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Werner Stegmaier, Friedrich Nietzsche zur Einführung

Hamburg: Junius 2011, 212 pp., ISBN: 978-3-88506-695-8, €14.90

Reviewed by Marcus Andreas Born


The aim of Werner Stegmaier’s Friedrich Nietzsche zur Einführung [Introduction to Nietzsche] is to introduce readers to Nietzsche’s thinking without reducing it to general theses or "doctrines." Stegmaier thus provides not only an interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophizing, but also a particular methodological approach to his works.

The first part of the book, “Nietzsche’s Experiences,” provides a condensed account of Nietzsche’s life, including information about his family, friends and acquaintances, his health, his philosophical influences, and the circumstances under which he wrote some of his works. The second part, “Nietzsche’s Evaluations of the Significance of his Experiences for his Philosophizing”, shows that the first part is intended not only to present Nietzsche’s life, but also to establish ties between his life and his thinking. Stegmaier is well aware that such an approach could be (mis)interpreted as an effort to revive the reductively biographical tendencies which have dogged Nietzsche scholarship since its beginning, and he stresses repeatedly that this is not his intention: “[Nietzsche’s] self-liberation exceeded such biographical causes; this is why one cannot understand his philosophizing without his life, but also not by reducing it to his life” (p. 64; translations from Stegmaier’s book are my own). Instead of providing “simple inferences from Nietzsche’s life to his work” (p. 79), then, Stegmaier focuses on the remarks which Nietzsche makes about “himself” in his works, insisting that Nietzsche “very consciously brought his person, the personal conditions of his philosophizing, into play” (p. 63).

Besides indicating Nietzsche’s most important influences, the third part of the book offers a broad account of the concerns of Nietzsche’s works, from Christianity, Hellenistic Greece, music, philosophy, history, literature, painting, and other graphic arts, to the natural sciences and medicine, psychology, neurology, and psychiatry (pp. 81ff.). Stegmaier not only summarizes these influences and highlights their presence throughout Nietzsche’s work, but also shows how Nietzsche creatively incorporates diverse elements of them into his own thinking, in the manner of something like a philosophical autodidact.

The book’s pivotal point is the fourth part, “Nietzsche’s Forms of Philosophical Writing,” which treats Nietzsche’s idiosyncratic techniques of presenting his thinking. Stegmaier rightly emphasizes that Nietzsche reflects profoundly not only on what he writes, but also—and perhaps even more so—on how he writes. As Stegmaier puts it, in Nietzsche’s texts “[t]he forms of writing are not external to his philosophizing” (p. 99). Stegmaier even traces this claim to Nietzsche’s letters, as a “[p]ersonal communication of his philosophizing” (p. 113), although he argues that these are not a successful means of expressing Nietzsche’s thinking. Stegmaier offers a broad panorama of the manifold forms of writings used by Nietzsche, but focuses on the “aphorism books,” since, he claims, Human, All Too Human, Daybreak, The Gay Science, and Beyond Good and Evil are not unorganized collections of short texts, but a form of philosophizing that reflects the rejection of an absolute, or non-perspectival, form of knowledge.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that Stegmaier warns the reader of an uncritical use of the Nachlass, by underlining the well-known, but often disregarded, “ceterum censeo” that “[t]he notes which [Nietzsche] wrote for himself should not be put on the same level or above the works” (p. 112). One reason why the uncritical use of the Nachlass is problematic is that its "Notate" lack the formal shaping of the published texts, which allows Nietzsche to, among other things, interact playfully with his readers: “[i]n most cases Nietzsche writes here [in the notebooks] without regard to the communication of his philosophizing and thus in the way familiar from the systems of metaphysics” (p. 112). Indeed, Stegmaier claims that the assembling of passages from the published works, Nachlass and letters is the mistaken means by which scholars have been able to attribute general theses to Nietzsche and to generalize and systematize his thinking. He directs this criticism particularly against Heidegger, who reduced Nietzsche’s thinking to the (in)famous doctrines of the death of god, nihilism, the overman, will to power, and the eternal recurrence. But even if Nietzsche scholarship seems to be more careful about Nietzsche’s relation to “metaphysics” than Heidegger, Stegmaier notes that there is still a tendency to try to manage the irritation and frustration which his thinking creates by reducing it to theses, doctrines or even systems.

Stegmaier counteracts this tendency by emphasizing how Nietzsche’s aphoristic writing evades such possible fixations, and, indeed, even by refusing to summarize Nietzsche’s works for fear of inviting systematic interpretations (cf. p. 13). For Stegmaier, the aphoristic form permits Nietzsche to present thoughts without suggesting that they are some kind of “absolute” truths, and Nietzsche achieves this unsettling form of writing through a textual isolation of aphorisms, by means of which they present “incisive [prägnant]” and “pointed [pointiert]” thoughts. By putting them into contexts in his aphorism-books, Nietzsche organizes his aphorisms in such a manner that the reader is unable to ultimately decipher them: “[t]he aphorism avoids doctrines; on the contrary, it incisively makes the matters it treats questionable” (p. 102). Nonethless, Stegmaier insists that this unsettling effect of the aphorisms need not undermine the reader’s “orientation [Orientierung],” but rather allows a new one to be produced.

Stegmaier extracts these guidelines for reading Nietzsche’s texts from his works. Indeed, he claims that “[i]n two notable aphorisms [D P 5 and GS 381] Nietzsche made clear how one should read him” (p. 114). This seems a plausible approach, especially if Nietzsche’s reflections on the possibilities and restrictions of language are taken into account. However, it may be objected that the passages in which Nietzsche expresses his opinions about writing in general or about his own writing in particular are themselves part of his rhetorical strategies for influencing his readers. Furthermore, Stegmaier’s own references to passages of Nietzsche’s works, Nachlass and letters (cf. pp. 100ff.) belie the methodological guidelines that he himself proposes. The quotations, taken mostly from Nietzsche’s works from Thus Spoke Zarathustra onwards, are not read in their context, but assembled in the familiar way. And although Stegmaier advises against the inconsiderate use of the Nachlass, he himself bases some of his claims on passages taken from it without reflecting on their status (cf. pp. 175f.). Still, it must be said that Stegmaier here proposes only to outline a methodology, and not necessarily to comply with it, and that he applies it extensively elsewhere, in his Nietzsches Befreiung der Philosophie. Kontextuelle Interpretation des V. Buchs der Fröhlichen Wissenschaft (Berlin:  De Gruyter, 2012).

After pointing out “Nietzsche’s Expectations of Readers of ‘Both Sexes’” in the fifth part, the remaining parts of the book undertake to show how strongly the concept of “Orientierung” is interwoven with Nietzsche’s thinking. At the beginning of the sixth part, “Nietzsche’s Task and Guiding Distinctions,” Stegmaier links this concept to Nietzsche in an almost programmatic way, by portraying Nietzsche’s main task as that of providing a “new orientation” in the face of all-embracing nihilism: “[a]s a philosopher Nietzsche aimed at a decisive new orientation after what he saw as the most severe desorientation in Europe’s history ... : nihilism” (p. 120). It is no accident that the first as well as the last section of the book emphasizes the importance of “orientation,” and that it plays a decisive role in all of the following chapters: part seven, “Nietzsche’s Critique of Illusory Orientations,” shows that for a new orientation to emerge it is first necessary to question obsolete orientations that harm life (cf. p. 131), and part eight, “Nietzsche’s Reference Points and Measures of Self-critical Orientation,” regards the search for a “foothold” once one has lost one’s “footing,” a foothold which, according to Stegmaier, one must find in oneself: “[a] self-critical orientation, one that abandons the illusions of a foothold outside of itself, beyond its own standpoints, horizons and perspectives, can and must find its foothold in itself” (p. 141). The ninth part, “Nietzsche’s Ways of Revaluation,” addresses the question of how it is possible to revalue values, a task that Stegmaier claims “is no longer the concern of a god, but of humans themselves and eventually of every human himself” (p. 148). After again stressing that positive doctrines cannot be extracted from Nietzsche’s philosophizing in the tenth part, “Nietzsche’s Doctrines and Anti-doctrines in Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” Stegmaier turns to “Nietzsche’s Affirmations” in the penultimate part. There, in addressing nihilism, décadence, great politics, amor fati, and other themes, Stegmaier emphasizes that Nietzsche’s affirmations involve not only critique, but also the new values offered through revaluation (cf. p. 171).

The concluding part, “Nietzsche’s Future?,” raises the question of Nietzsche’s significance for contemporary and future philosophizing. Despite Nietzsche’s extensive influence on different cultural fields and the changes in moral values that have occurred since his time, Stegmaier emphasizes that a “productive nietzscheanism” is still lacking (p. 202). In particular, he insists that, in the light of Nietzsche’s insights, “it is hard to understand how [contemporary philosophy] can combine its unbounded disillusionment of our orientations with the force of its affirmations” (p. 203).

The concept of Orientierung is fundamental to Stegmaier’s treatment of Nietzsche, although he does not define it extensively here. In the fourth part of the book, he binds Nietzsche’s specific form of writing closely to his own project of a “Philosophie der Orientierung” (cf. his Philosophie der Orientierung, Berlin: De Gruyter 2008). He claims that “Nietzsche’s isolation and contextualization of aphorisms in aphorism-books adopts the proven procedure of everyday orientation” (p. 104). This raises a problem when Stegmaier states that Nietzsche “brings the general, without which we cannot proceed, into play in another way: not as something that is claimed to be true, but as something one brings into the game to motivate others, which they can accept or not, in their own way and taking their own responsibility” (pp. 66-67). Although it is undeniable that Nietzsche addresses and stimulates his readers, it may be asked whether Stegmaier’s appraoch fully comprehenends the ways in which Nietzsche does so. In particular, Stegmaier claims for values that “[o]ne can choose among them, bind oneself more or less to them, bring them into a rank order—and revalue them: values allow a change in values” (p. 148). But here the reader may ask whether the concept of Orientierung, however appropriate in other respects, really captures the full rhetorical force of Nietzsche’s texts, and particulaly his later ones. Certainly, one chooses whether or not to read them, but the interactions of Nietzsche’s works with his readers seem to be, on the one hand, more subliminal and, on the other, more violent than the possibility of a choice suggests.

Introductions to philosophers are an ungrateful genre, and the tendency is to reduce the philosopher concerned to some key terms and theses. Stegmaier’s book admirably avoids this tendency. His well-written text not only introduces new readers to Nietzsche, but also takes a strong position in the diversified field of contemporary Nietzsche scholarship. That the extension of Stegmaier’s concept of Orientierung to Nietzsche’s philosophizing is not fully supported need not be explained only by the brevity of the text, but also by the concept itself. Stegmaier insists that anyone who tries to reduce Nietzsche’s thinking to a theory or system fails to do justice to Nietzsche’s works. While claiming for any attempt to read Nietzsche systematically that “so far everybody has compromised himself with it; everybody is perceivable in the way he interprets Nietzsche” (p. 108), Stegmaier claims that his own reading of Nietzsche too reflects its author’s perspective. Indeed, the “zur Einführung” series is meant to provide introductions in which authors “give their own perspectives” on the philosophers concerned (p. 8). If Stegmaier states that “[w]hichever theory one proposes reveals who one is; a philosophical theory is not true or false, but a symptom of something that one wants to overcome” (p. 11), the reader might well ask what this book might be a symptom of. Thus the book itself offers a perspective that can be accepted as an orientation without pinning Nietzsche’s versatile philosophizing to fixed terms and theses.