U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Plastic Nietzsche, Part VII: The Final Entry In My Serial Review of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche

Prior Entries: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and Part VI.


Walter Kaufmann is a key figure in American Nietzsche. Other reviewers have taken note, and I concur that Ratner-Rosenhagen’s analysis of that translator and promoter of Nietzsche’s thought deserves praise. In this final entry of my series I return to him in order to reflect on a brief but noteworthy section of the book. That section goes to the paradoxical core of why Nietzsche is both valuable and problematic for philosophers and deep thinkers of all stripes. Along with the Interlude, this portion of the book also helps explain his relevance to the thinking realms of a democratic culture. Taken together these two parts of the book constitute the heart and soul of American Nietzsche.

Several immigrant and émigré Nietzsches existed in American thought before Kaufmann’s work became prominent. Ratner-Rosenhagen provides rudimentary outlines of versions celebrated by Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Paul Tillich, and especially Theodor Adorno (pp. 226-233). But it was Kaufmann’s Nietzsche that would capture the imagination of American thinkers. In Ratner-Rosenhagen’s hands, Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is the Enlightenment’s “problem thinker” and “serious philosopher” who expressed himself—and this is key—in aphorisms. Nietzsche becomes the philosopher who had lost his “faith in mankind” and some “optimism” but “still shared the Enlightenment belief in man.” To Kaufmann the latter expressed itself in a “reasoned philosophy of ‘self-perfection'” that reconciled the sometimes contradictory claims of Nietzsche’s aphorisms (p. 234). The Interlude demonstrated how Nietzsche connected to readers in a democracy, but his aphorisms explain the accessible, democratic nature of his philosophy. The “aphoristic style,” then, is both the problem and the key to understanding Nietzsche the philosopher.

But what are “aphorisms”? According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, they are “concise statement[s] of a principle” or “terse formulation[s] of a truth or sentiment,” an “adage.” The following entry from the Concise Encyclopedia is located on that same webpage. Aphorisms are (bolds mine): “Terse formulation of any generally accepted truth or sentiment conveyed in a pithy, memorable statement. The term was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, a long series of propositions concerning disease and the art of healing. Aphorisms were used especially in dealing with subjects for which principles and methodology developed relatively late, including art, agriculture, medicine, jurisprudence, and politics, but in the modern era they have usually been vehicles of wit and pithy wisdom. Celebrated modern aphorists include Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde.”

The term ‘aphorism’ arises seven times in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in entries for “Francis Bacon,” “Literary Forms of Medieval Philosophy,” “Spinoza’s Physical Theory,” “Metaphor,” etc. The most substantive treatment is in the entry on “Literary Forms of Medieval Philosophy.” Here are some excerpts (bolds mine):

– “This form is not terribly common in the medieval period. Two works worthy of mention are Al-Farabi’s political aphorisms and a text attributed to Hermes Trimegistus…called The Book of Twenty-Four Philosophers. This text consists of twenty-four definitions of God…Al-Farabi’s work, known as ‘Selected Aphorisms’ gets this title from its opening lines, in which Al-Farabi says the work consists of selected aphorisms from the ancients (Plato and Aristotle) ‘concerning that by which cities ought to be governed and made prosperous…’ (Butterworth, 2001, 5-6).”
– “The aphoristic form seems to raise some of the same questions about possible esoteric motivations as does the allegorical form. In the case of The Book of the Twenty-Four Philosophers the form seems to derive from the inaccessibility of the divine nature to human intellection.”
– “In genre some medieval works fall somewhere between aphorism and axiom, most significantly works connected to the important and influential Liber de causis. The Liber circulated as a work of Aristotle under the title Liber Aristotelis de expositione bonitatis purae until the 13th century when Thomas Aquinas found its source in Proclus’s Elements of Theology….The work seems to present its principles as axioms, but the principles and their explanation/derivation is not really demonstrative and the principles themselves are highly abstract Neoplatonic metaphysical principles that are sometimes as paradoxical as they are self-evident.”

So when you read Nietzsche you find an ancient form of philosophy where axioms, or adages, are expressed with brevity, or conciseness. But the form also raises questions about “esoteric motivations” and the demonstrability of the given aphorism. The form makes the principle presented feel like Biblical wisdom, but the principle may also feel self-evident, paradoxical, or just inscrutable upon further exploration. The aphorism presents Nietzsche and his philosophy as both trustworthy and mysterious. This likely buttressed the feelings of those already attracted to Nietzsche’s exoticism. The thing to remember, however, is that Nietzsche’s form derived from a long, if troublesome, tradition in philosophy.

Returning to American Nietzsche, in her discussion of Kaufmann’s re-presentation of Nietzsche’s works Ratner-Rosenhagen makes an important observation. While Nietzsche disdained writers who put style over substance—“literary decadence” he called it—his own philosophical writings were based on “lightning strike” aphorisms and what appear to be “flashes of insight” (p. 234). So not only were his aphorisms a potential problem as a philosophical presentation, but Nietzsche contradicted himself in relation to his own style. The crafty Kaufmann, however, used Nietzsche’s own criticism “to inoculate” the latter “against the very charge” of “literary decadence” (pp. 234-235). In the following extended passage, Ratner-Rosenhagen uses Kaufmann’s own 1950 work, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, to shed light on Kaufmann’s maneuvers (bolds mine):

Kaufmann defended Nietzsche’s use of aphorism by arguing that it was the necessary means for him to radically revise both the mode and the purpose of philosophical inquiry. He argued that aphorisms were crucial to Nietzsche’s pluralistic project, for they let him come at the question of life from as many different angles as possible. In addition, [Kaufmann] argued that Nietzsche’s aphorisms served as thought experiments, provisional hypotheses to test new visions of the good life in a contingent universe. He characterized both Nietzsche’s theory of knowledge and the form he used to express it by introducing the terms experimental and existential. By this, Kaufmann meant that questions about truth, beliefs, and nature are valuable only insofar as they are relevant to one’s way of life. For Nietzsche, philosophy is [in Kaufmann’s words] ‘not a finished and impersonal system, but a passionate quest for knowledge, an unceasing series of courageous experiments.’ …For Kaufmann, Nietzsche’s existentialism is best understood when we consider him to be a ‘problem-thinker’, not a ‘system-thinker’, and that his use of aphorism was his way of ‘living through each problem.’ By insisting that aphorism is not an abandonment but a realization of the serious inquiry into the problems of living…Kaufmann connected the dots: ‘Life does indeed reside in the whole of Nietzsche’s thinking and writing, and there is a unity which is obscured, but not obliterated, by the apparent discontinuity of his experimentalism.’ (pp. 235-236).

This passage raises many tough, perhaps unanswerable, questions: What did Kaufmann mean exactly by “the question of life”? Is the phrase “pluralistic project” anachronistic (i.e. presentist) in relation to Nietzsche—a relic of Kaufmann’s own thought project? Is Kaufmann’s existential vision of Nietzsche also anachronistic, or are the unifying threads real? At what point does a Nietzschean “thought experiment” turn into a verifiable, demonstrable axiom to contributes to a new vision of the good? When does it become a Nico-Nietzschean Ethic, if you will? To Kaufmann it never will. Based on Kaufmann’s description of Nietzsche as the uber-practitioner of an “experimental…philosophy of life” (p. 236), was Nietzsche more of a non-systematic, anti-formal proto-pragmatist than proto-existentialist?* Do aphorisms crush logic while exemplifying an alternate reality-based rationality?

Despite the seriousness of these questions, if one can set them aside temporarily, the appeal of aphorisms is obvious. They are an accessible, democratic way of philosophizing. They provide people not trained in formal philosophy with an entry point into the game of “serious inquiry into the problems of living.” Aphorisms enable one to be antifoundational and anti-systematic without being anti-philosophical. Nietzsche’s aphorisms allowed his thought to be inserted in different contexts and different times. Even if Kaufmann used Nietzsche’s thought in ways that fit the former’s existentialist program, Nietzsche himself also allowed for it. His “lightning strikes” could be inserted in many contexts. And because Nietzsche was concerned with the alienation of modernity, as well as with the historicism of moral and ethical systems, his aphorisms have been relevant to twentieth-century problems. The “aphoristic style” enabled plasticity, a variety of American Nietzsches.

Aphorisms are often provocations. Provocations inspire different thinking, diversity in thought: agreement can wait. There is, of course, much more to philosophy than mere provocation. But an appreciation of aphoristic provocation helps in understanding why Nietzsche has appealed to twentieth-century Americans. Democratic culture seeks to both foster and reconcile provocations. The Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis captures a great part of that process. But that beginning point, the thesis, is almost always a provocation—either accidentally or purposefully. The enlightened autonomous difference maker is almost always going to provoke her/his friends and colleagues. And this is what made “Kaufmann’s Nietzsche…an indispensable seer, critic, and educator” to his readers (p. 261).

This presentation of Nietzsche has its limitions. Ratner-Rosenhagen points this out in her own critique of Kaufmann’s Nietzsche. The pursuit of a provocative, “Dionysian,” authentic self-hood was, in Nietzsche, accompanied by a “repeated emphasis on the warring instincts” (p. 261). Kaufmann’s Nietzsche was monistic, ahistorical, and apolitical, which contradicted Nietzsche’s own emphasis on historical rootedness. Kaufmann emphasized “Nietzsche’s intellectual self-sovereignty” above the rest of the thinker’s themes (p. 261). Kaufmann’s Nietzsche sold, at least among thoughtful Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. But it undersold Nietzsche’s complexity and contradictions. The provocative, aphoristic Ubermensch—a Nietzsche confused with the partial explication of his philosophy—captured the imaginations among the fearful. This was the seductive, roguish Nietzsche I met at the University of Missouri in the early 1990s.

Indeed, as I reassess the three Nietzsches I knew before reading this book—the Crusade, Rogue, and Academic Nietzsches—I see fully how and why these iterations came into being. My misapprehensions and misunderstandings have been corrected and contextualized. More importantly, I now know why I encountered them. I would now go as far as to assert that all academics, and all those who care about the humanities, should develop a deeper understanding of Nietzsche’s plasticity, permanent relevance, and philosophical assertions. There is a reason why Nietzsche remains canonical.

As for American Nietzsche‘s place in the canon of American history, it would be premature to say anything authoritative. But I will most certainly hazard a highly enthusiastic limited affirmation: Ratner-Rosenhagen has authored an indispensable work of cultural and intellectual history.  It is also eminently readable. Up to this point I have not praised her writing style, but this is a lyrical, stylish work. She’s not a Louis Menand nor Jackson Lears, but that is no insult. Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation is one of the most literary cultural-intellectual histories I’ve read in years. Comparatively, I am still pleased to have spent so much time with American Nietzsche. If your knowledge of Nietsche heretofore is superficial, after reading American Nietzsche you’ll know as much as—nay probably more than—the Nietzsche poseurs and Evangelical critics. You’ll also fully understand the enthusiasm of late twentieth-century academics. Finally, if you let her, Ratner-Rosenhagen will show you something important about Nietzsche’s place in the American intellectual tradition—about how Nietzsche inspired problem thinkers in a pluralistic democracy.


*Ratner-Rosenhagen asserts that if there were strong parallels between pragmatism and Nietzschean socio-cultural criticism, it was Nietzsche who provided an “animating image of the good life” in a way that “instrumentalism alone” could not. She continued: “The notions of provisional truth and situational ethics were useful strategies for dealing with the mechanics of living, but what they [Nietzscheans] desired above all else was a ‘prophetic vision’ of human existence that was both inspirational and terrifying, sublime and haunting” (p. 189).

5 Thoughts on this Post

    • There will be a round table in a few months for those who have a fix for AN blog posts. 🙂 Thankfully (for me, and perhaps most USIH readers), I will not be a part of that event except perhaps as a commentator. …I’m glad to have at least 1-2 skimmer/readers of my serial review entries.

      Joking aside, hopefully some of these posts and the reflections they contain will be helpful to someone. They have most certainly helped me sort out my long and short term, as well as deep and superficial, thoughts on Nietzsche. And an important part of our audience consideration, as writers, is always ourselves, yes? – TL

  1. Tip for Readers: If you’re familiar with (or not interested in) prior reviews of *American Nietzsche*, you can read entries 1, 5-7 for my thoughts alone. – TL

  2. Tim,

    I have found your multipart examination of “American Nietzsche” a compelling read. One part of “American Nietzsche” that I found interesting that you did not touch on was its role filling a glaring historiographical need for a American reception study of Nietzsche’s philosophy. I was wondering how you feel about “American Nietzsche” as a reception study. Though I thoroughly enjoyed it, I thought there was an uneasy tension in “American Nietzsche” between being a study of how Nietzsche’s thought was received by American audiences (a la Aschheim’s book on Nietzsche and Germany) and why Nietzsche’s American reception shed particular light on the character of the American intellectual tradition – particularly its inferiority complex vis-a-vis its European counterpart.

    I guess the heart of my question is whether “American Nietzsche” overextends itself by trying to relate to larger intellectual questions beyond Nietzsche reception in the U.S.?


    • Matthew,

      My high regard for this as a reception study was implicit in my discussion, in Part VI, of the Interlude. That was an excellent chapter that was all reception, all the time. I can think of only one consideration Ratner-Rosenhagen did not make in relation to reader reception and response: she did not critique whether her readers “got Nietzsche right.” At least one reviewer nicked her for on that point (esp. Posnock). I found her reasoning for not doing so satisfactory—i.e. she wanted to fully explore reader response on the terms of the reader. Judging is too easy, and it goes against the inherent plasiticity/flexibility in Nietzsche’s thought.

      Otherwise, she carried her discussion as far as the letter evidence allowed, expanding on her readers’ context and the letters’ connections to Nietzsche and his thought. I don’t think Ratner-Rosenhagen really covered the issue of an “inferiority complex,” not in those terms anyway. Do you mean culturally, or as an intellectual critique of America by other intellectuals?

      To be sure, Nietzsche’s fans—both general and intellectuals—admired him for his critique of ‘democratic man’, meaning the complacency and lack of cultural-intellectual ambition among the masses. Nietzsche enabled an American-based critique of our complacency as individuals—that we don’t seek greatness.

      I don’t believe that *American Nietzsche* overextends. If anything, some reviewers have criticized Ratner-Rosenhagen for underextending—for not showing just how thoroughly Nietzsche was present culturally (e.g. not cataloging and critiquing every instantiation in movies for instance). As for Nietzsche’s relevance to larger intellectual questions and topics (e.g alienation, progress, democracy, religion), it’s all there—for real.

      I hope this is a satisfactory response.

      – Tim

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