Nadim Bakhshov, author of Against Capitalist Education, reviews a new edition of Nietzsche’s lectures on education published as Anti-Education by the NYRB.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Anti-Education, ed. Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon (NYRB, 2015), pp. 95
At the age of twenty-four, about to take up a professorship of classical philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland – still one of the youngest tenured professors on record – Friedrich Nietzsche presented these lectures on education. Unsurprisingly, for a fledgling philosopher testing out his intellectual wings, we find much that is unorthodox in these lectures. There are no substantial arguments given. The lectures do not form a dialectic structure leading to a climactic revelation nor is there a series of statements which, through progressive accumulation, disclose an argued truth about education. We should also add that these early lectures are of mixed relevance today – long passages are given over to criticisms of systems and practices that belong to a very different historical period.
So why read these lectures?
The real heart of these lectures lies in the art and literary devices of the lectures themselves. There is something strikingly experimental and, dare I say it, Swiftian, at operation and it is worth drawing these elements to the surface, it is worth observing this youthful thinker emerge and show us hints of his mature genius and originality.
But be warned. There are major spoiler alerts ahead. We need to glimpse behind the curtain and see the thinker at work, contriving the surface dynamics of these lectures and manipulating us. In rending the curtain, in seeing the youthful Nietzsche at work behind the scenes – like the real man behind the great wizard of Oz, caught pulling levers, pressing buttons and speaking through various devices – we risk losing a naïve and fresh encounter with these lectures. If there is something like a historically authentic reading, we may lose it in what follows.
What follows are some brief methodological remarks and a set of simplified categories of literary and philosophical production to help tease out the nature of these lectures. It is hoped this approach will provide the potential reader with a point of literary and philosophical access to these lectures. In my view, much of the excitement lies not in individual claims but in the very mode of literary production.
Consider three categories:
Category 1: The subject as author. With great literature this is often encountered as the familiar first person narrator. There are important and complex debates about the reliability of first person narrators. Jane Austen’s Emma is a good example. Perhaps that is why philosophers tend to steer clear of it. For the youthful Nietzsche this category is commonly encountered in journalism and, in particular, the ‘opinion piece’. He, like Kierkegaard (see his ‘The Present Age’) has nothing good to say about ‘opinion pieces’:
“Everyone nowadays automatically speaks and writes in a German so vulgar and bad that it could only exist in an age of newspaper German.”
He connects it to another failing of the German education system: a propaganda machine for a national-economic doctrine:
“Utility as the goal and purpose of education.”
And further on:
“To train everyone to convert his innate capacity for knowledge and wisdom, whatever it might be, into as much…income as possible.”
Category 2: The object as author. This is perhaps the most important mode of production for philosophical writing. Starting with the ‘scientific’ Aristotle it would include most of the mediaeval thinkers, including Aquinas, parts of Descartes, Leibnitz, Spinoza and most notably Kant and Hegel. In our modern era we would include Heidegger, Badiou, Foucault and Wittgenstein. In this mode the writing subject makes itself transparent and presents what the object discloses. Spinoza might be considered the exemplar in his use of a geometric form to convey and metaphysical doctrine. Authority is grounded in the idea of the truth of the encountered object, in the idea of something given or revealed but not constructed by a first person narrator. Derrida, taking inspiration from Nietzsche’s perspectivism, remains critical of this mode of philosophical production. In these lectures this is the least successful mode of writing. Nietzsche uses it in passages which critique the historical systems and practices.
Category 3: The mediated other as author. This is most exciting mode for those whose thought which exists in the intersection of orthodoxies. Here the authorial voice is mediated through another subject. Effectively the written work is a translation of what someone else has said. This category of writing requires literary craft that few philosophers actually master. Plato’s Symposium, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and the occasional dialogue of a Hume or Berkeley are some of the exemplars of this mode. Most literature and drama is written in this mode. Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novels (Bakhtin) are superb examples of this. There is no first person narrator who is not situated, no objective reality that does not come mediated via the perspectives of other subjects. The classic example, much admired by Nietzsche, is Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It is here we finally find the youthful Nietzsche hiding behind the curtain – manipulating levers and pressing buttons. This is the heart of his literary device.
But how? And more importantly why?
Early in the first lecture Nietzsche tells the audience he came across an elderly philosopher and his companion. These lectures are his opportunity to tell us what was said and discussed. Little does the audience know that they are fictions. It is in dialogue with this elderly philosopher that the young Nietzsche attempts to offer up his own thought:
“Philosophizing…making a serious effort of the best way to become truly educated.”
Not revolutionary, I agree. Nietzsche is using this dialogue with his fictional protagonist to present something of his own. It is like Socrates using the figure of Diotima to liberate his own thought and freely narrate a myth of a mystical ascent towards beauty itself. We have to remember that Nietzsche at the time of these lectures is still a philologist (see this HKRB discussion on philosophy and philology). This fictional philosopher cleverly provides him with what he needs: a way of legitimizing and contextualizing what he wants to say. Interestingly, this elderly philosopher is not the mouthpiece of a radical anti-education. He is a very Schopenhauer sounding elderly philosopher.
Are all these loves of narration and contextualization clever? I certainly think so. But does Nietzsche have anything really radical to say? I leave you, the reader to judge. A lot of the text is about the notion of cultivation of the human (bildung) and, for me, is largely superseded by his mature thought. Of historical interest? No doubt. Of philosophical interest? Perhaps, in part. Of literary interest? Most definitely. Nietzsche never gave up with playing with form. All his greatest works are saturated with a craft that edges into poetic myth and literature.
Let us finish with a very literary-metaphysical description:
“Forest and stone, the storm, the vulture, the single flower, butterfly and meadow and mountainside must speak to him in their own tongue – he must be able to see himself in them as though in countless mirrors and reflections, in a colorful whirlpool of ever-changing appearances, and he will unconsciously feel the metaphysical oneness of all things in the great symbol of Nature, while also drawing peace from its eternal perseverance and necessity. But how many Young people can be permitted to grow up like this, so close to nature, in an almost personal relationship with it?”
It sounds like the words of a nature mystic. To a largely conservative Christian audience it may reek of paganism and heresy. Nietzsche hides this metaphysical paganism behind fictional masks. Let’s finish on a line of poetic and metaphysical beauty:
“the metaphysical oneness of all things in the great symbol of Nature”
This prefigures much of his later assault on metaphysics, taken up by his followers, including Heidegger’s ontotheological critique of the tradition. This may indeed point to where this lecture series could be most important.
Nadim Bakhshov is author of Against Capitalist Education (Zero Books) and the creator of a post-metaphysical skeletal art form, lying at the intersection of neo-conceptual art, mathematics and ultra-theoretical philosophy