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Werner Stegmaier, Nietzsches Befreiung der Philosophie. Kontextuelle Interpretation des V. Buchs der Fröhlichen Wissenschaft

De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston 2012, 754 pp., ISBN 978-3-11-026976-5, $70

Reviewed by Carlo Gentili


Werner Stegmaier’s new work is an extensive study of the fifth book, “We fearless ones [Wir furchtlosen],” of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. However, it is not a mere commentary on the forty aphorisms contained in the book (GS 343-383). It is rather an entirely new interpretation of Nietzsche’s later philosophy. The volume consists of two parts: first, an introduction (pp. 3-88) in which Stegmaier analyzes The Gay Science in relation to Nietzsche’s other writings—and in particular to Thus Spoke Zarathustra—and the topics treated in the fifth book in relation to those of the four previous books; and, second, a commentary (pp. 91-640) in which the aphorisms of the fifth book are analyzed not in the order in which they appear, but in thematic groups. Each of the two parts concludes with a discussion of the secondary literature.

As is well-known, Nietzsche published two editions of The Gay Science, the first in 1882 and the second in 1887. The first edition comprised four books and was preceded by a collection of epigram-like poems entitled “Joke, Cunning and Revenge [Scherz, List und Rache]” (also the title of a comic opera by Nietzsche’s friend Heinrich Köselitz (Peter Gast), itself a translation into music of a Singspiel by Goethe of the same title). Although Nietzsche’s original plan was for The Gay Science to be made up of five books, like Daybreak, in a note of August 26, 1881, he outlined the book only in four parts, under the title “For the “features of a new way of living”” (11[197], Stegmaier, p. 51). In the preceding notes (11[195] and 11[196]) he also jotted down some sentences later included at the beginning of Zarathustra, indicating that the projects of The Gay Science and Zarathustra were closely connected from the beginning.

Only later did Nietzsche decide to add a fifth book to the original edition of The Gay Science, to make it reflect the structure of Daybreak. The first proofs of the new edition were sent to him at Sils-Maria on June 24, 1887 (p. 59). Besides the fifth book, this second edition included a new introduction, written along with the new introduction to Daybreak, and an appendix of poems, “Songs of Prince Vogelfrei” (largely a reworking of the Idylls from Messina). The addition of the fifth book was not a straightforward one, however. Although Nietzsche wrote some thirty new aphorisms “of major importance and rather long” (p. 55; translations of Stegmaier are my own) between the end of September and the end of October 1886 with the intentions of adding them to the new edition, a series of delays and misunderstandings with the editor Wilhelm Fritzsch made him consider adding them to the second edition of Beyond Good and Evil instead (p. 56). Once the misunderstandings were overcome, he returned to his original plan and increased the number of new aphorisms to forty.

In this second edition, The Gay Science is an extraordinarily complex piece of work. Nietzsche himself appears to indicate the book’s significance when, in a letter to Carl Fuchs of July 29, 1888, he calls it “my most central book” (p. 50). Chronologically, it encompasses Thus Spoke Zarathustra—the four parts of which were written by between 1883 and 1885—and Beyond Good and Evil, published in 1886 (p. 60). Stegmaier draws a striking conclusion from this—namely, that the second edition “supersedes the periods into which Nietzsche’s works are normally divided, thus cancelling the distinction between a middle text (before Zarathustra) and a later one (after Zarathustra)” (p. 58). Stegmaier further claims that the second edition of The Gay Science should be considered as not only an introduction to Zarathustra, “but also the work that once again was parting” from it (p. 60). Indeed, with his most controversial claim, Stegmaier argues that, with the addition of the fifth book, The Gay Science becomes a sort of experimental book in which Nietzsche not only continues the criticism of morality begun with Human, All Too Human and Daybreak, but also abandons what even today are often considered his fundamental doctrines.

It may be doubted whether the fifth book really “completes” the first four in the way that Stegmaier claims. For instance, Wolfram Groddeck has made a persuasive case for regarding the second edition of The Gay Science as a new text—with, among other things, different styles—and as one that, while it does not cancel the first edition, nonetheless competes with it. For Groddeck, the fifth book should therefore be considered an independent text, one that contrasts “with the other four books to the extent that it acts as an original text” ((“Die ‘Neue Ausgabe’ der ‘Frölichen Wissenschaft’. Überlegungen zu Paratextualität und Werkkomposition in Nietzsches Schriften nach ‚Zarathustra’,” in Nietzsche-Studien 26, 1997, pp. 184-198, pp. 185-186).

But Stegmaier’s view is clear: the fifth book “completed what the first four had prepared” (p. 53), since, despite the five-year gap, it pursues the concept indicated by the title, The Gay Science, and thus opens up new prospects in Nietzsche’s later philosophy. Indeed, among all the “unsettling [irritierend]” titles of Nietzsche’s works, Stegmaier suggests that we regard The Gay Science as “the most unsettling” (p. 43). For, in his view, this title does not refer to a specific object, but by “referring to an erudite poetic art from the Middle Ages”—that of the troubadours of Provence—“announces an extremely problematic change in the character of science,” one that with the adjective “gay [frölich]” indicates an opposition to the “earnestness [Ernst]” that science attributes to itself, as the pursuit of the truth in Western tradition. Specifically, Stegmaier claims that Nietzsche’s intention is to destroy faith in the truth that found its last repository in science, a faith that is nothing but an extreme reflection of the basic form of every “faith,” including faith in God. (The aphorisms that open the third book are particularly important in this respect.) In this sense, The Gay Science is about “the death of God” only in a minor sense. For, as Stegmaier puts it, with this book Nietzsche “wanted to destroy an ancient faith, not really the faith in the old God, who by this time was already “dead,” but rather the “shadow” that he had casted and left as a legacy, faith in the purity of science” (p. 43). 

From this point of view, Nietzsche’s later philosophy appears in a new light and the aphorisms of the fifth book of The Gay Science “complete” the previous four books in treating a unitary theme—namely, how the object of our “love for knowledge,” the truth, must remain “always as far away and unreachable as the loved one is for the troubadour.” Stegmaier claims that “a gay science loves truth, but it also keeps away from it, and derives from this its pleasure” (p. 45), and that “Nietzsche does not define gaiety [Frölichkeit]: it is a disposition of the spirit [Stimmung], it shall display itself,” as “is shown, in the most mature way, in book V of The Gay Science” (p. 46).  Indeed, for Stegmaier, Fröhlichkeit is, ultimately, the result of an Enlightenment attitude turned against the foundation that, historically, the Enlightenment could not, or did not wish to, undermine. The fact that Stegmaier entitles the first section of his introduction, “Nietzsche’s ‘Risky Consequences’ in the Enlightenment of the Enlightenment [Nietzsches ‘gefährliche Consequenz’ in der Aufklärung der Aufklärung]” is significant: “where others sought indubitable certainties [Nietzsche] saw the risk of all certainties, that of being fooled by them.” If the Enlightenment had the courage to doubt certainties, it was not able to do the same with its own certainties—namely, with what Stegmaier calls “the subject certain of himself and of his knowledge, the freedom of his will and the laws, state, regulations and moral values based on it” (p. 3). Nietzsche’s enlightenment no longer aimed at “the demystification of religion, as eighteenth century enlightenment did, but also and especially of morality, into which religion has increasingly transformed itself and which is the basis of science, the same science on which historic Enlightenment still thought it could build itself” (p. 4). In this sense, Nietzsche is the heir of the limits that Kant establishes for reason and also of Socrates, whose “knowing you know nothing” unveils every piece of knowledge as mere appearance, as well as the forerunner of the major critics of the Enlightenment who follow his legacy, namely, Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas (p. 4).

For Stegmaier, if reason can still navigate a world in which there are no longer certainties, this is because it has become fröhlich. That is, it can no longer provide certainties or indicate the truth, but it can nonetheless generate criteria that human beings can use to orient themselves in the world. A science and a philosophy that have applied to themselves an artistic and gay enlightenment—what Stegmaier calls “die künstlerisch-fröhliche Selbstaufklärung der Wissenschaft und Philosophie”—aim at “the renewal of human orientation in general” (p. 52). Stegmaier considers this to be Nietzsche’s answer to “the most insidious question” raised in aphorism 7 of The Gay Science (“Something for the industrious”), that regarding “whether science can furnish goals of action after it has proved that it can take such goals away and annihilate them.” Science, Stegmaier claims, “does not proceed in the name of a universal reason, but by following scientific perspectives subject to change, mainly biological, physiological, psychological and sociological perspectives.” This science has become “gay” in the sense that its concern with orientation has become instinctive; its role is that of “binding the theoretical conscience to its many orientation contexts” (p. 53). Here Stegmaier appeals to his broader theorization of the concept of “orientation,” developed extensively with reference to Kant as well as to Nietzsche in his edited volume, Orientierung. Philosophische Perspektiven (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 2005) and in his Philosophie der Orientierung (De Gruyter, Berlin/New York, 2008). 

Besides giving this interpretation of the project pursued by the fifth book of The Gay Science, Stegmaier also interprets it in the light of the successive stages of the development of Nietzsche’s thought and, in particular, On the Genealogy of Morality and the so-called Lenzerheide-Fragment, entitled “European Nihilism” and dated June 10, 1887, immediately after the preparation of the fifth book of The Gay Science. In Stegmaier’s view, the Lenzerheide-Fragment is particularly significant in indicating that Nietzsche abandons two of his fundamental “doctrines”. “The will to power” is presented as tending towards a nihilistic will to nothing, against which a form of “active nihilism” is required which, in the last part of the note, Nietzsche describes as the attitude of the “stronger [die Stärksten],” or those who “do not need extreme articles of faith” (KSA 12, p. 217). And in proposition 6 of the fragment, Nietzsche defines the eternal recurrence as “the extreme form of nihilism” and, again, as a will to nothing, as is indicated by his further definition of nihilism as a “European form of Buddhism” (KSA 12, p. 213). Stegmaier concludes that “even the thought of the eternal recurrence may be an extreme article of faith, which is not needed by gay spirits” (p. 61). 

These general interpretative claims about Nietzsche’s criticism of knowledge are then used by Stegmaier in commenting on the individual aphorisms of the fifth book. Here I will consider just one particular theme in this commentary—namely, how Nietzsche’s criticism of truth as the foundation of modern science leads to his “perspectivism,” which can be considered the defining concept of his later philosophy. Particularly important is Stegmaier’s analysis of aphorism 374, “Our new 'infinite'.” There, Stegmaier emphasizes that, since Nietzsche affirms “the perspectival character of existence” by which he apparently means that “all existence is […] essentially actively engaged in interpretation,” Nietzsche “has been supposed to attribute to it an ontology, statements on the nature of the being in itself.” Referring to notes 14[186] and 14[79] of Spring 1888, Stegmaier correlates the perspectival character of existence with the will to power and concludes that, with the term “perspectivism,” “an ontology of the wills to power [plural] is outlined, and not of the will to power [singular], to which Heidegger fastened Nietzsche’s philosophy” (p. 410). For in the two notes Nietzsche defines “necessary perspectivism” as that on the basis of which “each centre of force [jedes Kraftcentrum]” generates the world starting from itself and establishing its dominion over space—this is “its will to power.” Furthermore, each Kraftcentrum is for Nietzsche a quantum of will to power, hence force must be the result of quanta that clash against each other. In contrast with Heidegger’s reading, then, the will to power cannot be a principle, and even less so a metaphysical principle. Thinking an ontology “intended as a positive doctrine on being in itself,” observes Stegmaier, is for Nietzsche “a temptation of philosophizing” that derives from the grammatical structure of Indo-European languages, “with their scheme of a basic subject to which variable qualities are associated” (p. 411). Thus, while he undermines the mechanistic hypothesis by collapsing the cause-effect relationship, Nietzsche’s perspectivism also leads to the abandonment of the “will to power” hypothesis.

This interpretation of aphorism 374 should be considered alongside that given by Stegmaier of the immediately preceding aphorism (GS 373, “'Science' as a prejudice”). There he describes the paradox of perspectivism as the idea that “each perspective can know its perspective character only in another perspective which, in turn, it can only observe in its own perspective” (p. 396). If this formula refers to Stegmaier’s preceding general discussion of “perspective,” then it corresponds fully with what Nietzsche affirms in aphorism 374 about the possibility of knowing how far the perspective character of existence extends: “We cannot look around our own corner: it is a hopeless curiosity that wants to know what other kinds of intellects and perspectives there might be” (GS 374). This means that, given the perspectival nature of our knowledge, we cannot reach a point of view that enables us to state that, indeed, our knowledge is perspectival. This is the supreme paradox of perspectivism, by virtue of which science, if it abandons its claim to truth, can still indicate temporary truths that give us “orientation” criteria. As Stegmaier writes in commenting on aphorism 373, “if science cannot be absolutely objective, because it cannot abandon its perspective, it can still multiply its perspectives and hence gradually become objective.” But science’s “perspectivizing” of itself “makes it, in Nietzsche’s sense, frölich” (p. 316). This multiplication of perspectives makes it difficult to think of a unitary connection or principle based on which reality can be interpreted overall. Stegmaier’s conclusion is significant: in this aphorism of the fifth book of The Gay Science, “with the multiplication of interpretation perspectives, Nietzsche gives up the concept of will to power” and tries to give science new horizons (p. 396). In this regard, it is notable that the expression “will to power” is found only once in the fifth book and then only in a context that is not particularly significant (GS 349, “Once again, the origin of scholars”).

Stegmaier’s work thus depicts a Nietzsche—that of the fifth book of The Gay Science—whose claims and development are largely unexplored and who is concerned with themes that are perhaps more subtle and specifically philosophical, if no less unsettling, than those often attributed to him.