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  • Must We Choose between Real Nietzsche and Good Philosophy? A Streitschrift
  • Tom Stern

When I began writing about Nietzsche, working within an Anglophone philosophy department, I found little to read about the methods and goals of the practice I was engaging in. This was very surprising to colleagues in other disciplines, for whom “methods” classes were standard fare. Within my discipline, conversely, pretty much nobody asked questions about methodology. Increasingly, this has become, to my mind, one of the greatest challenges facing philosophical Nietzsche scholarship: to give an account of itself. My guess is that a general and not too controversial account would be that we are exploring the productive tension between what the real Nietzsche wrote and what we take to be good philosophy. Some participants emphasize one element more than the other, but both must be present in some form: the practice is neither pure historicism, nor unconstrained, Nietzsche-independent philosophizing.

Is that account sufficient? Not yet. Two contributions to this symposium appear to agree that there is more to be done in this regard. I have argued, at length, that the one explicit methodological principle we often use, the principle of charity, is multiply ambiguous and perhaps deserving of suspicion (“‘Some Third Thing’: Nietzsche’s Words and the Principle of Charity,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 47.2 [2016]: 287–302). Here, I outline two areas in which setting out our goals and methods seems particularly challenging: explaining how, first, text and, second, history ought to constrain our practice. Assuming everyone agrees that textual and historical factors do act as interpretative constraints, the question is: how? I set out a weak thesis that I hope will garner general agreement, and also a stronger, speculative thesis, for which I have some sympathy. The weak thesis is that we could [End Page 277] do with better, more explicit rules for our game. Accordingly, I will suggest some rules we might adopt. Please treat them—and this contribution in general—as prompts for further discussion. I return to the strong thesis shortly.

First, a word on the constraints of “plain meaning.” One of the earliest, relatively self-conscious forms of interpretative practice, Midrashic interpretation, uses the notion of peshat, usually translated as the “plain meaning” of the text—a notion that strikes me as helpful. This is not a matter of what was going on in the author’s head. It is a matter of what the text says. When Nietzsche asks whether truth is a woman, the plain meaning of the term woman is clear enough. What on earth he is doing with that term is another matter, and attempting to say what he is doing will take you beyond plain meaning—which, I take it, is unobjectionable. But you would be violating plain meaning by reporting that Nietzsche asks us to suppose that truth is a man, or that philosophy is a woman. An initial ground rule might be:

  • • First Rule: Do not violate plain meaning!

This is far too vague and general. Ideally, I would like to see a taxonomy of different kinds of violations, so that we had agreed-upon terms we could use when discussing and reviewing each other’s work. Here are some suggestions: The reader who is interested in plain meaning will be greatly aided by looking at the text on either side of the textual unit in question. The act of cutting out of context already has a name in nonphilosophical literature: contextomy. In Nietzsche’s case, remarks on topics of particular philosophical interest may be scattered within claims about completely different matters. Often, a line without its context retains plain meaning. Sometimes it doesn’t.

  • • Second Rule: Always give the gist of the aphorism as a whole before the quotation itself! So, generally avoid “Nietzsche writes that P,” but, instead, say something like: “As part of the general claim that Q, Nietzsche writes, ‘P.’” This would be a very helpful habit to get into, because it forces the interpreter to consider how the specific words relate to the overall aim of the text, while allowing her reader to do the same. The answer might be “not at all”; still, it would be...