Studying Nietzsche in Nineteenth-Century Context

15881Today, we have a guest post from Robert C. Holub, who is Ohio Eminent Scholar, Professor, and Chair of German Languages and Literatures at The Ohio State University and the author of the new book Nietzsche in the Nineteenth Century: Social Questions and Philosophical Interventions. Here, Holub explores the role of Nietzsche in his scholarly life to date, and what led him to feel that Nietzsche must be understood in the context of his own era's intellectual debates, rather than as an abstract figure in dialogue with philosophical ideas from throughout history.

The impetus for Nietzsche in the Nineteenth Century came from a seminar in which I was enrolled as a graduate student more than forty years ago at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I noticed that much of the commentary on Nietzsche divorced him from anything to do with his times and looked at him as a mind communicating with other great philosophical minds throughout history. Since my training in Madison involved historical contextualization of writers and their works, I was uncomfortable with this abstract and ahistorical treatment of Nietzsche. It seemed especially problematic since Nietzsche himself insisted that philosophy and philosophers were not disembodied spirits, but were connected very concretely with material aspects of existence and the mundane aspects of life. Moreover, the topics that Nietzsche took up in his oeuvre were often less “philosophical” than the issues found in traditional philosophical texts, and they included frequent reference to society, politics, and scientific developments.

I didn’t return to Nietzsche until the early 1990s, when I was a faculty member in the German Department at Berkeley. The sister of one of our students was the editor of a series at Twayne, and on a visit to her brother we met and she asked whether I would be interested in writing the volume on Nietzsche for her press. I agreed to do so, but let her know that I would be approaching Nietzsche in a somewhat different manner than other commentators, that I would focus on placing him in a nineteenth-century context. I also emphasized that my introductory study would be a preliminary piece of work for something longer and more complex, a more scholarly product than the one she was commissioning. She agreed with my plan, and I set off working on Nietzsche in the early 1990s, gathering material and trying to reconstruct the discursive universe he had inhabited and to which he responded.

I published this introductory volume in 1995, but continued to work on the larger study, which ultimately became the volume published by Penn Press this year. I was interrupted in my progress, however, by a series of administrative positions I assumed: first Dean of the Undergraduate Division at Berkeley; then Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville; and finally Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As I became more involved with increasingly higher levels of academic administration, I had less time to devote to Nietzsche: as a result for a period of ten years or more, I made little progress on the project.

When I returned to the faculty, assuming the position of Eminent Scholar of German at Ohio State University in 2012, I dusted off my old Nietzsche project and found that I had a good deal of catching up to do. Although most scholarship in 1990 had not placed Nietzsche in a nineteenth-century context, since the turn of the millennium, several excellent studies had appeared that connected Nietzsche with the thought of his times, in particular in the area of the biological sciences. I began to research again and rewrote the drafts for my initial chapters. In rewriting the chapter on “Nietzsche and the Jewish Question,” however, I found there was a large amount of material that had not yet been analyzed appropriately. I decided to take time out from my larger project and wrote a monograph on Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem, which appeared in 2016. I was able to return to the other chapters, complete my research, and finish my larger study late in 2017.

Nietzsche in the Nineteenth Century thus entails the work and insights of several decades. Its central thesis is that Nietzsche was engaged throughout his life in a dialogue with intellectual currents of his era. I select nine “questions” to which he responded in the areas of society, politics, and science, and demonstrate the nature of Nietzsche’s participations in complex conversations around issues involving education, nationalism, the working class and socialism, women and feminism, Jewry and Judaism, colonialism, evolutionary biology, cosmology and thermodynamics, and eugenics. In each chapter of this study I am not concerned as much with Nietzsche’s impact on these conversations, since his influence was in most cases minimal, as I am with how his thought fits into these conversations, sometimes affirming previous contributors, at times taking a radically new direction. My focus is not establishing influence on Nietzsche but rather exploring participation by Nietzsche in the intellectual life of his times. At various moments Nietzsche considered himself an “untimely” philosopher; Nietzsche in the Nineteenth Century argues that, on the contrary, he was consistently preoccupied with the most pressing social, political, and scientific discourses of his era.

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