The Man Who Pretended to Know Too Much
[Update: In response to comments, I have toned this post down a bit. It was unduly harsh in relation to the fault I am identifying.]
NR‘s Jason Steorts, responding to Whitaker Chambers scholar Richard Reinsch, writes:
I think Reinsch mischaracterizes Nietzsche if he means to say that the Nietzschean position “inexorably leads to the rise of a master class.” . . . Certainly some have read Nietzsche as Reinsch does — Heidegger, for instance, and Bertrand Russell (Heidegger liked what he found, while Russell abhorred it) — but this view is no longer dominant among Nietzsche scholars. I would recommend, as a corrective, the work of the late Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann. My personal opinion is that Nietzsche’s thought tends in a direction very like that of some forms of Buddhism, though Nietzsche himself was not aware of this (having fallen prey to Schopenhauer’s caricature of that tradition) and was not always true to his ideal. Perhaps I shall have more to say about this on a future occasion.
With his invocation of unnamed “Nietzsche scholars,” eccentric (though anodyne) interpretation of Nietzsche as Buddhist, and warning that the he may have more to say in the future, Steorts is implicitly claiming to know a lot about Nietzsche. But that claim doesn’t square with what he actually writes.
Steorts begins by calling the idea that Nietzsche’s thought “inexorably leads to the rise of a master class” a mischaracterization of Nietzsche. But this idea is not a characterization of Nietzsche at all, much less a false one. It is, rather, a speculation as to the consequences of Nietzsche’s thought (whatever they may be). So, right away, Steorts sets out to refute an interpretation of Nietzsche that isn’t even an interpretation – a rather elementary mistake.
Next, Steorts claims that the interpretation is “no longer dominant among Nietzsche scholars.” As an example, Steorts cites Walter Kaufmann. Wait a second… Walter Kaufmann? Kaufmann died thirty years ago. He hardly represents contemporary Nietzsche scholarship. He published his major philosophical work on Nietzsche a full sixty years ago. Nietzsche scholarship (as opposed to popular receptions, such as via Mencken in the U.S.) virtually begins with Kaufmann. There is no “dominant” scholarly interpretation that Kaufmann could have corrected in the first place.
Further, though (unlike Steorts) I’m not going to hold myself out as an authority on the history of Nietzsche scholarship, it seems quite unlikely that Kaufmann’s work has held up since 1950. First, there has likely been important archival work since 1950 which may have forced a revision of earlier views. Second, the climate of opinion in 1950 — when, for example, Marxism and Freudianism still predominated — was very different from the climate of opinion today. The change may lead to a re-evaluation of Nietzsche. Finally, Kaufman carried a lot of ideological baggage. The Nazi regime — which hailed Nietzsche as an intellectual hero and forerunner — had only lately convulsed the world. You can almost depend upon it that, in his zeal to rescue Nietzsche from the Nazis, Kaufmann [qua Nietzsche interpreter – not necessarily as a translator] distorted Nietzsche’s words.
As it happens, a simple google search of top Nietzsche scholars (I entered simply “Nietzsche Brian Leiter Walter Kaufmann”) reveals that Kaufmann, though still influential, is not considered the leading authority on Nietzsche any more. Here, for example, Brian Leiter ranks Nietzsche scholars by Google Scholar citations. Kaufmann’s citations (already artifically inflated by the fact that he arrived at the beginning of the Nietzsche industry) have been surpassed by works written after his death. Leiter himself ranks in the top ten and is the leading Nietzsche scholar of his generation. And what does Leiter have to say about Kaufmann? He is, say Leiter, an “unreliable scholar” who “saved Nietzsche from the misrepresentations of the Nazis, but added his own by introducing a more straightforwardly moralistic interpretation.” So, contrary to Steorts, Kaufmann [again, as interpreter – not necessarily as translator] has been displaced, possibly even discredited. (Incidentally, according to Leiter, Heidegger’s interprertation of Nietzsche isn’t at all what Steorts claims.)
In short, on the evidence of Steorts’s own words, he is exagerrating his knowledge of the state Nietzsche scholarship. (Not coincidentally, the one Nietzsche scholar whom Steorts appears to have read is the same one whose name appears ubiquitously on all the readily available translations of Nietzsche into English.) To be fair, opining on things that they actually know little about is pretty much what bloggers do. Still, this time Steorts took this common failing a bit too far.