Signs", and R. Lanier Anderson's "Nietzsche's Will to Power as a Doctrine of the Unity of Science".  Both were published earlier and are here found in their most recent versions.

§ As I mentioned in my last post, I have really benefited from the online material on Nietzsche, especially Nietzsche Source, which made working with the primary texts a good deal easier than having that many more physical volumes piled around my desk.  Besides simply referring back to the German as I worked through the primary passages for my research, I found myself making use of a technology that was unavailable to many past interpreters of Nietzsche, even of the relatively recent past: a full text search function.  The ability to search Trieb nach Erkenntniss (to give one example) across Nietzsche's corpus was terribly useful, but I found myself questioning exactly what implications for scholarship were inherent in such tools.  It is likely that I ran across a textual connection or two that has remained unexploited, even by a Nietzsche reader of Walter Kaufmann's caliber.  Is this right?  One almost feels fraudulent citing a range of texts that is much wider than what one has worked through from start to finish.  It obviously wasn't my depth of familiarity with Nietzsche that earned me this knowledge, nor my superior interpretive skills.  Yet the knowledge sits in my lap and surely shouldn't be dismissed simply because I didn't get a hold of it the old-fashioned way.  Best, I think, is to make use of these tools as far as possible while still retaining a humility about the task.  A rule of thumb:  If I have a good sense of the limits of my abilities to contextualize a passage that I run across in a text search, then I likely also have a good sense of the extent to which I can responsibly employ that passage within an argument that I am trying to make.  A rule of thumb on Nietzsche with regard to the preceding: his use of aphorisms and paragraphs makes the question of contextualization simpler in some ways because of their fragmented nature... but in other ways deceptively simple.


  1. Thanks for this post. I am thinking of reading more of NIetsche over the summer. ANy suggestions on the notion of nature and culture in his work? My research looks at these ideas, and I am wondering if you came across any of that in your reading.

  2. Culture seems like a theme that could be found more or less throughout Nietzsche; it's a rare point when he's addressing something that doesn't pertain in some way to "culture". But the Untimely Observations are most explicitly about this theme. Towards the end of The Gay Science there are some aphorisms related to nature and that might be worth looking at... I'd be interested in hearing what you find in Nietzsche on nature. His relationship with it strikes me as ambiguous. His search for that which strengthens and affirms life will obviously be directed in some ways toward nature, but Nietzsche is also strongly critical of a romantic naturalism, also of natural morality. His relationship with Darwinism plays this balancing act as well. While there is some common cause between Darwin and Nietzsche, most of the explicit comments you find of Nietzsche’s on Darwin will be critical, because he thinks that concepts such as self-preservation still contain residual Christian/Socratic elements and do not properly get at what he ends up articulating as the will to power.

    The Birth of Tragedy may be the work that best combines culture and nature in one discussion, but it’s an earlier work away from which Nietzsche developed in certain points (this is true of Untimely Observations mentioned above, too). It’s also important not to read the Dionysian as a sort of romantic (natural) harmony that Nietzsche would, in fact, reject. That is, while the theme of nature and culture strike me as being present in Birth of Tragedy, it would probably be a mistake to correlate them with any specific type introduced by Nietzsche.