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Jonathan R. Cohen, Science, Culture, and Free Spirit: A Study of Nietzsche’s Human, All-Too Human

Humanity Books/Prometheus Books, 240 pp.; ISBN 978-1-59102-680-8; pbk $36.95, 2010

Reviewed by Keith Ansell Pearson

Human, all too Human began life as an unfashionable observation (entitled “The Free Spirit”) and was originally to be titled The Ploughshare (which was also to become the working title of Dawn). According to Nietzsche, work on the text was begun in August 1876 and during his flight from the opening of the Bayreuth festival in the forests of Klingenbrunn.  According to Gast, however, Nietzsche began dictating drafts of the book to him between May and July of that year and so before the festival. Whatever the facts, HH signals a radical departure from Nietzsche’s previous writings both in terms of style and content. As with almost every book he now wrote, Nietzsche considered it his most important book to date. He wanted the book published in May to coincide with the centennial celebration of Voltaire’s birthday (May 30), and he wanted the printing of the book to be a secret matter.  He even considered publishing it under a pseudonym, Bernard Cron, about whom he devised a short biography. Nietzsche was concerned how the book would be received by Wagner and his old friends. He had lost his faith in the Wagner cause and he no longer believed that a cultural regeneration could take place through his music-opera. Now he was publishing a volume for free spirits and dedicated to a French thinker, an insult to Wagner that was too obvious to go undetected.   The dedication to Voltaire was clear evidence of Nietzsche’s new rationalist zeal.  He also included on the same page a passage from Descartes’ Discourse on Method which was used in lieu of a preface celebrating the cultivation of reason and the joy of knowledge. The book shocked many of its readers, including close friends like Erwin Rodhe.  This is a shock that is perhaps difficult for us to register today.  Such is the extent to which we have assimilated the free spirited thinking and naturalism Nietzsche espoused in the book.  Coming to the book from the earlier writings, Rohde compared the experience to being chased from the calidarium, the steamy waters, into an icy frigidarium. As Nietzsche puts it himself in Ecce Homo, one error after another is calmly laid upon ice so that the ideal is not refuted but made to freeze to death (EH: HH). Nietzsche was leaving behind the anchors in his life up to this point and was writing under the influence of  new friend, philosopher and psychologist Paul Rée whom he had first met in 1873. Nietzsche termed Rée’s psychological, materialist-inspired interpretations of religion and morality ‘Réealism’.

In this close and detailed reading of the text, the first its kind in English-speaking scholarship, Jonathan Cohen aims to show why HH is to be regarded as the crucial watershed in Nietzsche’s intellectual development.  In a wide-ranging treatment he: analyses the role of science and culture in HH, seeking to show on what precise points the text breaks with the valorisation of culture and illusion over science in the early writings; illuminates the attack on metaphysics; probes the role and nature of free spirits, including their relation to culture; brings to light the literary integrity of the text.  Cohen ends with a final chapter on science, culture, and free spirits in the later works, where he locates structural similarities between HH and Beyond Good and Evil in particular, whilst acknowledging that Nietzsche’s conception of free spirits has undergone some important alterations.  He also notes in his final chapter that in some respects Morgenrothe has a claim to being conceived as the real start of Nietzsche’s philosophical maturation since it is in this text, and not HH, that his immoralism is announced (‘immoralism’ understood here as entailing the decisive break with tradition and convention and an attachment to the cause of ‘evil’). The book offers fresh and instructive insights into core aspects of Nietzsche’s text, including his changed conception of culture and why it is that philosophy is so demoted in significance compared to science. Cohen shows himself to be a reliable guide to the text with a solid understanding of the corpus as a whole and an intimate knowledge of HH in particular.  His book will surely become adopted as helpful guide to those wishing to teach HH: it admirably brings to life many of the tensions and paradoxes of the book and, at least to the satisfaction of this reader, successfully resolves them, or at least shows ways in which they can be resolved. He is especially good on the free spirits and their role as part of an avant-garde that will have a trickle-down effect on culture and its transmutations. 

Cohen’s book is part of a new current in Nietzsche-studies that focuses on the texts as units of interpretation, and perhaps no part of the corpus is more in need of this kind of devoted and attentive study than the texts of the free spirit trilogy. Cohen puts it well when he states that to understand Nietzsche it is necessary to understand his development, and to understand this development it is necessary to understand HH. Although typically conceived as the first of Nietzsche’s ‘aphoristic’ works, Cohen argues that this is not entirely accurate. Instead, he prefers to construe Nietzsche’s new style as terse and elliptical, the aim of which is to demonstrate a certain coldness of thought, whilst at the same time inviting the reader into the labyrinth of the text in an effort to become part of it and be seduced by its free-spiritedness.  As Cohen writes: “The era of edifying metaphysics has left words overblown; scientific knowledge, however, requires precision of words. In a terse style, each word must be precise because there is no hope the reader will manage somehow to get the picture amid a cloud of verbiage such as would result from a more prolix style. The contrast with Schopenhauer could not be clearer” (pp. 178-9).  As he goes on to note, such a terse style does not seek to edify or to excite and the intent was to avoid this.  What Nietzsche judged to be most needed were ‘icepacks’for a feverish mind. 

There are weak points in the book and its core theses.  To my mind, Cohen exaggerates the importance of HH in the admittedly complex story of Nietzsche’s development, failing to adequately grasp the nature of Nietzsche’s precise set of problems with Wissenschaft (scholarship more than ‘science’) in his early period and failing to appreciate the extent to which a later text like Thus Spoke Zarathustra adopts and puts to work again many of the themes and motifs of the unfashionable observations. As Cohen notes, HH is Nietzsche’s longest book in terms of sections (638) and covers a dizzying array of topics.  There are inevitably important and neglected topics that are not covered in his guide to the text, such as Nietzsche’s Epicurean bent at this time (made explicit in WS) and also the influence of Stoic sources on his thinking.  The latter nicely complements his emphasis on the coldness and rigour of science, and Cohen does rightly note that the state of mind of a free spirit resembles that of the apatheia of the Stoic sage.  His study limits itself to HH which I think was an unduly restrictive choice:  the author should have drawn freely from ‘aphorisms’ in the subsequent additional texts of AOM and WS.  Because of his neglect of these additional volumes the book fails to explore the politics Nietzsche is espousing at this time, including his affirmation of a democracy to come.  In the middle period Nietzsche is often at his visionary best. He already has at this time key notions we associate with his late philosophy, such as ‘the good European’ and ‘great politics’. He is also able to anticipate the emergence of a European league of nations through the democratization that he sees as defining the modern age. Nietzsche’s politics at this time are a fascinating mix of the judicious and the visionary and merited the author’s attention. Cohen rightly sees HH as holding a special position in Nietzsche’s corpus, standing at the crucial juncture of his life when he breaks free of his master (Wagner) and staking out his independence, intellectually and professionally.  He also claims that the text is the crucial linchpin in Nietzsche’s philosophical career as well. However, he could have finessed more the nature of the break with Schopenhauer, for whilst it is manifestly the case that he is now following a different philosophical path than that of his great educator, he is still thinking within the terms set by Schopenhauer’s philosophy.  Exposing the fable of intelligible freedom, Nietzsche leaves his readers with an unconvincing Laplacean determinism.  Here Cohen could have probed a lot more deeply.

To conclude: this is an extremely well-written and deftly constructed study of Nietzsche’s HH, which can be strongly recommended to those seeking an aid to the text.  Cohen’s study will also serve to enrich the research carried out on HH and overall is a most welcome addition to the literature on Nietzsche.