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  • Philosophy, Psychology, and Theory
  • Bernard Reginster

The manner in which Nietzsche presents his ideas has long baffled his readers. Some take it to indicate that he is not a pursuing a traditional sort of philosophical project; for instance, he is not building a comprehensive system, composed of distinctive theories in all of the main areas of philosophy, such as a theory of knowledge, of value, of language, and so on. According to some commentators, his philosophical message, so to speak, is not one that can be conveyed through theses and arguments; it can be only “shown” by resorting to appropriate stylistic artifices (see, e.g., Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985]). Others, by contrast, insist that Nietzsche remains a philosopher in the traditional sense, who engages with traditional philosophical issues such as the nature of knowledge, the character of agency, or the ontological standing of norms. Unlike other philosophers, however, he is keenly sensitive to the demands of true philosophical enlightenment and believes that it requires a transformation of his readers’ minds, and the peculiar manner in which he presents his ideas is designed to bring that about (see, e.g., Christopher Janaway, Beyond Selflessness [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007]; Maudemarie Clark and David Dudrick, The Soul of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012]).

The main challenge for these approaches is to supply a compelling explanation for why the content of Nietzsche’s philosophical message would require presentation in precisely this form, or alternatively to make a persuasive case that this form of presentation is an especially effective way of conveying that content. The difficulty of meeting this challenge may explain why, by and large, the dominant tendency remains to downplay the stylistic peculiarities as insignificant window dressing. The aphoristic style of writing, for example, was perhaps a necessity for a thinker who was constantly plagued by crippling illness and unable to think and write on any given topic for long periods of time. Readers who favor this more common approach thus assume that they must piece together theories that a chronically incapacitated Nietzsche could offer only in fragments. They find a measure of vindication in the fact that he keeps returning to a fairly [End Page 260] well circumscribed set of issues and develops distinctive new concepts to address them.

Another factor, sociological rather than philosophical, has also encouraged that common approach. It turns Nietzsche into a traditional philosopher, with recognizable views on customary—and currently fashionable—topics. It gives permission to philosophers trained in the mainstream of our discipline to take an interest in his ideas; and it allows scholars who chose to work on these ideas in the first place to feel included in the mainstream of the discipline. As a concession to the peculiarity of his writings, they endeavor to attribute to him views that depart—at least to some extent—from the orthodoxy of his time, or even of our own. Thus, Nietzsche is supposed to have (somewhat) unusual views in otherwise traditional areas, such as epistemology (e.g., Clark, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990]), metaphysics (e.g., John Richardson, Nietzsche’s System [New York: Oxford University Press, 1996]), philosophy of mind and action (e.g., Paul Katsafanas, The Nietzschean Self [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016]), and, of course, ethics and metaethics (e.g., Brian Leiter, Nietzsche on Morality [London: Routledge, 2002/2015]; and many others).

The ingenuity and sophistication on display in this approach are admirable. But as they grow, they also bring into greater relief a fundamental difficulty for it. The theories attributed to Nietzsche are often based on flimsy and ambiguous textual evidence: they require importing substantial concepts or arguments, which cannot be found explicitly in his writings, and, at the same time, downplaying as clumsy or irrelevant claims he makes or illustrations he offers when they do not jibe well with the proposed theories. Thus, scholars will not infrequently admit that the theories they attribute to Nietzsche, or crucial elements of them, are less close reading than rational reconstruction, extrapolated from a few scattered remarks. This may explain the variety of interpretations of his views...


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