On the Edge

Nietzsche: A Critical Life

by Ronald Hayman
Oxford University Press, 424 pp., $19.95

All philosophers and their doctrines belong to the history of culture but most thinkers of importance in the history of culture are not philosophers. I am stipulating a fairly strict notion of philosopher, according to which Descartes is a philosopher but Montaigne and Pascal are not, Peirce and William James are philosophers, Emerson is not, John Stuart Mill is a philosopher, Carlyle is not. We can certainly understand “philosopher” in a broader sense than this; but there is a plain difference, worth paying attention to, between the work of a thinker whose credit rests upon the force of his argument rather than upon the truth of his conclusions, and one whose structures of language, even where they are argumentative, are evaluated by the use of other than logical criteria. It seems odd to ask, though perhaps it didn’t seem odd to contemporaries, if Carlyle is “right” in what he has to say in Sartor Resartus, whereas we are quite certain this is the proper question to ask about most of what Mill writes.

Nietzsche is hard to place. Two distinguished modern philosophers, Jaspers and Heidegger, have written books about him. The late Hannah Arendt devoted much attention to him in her expanded Gifford Lectures, Thinking and Willing. When fifteen or twenty years ago a new wave of theologians sawed off the bough on which they were perched by proclaiming in chorus the death of God, they got the idea from Nietzsche.

Now, the Nietzschean writings provide wonderful material for that rococo theorizing about rhetoric, grammar, and philosophy associated with the work of Derrida. We find in Nietzsche, according to Derrida, “l’affirmation d’un monde de signes sans faute, sans vérité, sans origine, offert à une interprétation active” (to mix translation with commentary, for a straight translation wouldn’t be informative: Nietzsche maintains that the world of language is a world within which questions of truth, of real meaning, don’t arise, even the concepts of “error” or “origin” are not needed for the task of active interpretation, for we are not concerned when we are faced with a literary text with questions about a real meaning or a correct interpretation or a true representation).

We can certainly understand Nietzsche’s place in the history of deconstructionism; and Nietzsche’s own writings, especially the aphoristic sections, are in their conjunctions susceptible of an indefinite variety of interpretations, so that in connection with them it looks as though the principle of responsibility to a text may be discarded. Quite certainly this thought would not have pleased Nietzsche, for he thought himself engaged in forming the European mind and telling his readers what they were to expect in the future.

After carefully reading Mr. Hayman’s Life, looking again at Zarathustra and (especially) Beyond Good and Evil—the latter is marvelous to read—and thinking about what Walter Kaufmann, R.J. Hollingdale, Arthur C. Danto, and Hayman himself have to say about the body of Nietzsche’s work, I conclude …

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No Sage February 19, 1981