The Canon: Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. By Walter Kaufmann

January 14, 2010

Walter Kaufmann (1921-80) was a Lutheran of Jewish descent who converted to Judaism. Fleeing Nazi Germany for America, he became professor of philosophy at Princeton University after active service in the Second World War. His work as a translator and scholar of Nietzsche, and especially this important book, represented a significant breakthrough. After the war, hatred and suspicion blocked access to German writing, and it took Kaufmann to dismantle the wall of prejudice around Nietzsche. Many who rejected German thought as implicated in the Holocaust saw Nietzsche as foreshadowing Hitler. But Kaufmann's original, detailed, rational analysis would reveal the Nazis' manipulation of the work of a philosopher, who, before his death in 1900, had reviled anti-Semitism. Kaufmann revitalised responsible criticism of Nietzsche's work, and tunnelled through the rubble of Nazism to examine German and thus continental thinking afresh.

Published in 1950, Kaufmann's Nietzsche challenged the prevailing assumption in British philosophy that only structured argument in analytical thought systems can permit reliable insight. Studying Nietzsche, he argued, showed that experimental thinking and an atypical aphoristic presentation could acquire clarity, coherence and incisiveness by accumulation, irony and wit. Moreover, he highlighted a tradition of dissent in philosophy, showing that Nietzsche, who was no logical positivist, sidestepped rigid systematic argument to demolish inner walls, explore the springs of conviction, investigate truths in contradictions, discover vitality in a continuous process of self-pillorying thought-evolution. He demonstrated that philosophical certainties could emerge not from the integrity of reason, but from the masquerades of the watchful, self-asserting and survival-bound psyche.

Kaufmann made of Nietzsche a surprisingly pivotal figure, impregnated by Socratic scepticism and simultaneously planting seeds that would be realised in Camus and Sartre. He sought to document Nietzsche's dissolving "linear" argument to display the manipulation of language, to plumb the death of God in the psyche, to posit "the will to power" as life-dominating subliminal possession. Discerning what Simon Blackburn characterises in Nietzsche as the "great debunker" quality, he also portrayed Nietzsche's pre-Freudian search for identity, his work against himself, his "attack on his convictions" and the vertigo of continuous inner revolution. This iconoclastic restlessness, creating a poetic "overman" myth of moral evolution, would influence artists such as Thomas Mann, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Musil and Bertolt Brecht.

In two ways, Kaufmann also configured my own work, in addiction. First, he embodied a critical procedure: exorcise prejudice, question the integrity of complete answers, suspect your certainties, seek design in silences and patterns beyond statements and attend to the inner logic of the mind. Second, his Nietzsche saw each person existentially responsible for creating his or her own development. Self-development led to sovereignty, living out the positive burdens of pain and joy (even if his Zarathustra didn't make it in the end). This alerted me to the metamorphosis of adolescents into autonomy, and the energy manifested when they spread their wings: an experience that sustained confidence when attending those who cannot break free. Kaufmann's Nietzsche offered empowerment when working with individuals mired in dependency: part of a pursuit of responsibility, development and liberation.

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