- An Interpretation of Nietzsche's On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life by Anthony K. Jensen
New York: Routledge, 2016. xv + 189 pp.
isbn: 978-1138816466 (cloth); 978-1138617773 (paper). Cloth, $155.00;
The second of Nietzsche's UM, "On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life" (HL), is one of his most celebrated and influential works, profoundly shaping the work of Continental theorists such as Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, and Paul de Man. For all the immense attention paid to this little text, philosophers and scholars have focused mainly on Nietzsche's reflections on culture, overlooking the text's epistemological concerns. Jensen's commentary rectifies this omission and succeeds admirably not only in analyzing the often cryptic and meandering arguments of the text, but also in contextualizing it in nineteenth-century debates about objectivity and teleology in history.
In the first chapter, Jensen engages in a rare feat for Nietzsche scholars: he offers a philological analysis of the composition and publication of the text itself. In doing so, he corrects some of the errors and omissions of the Colli and Montinari KSA edition that scholars tend to take as gospel. For instance, Colli and Montinari omit several notebook drafts of the essay in the KSA. Jensen also reveals that one of the notebook drafts actually contains Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense" (TL), suggesting a closer connection between TL and HL than has been recognized thus far. The foreword to HL was heavily edited by Nietzsche, but none of these edits made it into the final published edition. Finally, section 10 contained a final page that KSA omits, a stunning discovery by Jensen. All in [End Page 332] all, Jensen concludes from his philological analysis that HL should be taken as something of a work in progress, with Nietzsche's thoughts being "fluid to a high degree" (30), rather than a polished, coherent work of philosophy we tend to take it to be.
The second chapter discusses the famous section 1 of HL. Jensen offers a helpful analysis of the moral, psychological, and epistemological problems resulting from our historical nature, beings who can remember in contrast to the unhistorical animals. As he points out, Nietzsche describes human beings as a combination of the historical and the unhistorical, which coalesces in our "plastic power," our capacity to reshape the world in accordance with the values and categories we legislate for ourselves.
The "suprahistorical" makes a brief appearance in sections 1 and 10 of the essay. Jensen is not sure what to make of the concept, and dismisses it as a late addition intended by Nietzsche to be symmetrical with his next triad, Monumental, Antiquarian, and Critical History. For Jensen, there are two inconsistent notions of the "suprahistorical": first, a subjective notion of the great individual who shapes the outlook of a people and, second, an objective notion of an intuitive divination of enduring types throughout history. Jensen does not consider, however, the possibility that these might be complementary, not competing, notions: great individuals shape a people precisely by divining enduring types. Indeed, we might notice that, despite the apparent disappearance of the "suprahistorical," Nietzsche himself adopts this perspective, intuiting the enduring types of history and advocating for a "republic of geniuses" of enduring exemplary human types. In other words, the "suprahistorical" might be more fundamental to Nietzsche's text than Jensen allows.
In the third chapter, Jensen interprets Nietzsche's well-known types of history, Monumental, Antiquarian, and Critical. He debunks other accounts of the triad by Heidegger, Stambaugh, and others, arguing instead for a naturalistic epistemological account. On Jensen's view, each type of history corresponds to a psychological perspective on the world, which makes the world intelligible according to the categories of each type. Jensen insightfully connects Nietzsche's discussion here with his later perspectivism (163). For Jensen, then, Nietzsche is no relativist, but rather a "psychological constructivis[t]" (83). I found it difficult to understand the difference between these terms, however. The charge of relativism...