More Nietzsche on Kant (thanks, I’ll be here all week)

by John Holbo on September 13, 2006

This post contains more newly translated bits of Nietzsche on Kant. (The response to my first post was good, so I am encouraged to follow up.)

Schopenhauer As Educator (1872)


I get out of a philosopher only so much of him as can be made out to be exemplary. That by setting an example he can draw whole nations after him is beyond doubt; the history of India, which is almost the history of Indian philosophy, proves it. But this example must be provided by his beheld life and not merely by his books—in just the same way that Greek philosophers taught through their demeanor, costume, food, customs, more than by what they said, let alone what they wrote. How completely this virile spectacle of philosophical life is lacking in Germany! where the body is only just beginning to liberate itself, long after the seeming liberation of the spirit; and yet it is only an illusion that a spirit can be free and independent if the attainment of unconditional sovereignty—which is at bottom creative self-conditioning—is not demonstrated anew from morn till night through every glance and every gesture. Kant clung to his university, submitted himself to its regulations, kept up appearances of religious belief, bore up under colleagues and students: so it is natural that his example has produced above all university professors and professional philosophy. Schopenhauer had little patience with the scholarly caste, separated himself from them, strove to be independent of state and society—this is his example, the model he provides—just to begin with pure externalities. But many stages in the liberation of the philosophical life are still unknown among the Germans and it is not possible for them to remain so. Our artists live more boldly and honestly; and the mightiest example we have before us, that of Richard Wagner, shows how genius must not fear to advance the most antagonistic contradictions of the existing forms and order if he wants to bring to light the higher order and truth that dwells within him. “Truth,” however, of which our professors speak so much, surely seems to be a modest creature from which no disorder and nothing extraordinary is to be feared: a self-contented and comfortable creature, which is constantly assuring and reassuring all the powers that be that no one needs to be the least bit concerned on its account; for it is, after all, just “pure knowledge.” Thus, what I wanted to say is that the philosopher in Germany has more and more to unlearn how to be “pure knowledge”: and that Schopenhauer is the very man to stand as an example.

… This was the first danger in whose shadow Schopenhauer grew up: isolation. The second was: despair of the truth. This danger attends every thinker who sets forth from the Kantian philosophy, provided he is a vigorous and whole man in suffering and desire and not a mere clacking thought- and calculating-machine. Now we all know well the shameful conditions that go with this precondition; yes indeed, it seems to me that Kant has transformed the lives, stirred the blood of only a very few men. To be sure, you read everywhere how, since this quiet scholar did his work, a revolution has taken place in every domain of the spirit; but I cannot believe it. For I cannot see it clearly in those men who would themselves have to be revolutionized before it could happen in any whole domain whatever. If Kant should ever begin to exercise any wide influence we shall be aware of it in the form of a gnawing and disintegrating skepticism and relativism; and only in the most active and noble spirits who have never been able to abide doubt would there appear instead that shuddering despair of all truth, which is how Heinrich von Kleist, for example, experienced the effect of the Kantian philosophy. "Not long ago," he writes in his affecting way, "I became acquainted with the Kantian philosophy—and I now have to tell you of a thought I took away from it, which I feel free to do because I have no reason to fear it will shock you so profoundly and painfully as it has me. —We are unable to decide whether that which we call truth really is truth, or whether it only appears to us to be. If the latter, then the truth we assemble here is nothing after our death, and all endeavor to secure something for ourselves which will follow us to the grave is in vain. —If the point of this thought does not pierce your heart, do not smile at one who feels wounded by it in the deepest and most sacred part of his being. My highest goal has receded and I have no other." [Letter to Wilhelmine von Zenge, Mar. 22, 1801.] When indeed will men feel in in such a fashion—Kleistian, natural; when will they learn again to first take the measure of the meaning of a philosophy in the "most sacred part" of their being? And yet this is needed if we are to assess just what it is that, after Kant, Schopenhauer, can be to us—namely the leader who transports us out of the cave of skeptical gloom, or from critical abnegation, up to the heights of tragic contemplation, to the nocturnal sky and its endless stars above us, and who was himself the first to take his path.

I ran into a mildly humorous translation problem you can read about here, if you like that sort of thing.

Beyond Good and Evil (1886)

§11. It seems to me that attempts are now being made on all sides to divert attention from the actual influence Kant exerted on German philosophy, and especially to slip prudently past his personal assessment of its value. Kant was first and foremost proud of his table of categories, for with this table in hand he declared: “This is the most difficult thing that could ever be undertaken on behalf of metaphysics.”—Let us only understand this “could be”! He was proud of having discovered a new capacity in man, the capacity for synthetic judgments a priori. Suppose he deceived himself in this matter; the development and rapid flourishing of German philosophy depended nevertheless on his pride, and on the eager rivalry of the younger generation to discover, if possible, something still prouder—in any case, “new faculties”!— But let us think on this: it is high time. “How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” Kant asked himself—and what was his answer, really? “capable through a capacity”: but unfortunately not in four words, but so circuitously, venerably,  with such a German sense of depths and curlicues that people simply overlooked the hilarious naiserie allemande [German foolishness] stuffed in such an answer. People were simply beside themselves over this new capacity, and the jubilation reached its climax when Kant additionally discovered a moral capacity in man—for at that time the Germans were still moral and not yet steeped in “Realpolitik”.— Then came the honeymoon of German philosophy; all the young theologians of the Tübingen seminary went into the bushes—seeking“capacities” forthwith. And what did they not find—in the innocence of that rich and still youthful period of the German spirit, when romanticism, the malignant fairy, piped and sang to the tune of failure to tell apart “finding” and “inventing”! Above all, a capacity for the “suprasensible”: Schelling christened it intellectual intuition, and thus gratified the most heartfelt appetite of the Germans, whose cravings were at bottom devotional. One can do no greater wrong to the whole of this footloose and fanciful movement—which was merely youthful, however boldly clad in hoary and senile concepts—than to take it seriously or worse, to treat it with moral indignation; enough, one grew older—the dream vanished. A time came when one scratched one’s brow: one still scratches it now. It was all just a dream: first and foremost—old Kant’s. “Capable through a capacity”—he had said, or at least meant. But is that an answer? An explanation? Or is it, rather,  just a repetition of the question? How does opium induce sleep? “By virtue of a virtue,” namely the virtus dormitiva, replies the doctor in Moliere,

quia est in eo virtus dormitiva,
cujus est natura sensus assoupire.

[Because it contains a dormative virtue
Whose nature is to put the senses to sleep.]

But such replies belong in comedy, and it is high time to replace the Kantian question, “How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” by another question, “Why is belief in such judgments necessary?”—and to comprehend how, for the sake of the preservation of beings like ourselves, such judgments must be held as true; though they might, of course, be false judgments for all that! Or, to put the basic point more crudely: synthetic judgments a priori should not “be possible” at all: we have no right to them, they sound from our mouths as false judgments. Only, of course, the belief in their truth is necessary, as a foreground-belief, the way things look through the perspective glass of life.— Finally, calling to mind the enormous influence that ‘German philosophy’—its right to inverted commas is, I hope, understood?—has exercised throughout the whole of Europe, there is no doubt that a certain virtus dormitiva has played its part: it was a delight to idlers, the virtuous,  mystics, artists, three-quarter Christians, and political obscurantists of all nations, to find, thanks to German philosophy, an antidote to the still predominant sensualism which overflowed from the last century into ours, in short—“sensus assoupire” ….

This bit’s hard for a somewhat instructive reason. The word I have translated ‘capacity’ is Vermögen, which is a technical term for Kant invariably rendered as ‘faculty’ (although I see that may be changing.) If you look in a dictionary – LEO, for example – you won’t even find ‘faculty’ as a possible translation. Better would be ‘power’. ‘Faculty’ is too passive. Anyway, the ‘flux capacitor … capacitating’ Marty McFly/Moliere joke Nietzsche is making is ‘Vermögens eines Vermögen‘ – by the power of a power. I’ve gone for ‘capable through a capacity’. (You might go for ‘facilitated by a faculty’.)

Next, from Twilight of the Idols (1888)

Thanks will be in order if I condense so essential and so new an insight into four theses. In that way I facilitate comprehension; in that way I provoke contradiction.

First proposition. The reasons for which “this” world has been characterized as “apparent” are the very reasons which indicate its reality; any other kind of reality is absolutely indemonstrable.

Second proposition. The criteria which have been bestowed on the “true being” of things are the criteria of not-being, of naught; the “true world” has been constructed out of contradiction to the actual world: indeed an apparent world, insofar as it is merely a moral-optical illusion.

Third proposition. To invent fables about a world “other” than this one has no meaning at all, unless an instinct of slander, detraction, and suspicion against life has gained the upper hand in us: in that case, we avenge ourselves against life with a phantasmagoria of “another,” a “better” life.

Fourth proposition. Any distinction between a “true” and an “apparent” world—whether in the Christian manner or in the manner of Kant (in the end, an underhanded Christian)—is only a suggestion of décadence, a symptom of the decline of life … That the artist esteems appearance higher than reality is no objection to this proposition. For “appearance” in this case means reality once more, only by way of selection, reinforcement, and correction … The tragic artist is no pessimist,—he is precisely the one who says Yes to everything questionable and terrible itself, he is Dionysian …

And the next bit follows directly, but is really the next section:

How the “True World” Finally Became a Fable
The History of an Error

1. The true world—attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.

(The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, and persuasive. A circumlocution for the sentence, “I, Plato, am the truth.”)

2. The true world—unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man (“for the sinner who repents”).

(Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible—it becomes female, it becomes Christian …)

3. The true world—unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it—a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.

(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian.)

4. The true world—unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us? …

(Gray morning. The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism.)

5. The “true” world—an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating—an idea which has become useless and superfluous—consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it!

(Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato’s embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)

6. We have abolished the true world: what world has remained? the apparent one perhaps? … But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one!

(Noon; moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)

I guess that will do for tonight. I would really like someone, preferably not myself, to write a long essay – I think 50 pages should do it – on ‘Kant for post-Kantians’. Someone should present a comprehensive picture of the elements in Kant that are so influential on the next 200 years of philosophy, especially in the continental tradition. The above passages give some indication why this would be helpful and how it could be done. Kant is enormously technical and, of course, each critique is a brick. Then there’s all the other stuff he wrote. Yet it isn’t through his technicality that he leaves his mark – or rather it is almost precisely in spite of his technicality. If you want to have his sort of influence you need to lock posterity in a love-hate embrace. In Kant’s case, the love is for a comparatively small set of radical moves – I mean moves. He enabled philosophy to be dramatized, however little this was his intention. He built a stage. All the technical apparatus – the baroque gardens of 12-fold tables – is received by those who come after as an almost (sometimes literally) hateful apparatus that provokes– thereby giving opportunity for sweeping away, overturning. His professorial persona is likewise a provocation (though this is a less significant element). Anyway, to teach the long logic of the continental legacy of Kant, you really need to introduce a select few Moves – in some loving detail – and give a sense for the technical quality of the rest of it. I don’t mean that those who came after didn’t actually know all the technical details (although maybe Nietzsche didn’t.) Hegel, Schelling, Fichte, Schopenhauer – they all read Kant. But to get what this lot need Kant for, you don’t need so much technicality. You need to teach a few Gambits.

Energy permitting, thanks will be in order when sometime soon I compress my thoughts about Kant’s legacy into 6-8 Moves, to help guide philosophic youth through the tricks and traps of the 19th and 20th Centuries

It’s a bit weird for me – of all people – to make posts about books without trying to sell you something on Amazon. So, just so you know it’s really me, I notice they just marked a whole bunch of TV DVD’s 50% off. Veronica Mars. Good stuff. Also, Clash of the Titans and Pink Flamingos and Dark City are only, like, $5.47 each. (Thus do I reward you few, who have read all through my post, with inexpensiveness, which is both cousin and nemesis to freedom.)



Anderson 09.13.06 at 2:56 pm

Those bits about Plato are just why I found BG&E # 14 so interesting—N. suggests that an aristocrat’s pleasure in controlling his own senses by denying the reality of their reports, is a motivation of Platonism. The comparison of the senses to the demos is fascinating.


pdf23ds 09.13.06 at 3:24 pm

What a coincidence–I just read a couple chapters of Beyond Good and Evil last weekend for a book club. First classic philosophy I’ve read in years.

I actually have nothing more to say.


yeti 09.13.06 at 4:45 pm

I’ve also been reading BGE recently. I thought about writing a long post in the last thread, but I just want to suggest that a look at seection 44 might complicate the simple reading of N’s reception of K generally and of section 11 particularly.


Daniel 09.13.06 at 5:25 pm

Karl Ameriks looks at the reception of Kant in Reinhold, Fichte, and Hegel in “Kant and the Fate of Autonomy”. He argues that Reinhold was actually where a lot of the post-Kantians got their Kant, which is why a lot of the “technical” Kantian arguments for moves like the noumena-phenomena distinction, the ideality of space/time/cause/substance, the noumenal self as a moral self-legislator etc. get skipped over, but the ideas stick around: Reinhold thought he had “shorter” arguments for a lot of Kant’s theses (Ameriks especially highlights the “short argument to idealism” which Reinhold was proud of, and which looks nothing like the argument involving Antinomies et al). Reinhold was primarily interested in Kant for the sake of the moral Postulates (God, Soul, Immortality), and these for political reasons (says Ameriks), which gels nicely with Nietzsche’s accusation that Kantianism is just underhanded Christianity: If Reinhold was really as important as Ameriks claims he was, then a lot of Kantianism was spread with the intent of establishing something like a secular religion of reason.

Not an essay, but it’s not a long book (200 pages or so, I read it in a weekend); doesn’t really address Kant as the Romantics or Schopenhauer grasped him, but I thought Ameriks did a pretty convincing job arguing for the importance of Reinhold in the history of the reception of Kant.


Moby Dick 09.14.06 at 5:08 am

And what about translating “Vermögen” with “ableness” ? Thus, you’ll keep the potential but active signification of the german word.


Anderson 09.14.06 at 8:12 am

Thanks, Daniel. Wiki has a bit about Reinhold (of whom I’d never heard), apparently written by someone who’s read Ameriks (or maybe just the Stanford article on Reinhold).

One of the hardest things to do in philosophy is to escape the Received Version of a philosopher, as exemplified by Reinhold-on-Kant, and get to what the philosopher himself was up to. (Insert obligatory N. quote on the French Revolution here: “no text any more, only interpretations.”)

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