Nietzsche and the question of interpretation

Between Hermeneutics and Deconstruction

Alan D. Schrift


Nietzsche and the question of interpretation
ISBN 0-415-90311-4 Routledge

This text arose out of a desire to work on a project that merged my two primary philosophical interests: Nietzsche’s philosophy and hermeneutic theory. I saw in Nietzsche’s various comments on interpretation an untapped resource for furthering our understanding of what happens when we interpret texts. In addition, the multiplicity of diverse interpretations of Nietzsche’s thought made his works a promising prospect for exploring a pluralistic approach to interpretation. As I read the interpretations of Kaufmann, Danto, Heidegger, Jaspers, Deleuze, Derrida, Magnus, Nehamas, Kofman, Granier, and others, one thing became increasingly clear to me: as much can be learned about what goes on in Nietzsche’s texts from interpretations that one believes to be largely, if not entirely, a misreading of those texts as can be learned from interpretations with which one is in complete sympathy. Moreover, it struck me that this was itself a very Nietzschean phenomenon.

What interested me in particular about hermeneutic theory was the problem of avoiding interpretive dogmatism without relinquishing all hope for judging between interpretations. The tension between the dogmatic assertion of one correct interpretation and the relativistic acceptance of any interpretation seemed to me to be not only the central issue in hermeneutics. It was also the point of conflict between two of the most powerful styles of interpreting Nietzsche: those of Heidegger and various French post-structuralists. Moreover, this tension appeared to me to be at the heart of Nietzsche’s own philosophizing, and the fact that he had been and could be read as a relativist or as a dogmatist did not seem to be insignificant.

To bring both of these issues to the fore, I tried to construct a text that would enact a pluralistic interpretive approach. This meant refraining from refuting all of the other Nietzsche interpretations currently in circulation, while arguing that my interpretation of Nietzsche was the correct one. For the reader who is looking for definitive refutations of the Heideggerian or French interpretations of Nietzsche, what follows will be disappointing, for that is not what I sought to do. Instead, I wanted to display Heidegger’s, Derrida’s and several other post-structuralist interpretations at their best, articulating both what they offer the reader and what I find they miss. To do this meant, especially in the cases of Heidegger and Derrida, lengthy and detailed exegeses which would introduce their interpretations to those who, by training or disposition, were unable or unwilling to read their interpretations. I try to provide clear restatements that follow the text’s own developments while holding my critical comments to a few selective intrusions during the exposition and several discussions in the notes. I believe that my success in clarifying these interpretations is a function of not interrupting their explication with frequent objections and digressions. While these exegetical summaries might not be necessary for the Nietzsche specialist, who in addition to Part Three, may be more interested in the opening and concluding remarks to each of the first two parts and the critical comments and intertextual connections drawn in the notes, my hope is to make Heidegger’s and Derrida’s readings accessible to anyone who might pick up my work with the intention of reading about Nietzsche’s own perspectives on interpretation.

The real novelty of my discussion, I believe, is to be found in the third part, where I work out a Nietzschean approach to interpretation. Although there have been many books written on Nietzsche in the last two decades, and many more books will no doubt be written in the next few years, there has not been a discussion in English that focuses on Nietzsche’s interpretive practices. This is not to say that Nietzsche’s impact on current interpretation theory has gone unrecognized. In fact, precisely the opposite is the case, as most philosophical interpretations of Nietzsche at the very least mention Nietzsche’s influence, and it is almost de rigueur for literary theorists to invoke Nietzsche when discussions of interpretive practices arise. But what is missing in all these invocations is a sustained analysis of the various things Nietzsche says about and does with interpretation. I hope that this work will at least begin to fill this gap in the literature on Nietzsche’s impact on current interpretive practices.

This study has evolved over many years, and has undergone both major and minor changes in response to the thoughtful comments of several people. In particular, I would like to single out four individuals whose conversations helped me to understand, and whose friendship and encouragement gave me the confidence to continue working on this project and seek its publication: Bernd Magnus, Gayle L. Ormiston, Richard E. Palmer, and Calvin O. Schrag. I am certain they will each continue to question certain of my formulations, but I hope they also see and take some pleasure in those places where my own understanding of the texts I discuss has been informed by our conversations together. Many others have had an impact on the construction of this text, both directly and indirectly, and I would like to acknowledge and thank David B. Allison, David C. Hoy, Djelal Kadir, David F. Krell, Virgil Lokke, William L. McBride, Richard Schacht, Richard Schmitt, Charlene and Hans Siegfried, two anonymous reviewers at Routledge, the Program Committees and members of the Nietzsche Society and the North American Nietzsche Society who heard parts of this work presented in several forums, and my colleagues at Grinnell College, Purdue University, and Clarkson University.


Part 1: Heidegger’s Nietzsche
1. Heidegger Reading Nietzsche
2. Nietzsche’s Psycho-Genealogy:
A Ludic Alternative to Heidegger’s Reading

Part 2: Nietzsche in France
3. The French Scene
4. Derrida: Nietzsche Contra Heidegger

Part 3: Nietzsche
5. Language, Metaphor, Rhetoric
6. Perspectivism, Philology, Truth
7. Genealogy, Interpretation, Text


1. Heidegger Reading Nietzsche

In the usual present-day view what has been said here is a mere product of the farfetched and one-sided Heideggerian method of exegesis, which has already become proverbial. But here we may, indeed, we must ask: Which interpretation is the true one, the one which simply takes over a perspective into which it has fallen, because this perspective, this line of sight, presents itself as familiar and self-evident; or the interpretation which questions the customary perspective from top to bottom, because conceivably—and indeed actually—this line of sight does not lead to what is in need of being seen.

—Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics

Rather than protect Nietzsche from the Heideggerian reading, we should perhaps offer him up to it completely, underwriting that interpretation without reserve.

—Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology

To appropriate one of Nietzsche’s more famous chapter headings, Heidegger’s entire philosophical project can be viewed as an examination of “The History of an Error.” This error is metaphysics, whose history Heidegger recounts as the story of the forgetfulness of Being. In this history, Nietzsche occupies a place of singular importance, evidenced by the fact that Heidegger published a greater volume of material on Nietzsche (over 1,200 pages devoted specifically to interpretations of Nietzsche) than any other figure in this history. Nietzsche’s paramount importance for Heidegger emerges in his viewing Nietzsche’s work as the “completion of metaphysics”; Heidegger finds in Nietzsche the most complete expression of the forgetfulness of Being. If Being is to be recovered from this oblivion, philosophy must “overcome metaphysics” and the first step on this path must be a confrontation (Aus-einander-setzung) with the thought of Nietzsche, seen as the greatest expression of the oblivion of Being.

In what follows, we will examine Heidegger’s confrontation with Nietzsche as it is presented in three of Heidegger’s discussions: his discussion of Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God; his answer to the question “Who is Zarathustra?”; and his interpretation of Nietzsche’s discussion of art as exhibiting most explicitly Nietzsche’s bringing metaphysics to completion through the overturning of Platonism. This examination will be prefaced by a discussion of several basic methodological choices that guide Heidegger’s reading, and it will be followed in Chapter Two by a critical response to Heidegger that returns to these methodological choices and appraises the overall success of Heidegger’s method in his interpretation of Nietzsche, while offering several alternative interpretations. The examination itself, which comprises the majority of this first chapter, is largely exegetical and a word of explanation as to the function it serves in my argument is called for. In this chapter, I want to demonstrate through a careful exegesis of Heidegger’s works on Nietzsche what many readers either assume or take on the word of other commentators or critics of Heidegger. As a scholarly work, I think it is important to actually look at what Heidegger says and point out the places where he makes the dogmatic interpretive moves that I, and many others, find problematic. This explication is, therefore, a necessary step in confronting the Heideggerian interpretation: it both exemplifies the methodological choices discussed in the first section of this chapter and supports my critical comments in the following chapter.

Before beginning this examination, another word regarding my approach to the reading of Heidegger is in order. At the simplest level, there would seem to be two distinct yet interconnected ways to approach a reading of Heidegger’s works on Nietzsche. One can view these works from the perspective of Heidegger’s philosophical project of overcoming metaphysics and retrieving Being from its oblivion, in which case these works speak primarily about Heidegger, and any insights into Nietzsche’s philosophy are incidental and derivative. Or one can view these works as an exegesis of Nietzsche’s philosophical corpus, in which case they speak to us primarily about Nietzsche, and only incidentally about Heidegger. While it will often be impossible to keep separate these two strategies of reading, I will emphasize the latter, viewing Heidegger’s works on Nietzsche to be works about Nietzsche and not about Heidegger. Therefore, these works will be read critically only in terms of their being interpretations of Nietzsche’s philosophy and, as such, as examples of Heidegger’s method of interpretation; any critical remarks regarding Heidegger’s reading of the history of philosophy and his task of overcoming metaphysics will, for the most part, be deferred. William J. Richardson, one of Heidegger’s most sympathetic commentators, told the following story when he delivered the 1965 “Suarez Lecture” at Fordham University: “When confronted with the history of criticisms of his interpretation of Kant, Heidegger simply said: ‘it may not be good Kant, but it’s excellent Heidegger.’”1 The following examination will not concern itself per se with what is “excellent Heidegger,” but will continually raise the question of whether or not Heidegger’s interpretation is “good Nietzsche.” The question of Heidegger’s philosophy proper will be raised only in those sections where we will locate the methodological principles which ground Heidegger’s hermeneutic.

6. Perspectivism, Philology, Truth

Speaking seriously, there are good reasons why all philosophical dogmatizing, however solemn and definitive its airs used to be, may nevertheless have been no more than a noble childishness and tyronism. And perhaps the time is at hand when it will be comprehended again and again how little used to be sufficient to furnish the cornerstone for such sublime and unconditional philosophers’ edifices as the dogmatists have built so far,—any old popular superstition from time immemorial (like the soul superstition which, in the form of the subject and ego superstition, has not even yet ceased to do mischief), some play on words perhaps, a seduction by grammar, or an audacious generalization of very narrow, very personal, very human, all-too-human facts.

Beyond Good and Evil, Pr.

It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still […] for philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow—it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of “work,” that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to “get everything done” at once, including every old or new book:—this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers[….]

Daybreak, Pr., 5

The omnipresent references to both the processes and products of interpretation make it tempting to view Nietzsche as a precursor of modern hermeneutics.1 However, the difficulties involved in a systematic exposition of Nietzsche’s conception of interpretation are considerable, insofar as he refrained from providing anything even approximating a set of methodological guidelines for judging between competing interpretations. In an effort to organize his varied remarks on interpretation, we shall focus on two themes articulated in various ways throughout the entirety of his writings. These themes are perspectivism and philology and, as our examination unfolds, each will appear to place certain demands on the process of interpretation. These demands give rise to differing conceptions of “truth,” and Nietzsche’s apparent inconsistency regarding the status of “truth” will emerge in part as a consequence of the methodological antinomy of perspectivism and philology. Moreover, the tension between these two interpretive themes will be shown to anticipate the competing tendencies toward relativism and dogmatism that plague modern hermeneutics. In examining these two themes, we will question whether we must view the opposition between perspectivism and philology as one that confronts the interpreter with the task of reducing or subordinating one theme to the other in order to remove the apparent contradiction within Nietzsche’s thinking which their mutual affirmation seems to entail.

Stated in its most concise form, perspectivism is the Nietzschean doctrine that asserts there are no uninterpreted “facts” or “truth.” Before we can elaborate on the specific claims of this doctrine, however, warnings against two possible misunderstandings of what is to follow are in order. The first has to do with the scope of the Nietzschean doctrine of perspectivism. It is not uncommon to find Nietzsche’s doctrine of perspectivism criticized for being paradoxical, nihilistic, or even solipsistic.2 These judgments arise from a common misunderstanding of perspectivism, namely that perspectivism is put forth as an ontological position. It is a basic presupposition of the following investigation that Nietzsche’s remarks concerning perspectives delineate a position whose domain is “epistemic” rather than “ontological.” This is not to say, however, that perspectivism is offered as an epistemological position in the restricted sense of providing a “theory of knowledge” rather than a “theory of being.” Instead, the designation as “epistemic” means to imply that the perspectival account concerns what we can “know” and not what there “is.” In other words, Nietzsche’s perspectival account does not provide a theory at all; it is a rhetorical strategy3 that offers an alternative to the traditional epistemological conception of knowledge as the possession of some stable, eternal “entities,” whether these be considered “truths,” “facts,” “meanings,” “propositions,” or whatever. As we shall see, Nietzsche views these “entities” as beyond the limits of human comprehension, and, whether or not they exist (a question Nietzsche regards as an “idle hypothesis” [see WP, 560]), he concludes that we are surely incapable of “knowing” them.

About the author:

Schrift, Alan_0Alan Schrift’s teaching and scholarship focuses on 19th– and 20th-century French and German philosophy.  In addition to over 80 published articles or book chapters on Nietzsche and 20th-century European philosophy, he is the author of Twentieth-Century French Philosophy: Key Themes and Thinkers (Blackwell 2006), Nietzsche’s French Legacy: A Genealogy of Poststructuralism (Routledge 1995), and Nietzsche and the Question of Interpretation:  Between Hermeneutics and Deconstruction (Routledge 1990). Most recently, he was General Editor of the eight-volume History of Continental Philosophy (Acumen Publishing/University of Chicago Press 2010), which was awarded Honorable Mention in the category of multivolume reference in the 2010 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence.  In 2014, he was elected to a three-year term on the Executive Committee of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP), the world’s largest scholarly organization focusing on European philosophy.  He currently serves as General Editor of The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, the Stanford University Press translation of Nietzsche’s Kritische Studienausgabe, and is working on a volume of selected writings of Jean Wahl, to be published by Fordham University Press.