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Nietzsche and Untimeliness: The "Philosopher of the Future" as the Figure of Disruptive Wisdom

From: The Journal of Nietzsche Studies
Issue 25, Spring 2003
pp. 1-34 | 10.1353/nie.2003.0011

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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 25 (2003) 1-34


One of the most striking features of Nietzsche's philosophical writings is his extensive use of figures or figurative embodiments of various forms of wisdom, culture, and ways of life. These range from such literary and historical figures as "Strauss the Confessor" and "Schopenhauer the Educator" to "great heroic figures" (Napoleon, Caesar, Thucydides), to mythical figures such as Apollo and Dionysus, to animal or chimerical figures (Zarathustra's "serpent and eagle," the "dragon," and the "camel"), to poetic or even allegorical figures (the "pale criminal," the "Last Man," and, perhaps most famously, the "Übermensch"). Some have even argued for the presence of important postcolonial political figures in Nietzsche's writings (e.g., the figure of "the Black" or "the slave"), while others have urged us to view Nietzsche himself as a literary figure par excellence and exemplary "test case" of his own moral perfectionism: "creating and discovering himself" in his own writings as "an Übermensch." Whatever one thinks of these latter claims, it is undeniable that Nietzsche's writings are full of figures. Indeed, one is hard pressed to think of any other philosopher who has so extensively and systematically used literary and poetic figures in his writings. And this pervasive employment of figures and figurative language is not restricted to one period in Nietzsche's literary career. The figures are there from the early ghostlike figure of the "last philosopher" in Nietzsche's unpublished notes from the 1870s (cf. P, § 38), throughout the later post-Zarathustran writings, e.g., in the figure of the "comedians of the ascetic ideal" in the Genealogy of Morals (1887), or in the transformed figure of "Dionysus" in Twilight of the Idols (1889).

Yet despite Nietzsche's pervasive employment of innovative figures and "valuable [figurative] exemplars" (UM III, § 6), few commentators have ventured to undertake a systematic analysis of just what Nietzsche was trying to accomplish through his constant use of figures and figurative language. This is surprising given the current debates and controversies regarding how best to read Nietzsche, e.g., as either a philosopher, a literary critic, or a rhetorician. Situated, as they are, at the "interface" of philosophy, literature, and rhetoric, Nietzsche's figures would seem to play an important role in any successful attempt to illuminate these controversies. Like Plato's picturesque images and myths, Nietzsche's figures are not just inessential "icing on the (conceptual) cake," but are part and parcel of one's understanding of his thoughts and values. The figures are essential for the proper understanding of the direction and development, both intellectually and affectively, of his unique philosophical views.

The lack of attention paid to Nietzsche's use of figures is likewise surprising given the recent interest in issues of language in Nietzsche's texts. And yet most commentators who are interested in issues of language in Nietzsche tend to focus either on interpreting his "multifarious stylings"—the epigrammatic, the aphoristic, the apothegmatic, and the metaphorical—or they discuss the many difficulties involved in making sense of Nietzsche's hyperbolic, seemingly self-contradictory (and self-consciously self-referential) manner of expression. Few have directly addressed the question "Why figures?" Why the constant emphasis on figurative language and thinking? Perhaps not surprisingly, those who have addressed this issue have failed to reach any consensus. Heidegger, for example, makes the intriguing suggestion that because the thoughts Nietzsche is grappling with are so hard to bear (so untimely), "no prior, mediocre human being" can think them [discursively, propositionally]. . . and "that holds for Nietzsche himself. . . . Nietzsche must therefore first create poetically the thinker [figure] of [these thoughts]" before he can come to terms with them. By way of example, Heidegger further observes that "the communication of the thought most difficult to bear [i.e., the thought of the eternal return of the same] . . . first of all requires the poetic creation of the figure who will think this thought [viz., Zarathustra]. . . . But in such creation [of the figure], the doctrine itself cannot be wholly disregarded." More recently, Peter Berkowitz has made the claim that Nietzsche's preferred figures of the "Übermensch," the "free spirits," and the "Philosopher of the Future...

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