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Friedrich NietzscheReview - Friedrich Nietzsche
A Philosophical Biography
by Julian Young
Cambridge University Press, 2010
Review by Eric Chelstrom
Oct 7th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 40)

Julian Young's Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography is marvelous, meticulously researched, artfully written, and genuinely insightful. Young has managed to produce a work of the highest caliber on the slippery terrain of Nietzsche's thought. He offers a total vision of Nietzsche's intellectual development that is at times critical, as well as giving clear accounting for the many implicit arguments found in Nietzsche's work. Young demonstrates a keen sense for recognizing places where Nietzsche plays upon his own biography, establishing a context for interpreting Nietzsche's more cryptic remarks. The volume's style is artful, far exceeding the norms of philosophical treatises. All told, Young's book is remarkable, and easily recommended. One will find value in it as an overview to or introduction to Nietzsche's thought. While invaluable as a work for those interested in Nietzsche, it is perhaps even more important for philosophers, given how regularly Nietzsche is misunderstood or misinterpreted.

On the whole, Young's book is outstanding; though, not beyond critique. Given the magnitude of the book's numerous successes, I will devote more time to voicing a few minor concerns. Subsequent to this, I will draw attention to a pair of engaging discussions that stood out among the many carefully crafted arguments.

First, there is a case of an odd and mistaken claim. Thankfully it appears to be an isolated occurrence. Young claims, without supporting evidence, that American Pragmatism "actually has its roots in Schopenhauer's and Nietzsche's philosophy." (416) The simplest evaluation of this claim is that it is straightforwardly false. While both the early Pragmatists and Nietzsche shared an appreciation for Emerson, it is inaccurate to attribute to any of the three originators of American Pragmatism – Peirce, James, and Dewey – any meaningful influence on the part of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. Whatever similarities there are between Schopenhauer's and Nietzsche's thought and that of the foundational figures of American Pragmatists is accidental in nature. That said, Young might have been intending reference to Josiah Royce. However, Royce's status as a Pragmatist is not obvious and his status as a root figure in that tradition is an even more problematic ascription.

A more complicated type of concern arises where Young's proximity to the material might benefit from increased distance. For instance, Young claims that Nietzsche is idealizing himself in the figure of Zarathustra and that Zarathustra is a model for the übermensch (superman or overman). (367) Why Nietzsche is not understood to be offering only a model of idealized humanity at that stage of his thought is not clear. The text of Zarathustra is certainly ambiguous. Zarathustra says in the Introduction, for instance, that he comes to teach the übermensch, but does not assert that he himself is the übermensch. Similarly Nietzsche expresses a connection to his character, but does not assert an identity therewith. Young acknowledges relying on Nietzsche's letters and notebooks for his claim. But, Young too acknowledges the ambiguous nature of those sources. As such, one wants more to be said substantiating the identification between Nietzsche and Zarathustra, as well as Nietzsche and the figure of the übermensch as of that point in Nietzsche's life. Granted, later in Nietzsche's life, his condition will result in delusional attributions regarding himself and his relation to the figure of Zarathustra. (528ff.)

One finds a similar case where Young offers stark resistance to Nietzsche's attacks on Wagner, specifically Nietzsche assertion that Wagner was a minimalist. (496) Nietzsche's comment that Wagner is a miniaturist is intended to be a criticism of Wagner's use of leitmotif. The criticism being that Wagner merely stacks miniature phrases together, rather than supplying an overarching organizational framework that is coherent or capable of giving meaning to those fragments. Analogous to décadence in culture (493), Wagner claims to express a holistic vision or new ideal for art and culture (113), but never achieves more than tenuous unities of phrases that retain an atomistic sense. Wagner's attempts at a new organizational scheme for musical form, to Nietzsche, thus result in an indulgent void of unified musical structure. Young's tu quoque directed at Nietzsche's own attempts at musical composition is a rare low in an otherwise excellent work (496). What's more, this attack is at odds with Young's arranging for audio clips of Nietzsche's compositions to be available through the book's website. I agree with what I believe Young's view is; the audio clips represent an excellent supplement, even if wanting of more discussion. However, Young's position on Nietzsche's music ends in apparent ambivalence: little critical attention; enthusiastic plugging of audio tracks, peppered with praise; while ending by harshly trashing Nietzsche's music. One speculates that affinity for Wagner's music is a source of tension here.

The most peculiar part of the book is its final chapter. There, Young offers his own speculation as to the diagnosis of Nietzsche's final condition; his speculation is dubious at best. (559ff.) Young reasonably concludes that neither syphilis nor a tumor of the optic nerve represent sufficient diagnoses of Nietzsche's final condition. Young then argues that this serves as evidence for a purely psychological cause for Nietzsche's final years, noting further that Nietzsche was likely manic depressive or bipolar. While the psychological symptoms and their respective pathologies are surely factors contributing to a diagnosis of Nietzsche's condition, it is entirely surprising that an intellect as acute as Young's, one dedicated to Nietzsche no less, seems to operate on the assumption that Nietzsche must have had a single affliction. Young appears to have momentarily fallen prey to the "Casaubon impulse". (536) That Nietzsche had long-term physiological problems is well documented. Why not conclude that Nietzsche had a complex condition, with multiple contributing factors leading to his eventual breakdown? Nietzsche's health was never all that good, and his personal habits seemed to be more apt to aggravate his health problems than to alleviate them. The psychological condition(s) may very well be part of a complex manifestation of underlying problems. While a descent into the Dionysian abyss is a playful hypothesis, one fitting for the youthful Nietzsche; a multifaceted physical degeneration is a more reasonable hypothesis. Such a hypothesis is also more consistent with the spirit of Nietzsche's mature philosophy, which treats minds as embodied. It is also jarring to think of Nietzsche giving into a willful apathetic detachment from life, while being subjected to the indignities of his then reviled sister's conceited delusions. Nietzsche would certainly never will the eternal return of such a state of affairs. To end the book with these speculations, especially after the tour de force of chapter 26, can leave one with a sour aftertaste.

Returning to the book's deserved praise, one calls attention to two points of discussion in the work, discussions which are related to one another and of definite merit. First, Young's discussions of Nietzsche's perspectivism and his related criticisms of post-modernism. (313, 337, 473) These discussions, central to a proper appreciation of Nietzsche's matured view, are engaging and insightful. Second are the discussions of Nietzsche's anti-scientism, these having become more important since Nietzsche's day. Nietzsche wanted to ensure that thinking about science was scientific in nature. This is sharply contrasted with the pseudo-scientific, quasi-metaphysical, quasi-religious attitudes of the dogmatic. (411, 439, 480) In the end one is given two excellent discussions substantiating that there is a false choice often presented between nihilistic relativism and militant dogmatism.

In sum, not only has Young produced a masterful study of Nietzsche, fit for slow reading (296), but a work that opens avenues for further inquiry. The superlative quality of the whole towers well over what blemishes it has. Young's philosophical biography of Nietzsche is certainly essential for any serious study of Nietzsche henceforth.



© 2010 Eric Chelstrom


Eric Chelstrom is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Grand Valley State University. His research focuses on issues in social phenomenology, i.e. the role of consciousness in the social world.  His doctorate was directed by Kah Kyung Cho at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.


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