- Nietzsche’s Philosophy of History by Anthony K. Jensen
This tightly argued and elegantly written book is the first comprehensive study of Nietzsche’s philosophy of history. This might be surprising, since much has been written about Nietzsche’s historical perspective, his own historical studies in the field of classical scholarship, and the historical orientation of his philosophical project. Genealogy certainly contributes to the wider historicization of reason and culture that can be observed throughout the nineteenth century, but Nietzsche’s project also differed markedly from the mainstream historicism as it was practiced at German universities in ways that typically combined the ideas of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Bildung and Hegel’s “cunning of reason” with Theodor Mommsen’s notion of Großwissenschaft. But as a form of “historical philosophizing,” genealogy also draws much inspiration from its immediate intellectual context, a context characterized by the dominance of historical studies.
Nietzsche is both untimely and a child of the nineteenth century, and it is precisely in this respect that Anthony K. Jensen’s study allows us to clearly recognize Nietzsche as perhaps the first properly post-Hegelian philosopher of history—a philosopher of history who is surprisingly neo-Kantian. Moreover, focusing on both Nietzsche’s critique of traditional historical theory and his alternative project, but also on the way in which he anticipates theoretical developments that take place in the twentieth century, Jensen’s study admirably bridges the unfruitful gap between “analytical” and “continental” approaches to the philosophy of history. While the themes he discusses, together with his keen attention for source material, might easily be seen as belonging to the continental tradition—whatever that might be in the imagination of American analytical philosophers—the theoretical framework within which much of his argument about Nietzsche as an untimely philosopher of history gains momentum is shaped by a profound interest in causation, causal explanation, inference, and so on. This is, indeed, one of the strengths of Jensen’s study.
Exhibiting an enviable command of both primary and secondary sources, Jensen develops his argument by focusing on the question of objectivity and the value of historical description [End Page 364] and explanation. Starting out with Nietzsche’s earliest historical studies as a schoolboy about the Ostrogoth King Ermanarich and then his later editorial criticism as a student at Bonn and Leipzig of Theognis of Megara and Diogenes Laertius, Jensen convincingly argues in the first chapter that Nietzsche’s early work is marked by a “skeptical realism” (3). The latter does not fit the common distinction between Wortphilologie and Sachphilologie as it was established, in the nineteenth century, by the schools of Gottfried Hermann, on the one hand, and August Boeckh, on the other. Although Nietzsche would often criticize his own philological teachers, such as Otto Jahn in Bonn, Jensen highlights in the second chapter that these attacks had little to do with their historical method. After all, it was precisely Jahn and Friedrich Ritschl who provided him with the necessary tools to overcome the distinction between Wortphilologie and Sachphilologie. In his attempt to reach beyond the positivist representational realism of historical studies, however, Nietzsche, under the influence of Schopenhauer, also went one step too far, as he himself later realized. It is a great merit of Jensen’s study that he shows, in the third chapter, how The Birth of Tragedy might constitute a radical break with prevalent paradigms of historical and philosophical scholarship, but its reliance on aesthetic intuition was bound to overshadow the otherwise crucial insights Nietzsche was able to deliver into the cultural function of Greek tragedy.
It is this overreach that Nietzsche increasingly seeks to correct in subsequent years when he develops, in the Untimely Meditations as much as in Human, All Too Human, more sophisticated forms of historical criticism that take into account both the psychology and the cultural standpoint of the historical observer. Jensen, in this respect, is quite right to suggest in the fourth and fifth chapters of his study that Nietzsche’s much proclaimed aestheticism...