Saturday, July 6, 2024

Jing Huang on the Nachlass and the question of what notes Nietzsche wanted to burn

I skimmed this essay by Jing Huang (hereafter JH), a philosopher at the Free University of Berlin, shortly after it came out in 2019, saw that it mischaracterized my views and didn't represent the debate quite accurately, and put it to one side.  I've now read it more carefully, and want to comment in more detail.   As it happens, one of the main points of reference for JH's discussion is a 2017 post on this blog and the comments it generated from Paul Katsafanas, Matthew Meyer and others.

Let me start by noting the positive contribution of JH's article.   There is a standing question in Nietzsche studies about the relative importance of his very large Nachlass.  My view (as JH notes) is that the works Nietzsche intended to publish should be given priority for an interpretation of his 'considered' views as it were.  As I explained in the preface to the first edition of my Nietzsche on Morality:

[I]t is a striking fact about the Nachlass material (including much of that incorporated into The Will to Power) that it contains some of Nietzsche's philosophically weakest and sometimes silliest claims--for example, his attempts to provide a "scientific" proof for the doctrine of etneral recurrence (WP 1066); to construct a "physiological" theory of value (WP 392, 462); and to "prove" that power is the ultimate criterion of value (WP 674, 710)--which find no analogue in the published works.  Given that, in general, Nietzsche culled the books he chose to publish from his notebooks; given that he clearly chose not to publish much of the material that now survives in The Will to Power and the Nachlass; and given that he wanted the remaining notebook material destroyed--surely a plausible explanation for all these facts is precisely that Nietzsche recognized a lot of this material was of dubious merit.  (p. xviii in the 2nd edition). 

JH's main contribution is to investigate carefully the evidence for the proposition that Nietzsche wanted his notebooks burned and concludes that "it is true that in 1888 Nietzsche wanted some of his notes to be burned" (1195-96), but that this included only 13 aphorisms that made it into The Will to Power (1204).  She brings to our attention material from lawsuits between Elisabeth Foerster-Nietzsche and others after the death of Nietzsche's friend Franz Overbeck in 1905 (1199-1200), including a letter from Nietzsche's landlord in Sils (1200).  Ultimately she relies on Foerster-Nietzsche's own account of what Nietzsche left behind in Sils in Das Nietzsche-Archiv, seine Freunde und Feinde (1907), a book that Matthew Meyer called to my attention in the 2017 blog post (as JH acknowledges at 1197).  One thing we learn from his sister's book, as Meyer reported in 2017 (and JH notes at 1198), is that Nietzsche was rather fond of asking for stuff he left behind to be burned!   

This is good philological work, for which JH deserves our gratitude.  The fact remains that Overbeck (apparently) and his student Carl Bernoulli gave different accounts about the scope of the "burning" instruction, although their sources are unclear.  I think the fair conclusion, however, is that while everyone now agrees Nietzsche wanted notebook material destroyed, the scope of what he wanted destroyed is unclear, and probably does not include most of the Nachlass.  

Because JH mischaracterizes my position, the conclusions she draws from her philological work are not sound.  As the quote, above, makes clear, my grounds for skepticism about the Nachlass were always threefold:  (1) Nietzsche selected what to publish from his notebooks, so it's a reasonable inference that he left behind material he had come to think less worthy (or sound); (2) what he left behind in the Nachlass is distinguished by its poor philosophical quality, not uniformly, but often enough to support the inference that Nietzsche thought better of it and so chose not to publish it; and (3) Nietzsche expressed an intention to discard this material, thus lending additional support to the conclusion in (2).

JH has raised doubts about how much evidence (3) provides for the conclusion in (1) and (2).  But that still leaves (1) and (2) untouched as independent hypotheses, and thus still leaves skepticism about the Nachlass intact.

Unfortunately, JH fails, repeatedly, to correctly represent my argument for giving priority to the published works over the Nachlass.  So, for example, near the start she writes:

Were one to ask why a controversy of similar scope does not exist on Kant or Husserl--authors for whom a Nachlass also constitutes a considerable proportion of their corpus--scholars like...Brian Leiter would likely answer that Nietzsche abandoned his Nachlass, while Kant and Husserl did not.  (1195)

That, however, is not my answer, as should be obvious from what I quoted at the start.  Ironically, JH cites the relevant pages from which this quote comes (at 1195 n. 4), but does not give the answer that my argument there suggests:  namely, that (1) and (2), above, do not apply in the case of Kant and Husserl, and (3) is also not relevant.

JH repeats this misleading characterization.  At 1203, she says that Leiter, "[w]hile arguing that the notebook material 'sometimes serves to deepen our understanding of the works Nietzsche chose to publish', he maintains with reference to the 'burning' story that Nietzsche recognized that a lot of his remaining notebook material was 'of dubious merit' and therefore wanted it destroy," once again citing to the page that includes the quote with which I started.  But once again, she omits the actual three-part argument, which was that (as I wrote) a "plausible explanation for all these [three] facts [many of the Nachlass claims are philosophically weak or silly; Nietzsche passed over much of this material in choosing what to publish; and the burning story] is precisely that Nietzsche recognized a lot of this material was of dubious merit."  Even if one of the facts is disputed by JH, the other two remain.

At 1205, JH claims that "another conclusion [Leiter] derived from the 'burning' story" is "that the Nachlass is something Nietzsche passed over or even rejected and therefore has dubious value."  But that was not a conclusion from the "burning story"; rather the 'burning story' was one piece of evidence complementing two other pieces of evidence:  that the Nachlass contains lots of foolishness, and we know that Nietzsche passed over lots of this material in choosing what to publish.   

The misrepresentation of my actual argument to one side, JH does make one relevant point in response:  namely, that Nietzsche sometimes (but not very often) went back years in his notebooks to recover material for his books (1205-1206).  That does open the possibility that some of his late notes in particular might have surfaced in later work, but for his collapse in January 1889.  (I never denied that.)  It will then require good philosophical judgment to figure out which ones those are.

I agree with JH that "an author's valuation of her own writings cannot determine their actual value" (1207) which is why my actual argument has always involved the observation that the Nachlass material is of uneven philosophical quality.  JH never discusses this argument, and only alludes to this central issue once in footnote 62 on p. 1208, noting Meyer's claim that "the devaluation of the sometimes a strategy to interpret away 'any views deemed philosophically weak or even silly by contemporary standards.'"  This is the kind of claim that scholars who don't know much philosophy often make, but it itself is a bit silly:  what merely "contemporary" philosophical standards are needed to conclude that, e.g., the thesis that the inorganic world manifest will to power is absurd, or that the argument for the cosmological version of eternal return fails?  In fact, plenty of philosophers in the 19th-century could have seen the problem with many of the distinctive Nachlass themes, and if I am right, Nietzsche himself sometimes realized his notebook jottings did not deserve to see the light of day.  (Nietzsche was a huge consumer of contemporary scientific literature:  how could he have not realized that the idea that inorganic matter is will to power was not plausible?)  Only a kind of quasi-religious veneration of Nietzsche could lead anyone to think otherwise.  Nietzsche, too, was "human, all-too-human," and to his credit, I would like to think, he decided not to publish a lot of the dreck that survives in the Nachlass because he came to realize that it did not amount to much.

The final part of JH's paper purports to draw conclusions about the value of the Nachlass and The Will to Power from the preceding philological work.  Most of this discussion seemed to me a bit superficial (and not simply because it failed to engage my actual arguments), and, in any case, it stands mostly independently of JH's claims about the "burning story."  I would have liked to see more engagement with Julian Young's compelling treatment of these issues in Chapter 26 of his biography.  In any case, I doubt this part of the paper will persuade anyone not already sympathetic to JH's view.

In conclusion:  what deserves attention is the philological detective work about the "burning" story, noted above (1197-1201).  JH's findings, however, do not affect my views about the Nachlass or my arguments about the cosmological or metaphysical versions of the will to power doctrine, which do not turn on the scope of the materials Nietzsche did want burned.