Reviewed by John E. Toews (University of Washington)
Published on H-German (February, 2010)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Thinking Historically with Nietzsche
Christian Emden's Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of History is an ambitious, provocative work. It aims to provide a synthetic reinterpretation of Nietzsche's intellectual itinerary during the quarter century between his earliest university notebooks and the texts produced immediately preceding his mental collapse. The kind of philosophy that gradually emerges as distinctively Nietzschean, Emden claims, is best described as historicist, as a historical or historicizing investigation, critique, and reflection that seeks the meaning of the forms of human existence in the temporally specific acts and conditions of their historical emergence. Moreover, Emden argues that a consistent central focus of this historical philosophy is the political dimension of human experience. That concept includes the collective or associational life of human beings as structured by relations of domination and submission, exclusion and inclusion, and as impelled through constant transformations by the struggle for mastery and control. Finally, Emden suggests, the recognition that Nietzsche's thought is a form of historical philosophy, with politics as its core content, emerges most clearly if his texts are interpreted as events or actions in the specific historical contexts of their production. These contexts are best described as intense public conversations concerning various dimensions of the historical emergence of modern forms of collective identity in Germany during Nietzsche's lifetime, during the formative years of the creation of the modern German nation-state in the particular shape of Bismarck's empire. In other words, Emden claims that Nietzsche's writings themselves offer the most effective philosophical framework for their analysis and interpretation.
Emden cautions that, in order to include Nietzsche as a participant with a distinctive message within current conversations about the politics of history, rather than as an echo chamber for our own voices, or as merged with the voices of various post-Nietzschean historical appropriators (fascists and authoritarian conservatives in particular), we must first understand his works as contributions to specific conversations. These conversations, we must remember, took place in other times and places. Thinking with Nietzsche historically allows us to encounter his voice as a distinctive voice speaking outside of ourselves, and reveals the historically contingent and specific nature of the assumptions that frame our conversations about what it means to live historically.
Emden makes three major claims: First, Nietzsche is a historicist philosopher. Second, the core content of his thinking is political. Finally, the appropriate strategy for interpreting the meaning of Nietzsche's texts so that they can intervene critically in our own conversations is to take on the stance of the intellectual historian; that is, to view them as a sequence of actions in constantly changing, specific contexts. These contexts are, obviously, interlocked and mutually re-enforcing. Emden does not address the texts separately or "abstractly." Instead, he presents chronologically organized chapters that roughly follow Nietzsche's "becoming" as a thinker of the "politics of history" through a number of historical stages or moments. To be sure, each individual claim is also complex and contentious, directed at what Emden sees as simplistic conventions that have defined Nietzsche's work in abstract philosophical terms as ahistorical or even antihistorical. In this manner, these concepts can speak to us from a privileged universal space that we can appropriate as our own. Seen in this manner, Nietzsche's ideas are focused primarily on the individual psychological processes of overcoming the power of collectively imposed norms or values, and thus naturalize and expand the Kantian notion of individual autonomy. Together, this collective process is positioned against and outside rather than strictly within its time.
Emden's analytical distinctions often become muddled or obscured in the overwhelming detail of the thick contextual descriptions that characterize extended passages of the book. At other times, Emden so entangles and crowds Nietzsche's ideas that even a sympathetic reader might easily get lost. Emden thus often fails to connect the contextual materials he presents to a revised reading of the familiar texts on which readers may have grounded their "conventional" interpretations. Reconstruction of the historical space in which Nietzsche's thinking evolved often overwhelms attentiveness toward Nietzsche's own process of thinking within that space. Will you read Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85) differently after reading Emden's study? Perhaps. But you will have to make most of the connections yourself.
Emden defines the sequence of chapters by the specific historical conversations in which Nietzsche participated, or to which he listened, during specific periods of his intellectual development. The organization is thus not defined by the sequence of texts in which Nietzsche revised, reformulated, and enriched his positions and perspectives. Emden thus clearly privileges some texts. For example, Emden gives undue weight to the second Untimely Meditation (1876) on different modes of "using" history, as well as the sections of Human All Too Human (1878-80), The Gay Science (1882), and Beyond Good and Evil (1886), which contain the most specific references to political issues and events of Nietzsche's time and place. Other signature texts, including The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Anti-Christ (1888), and the extended essays on Richard Wagner (1888) receive little attention. It would seem that Nietzsche's ideas in those works did not fit neatly in Emden's theoretical constructions of the patterns of Nietzsche's thinking. Moreover, the conversations or discursive contexts that Emden does reconstruct have extremely porous boundaries, often framed within ongoing traditions that extended back at least a century. Similarly, in Emden's narrative, one conversation did not simply end and another begin whenever Nietzsche encountered and responded to a new voice or set of voices in his environment. Discourses interacted and overlapped. Emden explains this problem by noting that Nietzsche himself reworked his own earlier contributions for new contexts. Emden is adept at dealing with theoretical complexity, but the effect of his organization can draw the reader into confusing digressions in which the thread of the argument easily disappears. I am somewhat familiar with nineteenth-century German historicism, the major works of Nietzsche, and postmodern debates about the politics of history, but I must admit my mind was often tied in knots or became lost in a tangle of diverging pathways during my first reading of this book.
Emden divides his investigation of Nietzsche's intellectual development into six chapters. Despite the unfamiliar references of the chapter headings, a reader aware of the conventional narrative of Nietzsche's intellectual development will be able to group the six chapters in the familiar tripartite pattern of first, discipleship and assimilation of the intellectual tradition(s) ("The Failure of Neo-humanism," "The Formation of Imperial Germany, Seen from Basel"); second, disillusionment, self-reflection, and critique ("The Crisis of Historical Culture," "Political Lessons from Cultural Anthropology"), and third, the emergence of a mature, independent, recognizably Nietzschean perspective ("Genealogy, Naturalism, and the Political," "The Idea of Europe and the Limits of Genealogy"). I will follow this tripartite division in reconstruction of Emden's contextualized account of the development of Nietzsche's thinking and its political implications for our time.
Emden organizes his analysis of the "assimilation" stage around Nietzsche's commitment to the project of classical philology during his first year as a university student in Bonn. Emden sees this moment of initiation into one of the major academic discourses devoted to the historical investigation of sources, models, and conditions for modern forms of moral and political community as a critical, "decisive" turning point (pp. 7 and 53) for setting Nietzsche's thinking in the direction of historical philosophizing. There, Nietzsche's work took on a more critical and decisive nature than during his earlier initiation into late Romantic discussions about the metaphysical/religious, mythical, and aesthetic foundations of community of his teenage years. As a university student, he sharpened and focused his ideas through experiences with the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and Wagner--an aspect that Emden does not discuss. Training in the disciplinary perspectives of classical philology introduced Nietzsche to the perspectives and scholarly practices of German historicism. He also, indirectly and directly, engaged in debates about the recovery and recognition of a common Germanic ethnicity based on determinations of language and ancestry, and about possibilities for creating of a modern German state as a "moral community" grounded in subjectively affirmed ethical norms. Using references in Nietzsche's notebooks and correspondence as a starting point, Emden attempts to reconstruct the complex and conflict-ridden world of historical discourses and practices that Nietzsche imbibed from teachers and books during his university years.
In Emden's presentation of the public debates in which Otto Jahn, Friedrich Ritschl, Heinrich von Sybel, Anton Springer, and other academic mentors participated, the dimensions emerge of the historical inheritance that Nietzsche assimilated as a budding classical philologist--an intellectual heritage embedded in the curriculum of his studies. During the Napoleonic wars, a conception of classical Greek culture as a historical incarnation of the universally human and as the harmonious integration of freedom and unity, and individuality and collective identity as articulated in the works of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, J. W. von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Alexander von Humboldt had become attached to the particular ethnic foundations of the Germanic peoples and the educational and political purposes of the Protestant, Prussian state. The process of national, religious, and political particularizing of neo-humanist ideals of the fully and universally human had "emptied" the ideal of much of its status as a normative, inspirational model--hence the "the failure of neo-humanism." The commitment of philological analysis to the task of uncovering and recreating authentic historical traces of the original ideal through close investigation of the actual history of its textual production and transformation had also become lost in the fragmented work of academic scholarship. The development of an academic Wissenschaft, or body of scholarship, of classical philology that focused on recovering the textual traces of the past had obscured the "idea" of classical Greece as an exemplary model and/or normative educational ideal. Emden's materials also suggest that the perspectives of Greek philology became more deeply enmeshed in particular debates about the kinds of "imagined communities" of nation and state that might be appropriate for modern Germans after the first of Bismarck's wars in 1864, and again during the Austro-Prussian conflict of 1865-66. Did the Greeks constitute a historical model of an ethnic people whose cultural and political forms expressed and consciously articulated an implicit natural or metaphysical identity? Alternately, was the Greek idea a moral ideal, that is, a historically constructed normative standard that required subjective affirmation through education and obedience to authority in the normatively grounded ethical community of the state? What role did religion play in such an imagined community--as the archaic form of mythical thinking that expressed the pre-rational, "natural," immanent unity of a "people" or as the transcendent, historically appropriated foundation of collective moral discipline? Reflection on such questions, Emden argues, drove Nietzsche to examine the conditions of interpretation in histories of scholarly mediation and appropriation, and, ultimately to ask philosophical questions about the historical determinants of the knowing and willing subject engaged in the construction of historical knowledge. That is, Nietzsche moved past Schopenhauer and back to Immanuel Kant. It was in the philosophical discussions of the academically dominant neo-Kantians about the historical and natural determinants of the knowing and willing subject, rather than in Schopenhauer's anti-Kantian speculations, claims Emden, that Nietzsche found the framework of his future thinking.
By the time Nietzsche had moved from Leipzig to begin his academic career as a professor in Basel, he was ruminating over some of the problems in historical method and interpretation that shaped the meaning of a "historical orientation." These concepts would eventually define the so-called crisis of historicism after his death. Were aesthetic intuition and representation superior to "science" in recovering the unifying meaning (the "idea") that provided the meaningful form for the historical particulars unearthed by scholarly research? If interpretation of the past was grounded in the embodied, lived experience and linguistic codes of the present--a naturalized and historicized version of the Kantian subject and the forms of experience and cognition--how could the historical scholar reach across the chasm of difference and allow the past to speak to, and influence, human action in the present? Emden sees Nietzsche's increasing tendency to seek the source of historical orientation in the embodied experience and linguistic tools of the present as a "cautious materialism." This term, awkward and misleading, poorly captures Nietzsche's interest in the "Dionysian" dimensions of instinctual life and his attempts to imagine the natural sources and evolving forms of creative subjectivity.
The second chapter focuses on Nietzsche's preparation and teaching in classical studies and philological method during his first years as a professor in Basel (1869-1873). There, his intellectual intentions combined with the historical orientation of the influential Basel scholars J. J. Bachhofen and Jacob Burckhardt. The result of these interactions was a complex revision of Nietzsche's historical thinking during the crisis of the Franco-Prussian war and the triumph of the authoritarian model of a modern German nation-state associated with Otto von Bismarck. Emden describes an "anthropological turn" in Nietzsche's historical thinking, based on geographical and intellectual distance from the Prussian/German context: Basel experienced political modernization in ways that diverged significantly from the paradigmatic teleological narrative of the emergence of the nation-state dominant in Germany. This "turn" included a number of dimensions. Most obviously, the move to Basel gave Nietzsche intellectual space to separate himself from the belief that the German nation-state that emerged in 1870-71 fulfilled a necessary purpose-driven development in which the German "idea" finally found its appropriate historical form. He could thus examine the assumptions that informed the historical strategies employed for purposes of national identity formation in the Reich during the 1870s and 80s. Bachhofen and Burckhardt encouraged Nietzsche to view historical cultures as complex totalities defined by historical difference, rather than through the lens of progressive continuity culminating in present cultural and political forms. As individual, specifically situated constructions of meaning, historical cultures were not homogeneous. Instead, they were characterized by fragile and complex constructions of meaningful unity from the pain of individuation and difference. Cultural forms from the past were not so much way stations on the path to the present as they were archaeological layers or strata that had been incorporated into the cultural structures of the present. Historical cultures were thus defined by difference, in the sense that their particular forms resulted from contingent actions responding, within a framework of spatial and temporal determinants, to common human conditions and motivated by a shared desire to overcome the agony of individuation. Emden downplays the aesthetic and myth-oriented elements in Burckhardt and Bachhofen, which tied them as much to Nietzsche's participation in the conversations he was engaged in with the Wagner circle in nearby Tribschen as to the historicizing discussion going on in the Reich within classical philology and other historical and cultural sciences. The contextual conversation in which Nietzsche found himself in Basel, according to Emden, concerned cultural difference and provided historical distance from the teleological narratives, aesthetically revived myths, and historical ideals that legitimated the German form of political modernization. Growing recognition of the historical contingency of the particular form of associational life--the Wilhelmine empire--that emerged from the German wars of unification then drew Nietzsche toward deeper reflection on the status of historical knowledge and its uses in justifying, legitimating, and explaining contemporary forms of life.
The historical context of Nietzsche's early Basel years, in Emden's view, motivated him to engage in general debates about the meaning of historical knowledge and thus toward his second Untimely Meditation, "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life" (1874). In this manner he did not move toward the alternative possibility of a redemptive historical achievement of moral community that, in line with his historical manifesto about the recovery of the Greek ideal, redefined our historical humanity as a tragedy of individuation and identity based on a visionary aesthetic practice. Indeed, Nietzsche's assimilation of the various dimensions of nineteenth-century historicism during the critical years of the emergence of the modern German nation-state would seem to be the perfect entry into an extended revisionist analysis of The Birth of Tragedy. Emden detours around this task, however, because he clearly believes that a focus on the historical orientation of Nietzsche's first and most influential book (during his lifetime) would encourage a misleading conception of him as totally committed to the belief that Schopenhauer's metaphysics and Wagner's aesthetic theory and practice could inspire a historical recreation of the Greek model of a fully actualized humanity in post-1870 Germany. But it seems a mistake to dismiss the work in which Nietzsche actually incorporated his critical assimilation of the complex discourses of historicism into a self-reflection on the historical possibilities of his own age as irrelevant for understanding his historical orientation. It makes Emden's own historical constructions appear too narrow and exclusionary. Emden is correct to remind us of the specific ways in which Nietzsche's theories and practices of historical interpretation in the early 1870s were embedded in the discourses of the academic establishment of his time, and especially in the discourses animating classical philology. In 1872 Nietzsche was very much a man of his time, as the resonance of his early work among groups of young students and intellectuals confirms. Moreover, Nietzsche's extended discussions of the relationship between myth and history, art and Wissenschaft, and of the emergence of Socratic, Alexandrian, "scientific" culture in The Birth of Tragedy are not as reductive as Emden insinuates, and could be interpreted in ways consistent with the overall emphasis of his study. In this case, as in the complete avoidance of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Emden gets carried away by his desire to make Nietzsche appear to be thinking with and responding to his contemporaries as an historically embedded participant in an ongoing discourse--rather than creating terms of a new discourse that extended the reach of his thinking through and beyond existing conversations.
The familiar texts by Nietzsche that Emden privileges in these middle chapters are the historical essay in Untimely Meditations (an essay that Nietzsche himself almost immediately ignored and dropped out of his own conversations with his former selves in later texts) and selected passages from the aphoristic works, beginning with Human, All Too Human, and extending to The Gay Science. His general aim appears to be to show that, after The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche gradually began to develop a reflexive self-consciousness about his own participation in the crisis of historical thinking that accompanied the emergence of new patterns of associational life in the modern nation- state. The discussion of the "Uses and Disadvantages" essay in chapter 3 is framed by an extended review of the discourse of German historicism, going back to the theories of Voltaire and Johann Gottfried Herder in the eighteenth century. It is focused on the ways in which the debates that Nietzsche engaged in this essay were enmeshed in the dilemmas of finding a historical orientation to legitimate the culture of German nationality and Protestant moral community in the Wilhelmine state. The "monumental" and "antiquarian" forms of historical knowledge production are interpreted here in reference to conversations within German historical scholarship, rather than as reflections on Nietzsche's own attempts to use history in these ways to construct a positive model for a modern form of associational life in The Birth of Tragedy.
Emden defines the essential theoretical tension in the German historical tradition as that between "contingency" and "teleology," one that recreates the tension described in earlier chapters between the Prussian school and the Basel cultural historians. The central issue in these conversations of the mid and late 1870s seems to rest between an analysis of traces of the past as components of a unified narrative pattern, a history of "culture" informed by a progressive purpose (that is, the historical integration of individual freedom and collective identity), and an analysis that organizes the remains of the past into expressions of a distinct historical culture, that is, as signs of historically distinct projects for creating meaning within a shared human condition. The categories of analysis deployed by Nietzsche in the "Uses and Disadvantages" essay, however, more obviously mark a first tentative attempt to reflect on the organizing categories he had himself unconsciously assumed in The Birth of Tragedy, and his subsequent efforts to imagine what a critical, and thus also self-critical historical orientation might look like.
Nietzsche's historical reflections on the emergence of modern forms of associational life were elevated to a new level of specificity, complexity, and intensity during the late 1870s, Emden claims, through his immersion in the discourse of the new scholarly discipline of cultural anthropology. The works of pioneering anthropologists like Edward Tylor provided a way of imagining his own culture as "other" and as a contingently generated world of meaning like any other. Nietzsche revealed as illusory the apparent transparency of modern forms of community and communication. Structures of religious belief and mythical imagination continued to sustain, mobilize, and legitimate modern forms of association and ways of thinking that were critically unveiled as haunted by mythical and religious forms of earlier eras. The "lessons" that Nietzsche learned from his engagement with the new anthropology provided final components for his development of a critical historical discourse about the formation of modern moral and political communities. This move paved the way for an analysis of ways in which transformative reappropriation of patterns of mythical thinking and survival of religious beliefs in apparently secular moral communities defined historically contingent realities of contemporary structures of collective life. The task of historical criticism was to draw back continually the veil of illusions that hid particular, contingent historical struggles for social control, moral authority, and collective meaning in the political associations of modern Europe. As a historical ethnography of the generation of values that structured the collective identities of modern Europeans, Nietzschean "genealogy" helped produce a historical subject defined by political realism, willing to look at the world of cultural evaluations that had produced his/her own identity with unflinching honesty and disabused realism. Nietzsche's "originality" as a thinker, Emden implies, was tied to his immersion in scholarly debates about the production of specific cultural meaning and generation of collective identities and contingent "worlds" within his own, specific intellectual environment. Nietzsche was also able to use the discourses with which he operated to illuminate the production of the specific community of the modern nation-state in which he was inextricably entangled. Genealogy was not directed against the historical discourse of his age, but brought that discourse to self-consciousness: it articulated and communicated its implications. But a crucial part of this process, ignored by Emden, was the self-reflective thinking in which Nietzsche recognized the archaeological layers of past cultures embedded in the historical product that was his own subjectivity, the "decadent" subjectivity to which he gave witness in his texts.
Aside from commitment to the constant practice of historical critique, what were the implications of defining the discourse of history as genealogical analysis? In his last two chapters, Emden tries to recuperate from Nietzsche's non-prophetic, non-aesthetic texts (Zarathustra again makes no appearance here) a conception of what kind of politics Nietzsche imagined for his self-reflective, nomadic free spirits: those autonomous individuals daring enough to live their lives as endless experiments and strong enough to assume responsibility for the contingent values they affirmed as they lived out endlessly transforming, self-imposed identities. Here, too, Emden sees Nietzsche's experimental attempts to imagine a possible historical politics for the sovereign individuals released into freedom and responsibility by their genealogical critique of the present as not sui generis, but rather as emerging from and through a process of thinking that was more than self-reflection. Emden excavates a new series of interlocutors engaged in the debate about the post-Kantian construction of a historically changing and biologically grounded human subjectivity whose cognitive categories and moral norms evolved in experimental fashion through relations with the various others that constituted its world. A particularly intense debate occurred in Germany, especially during the 1880s, about the implications of the identification of exclusive and exclusionary racial, ethnic, and/or religious communities with the essential form of all associational life. What kind of cultural community could one imagine as a home for free spirits who rejected all forms of collective identity, not just currently dominant, historically specific forms? Nietzsche's conjectures about a European polity "ruled" by free spirits who resisted integration into exclusive identities and maintained the freedom of experimental value creation, Emden argues, were part of an ongoing intellectual discussion concerning the "idea" of Europe as a cosmopolitan humanist culture that dated back to the Renaissance. These postulations were deeply engaged in the intense and combative turn this discussion experienced in the immediate context of the nationalist, racial ideologies of the 1880s. Nietzsche's projections of possible alternative forms of associational life to those dominating these discussions about the historical legitimation of the emerging German nation-state as a type of moral community--his conjectures about the historical possibility of producing a political world for free spirits--were themselves contingent products of the site and situation of their production. Even the conception of an experimental community of autonomous nomads, disciplined to take on the freedom and responsibility of political realism, was open to genealogical critique.
Thinking historically can reveal the fragile, contingent nature of the values we live by and that shape our moral and political communities. Ultimately, however, there is no "home" for free spirits. Insofar as the cultural and political worlds of Nietzsche's genealogical critique continue to haunt the worlds in which we live, Nietzsche remains worth listening to in very specific ways. As for the alternative experimental possibilities: the fact remains that historical critique cannot itself provide the ground for commitment to new values that could shape new ethical communities. "Whatever alternative genealogy might lead to, it is always limited by genealogy itself," Emden comments in his concluding paragraphs (pp. 322-23). This insight might have provided an opportunity to look again at the sayings of Zarathustra, especially his redefinition of historical philosophy in terms of the doctrine of eternal recurrence of the same. Yet in a book about Nietzsche's historical philosophy, his most famous comment about the meaning of history for life is left without comment.
As an experiment in intellectual history as a history of thinking, Emden imagines Nietzsche as always talking with someone, or among others, in his own particular place and time. Nietzsche's texts are filled with traces of his constant contact with the specific images, ideas, and discourses of the historical culture(s) he inhabited. What I miss in Emden's text is closer attention to the way in which Nietzsche's texts are building sites that provide a space in which to think along with Nietzsche in his process of defining himself, as he appropriated other voices to speak in his own distinctive voice, absorbed what was presented to him in order to imagine other possibilities, and struggled to impose order and form on the chaos of lived experience. Emden does not provide us with any extended historical analysis of a major text as itself an event or series of events, a verbal action that emerges as a process of actualizing possibilities and resolving or illuminating questions framed by the specific, contingent conditions of its historical production. Emden sees Nietzsche as producing certain positions and propositions that can be contextually analyzed as responses to the conversations of his time about modern forms of community or collective identity. What Nietzsche brings to our own table is from a very specific kitchen. But what about the culinary innovation that makes Nietzsche such a vital, stimulating, engaging guest in our parlor? Reconstructing the process of reflection historically embedded in the textual traces he left behind allows us to encounter not only a voice from another cultural world, but also a particular way of thinking about cultural worlds, and about individual and collective identity. Thinking along with Nietzsche creates an interaction, an encounter that can initiate a process of reflection on our own ways of thinking--not only on how we might historicize the voices in which we have been taught to think, but also on ways to move through and beyond those voices to imagine and produce experimental possibilities for the future.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
John E. Toews. Review of Emden, Christian, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of History.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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