Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Nietzsche, Stirner, Dostoyevsky

Charles Pigden, a philosopher at the University of Otago, writes with questions, which I invite readers to address:

What is the scholarly state of play with respect to Stirner's influence on
Nietzsche? There are obvious though perhaps superficial affinities which suggest such an influence and it seems odd to suppose that a voracious reader like Nietzsche would not have known about Stirner and would have passed him by if he had known about him. But as an argument this strikes me as a touch too much like those speculative biographies which enlarge at length on what Shakespeare 'must' have felt or thought. I understand from Safranski's biography that Nietzsche never mentions Mad Max in his extant works or correspondence but that there is evidence from the
memoirs' of Ida Overbeck that Nietzsche not only read Stirner but admired him. Safranski takes the case for influence to be proven, and embarks on a summary of Stirner views in order to clarify what he takes that influence to have been. But is he perhaps being premature? Could Frau Overbeck have been confabulating to back up a thesis she believed for other reasons? Has anything been discovered since Safranski's book which sheds any light on the issue? And what do you think? I note that the issue is left to one side in Nietzsche on Morality and that nobody so much as
mentions Stirner in your OUP anthology (which surprised me a little).

A related question: Do we know which of Dostoevsky's books Nietzsche read apart from Notes from the Underground (which is mentioned in a letter in Kaufman's The Portable Nietzsche)? The question is relevant since I am inclined to think that Dostoevsky's character Stavrogin, the hero of The Devils/Demons/the Possessed is meant to be a sort of immanent critique of Stirner's ideals. Was The Devils translated into a language that Nietzsche understood during his sane and productive lifetime?


Isobel said...

Joseph Frank (Dostoevsky biographer) notes that in the Nietzsche archives there are "some notes [Nietzsche] took of The Devils"(citing G. Fridlender) [see the footnote on page 149 of Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal].

Also Nietzsche mentioned somewhere Dostoevsky's account of the prisoners in Siberia, which strongly indicates that Nietzsche read House of the Dead as well.

Anonymous said...

The historical question regarding Stirner is properly dealt with by Thomas Brobjer:

Nietzsche discovered Dostojewski in 1887 and probably read a French edition of The Possessed, namely Les Possédés, trans. by Victor Derély (Paris 1886). He makes notes on it in KSA 13, 11[331]-[334]):,11%5B331%5D . Take a look at the index of Nietzsche-studien, and you will find a lot of information concerning Nietzsche and Dostojewski.

Rob said...

And there's the reference in AC 31.

Charles Pigden said...

Thanks Isobel!
I have (of course!) read Frank's superb biography of Dostoevsky but I missed that.

Wolter said...

The notes, which Nietzsche probably took from the French translation, Les Possédés, trans. by Victor Derély (Paris 1886), are in KSA 13, 11[331]-[333].

Thomas Brobjer has properly dealt with the historical Stirner-Nietzsche question.

Mattia said...

To Isobel: From a letter to Gast one can infer that Nietzsche indeed read, in French, "La maison des morts", plus "Humilés et offensés". There's a recent, highly informative study by Paolo Stellino on Nietzsche's knowledge of Dostoevsky's work, in Spanish.

This is the link to the pdf:

For the letter to Gast see p. 89.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this all very interesting! My German is pretty poor, but if I am not mistaken, Nietzsche, in his notes, is, in part, paraphrasing Stavrogin's final letter to Darya Shatova, in the last chapter of THE POSSESSED.

More later.

Charles Pigden said...

Post 1

Thanks to everyone thus far for their useful comments and recommendations. Brobjer's article (thanks Wolter!) was particularly illuminating as were the citations to Nietzsche's notes and correspondence concerning those novels of Dostoevsky that Nietzsche is known to have read. The situation seems to be this:

1) Wrt Stirner. Apart form the dubious testimony of Frau Overbeck (who may have been confabulating) there isn't any evidence that Nietzsche read Stirner or was influenced by him despite the similarities between their views. What Nietzsche knew about Stirner (if anything) he probably derived from Hartmann. The charge of plagiarism ( a charge that I was careful not to make) is quite absurd.

Charles Pigden

PS The previous post was mine. I failed to de-anonymize myself

Charles Pigden said...

Post 2

2) Nietzsche read at least the following novels of Dostoevsky, apparently in French translations.

i] NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND, translated as L’Esprit Souterrain. Source: letter to Overbeck excepted in Kaufmann’s THE PORTABLE NIETZSCHE, pp. 454-455.
ii] HOUSE OF THE DEAD, translated as La maison des morts). Source: Letter to Gast, Briefwechsel, III, 5, op. cit., pp. 41 s, plus a number for references in the later works that can hardly be to anything else.
iii] THE INSULTED AND HUMILIATED (translated as Humilés et offensés) Source: Letter to Gast, Briefwechsel, III, 5, op. cit., pp. 41 s.
iv] THE DEVILS/THE POSSESSED [though he won’t have known about the cancelled chapter], translated as Les Possedes Source: detailed notes in KSA 13, 11[331]-[333]. in which - if I have not misinterpreted the German - he seems in part to be paraphrasing Stavrogin’s final letter to Darya Shatova.

There is also strong circumstantial evidence, cited by Kaufmann that Nietzsche had read CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. To begin with WP 735 certainly LOOKS like a comment on C&P. But Kaufamnn cites a letter to Gast in which Nietzsche remarks in passing that the French have dramatized Dostoevsky’s ‘main novel’ i.e C&P, and it would have been very odd indeed if a self-declared Dostoevsky fan such as Nietzsche had not read what he regarded as Dostoevsky’s ‘main novel’, given that it was available in a French translation. (See Kaufmann’s notes to his translation of the GENEALOGY 3:24).

Kaufmann also thinks that Nietzsche had read THE IDIOT but the evidence for this is a) circumstantial and b) a fair bit weaker than the evidence that he had read C&P. In his last period of sanity Nietzsche seems to be identify innocence and idiocy, something that might have been suggested by the character of Prince Myshkin. This seems a reasonable literary conjecture but it falls far short of the literary proof that we have with respect to the other novels.

As for THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV it was probably translated too late for Nietzsche to have read it (though this is perhaps just about possible).

I don’t read Spanish, but puzzling my way through his text, it seems that Stellino agrees.

I initially wondered whether Nietzsche might have accessed Stirner’s ideas via the POSSESSED, but on reflection this really won’t wash. Even if I am correct and Stavrogin is indeed a Stirnerian hero, (or anti-hero), this is something you would not notice unless you were already familiar with Stirner’s work. And anyway the main outlines Nietzsche’s meta-ethical ideas had been formulated long before he read Dostoevsky, since he is running what seems to me an error-theoretic line in DAYBREAK (1881)

Charles Pigden said...

Post 3

I want to come back to an issue which prompted my query - the affinities between Stirner and Nietzsche. I want to suggest two important DISsimilarities. I’m fairly certain about the one but stand to be corrected about the other.

a) In my view both Stirner and Nietzsche were (in today’s terminology) error theorists about ethics. (Brian disagrees: he thinks that while Nietzsche was definitely SOME sort of moral anti-realist. it is indeterminate which sort of a moral anti-realist he was.) However Nietzsche wanted to replace the current Christian or (post-Christian ethic) with another morality that would be equally false but more life-enhancing. Stirner seems to have thought we - or at any rate he - could get along without any morality whatsoever.

b) Stirner seems to think that our autonomy is violated if we allow our own desires to ‘master’ us. This would appear to imply a substantial self over and above ones desires which can choose whether or not to give in to them. Nietzsche, I think, would have regarded this idea as incoherent. True, we have some sort of ability to sacrifice some desires or drives to others, but there is no choosing self independent of any of its desires. It may be true of any desire that we can choose not to indulge it, but it does not follow that we can choose not indulge any desire. In other words, Nietzsche was a Humean and would probably have agreed with Blackburn’s polemic against Korsgaard in RULING PASSIONS, ch. 8.

Again, I would like to thank the various commentators and to thank Brian for posting my original query. I hope the discussion has been as useful to others as it has been to me.

Charles Pigden

Anonymous said...

for the Stirner Nietzsche Question see:

Charles Pigden said...

In response to Anonymous 11/12: 10:19
Thanks for the pointer but the article seems to me a bit thin. MAYBE Nietzsche's intellectual romance with Schopenhauer was precipitated by a confrontation with Stirner's (then unacceptable) ideas delivered via the conduit of Mushacke senior, an old associate of the Young Hegelians generally and of Stirner in particular. Well, MAYBE but it seems to me that we are a long way from a literary proof or even a probability.

Anonymous said...

In response to Charles Pigden, April 7, post 3, a.

How can any organism possibly "get along without any morality whatsoever"? If our morality relates to our perceived conditions of preservation and growth, then it necessitates a (contingent) ranking among options, and this ranking (whatever form it takes) constitutes a de facto "morality". e.g. BGE.9. Indifference is not an option.


Charles Pigden said...

Preferring this to that is one thing. Regarding ones preferences as morally justified is is quite another.

Anonymous said...

Is it? Given that you haven't offered a definition of just what you mean by "morally justified", I don't see how you're justified in making the distinction you're seeking to make.

There's nothing necessarily arbitrary or trivial about "preferring this to that", as you seem to imply. This "preferring" can be a matter of life and death, flourishing or impoverishment, for us. That, in the final analysis, is precisely what Nietzsche's "unveiling of morality" amounts to. What other type of "morality" or "justification" can there possibly be?


Charles Pigden said...

Dear 'David'

I can want things I believe to be bad and can fail to want what I believe to be good. Hence wanting something and believing it to be good are distinct.

On the larger question, animals have preferences, but they don't, so far as we can tell, have anything like a morality. We can conceive of a person who is animal-like in this respect: she has preferences but she prefers not to dress up those preferences in the language of 'good' and 'evil' or even in the more antiquated of language of 'good' and 'bad'.

To think otherwise is to accept either subjectivism - the idea that 'X is good' means that I, the speaker, want X - or expressivism - the idea that 'X is good' typically EXPRESSES the speaker's desire for X. Both these views seem to me to be false, particularly in the crude form required to vindicate your view that it is impossible to have preferences without having a morality.

For a person who actually advocates giving up morality (which he thinks of as a collection of false theses which tend to generate behaviors that he dislikes) see Ian Hinckfuss THE MORAL SOCIETY: ITS STRUCTURE AND EFFECTS, which, can, I believe, be downloaded from the web for free. Hinckfuss is not advocating that we give up having desires. Hence, in his view (as in mine), subscribing to a morality is not the same thing as having a set of desires.

Anonymous said...

Dear Charles,

Having more prudent and complex preferences; involving foresight, testing and subtle dialectic, doesn't, in my view, negate their status as "preferences".

See e.g. D.26.

It would help me if you offered your view of just what you think "morality" is, rather than what, in your view, it isn't.


Charles Pigden said...

I did not say that you could not subscribe to a morality without having preferences - I said that you could have preferences without subscribing to a morality. Thus the fact that prudent and complex preferences are still preferences does not show that that you cannot reject morality whilst still having preferences whether prudent and complex or otherwise.

To subscribe to a morality is accept (and to be inclined to act on) a system of propositions about what is good bad, right, wrong etc, where these propositions are TAKEN to represent something over and above the speaker's preferences or what is prudentially good or bad for the person in question. .

Fairly obviously it is logically (if not practically) possible for a human being to reject any such system of propositions or to accept such a system verbally whilst being systematically disinclined to act on those propositions (that is a person might be systematically disinclined to do what he or she regards as the right thing BECAUSE it is right or to avoid what she regards as wrong BECAUSE it is wrong).

What Hinckfuss and Garner and (in my view) Max Stirner are suggesting is that we would all (or mostly) be better off if we rejected morality as a tissue of falsehoods. Other thinkers such as Mackie, Joyce and (in my view) Nietzsche think that although all moralities are systematically false, it is useful to believe or to make-belive that some of them are true, reserving our moral skepticism for moments of meta-ethical clarity.

If you want more on what I think morality is , my views are pretty similar to those of Hinckfuss, Garner, Mackie and Joyce, and also (as I think) to those of Stirner and Nietzsche.

Like Nietzsche (Daybreak 103) I am one of the second kind of deniers of morality, but like Nietzsche (BGE 1.4) I think that false beliefs can be necessary to us though the false beliefs that I take to be necessary are probably ratherr different from Nietzsche's

Anonymous said...


Your second paragraph seems to define "morality" as being unavoidably wedded to error, the error that ANY of the individual's affirmations or negations "represent something over and above" the constitution, context, and goals of the individual in question.

But why should this kind of definition of morality prevail? Does one automatically cease to be "moral" if one rejects these allegedly impersonal and transcendent propositions? Nietzsche's characterisation of Buddhism, for example, whereby "egoism becomes a duty", suggests otherwise. Why should Nietzsche's Buddhists feel the need to conform to, for example, Kantian conceptions of "morality"?

The fact that many esteemed moral philosophers and the dominant Christian tradition deems such "egoism" as being outside of "morality" is precisely one of the errors that Nietzsche hopes mankind will someday leave behind (D.148).

Thus it all depends upon what specific "tissue of falsehoods" you're referring to.

I would strongly reject the claim that for Nietzsche "all moralities are systematically false". Daybreak 103 is an excellent passage, but one needs to be clear just what kinds of "errors" Nietzsche has in mind here. The first two lines of Daybreak 148 (indeed, that whole section) make clear that Nietzsche is opposing some definitions of "morality", especially those definitions that enjoy a privileged historical status. But rejecting the intellectual veracity of certain conceptions of morality does not equate to a judgement that "all moralities are systematically false".

Nietzsche's position in all this seems broadly clear and consistent to me (e.g. GS.120 & 335): moralities are value judgements, directly related to our perceived conditions of preservation and growth (although, certainly, our perceptions, conscious or otherwise, can be wrong). There is no morality outside of this context, the very idea is incoherent. But because the individual is home to a multitude of (often contradictory) appetites and aversions, situated within a fluid environment and (usually) in a contingent social context, the task of settling upon a uniform, stable and consensual "morality" becomes inevitably problematic, both for the individual and the society to which they belong. Hence the inevitable struggles and conflicts over just what form of "morality" should prevail.

But, these inevitable struggles are not necessarily between equally false conceptions of "morality", they are often simply power struggles between differently constituted individuals, each, in their own way, pursuing "healthy" and "correct" conceptions of "morality".

At times Nietzsche is loathe to admit this. What Nietzsche often, in the later works, labels as "decadent" is not, strictly speaking, decadent at all! It is usually a type of flourishing that simply conflicts profoundly with his own; and when Nietzsche uses such language his is, in my view, speaking viscerally, or as a propagandist, and not as a "man of knowledge".

None of this needs to commit Nietzsche to the view that "all moralities are systematically false", as you claim; all that is required is for us to alter our conception of just what "morality" is, to "translate man back into nature" so that concepts like "truth", and "health", lose their phantasmagorical baggage.


Anonymous said...


Let me be as clear here as I can: In Daybreak. 96. Nietzsche draws attention to the progress that "Europe" still has to make in moral matters. Only once the gods, observances, mediators and priests have been abandoned does the "religion of self-redemption", the Buddha, appear. "When, finally" Nietzsche continues "morality in the old sense will have died, then there will come -well, what will then come? But let us not speculate idly . . ."(D.96).

Later, in the same work, Nietzsche tells us what advances he considers necessary before substantive moral progress can begin: "To construct anew the laws of life and action - for this task our sciences of physiology, medicine, sociology and solitude are not yet sufficiently sure of themselves: and it from them that the foundation stones of new ideals (if not the new ideals themselves) must come"(D.453).

This same point of view finds expression at the end of GM's first essay. But, because we currently lack this much desired knowledge, we are forced, in this "moral interregnum" to content ourselves with being "experiments".

It seems clear to me that what's being proposed here is not a rejection of either "truth" or "morality". What's being rejected is "morality in the old sense", not morality, as such. But I fail to see why the type of morality that Nietzsche longs for, a morality that encourages us to "become the best learners and discoverers of everything that is lawful and necessary in the world" (GS.335), before making definite value judgements, is to be considered "false".


Brian Leiter said...

Let me just note that the fact that Nietzsche expresses moral views, as he certainly does, is quite compatible with the thought that there is no objective fact of the matter about moral questions. Since Nietzsche is rather explicit that, as he says in The Gay Science, nature itself is always valueless, that value is a "gift" we bestow on nature, it would be natural to think that no evaluative judgment accurately describes the way nature itself really is. This may not be quite what Charles has in mind, but I suspect it's in the ballpark. Someone can hold such a view and still make evaluative judgments, of course, as N. does.

Brian Leiter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


Yes, but it depends upon what type of "objectivity", "fact" and "nature" we're (Nietzsche's) interested in. Why are relational concepts of truth not sufficient? Charles interprets Nietzsche as claiming that "all moralities are systematically false".

But this is not the same thing as saying that no morality is endorsed by nature itself (metaphysically or otherwise). In what way is Nietzsche's Buddhist necessarily "false"? Nature, as a totality, neither knows nor cares. We are all, I assume, in agreement here.

But why should morality need such metaphysical endorsement in order to qualify as "morality"? Why should the part seek to mirror the whole? Or, to put things differently, why should Nietzsche's Buddhists care about Kantian, Christian, or Utilitarian models?

To return to the language of D.453, the "new ideals" will, Nietzsche admits, require a creative act, (shaped by a robust scientifically acquired bedrock), and this creative act will not, obviously, be simply reducible to the concepts of truth and falsity, fact and error, in any categorical, universal, trans-historical sense. Yet it does not follow that any such creative positing will necessarily be "false" (as Charles claims), simply because it can never be endorsed by the totality of nature or be binding on all other humans. Labeling such value judgements as "false" is to adhere to a set of presuppositions that Nietzsche doesn't accept.


Charles Pigden said...

David you write:

It seems clear to me that what's being proposed here is not a rejection of either "truth" or "morality".

Quite so As I have repeated several times in this exchange Nietzsche a) rejects the morality current in in his day but b) wants to replace it with another. But it does not follow from this that he thinks that the new and improved morality he gestures towards will be TRUE. Like every other morality it will be false, but it will consist of a more life-enhancing set of falsehoods than the falsehoods that (in his view ) disfigured the culture of his day Does the fact that Nietzsche thinks that it is sometimes useful, life-enhancing or whatnot to believe or make-believe propositions that are false mean that he 'rejects' truth? Obviously not. He EMPLOYS the concept of truth when he says that it is not always useful to believe what is true. And the thesis that it is SOMETIMES a good thing (useful, life-enhancing or whatnot) to subscribe to SOME beliefs that are false does not imply (nor did Nietzsche believe) that it is not on the whole better to have true rather than false beliefs.

I discuss some of the issues that appear to be bugging you in my 2007 paper 'Nihilism, Nietzsche and the Doppelganger Problem'. Perhaps it would be useful if you had a look at that before pursuing this discussion any further.

PS. I am in broad agreement with Brian's post.

RFGA, Ph.D. said...

Has anyone ever suggested a connection between the circumstances surrounding Nietzsche's unfortunate breakdown- specifically, his attempt to prevent a horse from being whipped, and Raskolnikov's dream while sleeping in the park, in which he also tries to save a horse from a flogging? When I told my son of the former incident he immediately responded 'That's straight out of C&P'. I had to concede the parallel and promised him that I would make inquires amongst my fellow Nietzsche aficionados.

Ion Anderson said...

@ Robert Allen, I had the same thoughts as your son, the horse incident/dream can't be unrelated. Nietzsche called Dostoevsky "the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn."

It actually strikes me that this is not more documented, the only significant analysis I found is this one:
Which claims the incident was rather "staged", not impossible given Nietsche's the state of mind at that time.

Unknown said...

I seem to remember Nietzsche saying something along the lines: "there is not one Prince Mishkin among you." But I don't remember where... At the time I made a mental note suggesting that Nietzsche must have read the Idiot.

All the best.