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Aesthetic intuition and the history of tragedy

Nietzsche’s early philological publications combined skeptical realist descriptions with psychological explanations. He presumed the existence of a real past, imbued with real individuals whose motives and actions were in theory, though not always in practice, decipherable to the trained philologist. For a historiographical statement, and by extension an interpretation, to be true the evidence on which it was based must correspond to the real past out of which it was produced. At times the evidence presented is either unreliable because ofsome failing in the credibility of the record or else inadequate insofar as it presents an incomplete picture of the facts. Far from necessitating the construction of a rhetorical fiction, the unreliable or partial evidence of itself provides the warrant for the philologist's work. It is their task, as it was Nietzsche's, to evaluate sources by means of critical hermeneutics, and to fill in evidence-lacunae with hypothetical explanations. It is their task to receive inherited traditions only with a skeptical eye, but an eye simultaneously intent on re-presenting the past as it genuinely must have been. We saw, too, that Nietzsche's earliest efforts were manifestly naturalistic, in opposition to the teleological philosophical historians of the nineteenth century. Rather than ascribe some invisible hand, divine fate, material forces, or metaphysical inevitability as the hidden cause by which historical change is driven, Nietzsche consistently invests the agents of his studies with perfectly familiar, albeit somewhat dour, human motives like jealousy, pride, and lust. Although these explanations are admittedly speculative and as such would not satisfy a Sprachphilolog, they are at least in principle, if not in practice, naturalistically verifiable.

Given his willingness to employ speculative explanations, Nietzsche cannot be considered a blind adherent to sprachphilologische Methode. In his aversion to artificats, he was no follower of Sachphilologie. But neither was he a radical outlier at this stage in his career. He was a professional historian who worked alongside other historians. Clear enough in practice, this was also evidenced by the tenor of the criticisms and praises of his work: some of his day’s leading scholars disagreed with either the logic or the implications of his arguments and some accepted his findings, just as we would expect with any scholar whose work merited critical attention. His psychological reconstructions were at least acceptable if not overtly endorsed by his venerable mentors at Pforta like Koberstein and Volkmann, both of whom encouraged his Ermanarich and Theognis reconstructions, and by the philological worlds at Bonn and Leipzig, where he was singled out from his peers in the field for special acheivement. His philological essays were in fact methodologically consistent with Ritschl’s and Jahn’s demands for critical rigor and skepticism about evidence, their belief that scholarly skills were essential to forming balanced individuals and by extension strong cultures, and their faith that the real past could be presented by means of the philological science. That consistency, however, was about to change.

Although there has been some recent scholarly consensus that Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), is consistent either with his earlier philology, his later historiographical methods, or with both, I will show here that there are in fact pervasive meta-historical inconsistencies.[1] The Birth and the shorter preparatory works surrounding it are anomalies in Nietzsche’s historical writing. They retain Nietzsche’s earlier realism about the past as well as his speculative forays into psychology; but they eschew the naturalistic tenor and sprachphilologische methodology of his early work for the sake of an aesthetic intuition into what is named the real Idea of tragedy.

  • [1] For a more complete critique of this thesis, especially with respect to the arguments of Porter andBenne, see Jensen (2013a).
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