- Why (and How) We Read Nietzsche
Our brief here is to highlight some of the most pressing questions for Nietzsche studies. I do not, for my part, focus on particular philosophical issues, such as Nietzsche’s views on topics in ethics, moral psychology, philosophy of action, and the like. Important avenues of study indeed are open here, and some remain underexplored. The matters I would instead like to flag are metaphilosophical: issues about Nietzsche’s own, often very [End Page 233] distinctive, approach to philosophy and philosophical writing, and issues about how we, as interpreters, can and should be approaching his work as we seek to understand it. I am not sure these are the most pressing questions in Nietzsche studies, but they are at least a key area for further thought.
Half a century ago Nietzsche scholarship in the Anglophone philosophical world was virtually nonexistent. Now it rivals, in depth and sophistication, the treatment of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and others. But Nietzsche, I think it is fair to say, continues, among an appreciable group of the philosophical profession, to incite a level of suspicion that those figures do not. Probably every Nietzsche scholar has had, and continues to have, encounters with philosophers who turn up their noses at Nietzsche and Nietzsche scholarship. Sometimes this is due to a belief that Nietzsche is unrigorous, off-topic, deficient in arguments, let alone in good arguments, or in some other way “unphilosophical.” And in a smaller group of cases, this sort of opposition comes from those who cannot grasp why we might take the trouble to work through the ideas in any old books, unless we can extract immediate philosophical lessons from them to apply to contemporary study. Nietzsche has won considerable acceptance, thanks in large part to the excellence and philosophical acuity of some of the Nietzsche scholarship being done. But there is considerable room for progress still. The avenues for future work I draw attention to here—in addition to being intellectually worthwhile within Nietzsche studies—may have an added benefit for “external relations,” so to say, potentially speaking to these sorts of concerns. Whether or not they will persuade the obstinately skeptical is another matter, of course.
Perhaps the greatest stumbling block for Nietzsche’s acceptance is his manner of presentation: the barbed aphorisms, rhetorical flourishes, bald assertions, surprising reinterpretations of the familiar, ad hominem charges, and so on. Most everyone will admit that he writes with undeniable verve, leaving us with striking images and memorable formulations. But the hard-nosed think that at the end of the day, once we peel back the basically irrelevant literary artifice, he ultimately does what we tell our undergraduates not to do: he simply announces his opinions (some inspired, some bizarre, some repellent) without backing them up with good arguments.
This caricature is somewhat unfair to Nietzsche, since he does sometimes have very good arguments indeed. Just by way of example, see his reductio of attempts to arrive at a naturalized form of idealism that would claim “the world” to be the work of our “sense organs” (BGE 15). Quite [End Page 234] a good argument, I think. Yet as this example also indicates, even the straightforwardly good arguments are often presented in such a subtle fashion that we must pause and try to figure out exactly what he is up to. Here, for instance, he finishes with a rhetorical question that qualifies, though not quite explicitly, what he has said so far: “Consequently, the external world is not the work of our organs—?” (BGE 15; trans. Walter Kaufmann [New York: Random House, 1966]). This twist is typical Nietzsche. And it is why we must tread very carefully.
One of the most important routes for future work, it seems to me, is close studies of particular books, sections, or aphorisms of Nietzsche’s that look at how they are put together, that are attentive to the carefully chosen imagery, rhetorical devices, structure, and punctuation Nietzsche employs, and that are cognizant of what larger philosophical import these stylistic choices might have. There has been much good work in this direction so far. Alexander Nehamas gave such issues a central place in...