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History and historians

Almost immediately after The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche rescinded his mystical view about the historian’s ability to intuit the real Ideas, in Schopenhauer’s technical sense, of the nature of tragedy beyond a mediated observation through historical evidence as a misguidedly “uberhistorisch” endeavor.1 His increasingly skeptical attitude toward the mystical aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy led Nietzsche to revise major aspects of his thought.2 How his anti-Schopenhauerian reformulation of knowledge and subjectivity transformed his conception of historical judgment will be the subject of our fifth chapter. For the moment, and in order to keep our loosely chronological story of Nietzsche’s development in view, we turn now to Nietzsche’s next writings and their historical context. The major theme during the Baslerjahre, that post-Birth of Tragedy and pre-Human all- too-Human phase of his development, is no longer just the possibility of ‘correct’ historical judgments - the possibility of ‘getting history right’ - but a consideration about the relationship between the historian and his historical situatedness. It is a turn to consider not just history but historians in terms of the psychological dynamic of which their judgments are a typical function. This theme features prominently in Nietzsche’s work until the very end of his authorship.

  • 1 Nietzsche defines ‘uberhistorisch’ as “the power, to turn the gaze away from becoming and toward that which bestows upon existence the character of the eternal and univocal, towards art and religion,” which fits ratherwell with his description of tragedy in the Birth. HL10; KSA1, 330. It should be noted, too, that Nietzsche only draws significant attention to the terms ‘unhistorisch and ‘Uberhistorisch in HL, hence my mere mention of it here. Thereafter, the former is primarily mentioned in reference to unreflective naivety while the latter refers to various manifestations of essentialist metaphysical thinkers ranging from Plato to Schopenhauer. For Nietzsche’s reading and influences in his Basel years, see Jensen (2013b).
  • 2 This is well enough known to obviate any complete discussion here. For a sampling, see Barbera (1994); Riedel (1995); Clark (1998, 2001); and Janaway (1998). What I add to their discussions is an emphasis that Nietzsche’s historical philosophy, with the obvious exception of The Birth of Tragedy, runs counter to Schopenhauer’s metaphysical thought.
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Nietzsche’s changed focus is hardly an innocent shift of attention. His analyses of the psychological characteristics of historians are only relevant, obviously, if he believes that those psychological aspects play some key role in their judgments about the past. But notice the drastic change. His hope in The Birth of Tragedy was to apprehend the inner nature of tragedy beyond its empirical evidence by becoming ‘objective’ in the sense of the Schopenhauerian artist, which necessitated the mystical possibility of a subject ‘breaking free’ of the bonds of his empirical will and apprehending the object purely, immediately, and without relation to the satisfaction of that individuated will. By the mid-i87os, his central concern is to analyse the psychological factors that constitute historical judgments, those same factors he proclaimed the pure subject of knowing was freed from a few years before. His fascination with investigating why historians make the sorts of judgments about history they do, why they want to study the past, or are even interested in the past to begin with, itself suggests to what extent Nietzsche rejected his own view - which I maintain was an anomaly in his development - that the past can only be truly known by a subject set free from those same conditions. As he articulates clearly only two years after The Birth of Tragedy, in the very same terms he endorsed previously:

And even in its highest expression [i.e., the Schopenhauerian] may an illusion not creep into the word objectivity? Here one understands a condition in the historian whereby he so purely apprehends [so rein anschaut] an event in all its motivations and consequences that it has not effect at all on his own subjectivity: it is analogous to that aesthetic phenomenon of detachment [asthetische Phanomen, jenes Losgebundensein] from personal interest with which a painter gazes at [schaut] a stormy landscape with thunder and lightning, or a rolling sea, only the picture of them within him, the phenomenon of being completely absorbed [vollige Versunkensein] in the things: it is a superstition, however, that the picture which these things evoke in a man possessing such a disposition is a true reproduction of the empirical nature of things.[1]

In what follows in this chapter, I will present this shift in Nietzsche’s attitude in a practical way by outlining his critique of the various historical ‘types,’ i.e., those historians who evidently bear certain drives which lead them to represent the historical world in certain ways and to, consciously or otherwise, ignore certain aspects of it. Then, in the next chapter, we will analyse more carefully the epistemological position that necessitates this particular meta-historical mode of critique.

  • [1] HL 6; KSA i, 290. Cf. what is possibly an alternative version, at NFsummer—fall 1873, 29 [96]; KSA 7,673, which also stresses that his new view opposes precisely the possibility of ‘interesselosesAnschauen.’
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