R. Kevin Hill. Nietzsche: A Guide for the Perplexed. London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007. x + 204 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8264-8924-1.
Reviewed by Jennifer Benner (Department of History, University of Washington)
Published on H-German (June, 2008)
A Philosopher's Guide to Nietzsche
On the book jacket for Nietzsche: A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum describes its "perplexed" series as "concentrating specifically on what makes the subject difficult to grasp." In the case of Friedrich Nietzsche, an infinite number of possibilities present themselves for such difficulty. To begin with, while Nietzsche's exceptional talent as a literary stylist is inviting to the casual reader (in a way many other philosophers, especially German ones, are not), his fluent prose belies complex and often contradictory ideas. Or, as R. Kevin Hill states in the preface to Nietzsche: "this surface clarity conceals depths" (p. ix). These depths are not easily probed, as Nietzsche resists systemization and is purposefully hard to pin down. Taken literally or metaphorically, concepts such as "the will to power" and "the eternal reoccurrence" are slippery, and their implications not entirely clear. At different moments, Nietzsche presents himself as a critical historian, or "genealogist" of Western morals, as a promoter of "noble" virtues, and as a prophet (Zarathustra) for a new kind of person, and perhaps even of a new kind of community. Then there are issues of translation from German to English, and from the nineteenth to the twentieth century and beyond. Nietzsche's popular and critical reception, which increased exponentially after his death, is varied--to put it mildly. Add his contentious, if posthumous, relationship to German fascism, and it is no wonder the Nietzschean novice, or even intermediate, is perplexed. Acknowledging that such issues cannot be conclusively put to rest, Hill deals with them productively, and for the most part, clearly in this volume. However, there is one caveat; the publisher presents the book as an "introduction" to Nietzsche. While it does a fair job of introducing the philosopher, readers without a basic grounding in general philosophical problems, and to a lesser degree, twentieth-century continental philosophy, will find themselves struggling in many places.
Hill begins with a brief overview of Nietzsche's importance and reception, a short "biographical sketch" and a helpful guide to his writings, both published and unpublished. In the second chapter, "Nietzsche's Writings," Hill moves through the works chronologically in three sections, "early" ( The Birth of Tragedy  to Untimely Meditations ), "middle" (Human, All too Human  to The Gay Science ), and "late" (Thus Spoke Zarathustra  and later). For each section, Hill offers brief textual summaries, broader intellectual and biographical contexts, and notes Nietzsche's changing styles, from early essays to middle period aphorisms to Zarathustra's biblically toned prophecy. This chapter functions well as an overview and includes enough original analysis to interest even readers already familiar with Nietzsche's universe. The novice, however, may feel lost at some points. For example, the background explanation for Birth of Tragedy includes a discussion of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, which can be hard to follow without some familiarity with these thinkers. Brief textual examples from Schopenhauer could have been helpful here. In general, more and longer textual passages from Nietzsche himself are warranted. Issues of space are likely to blame for this deficiency, but Hill might be more explicit in guiding the reader new to Nietzsche towards the texts and passages most essential for a preliminary understanding.
In the next three chapters--"Nihilism, Will to Power, and Value," "Perspectivism," and "Critique of morality,"--Hill, as these titles indicate, explores specific themes more systematically. Hill does a good job of sketching out specific philosophical problems raised by Nietzsche along with challenges inherent in their interpretation. Hill offers guidance while at the same time raising questions and issues, which are appropriately left unresolved. Hill is an able guide to complicated ideas, while his prose is straightforward and examples are well chosen. I was happy to see a section on nihilism because Nietzsche is often popularly, and mistakenly, described as a "nihilist." Hill cogently explains how Nietzsche saw nihilism as the primary problem his philosophy had to confront. Hill's discussion of the eternal recurrence is also insightful, as when he points out its parallel to the Christian doctrine of "rewards and punishments." In Nietzsche's cosmology, "Recurrence is like a reward for those who live well and are strong, and a punishment for those who live badly and are weak" (p. 95). At times, however, as a historian I felt hit over the head by the kind of speculative-logical explanations I remember from Philosophical Problems 101. For example, Hill's description of the "will to power" as a desire to create is helpful, but the related, longer explanation of power as "ability" is confusing. After showing why bacteria and cars can be said to have "abilities," Hill arrives at the conclusion: "Thus it would appear that having abilities cuts across both the mental/non-mental divide and the living/non-living divide, without being equivalent to having a casual property. It does, however, entail having some causal properties" (p. 69). To put it more charitably, some explanations are easier to follow than others. Ultimately, however, the fact that Hill requires readers to have an active engagement in conceptualizing and working through these problems is commendable.
Hill is sensitive to historical and intellectual contexts and he does a particularly nice job of demonstrating Nietzsche's debt to and divergence from Enlightenment philosophical and political theory. Historians may nonetheless wish that Hill spent more time situating Nietzsche in the nineteenth century. Instead, Hill makes the important observation that "the world that produced him [Nietzsche] was so different from the world that ultimately came to embrace him" (p. 5). To make this point, Hill spends the last third of the book discussing how later philosophers (Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze) have addressed Nietzsche. Heidegger warrants his own chapter, titled simply "Heidegger's Nietzsche." The final chapter, "A Different Nietzsche," discusses the other three philosophers. The chapter on Heidegger serves as a useful reflection on some of the philosophical problems in Nietzsche already raised by Hill. At the same time, Hill is careful to note places where Heidegger does not explain Nietzsche so much as use him to buttress his own philosophy. Hill demonstrates a similar tendency in Derrida and Deleuze. Foucault, perhaps because he writes most closely (and self-consciously so) to the spirit of Nietzsche, is best suited to a discussion, in this case on "genealogy," that also illuminates something about Nietzsche. As the original genealogist-historian, Nietzsche began the practice, so important to Foucault and others, of "focus[ing] on small facts which reveal the development of (and sudden shifts in) underlying or permeating practices" (p. 176).
Hill's discussion of later thinkers and working through of philosophical-logical problems in Nietzsche has obvious merits, but it does necessitate a certain degree of extra explanation. For example, the eight-page discussion of Deleuze includes a two plus page introduction to G. W. F. Hegel. While illuminating, such detours stray from the focus of "introducing" Nietzsche and may pose a challenge to the typical reader of books in these kinds of series. Hill does not help matters by using, but not defining, philosophical terminology such as "axiological" and "qualia." He also assumes knowledge of figures such as George Berkley and William Quine. A small amount of explanation on these matters would have been helpful. On balance, however, there is no shortage of introductory texts on Nietzsche, so it is fair enough that Hill has made some idiosyncratic choices about the issues he feels are most pressing and which he is best equipped to discuss. In short, this book will be most useful for those who can read it along with Nietzsche's own work, have a grounding in basic philosophical issues, and are interested in how later philosophers have used Nietzsche in conjunction with their own unique and influential theories.
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Jennifer Benner. Review of Hill, R. Kevin, Nietzsche: A Guide for the Perplexed.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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