« Oenophilia | Main | The Warp and the Woof »


Walter Kaufmann is mostly known, if known at all, as a translator of and commentator upon the works of Nietzsche, Hegel, and Goethe.

One of my friends is somewhat dismissive of Kaufmann's own philosophical work, labelling him "Nietzsche redivivus." This friend is an orthodox Roman Catholic, and does not look kindly on  Kaufmann's sustained critique of Christianity, across such works as The Faith of a Heretic and Critique of Religion and Philosophy. There's definitely something of the Nietzschean in Kaufmann's criticisms, though far more of interest, to my mind, is the striking fact that Kaufmann was raised in Germany as a very pious Lutheran, and then converted to Judaism in his early teens - inauspiciously, near in time to the Nazi advent. Kaufmann would later emigrate to the States, and made quite a name for himself early on as the ressurector of Nietzsche's reputation here; belying the vogue view that there was an evident straight line from his thought to the scourge of Nazism.

The imprint of Nietzsche is evident on Kaufmann's mature thought, not least in his penchant for a galvanizing turn of phrase. I'll share a few favorites of mine, drawn from some of his works.

The intensity of great philosophy and poetry is abnormal and subversive; it is the enemy of habit, custom, and all stereotypes. The motto is always that what is well known is not known at all well.
(Critique of Religion and Philosophy).

Godless existentialism is pictured as the philosophy of our age: the modern poet is not offered the fine edifice of Thomism, as Dante was; he is confronted, we are told, by a bleak doctrine that proclaims that man is not at home in the world but thrown into it, that he has no divine father and is abandoned to a life of care, anxiety, and failure that will end in death, with nothing after that. Poor modern man!

In fact, a disillusionment that used to be the prerogative of the few has become common property; and what exhilirated Socrates and Shakespeare, who were in a a sense sufficient to themselves, is founding depressing by men who lack the power to find meaning in themselves.
(From Shakespeare to Existenstialism).

While refusing to permit himself the least ambiguity in matters of faith, a man may nevertheless find that some kind of religious language, both in its traditional form as we find it most notably in the Bible - for example, in the 90th Psalm - and in spontaneous outbursts, now blasphemous, now desperate, is emotionally more adequate for him, more of a relief for an overflowing heart, than any other idiom he commands. If he could compose a first-rate poem, that might be still more adequate; but he cannot, and in his present quandary he addresses God. He does not believe anything about God and accepts no dogma of any sort. He does not feel more tolerant of the theologians than before. He turns to God as one might turns to a Shakespearean outcry or a Negro spiritual or a walk up a mountain, without belief.


One of the central fallacies of the liberal faith is the sweet assumption that distributive justice involves only rewards, and that there is no reason why society should not be able to make everybody happy. The same conceit underlies most talk of a "just peace." In fact, problems of distributive justice do not arise unless something that is desired by many is too scarce to satisfy all. This means in practice that it is possible to disappoint all, but usually impossible to please all. Even if everybody should be pleased, it would not follow that each got what he deserved ...

(Without Guilt or Justice)

Perhaps the single best example of the common lack of high standards in questions of honesty is our tendency to think in labels. Terms like existentialism, pragmatism, and empiricism, liberalism and conservatism are, more often than not, so many excuses for not considering individual ideas on their merits and for not exposing oneself to the bit of thought. For less educated people, words like Jew and Catholic, Democrat, Republican, and Communist do much the same job. These labels have some uses that are perfectly legitimate, but frequently they function as an aid to thoughtlessness and permit people to appear to think when they are merely talking.
(The Faith of a Heretic)

March 13, 2005 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Kaufmann:


Paul, if you ask me, Kauffman's bon mot about the liberal faith is the straw man of a straw man. Who among the liberal kind is he talking about? There's never been a real liberal that I know of -- from Bentham to Rawls -- who has forgotten about cost/benefit calculations. In fact, they made the thing up. Perhaps Kauffman once met a dim fan of Eleanor Roosevelt's at a dinner party some time; otherwise, the liberal faith, as he propounds it, has no believers at all.

Here's my bon mot about that -- to gain a cheap reputation for brilliance, foist an empty generalization on a seemingly recognizable faction without including any position that the faction's members actually hold, and then refute it. The courage of opposing the faction will redound to your credit, while the risk of being replied to will be minimized by the generalization's lack of real adherents. This is to real brilliance as a game of darts is to a cavalry charge.

Posted by: roger at Mar 15, 2005 4:30:11 PM

Man, Roger, that "bon mot" provoked an unexpectedly vigorous response!

I probably shouldn't have included that little zinger. Funnily enough, though, it is the culmination of a very specific engagement with Rawls in Without Guilt or Justice. In other words, he definitely names his intended target in context and provides, I think, a very trenchant criticism.

Posted by: Paul Craddick at Mar 15, 2005 5:31:48 PM

In my younger days, I used to think of Kaufmann as "Nietzsche's baby-chaser" -- because whenever Nietzsche tosses out the baby with the bathwater, it's Kaufmann's job to go chasing after the baby, yelling, "Wait! He didn't really mean it!"

Posted by: Alan at Mar 25, 2005 11:52:50 AM


If you're of a mind to do so, please say more - I'm not sure I follow what you're driving at.

I would agree that Kaufmann has an occasionally fanciful take on Nietzschean "hard sayings."

And it's probably the case that Nietzsche himself ran afoul of the perennial predilection to toss out the baby with the bathwater. But I can think of few thinkers who were more alive to the danger than N - one might argue that vigilance to that possibility was a cornerstone of his thought. After all, the paeans to "evil" make no sense apart from countering the tendency to exorcise man of his propensities to danger, risk, and "domination." Likewise, the central role of spiritualization/sublimation of the passions is defended along similar lines.

Even in his harsh critique of Christianity, N will allow that Christianity spiritualized Western Man - hence the metaphor of the bow in the preface to BG/E. Etc.

Posted by: Paul Craddick at Mar 30, 2005 1:03:42 PM