The best books for interpreting Friedrich Nietzsche

Anthony K. Jensen Author Of An Interpretation of Nietzsche's on the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life
By Anthony K. Jensen

Who am I?

I don’t especially like Nietzsche, and rarely agree with him. As a professor of philosophy, I find that he is less original than is popularly assumed and less clear than he should be—not out of some mysterious profundity—so much as a recalcitrance or maybe inability to make plain what he thinks. Even so, I find it quite impossible to break away from Nietzsche. For my part, and I suspect for many readers who came upon him during their formative years, Nietzsche’s thought is so close to me that I’m always wrestling with it. Maybe that’s not a ‘result of’ but a ‘condition for’ reading it?

I wrote...

An Interpretation of Nietzsche's on the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life

By Anthony K. Jensen,

Book cover of An Interpretation of Nietzsche's on the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life

What is my book about?

Nietzsche’s writings were often dialogical, in the sense that phrasings or even whole passages were written as a sort of spiritual conversation with other authors. In the case of his famous On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874), Nietzsche stood on a sort of precipice between the influences of his youth and the mature ideas for which he would later become famous. There is thus an unmistakable tension in this text that further reveals itself in notes and drafts about the nature and enterprise of history. In my book I try to offer a meticulous yet readable analysis of this philosophical classic in its varied contexts, and with an eye towards Nietzsche's enduring philosophical contributions.

The books I picked & why

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Nietzsche: The Man and his Philosophy

By R. J. Hollingdale,

Book cover of Nietzsche: The Man and his Philosophy

Why this book?

Nietzsche studies are a cottage industry unto themselves. There are thousands of monographs, anthologies, and papers, which are conveniently searchable at the Weimarer Nietzsche-Bibliographie. My “five best books” are not necessarily the interpretations I personally consider by some measure the ‘best’, in the sense of being the most ‘correct’. They are instead the ones I find most helpful for a reader to interpret Nietzsche in a responsible, well-informed way for themselves. 

R. J. Hollingdale is a great starting point for a novice. He was that rare combination of translator, biographer, and philosopher—and as such, his work is approachable for any intellectually curious reader. It was first published in 1965, at a time when one really did have to argue for Nietzsche’s place as a canonical philosopher rather than just a brilliant writer, bombastic iconoclast, or politically-dangerous driver of the pre-war German Zeitgeist. Even if somewhat dated, his book offers interpreters the insight into how deeply Nietzsche’s philosophy was interconnected with his personal life. Easy to read yet informative, it’s a book I still use as a supplement in my courses. 

Friedrich Nietzsche

By Volker Gerhardt,

Book cover of Friedrich Nietzsche

Why this book?

When I was a struggling young graduate student, I was fortunate enough to have Volker Gerhardt host me as a Fulbright Scholar at the Humboldt Universität in Berlin. A former vice-president of the Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Gerhardt is one of those remarkably industrious luminaries, who, with even a word of encouragement, can launch an entire area of inquiry. Working within what one might call a Kantian-Humanistic orientation, he has written widely on the most varied aspects of intellectual culture. This introductory book on Nietzsche, which is now in its fourth edition, is masterly in balancing the needs of new readers with the sort of nuances from which seasoned scholars continue to draw. Gerhardt’s Nietzsche is somewhat the cultural pragmatist, concerned above all with living an authentic life in the context of a continually-forming Europe. 

Reinterpreting Modern Culture: An Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche's Philosophy

By Paul van Tongeren,

Book cover of Reinterpreting Modern Culture: An Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche's Philosophy

Why this book?

Named “Denker des Vaderlands” in 2021 by the Stichting Maand van de Filosofie in the Netherlands, Paul van Tongeren’s introductory text is among the few that not only advances theses of Nietzsche, but also explicitly outlines a hermeneutics for approaching a range of texts in their idiosyncratic rhetorical style. For me, the second chapter was a sort of watershed moment where I came to realize how many layers there are to Nietzsche’s writing—and how slow and ruminative a reader should be in interpreting his ideas. When one follows van Tongeren’s techniques, a whole kaleidoscope of new meanings emerge in central ideas like ‘Will to Power’ or his critiques of religion and morality, respectively. The Nietzsche that van Tongeren portrays is not the truth-seeking philosopher so much as the physician of culture, someone not after demonstration and proof so much as the diagnosis and therapy for a Europe fractured by the twilight of Christian values. 

Nietzsches persönliche Bibliothek

By Giuliano Campioni (editor), Paolo D'Iorio (editor), Maria Christina Fornari (editor), Francesco Fronterotta (editor), Andrea Orsucci (editor)

Book cover of Nietzsches persönliche Bibliothek

Why this book?

Reading Nietzsche without understanding the contexts he was working in and against is a bit like trying to interpret a text thread among friends from only one of their vantages. Without the context of ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘when’ Nietzsche was reading and responding to, interpreters cannot grasp why he used the particular terms, phrasings, or rhetorical devices he did. Campioni, D’Iorio, Fornari, Fronterotta, and Orsucci—each remarkable scholars in their own right—deserve our gratitude for having cataloged Nietzsche’s (mostly) still-preserved personal library as it stands in the Weimar archives. Even better, they chronicled the margin notes, dog-eared pages, and various frustrated cross-outs or excited approbations that Nietzsche scribbled into those books. Nietzsches persönliche Bibliothek has sat next to my keyboard for years, and still offers surprises when I wonder ‘did Nietzsche read Dostoyevsky in German or French translation’ or ‘which biology anthologies influenced his understanding of Darwinism?’

Nietzsche und der deutsche Geist, 4 vols.

By Richard Frank Krummel,

Book cover of Nietzsche und der deutsche Geist, 4 vols.

Why this book?

If the previous text was a trusty aid for readers, then Krummel’s monumental assemblage of ‘Nietzscheana’ is a treasure chest, the single most comprehensive resource for understanding what Nietzsche meant to Germany. Much more than a bibliography, it is a ‘Wirkungsgeschichte’ or ‘history of influence’ of seemingly everything and everybody touched by the person or thought of Nietzsche from 1867-1945. Krummel, who was an American Germanist, offers the reader excerpts of more than five thousand articles, letters, published speeches, and even diary entries on the subject of Nietzsche. In fact, the massive cultural-historical library that Krummel amassed while compiling these volumes became the foundational collection of the Nietzsche-Dokumentationszentrum in Naumburg. 

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