Reading Nietzsche Through Walter Kaufmann

Since I was seventeen I’ve read Nietzsche. I can no longer recall what I read first, probably the yellowing Thus Spake Zarathustra, annotated in two different pens, that still sits on my bookshelf. Nietzsche understands teenagers. He speaks to their complexity and anguish, and they approve of his desire to shatter the tenets of their culture. Nietzsche faced down the nihilism of his age with style, humour and strength. Though Nietzsche’s thinking only partially penetrated my younger self, he left me fortified with the necessity of going deeply into myself to fully experience life.

Over the years I read all of Nietzsche’s published books, though undoubtedly in less reliable translations and editions than are now starting to become available. Nietzsche’s aphoristic style lends itself to dipping into a few lines. Though this achieves little, it is a thought-provoking compass for how one has changed during all the years of reading the same lines. My reading of Nietzsche is changed with all the later reading and thinking I’ve done.

At the moment I’m reading Nietzsche through Walter Kaufmann, only a hundred pages or so in but enjoying his thoughts and observations. Kaufmann untangles Nietzsche’s relations with his anti-Semitic sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and the intriguing Lou Andreas-Salomé to clarify how both women set out to distort how Nietzsche’s thoughts were later interpreted. Kaufmann then proceeds to show with some elegance how the contradictions in Nietzsche’s arguments are merely superficial. He argues that Socrates is Nietzsche’s ideal, that he is not a ‘system thinker [unlike Kant or Spinoza] but a problem thinker.’

The result is less a solution of the initial problem than a realisation of its limitations: typically the problem is not solved but ‘outgrown’.

Though first published in 1950, Kaufmann’s interpretations are an inspiration for more contemporary readings of Nietzsche, one of which I also wish to read is Alexander Nehamas’ NIETZSCHE Life as Literature (1985). If you know of other Nietzsche secondary literature (not biography) worth reading please let me know.

The Education of Grown-ups

Impossible Objects is a collection of interviews with philosopher Simon Critchley, whose work has appealed to me for several years. His approach to philosophy is pragmatic and mostly comprehensible to those outside the academy. In the interview entitled Keep Your Mind in Hell and Despair Not, Critchley states,

I want to state that, at the level of method, I don’t want to make a huge distinction between philosophers and human beings. I think philosophy is the theoretical elaboration or elucidation of intuitions that are common to human beings. Philosophy just makes that manifest through a certain discipline of reflection. So philosophy, for me, is a way of relearning to look at the world, a world that is familiar to us, that we know, that is shared by all human beings. I think that when people are at their best, when they are thinking, reflecting, cogitating, then they are doing philosophy. So I don’t see philosophy as an academic exercise. If I did, I think I’d slit my wrists and go sit in a bath and die like a good Roman. For me, philosophy is an activity of thought that is common to human beings. Human beings at their best. Or, to use the phrase of Stanley Cavell, “Philosophy is the education of grown-ups.”

Socrates would have applauded the idea that philosophy should be approachable. I’ve been fascinated by philosophy since I was a Kierkegaard-obsessed teenager, but there are texts that are inaccessible to a lay reader. I recall being thrilled by Sartre’s Being and Nothingness though there was much in that wonderful book that was beyond me. That didn’t stop its formative influence. I’ve been less successful with Kant and Heidegger and long given up on Hegel.

I keep looking for a way into Derrida’s work, of whom Critchley says,

I think Derrida is simply the most intelligent philosopher that I have ever read or heard; his capacity to develop thinking, improvise thinking, assimilate concepts, and generate new ideas is absolutely extraordinary. I think he is exemplary as a philosopher. He’s a bit like Miles Davis in the 1960’s.

Nicholas Royle’s Jacques Derrida comes highly recommended, and will be my next step towards Derrida’s writings.

The first interview in Impossible Objects is a discussion that focusses on Critchley’s first published book, The Ethics of Deconstruction, which opens up an ethical reading of Derrida through the work of Levinas. Fascinating as it is, without prior reading of Levinas (and Habermas), much of the discussion meant little to me.