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Thomas H. Brobjer, Nietzsche's Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography

Urbana-Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-252-03245-5

Reviewed by Robin Small

Thomas Brobjer is a prominent figure in Nietzsche scholarship, best known for his work on Nietzsche's relation to other authors. His new book provides a general introduction to this subject. Nobody could be better qualified to take on such a task. Brobjer is in many ways an exemplary scholar: thorough, comprehensive and never less than completely accurate, as far as one can tell. Cautious in drawing conclusions, he supports all definite assertions with documentary evidence. Unlike most Nietzsche commentators, he has made an extensive study of Nietzsche's personal library, which is preserved in Weimar, and can tell us which pages show underlinings, corners turned down, and so on. This is all interesting information to have, even when not much of directly philosophical importance emerges from it.

The book's central thesis is that Nietzsche must be understood within his philosophical context, as an original thinker who at the same time interacted with many other writers of his own time and previous times. This historical approach is something of a trend at present. Several recent books on Nietzsche have set out to position him in relation to particular figures such as Emerson, Kant or Darwin, and some of these are cited here. Possibly the author could have referred to the present reviewer's 2001 book Nietzsche in Context, which has some similarity in both title and content, although less comprehensive and focused more on Nietzsche's philosophical thought than on his reading, taken by itself.

Brobjer's opening assertion is that Nietzsche read a lot more than is often supposed. He provides convincing evidence in support of his case, documenting a record of wide reading at every stage of Nietzsche's career. He notes that Nietzsche was not always candid on this point, often covering his tracks, leaving sources unidentified even when citing them, and at times engaging in what we would now regard as outright plagiarism. A further important observation is that Nietzsche's reading was not confined to writers whose reputations were high at the time, or remain high now. On the contrary: whether he ever read Leibniz, Spinoza or Kant is doubtful, at the least, but we know that he read A. Spir, J. G. Vogt, Paul Widemann, Alfons Bilharz and Maximilian Drossbach, and gained a great deal of stimulation from their ideas. Nietzsche scholars face a difficult task in tracking down copies of these long-forgotten productions &hellipand some save themselves the trouble… but Brobjer has studied even the more unrewarding texts and is able to report to readers on their contents.

The text of Nietzsche's Philosophical Context is quite short at 109 pages, but covers an impressive amount of ground. After an overview of Nietzsche's life as a reader, the five writers that Brobjer considers the most important for him—Emerson, Plato, Schopenhauer, Lange and Kant—receive detailed treatment in turn. Like most scholars, Brobjer seems to suppose that Wagner's influence on Nietzsche was purely personal: thus, none of Wagner's written works is discussed or even mentioned in the book. Four chapters follow, each dealing with one phase of Nietzsche's intellectual life, a somewhat arbitrary division but helpful in organising such material.

The first two deal with Nietzsche's reading as a school and university student, and as a young professor in Basel. As one might expect, his academic discipline of classical philology is a dominating influence. Cicero in particular makes a strong impact, but Nietzsche's study of classical literature is eventually overtaken by the powerful influence of Schopenhauer and various contemporary writers described as 'Schopenhauerian' in their outlook. In the chapter on "Middle Nietzsche", a discussion of Nietzsche's quite intense interest in Spinoza …which did not extend to reading his philosophical works, a telling indication of his attitude to other thinkers… is followed by a survey of the possible sources of such later Nietzschean ideas as the eternal return, the will to power, the Übermensch, and others. The more today's scholars look into these, the more Quellen they find, as the regular notices appearing in Nietzsche-Studien …many contributed by Brobjer… confirm. In consequence, there is not much prospect of any straightforward explanation for the origin of such themes in Nietzsche's thought. Possibly this is just as well: in each case, we can note a broad, varied background and then return to the task of trying to understand what Nietzsche has actually written.

Brobjer's survey of Nietzsche's reading in his later years includes important information on his familiarity with the contemporary positivist school in philosophy—a discussion of his relation to Ernst Mach is especially illuminating—and on his engagement with debates over pessimism, not a literature of great permanent value but relevant to many of Nietzsche's preoccupations. Brobjer cites Nietzsche's 1885 reading of St Augustine as illustrating the tensions between what he says in print …in this case, mainly negative and dismissive… and the more objective approach of his notes and drafts, now available to readers in the complete edition of his writings. Brobjer's suggestion is that Nietzsche here …and, he implies, elsewhere&hellip "reverses the practice of most philosophers" who tone down the personal element when they are writing for an audience. For Nietzsche, publication is an opportunity to speak in his own voice, expressing a highly individual viewpoint.

The book contains three lengthy appendices: a chronological survey of Nietzsche's known philosophical reading, a list of the philosophy books in his personal collection, and a global list of his reading in philosophy, organised alphabetically by author. Researchers should find these valuable as a resource which will not only help them to avoid errors but also provide suggestions for further leads in locating Nietzsche's thought within its context. As Brobjer aptly puts it, an examination of his writings in isolation is like reading just one side of a two-way correspondence, despite the availability of the other side.

Although it stands up well as a self-contained piece of work, Nietzsche's Philosophical Context can be seen as a broad introduction to other books by the same author on Nietzsche's reading in particular areas. One of these, on Nietzsche's acquaintance with English-language writers, has already appeared. If the further installments are up to the high standard of this book, they will be awaited by scholars with great interest.

The University of Auckland