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  • Nietzsche's View of the Value of Historical Studies and Methods
  • Thomas H. Brobjer

Nietzsche is generally regarded as a severe and hostile critic of historical studies, and it is possible that the expression "historical sickness" (historische Krankheit) was made current through him. This picture of Nietzsche's view of the value of historical studies and methods is almost exclusively based on his early work, the second Untimely Meditation, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (1874). In fact almost all general discussions of Nietzsche's relation to history are based on this work. In this paper I want to show that this work is not representative of Nietzsche's view of the value of historical studies and methods. In 1875/76, shortly after having written the book, Nietzsche changed his views on history, and for the rest of his active life his views were rather different from the ones he had put forward in the second Untimely Meditation. In fact, Nietzsche almost completely ignored this work in his later discussions of his development and thinking, and a few times he outright rejected its argument and content. Hereafter I will show that historical studies and methods were of fundamental importance for Nietzsche's thinking.

One of the reasons why Nietzsche is such a stimulating philosopher is the tensions in his thinking. One fundamental tension is the dichotomy between his affirmation, on the one hand, of life, health, and creativity (which can be regarded as a form of existentialism) and on the other hand, of honesty, intellectual integrity, skepticism, of having the courage to see the world as it is, and thus of truth, knowledge, scholarship, and science. Both of these aspects have their dangers according to Nietzsche, the former in that it can lead to idealism, romanticism, and illusions and the latter in that it can lead to nihilism and self-alienation. This tension goes through all of Nietzsche's thinking and writing, but it is also possible to argue that for the early Nietzsche, the center of gravity is clearly on the first side, for the middle Nietzsche (1876-82) it is on the second side, and for the late Nietzsche the sides are fairly well balanced. Thus one [End Page 301] can use the scheme of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, but whether the late Nietzsche's thinking, in this respect, should be seen as contradictory or a successful synthesis I will leave open. However, my main point is that both sides of this dichotomy are present in Nietzsche's thinking throughout.

In On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life Nietzsche is not completely critical of historical studies and methods, but he is severely hostile to academic, scholarly, and scientific history, which, he argues, depersonalize, destroy myths, give a false sense of progress and the illusion that we are in a position to judge earlier periods, and make action more difficult (in direct parallel to his critique of Socrates, theoretical men, and science in his previous book The Birth of Tragedy). His chosen perspective is to side with that which favors "life." However, all forms of history are not necessarily dangerous and destructive. Nietzsche constructs three forms of history that can be conducive to life: monumental history, antiquarian history, and critical history. The first favors myths and action and the belief in great men and events. The second can help to affirm life through an affirmation of one's roots, traditions, and identity. The third can be used to liberate those who feel oppressed by tradition. Nietzsche also suggests remedies for the exaggerated concern with history in the nineteenth century, that is, emphasizing the unhistorical and the overhistorical. With the latter, which is closely akin to the metaphysical, Nietzsche meant that which transcends history, such as religion and art.

Although On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life has received massive attention in the twentieth century,1 it received little attention and sympathy even from Nietzsche's friends and acquaintances,2 and was reviewed [End Page 302] only once during the 1870s. Nietzsche himself seems to have had little or no interest in it after he had published it. There are good reasons to...


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