// you’re reading...


Short for a Book, Long for a Commentary: Pippin’s Nietzsche


by Kristóf Fenyvesi

(PR material, Chicago UP)

I was much looking forward to reading Robert Pippin’s new book: The clear and well-designed appearance of the work and its surprising brevity — the volume comprises just 139 pages—suggest graceful elegance combined with explicit restraint. The mild anxiety that should overcome any reader who is somewhat familiar with contemporary Nietzsche studies quickly turns into zealous interest by the first impressions the book evokes. By giving the book its descriptive title, Pippin promises to offer helpful orientation for readers attempting to navigate the complex relationship between “Nietzsche, Psychology and First Philosophy”. The lack of any limitation or subtitle that would define a thematic focus, of course, means that Pippin is setting himself a formidable task. Not only does he have to face several crucial questions in the Nietzschean oeuvre, but he also needs to introduce his readers to an issue that is crucial for Nietzsche studies, or, if one prefers a simplistic label, to the “Nietzsche problem.” He needs to guide his readers through a discourse that was among the first to emerge in international Nietzsche scholarship and has been at the forefront ever since – and he still has to come up with an original view. The endeavour to meet a grand challenge like this in a mere 139 pages book (plus roughly four and a half pages of introductory remarks) is worthy of a truly “free spirit”, an aristocratic gesture in the Nietzschean sense, which I cannot but applaud.

My high spirits rose even higher when I studied the table of contents. Chapter 1: “Psychology as ‘the Queen of Sciences’” (22 pages), Chapter 2: “What is a Gay Science?” (21 pages), Chapter 3: “Modernity as a Psychological Problem” (21 pages), Chapter 4: “The Deed Is Everything [Das Tun ist alles]” (17 pages), Chapter 5: “The Psychological Problem of Self-Deception” (19 pages), Chapter 6: “How to Overcome Oneself: On the Nietzschean Ideal” (16 pages), “Concluding Remarks” (4 pages). The items in the table of contents initially led me to expect that the book would actually present the most important psychological aspects of Nietzsche’s works, following a clearly structured, original train of thought. The page numbers assigned to them suggested that Pippin would deal with all of these grand issues with impressive brevity, perhaps even with the Horatian economy of expression that Nietzsche valued so highly. However, my initial enthusiasm soon diminished irrevocably when I begin to delve into the book. Pippin  doesn’t seem to be aware of the diversity and the comprehensive nature of the problems that he implicitly took upon himself when he chose such a bold title. I grew increasingly convinced that the brevity of the book was mostly due to the scarce amount of substance rather than to his following the Horatian or Nietzschean stylistic radicalism.

Pippin dedicates his own work to the memory of Bernard Williams. The acknowledgements at the beginning of the book indicate that the first four chapters are identical to the edited version of a series of lectures delivered by Pippin in the fall of 2004 at the College de France in Paris and published in 2006 as Nietzsche, moraliste francais: La conception nietzschéen d’une psychologie philosophique (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2006). The dedication of the book to Williams and the summary of the book in the introduction refer back to Pippin’s previous paper on Williams’s Nietzsche interpretation, which appeared in 2005 under the title Nietzsche’s Moral Psychology and the French Moralist Tradition (in Volker Gerhardt & Renate Reschke, eds., Bildung – Humanitas – Zukunft bei Nietzsche [= Nietzscheforschung Vol. 12], Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 2005).Yet, surprisingly, there is not a single reference to it in Pippin’s present book, although that paper and the present book have a lot in common, even literally – in addition to the fact that both follow Williams’s reasoning. Just as in his earlier paper, in his new book Pippin provides a summary (pp. xiv-xvii) of Williams’ paper Nietzsche’s Minimalist Moral Psychology (first published in European Journal of Philosophy 1 (1993) pp. 4-14), thus prompting the reader who knows the Williams paper to entertain the uncanny idea that Pippin’s book should perhaps be seen as simply a rather lengthy commentary on Williams’s fascinatingly dense paper, which is full of innovative and original ideas. Unfortunately, Pippin has included no caveats regarding the commentary-like nature of his book, nor does he offer any instruction that would assist the book being received in this spirit. The “in memoriam” dedication of the book can hardly be considered adequate in this sense, nor can the closing section of the acknowledgements (p. XII) where Pippin mentions Williams as one of the main sources of inspiration and a stylistic model.

In particular, Pippin builds his book on Williams’s basic assumption that Nietzsche, like Wittgenstein, cannot be the source of any philosophical theory in a traditional sense, since his texts are based mostly on the operation of textual “booby traps” that protect his thoughts from theorization and systematization. This does not mean, of course, that whoever tries to interpret Nietzsche should avoid philosophical theories when attempting to analyze, first and foremost, the minimalist features of the Nietzschean moral philosophy and the consequences that result from the resistance of minimalist moral philosophy to theories and systems. These issues involve the Nietzschean critique of classical naturalism and, also, the Nietzschean need for the naturalization of moral philosophy, the disclosure of the illusory nature of ego and self, as well as the observation of the psychological importance of the epistemological fallacy that stems from the separation of active subject and action, especially with respect to free will and its subordination to causal thinking.

The first chapter of Pippin’s book, “Psychology as ‘the Queen of Sciences’”, with reference to the notable section of Beyond Good and Evil – the 23rd aphorism, which no book on Nietzsche’s psychological stance can afford to ignore – is mainly concerned with the role Nietzsche assigns to psychology and the provision that although the theory of philosophical psychology cannot be created (p. 2), it can still become “first philosophy,” and psychology in the Nietzschean sense can alter, or even supersede, metaphysical thinking. In this context, Nietzsche sees himself as a late successor to the French moralists – primarily, in Pippin’s view, to Montaigne (p. 8 ) – and it is mainly his views on the will that connect psychology and moral philosophy in his work (p. 4), in addition to keeping together the far-reaching research on Nietzsche. The statement on psychology as the queen of sciences is linked by Pippin, with due sensitivity, to the Nietzschean remarks in Section 3 of the introduction to Beyond Good and Evil, which emphasize the feminine nature of truth (p. 13) and wisdom (p. 15). What follows from this is a brief analysis by Pippin (pp. 13-21) on the psychological aspects of the tradition of “philosophical eroticism” (cf. Friedrich Nietzsche: Götzen-Dämmerung, Streifzüge eines Unzeitgemässen, 23) and the Nietzschean amor fati.

The second chapter, “What is a Gay Science?”, raises the issue of “first philosophy” addressed in the first chapter in relation to intentionalism (p. 25), where the discussion on philosophical eroticism which began in the first chapter is expanded by the analysis of the diverse problem of commitment, whichcan be addressed both from a psychological and from an intentional standpoint (pp. 26-28). The aspect of corporeality emerges several times in the course of Pippin’s analysis (p. 28, 36, 38, 43); however, Pippin assumes Nietzsche has much less corporeal reflexivity than what could, for example, be derived from several passages in The Gay Science, which is at the heart of this chapter.  

Chapter Three, “Modernity as a Psychological Problem”, starts out with Nietzsche’s pictorial, figurative language (p. 45), examining topoi such as the “mad man”, who makes his appearance in aphorism 125 of The Gay Science and announces the death of God. Here Pippin makes an explicit distinction between his arguments and those of more literary-oriented analyses, such as those by Sarah Kofman. Pippin discusses the death of God in connection with the moral psychological aspects of nihilism and evaluation, and the problem of intentionality introduced earlier is further discussed in regard to faith (p. 52).

Chapter Four, “The Deed Is Everything [Das Tun is alles]”, presents the process of unravelling certain aspects of the problem of agency that, in Nietzsche’s view, are important to the topic of intentionality. Although this chapter includes nothing novel with respect to Pippin’s earlier comments on the Nietzsche discourse, it can be regarded as the culmination of the book. Continuing with the analysis of the metaphors discussed earlier (p. 60-70), the centre of the discussion presented by Pippin is  Nietzsche’s famous analogy on the mistakenly assumed separability of lighting and the flash or doer and deed (p. 71-72). In addition to Nietzsche’s criticism of subject, causality, and naturalism, there are references to how Nietzsche’s concept of agent is reflected in its position with respect to Christian ethics (p. 79-82), and how all this influences the Nietzschean constellations of promise, commitment, and responsibility (p. 82-84). My only critical remark on this chapter is that it might be read as a creatively rewritten version of a noteoworthy paper of Pippin’s, which has already been published twice, in two important volumes in 2004 and 2006 [see references below], yet Pippin makes is no reference to these earlier versions in either the text, the footnotes, or the bibliography.

In Chapter Five, “The Psychological Problem of Self-Deception”, the main question discussed is how psychology as first philosophy can be captured in a philosophical sense (p. 85). This analysis includes issues regarding the relationship between consciousness and instincts (p. 86), intentionality and corporeality (p. 87), the Nietzschean avoidance to postulate extra-psychological phenomena (p. 94), and the connection of all these to the main issues in the previous chapters. This chapter conveys the impression that the ground has been prepared for, at last, making good on the promise contained in the title of the book, and suggests that now is the time to develop an extremely original, far-reaching interpretation of Nietzsche’s psychology and first philosophy, using the tools that were developed in previous chapters in the course of expanding the disturbingly narrow initial focus of the book, as suggested by its title. However, it is a serious reason for concern that, at this point, Pippin is fast approaching the end of his book, and the only remanining part, the short 16-page closing chapter, can hardly be expected to fulfill the reader’s expectations.

In Chapter Six, “How to Overcome Oneself: On the Nietzschean Ideal”, which is the book’s final chapter, Pippin’s deals with the question of how the Nietzschean positions regarding agency, self-knowledge, value and erotic desire in the philosophical sense can be connected to the complex problems of modernism. In particular, he inquires into whether Nietzsche cares about the individual’s freedom in any classical sense of the philosophical tradition, and how this issue can be seen in terms of self-knowledge, spontaneity, self-fulfilment, autonomy, independence from external obligations, morality, rational action, authenticity, identification with the actions of other people (without “alienation”), and from the point of view of power. Finally, combining the Nietzschean requirement of going beyond one’s own self – the ‘will to power’ – and returning to Nietzsche as a kind of late “French moralist”, Pippin claims that Nietzsche was never able to achieve a sort of cheerfulness (Heiterkeit) and balance that characterized Montaigne’s works. Nietzsche failed to do so precisely because his desire to discover the results from a total distrust of philosophical theories, also noted by Williams, led him to address issues that Pippin’s book presents. Such topics would no longer be grounded in a causally independent subject, constantly transparent to his own self and possessing his own intentions and thoughts. Rather, they turn into ‘anti-theories’ that would unfold from images, metaphors and analogies, creating a mirror image of philosophical theories; as such, however, they are unable to break out of the conundrum created by the author’s systematizing ambition (p.121).

If there were only few analyses on Nietzsche and psychology, and if Pippin had not previously published nearly every important thought contained in this book, then this little volume would certainly have the charm of novelty – in accordance with the author’s intent to create a synthesis. However, the issue of Nietzsche’s philosophical psychology is one of the questions that, early on, found their way into the international Nietzsche discourse. 116 years before Pippin’s lectures in Paris, the Danish literary historian Georg Brandes put due emphasis on this issue in his 1888 Nietzsche lectures – whose topics were received with enthusiasm even by Nietzsche himself – and he did so again in a 1889 essay on “Nietzsche’s aristocratic radicalism.” In his correspondence with Nietzsche, Brandes identified psychology as an especially effective and crucially important tool of philosophical investigation in the Nietzschean oeuvre, and – with Nietzsche’s personal agreement – localized its roots within a stimulating interdisciplinary and interartistic environment. In particular, when Brandes portrayed Nietzsche’s  personal psychological stance, he foregrounded Nietzsche’s Dostoevsky interpretation and Ibsen, Strindberg and Kierkegaard’s “psychological problems”, in addition to the influence of French moralists and early psychologists. Thus, Brandes and Nietzsche explicitly referred to several crucial psychological sources that Pippin does not even begin to touch upon in his book.

The “psychologist Nietzsche” has been in the centre of interest ever since Nietzsche’s days; in nearly every decade since can we find at least three or four works that are relevant to the Nietzsche discourse at large and whose title includes ‘psychology’ or some cognate concept. During the triumphant years of psychoanalysis this number increased by several orders of magnitude. Among the great, “national” (i.e., German, French, North-American, Spanish, etc.) Nietzsche discourses that have proved to be crucial for the whole of philosophical thinking, it is the North-American Nietzsche discourse, e.g. that of Pippin’s, whose main pillar, Walter Kaufman’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) also presents the Nietzschean oeuvre in explicit psychological context. This does not mean that it would necessarily be difficult or impossible to say something novel and substantial in this matter. Not even Pippin’s book can make us forget how modestly contemporary philosophy utilizes psychology in the Nietzsche research, how scarcely Nietzsche scholarship is exploited in contemporary psychology, and how difficult contemporary forward-thinking representatives of psychology find it to deal with Nietzsche. This is extremely unfortunate because Nietzsche discusses many issues that should be addressed in the framework of contemporary psychology, a discourse in which moral issues are constantly being “rediscovered”. Philosophers should also take a larger share in building a bridge between philosophy and psychology. Significant attempts to build this bridge, however, are yet to come, as is unintentionally demonstrated by Pippin’s book.


Robert B. Pippin: Lightning and Flash, Agent and Deed (GM I:6-17). In: Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals: Critical Essays. Christa Davis Acampora, ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006), pp. 131-146.

Robert Pippin: Lightning and Flash, Agent and Deed (I 6–17). In: Friedrich Nietzsche: Genealogie der Moral. Otfried Höffe, ed. (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 2004), pp. 47-63.

Robert B. Pippin: Nietzsche’s Moral Psychology and the French Moralist Tradition. In: Bildung – Humanitas – Zukunft bei Nietzsche (=Nietzscheforschung. Jahrbuch der Nietzsche-Gesellschaft, Vol. 12). Volker Gerhardt & Renate Reschke eds. (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 2005.), pp. 313-331.

Bernard Williams: Nietzsche’s Minimalist Moral Psychology. In: Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality: Essays on Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. Richard Schacht, ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.), pp. 237-247. (First published in European Journal of Philosophy, 1993, 1 (1): pp. 4-14.)

Robert B. Pippin: Nietzsche, Psychology, and First Philosophy.
University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2010.

ISBN-13: 9780226669755
Cloth, XVII + 139 pages, US$29.00.

Kristóf Fenyvesi is completing a PhD in the Department of Humanities, Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyväskylä, Finland, where he recently (2010) organized the 2nd International Nietzsche Symposium.

(c) 2011 The Berlin Review of Books



Comments are disallowed for this post.

Comments are closed.