Kaufmann, Walter Arnold (1921–1980)

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Walter Kaufmann was born in Freiburg, Germany, on July 1, 1921. He emigrated to the United States in 1939, as conditions in Germany became ominous for those of Jewish descent (Kaufmann's fatheralthough not his motherhad converted to Protestantism, with the consequence that Kaufmann had been raised in that faith; but he converted to Judaism in 1933, in an early display of the sensitivity to religious questions that became one of the central features of his intellectual life). He attended Williams College, from which he graduated in 1941, and then went to Harvard, from which he received an MA degree in Philosophy in 1942. After military service in Europe during the Second World War (in capacities that took advantage of his equal facility in German and in English), he returned to Harvard, receiving his PhD in 1947. He joined the Philosophy Department at Princeton University in the fall of that year, which remained his academic base until his untimely death on September 4, 1980, at the age of only 59, from a mysterious illness he apparently contracted while traveling in Egypt and Africa.

Kaufmann played a major role in the introduction of existential philosophy (of Jean-Paul Sartre in particular) and the rehabilitation of G.W.F. Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche (who had come to be all too closely associated with the Germany of the kaiser and of Adolf Hitler) in the English-speaking world in the decades following the Second World War. As one of the few members of major philosophy departments in those years who had a strong interest in developments in post-Kantian European philosophy, and as a prolific translator as well as interpreter of the writings of some of the most important figures in that tradition, he emerged as its most prominent, visible, and articulate champion, during the very decades in which the new Britain-based import of analytic philosophy became dominant in the philosophy departments at most major American universities. Much of Kaufmann's career was spent in often heated conflict as an advocate of the continental tradition (as it came to be called) against the newly dominant analytical paradigm that he regarded as a disaster for philosophy, and also as an advocate of those within that tradition (Hegel, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Martin Buber in particular) against the influence and popularity of others within it of whom he had a very low opinion (such as Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger).

Because Kaufmann had a Jewish identity and made no secret of it (even though he also made much of his rejection of Jewish theology), he was ideally positioned to be able to reject the charge of anti-Semitism that had contributed to the widespread hostility to Nietzsche before, during, and after the war years, and to defuse the imputation to Nietzsche of other proto-Nazi sentiments along with it. His association of Nietzsche with Sartrean existentialism was another of his strategies in pursuit of this objective; for, unlike Heidegger, Sartre's anti-Nazi credentials were impeccable, and Sartre himself sought to portray his existentialism as a kind of radical humanism. Kaufmann further presented Nietzsche as a kindred spirit of the heroes of the Enlightenment, and even of Emersonian individualism and later American pragmatism. This interpretation of Nietzsche found a ready reception in a wide and growing audience in the years following the publication of Kaufmann's classic Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist in 1950, which remains one of the best general introductions to Nietzsche's thought written for English-speaking readers.

Moreover, while Kaufmann never published another book-length study of Nietzsche, he exerted an even greater influence upon the reception of Nietzsche in the English-speaking world through his much-needed new translations of (and introductions and notes to) most of Nietzsche's major works over a period of two decades, beginning with his phenomenally popular anthology The Portable Nietzsche in 1954, culminating with Nietzsche's The Gay Science in 1974, and including the controversial collection of selections from Nietzsche's notebooks from the 1880s published after his death under the title The Will to Power, thereby giving that volume a prominence and appearance of legitimacy that many feel it does not deserve. And by passing over the various works Nietzsche published between The Birth of Tragedy and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Kaufmann influenced what English-speaking readers ever since have come to regard as Nietzsche's most important works.

Kaufmann simultaneously attempted to renew interest in Hegel, in a manner intended to liberate Hegel from the moribund tradition of interpretation that had flourished in Britain and America under the banner of idealism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Kaufmann's Hegel was closer to existentialism than he was to that metaphysical idealism, as he tried to show in his Hegel: A Reinterpretation (1966); and his Hegel championed a political philosophy that was a major, but sadly forgotten and neglected, alternative to the options upon which attention was focusing in both analytical and Marxist circles at that time. So Kaufmann first published a study of Hegel's Political Philosophy (1970), and then a volume of his own essays in this area reflecting his own mix of Hegelian and Nietzschean elements, Without Guilt and Justice (1973). He aspired to be taken seriously as a moral, social, and political philosopher; but the failure of these volumes to attract significant attention led him to turn his efforts in other directions.

Kaufmann had followed his early study of Nietzsche and anthology of Nietzsche's writings with two very popular volumes attempting to do the same thing for existential philosophyhis anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (1956), which was everyone's introduction to existentialism for many years, and his collection of essays From Shakespeare to Existentialism (1959), which sought to situate existentialism in intimate if not entirely harmonious relation to an intellectual tradition that included the greatest contributions to Western literature and thought. The relationship between existential and tragic thought, literature, and experience held a particular fascination for him, which he explored in his Tragedy and Philosophy (1968).

These interests led Kaufmann to attempt to position himself in relation to traditional forms of philosophical and religious thought, first in his combative early Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1958), and then in his impassioned attempt to formulate and articulate his own post-traditional secularly religious credo The Faith of A Heretic (1960). His attempts to come to terms with religion continued in two volumes published in 1976, a volume of essays on Existentialism, Religion, and Death, and a book intended for a wider audience and marking the beginning of his attempt to integrate philosophy and photography, Religions in Four Dimensions: Existential and Aesthetic, Historical and Comparative.

This experiment continued in a trilogy published three years later (1979), under the general title Man's Lot. In this three-volume study of the human conditionLife at the Limits, Time Is an Artist, and What Is Man? Kaufmann revealed himself as a truly gifted photographer with a powerful ability to employ that gift in the service of his attempt to plumb the heights and depths of human reality. That trilogy was followed by another, Discovering the Mind (19801981), with which his life abruptly ended, and the third volume of which was published following his death.

In each of these three last volumes Kaufmann considered the contributions of three major figures to this discovery: J.W. Von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, and Hegel; Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Buber; and Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Carl Jung. This, he believed, was the real philosophy of mind; and it was his hope, through these volumes, to enrich philosophical thinking with respect to the mind by connecting it with this traditionas he had sought to enrich philosophical thinking with respect to the human condition in the previous trilogy, and to enrich moral, social, and political thought by an infusion into them of Hegelian and Nietzschean ways of thinking.

Kaufmann found it at first frustrating and then deeply distressing that he was not taken seriously by the new analytic-philosophical establishment of his day, other than (by some) as Nietzsche's best translator and most appealing reinterpreter. This made him increasingly estranged from and critical of that establishment and philosophical orientation, and may have prompted his involvement in his last years with the EST human potential movement and his willingness to be associated with the Moon Unification Church's International Conference on the Unity of Sciences in the 1970s.

His later work itself was of a character that could hardly have been more at odds with the aims and paradigms of analytic-philosophical inquiry. Yet he considered himself to be true to the real heart and soul of the Socratic philosophical tradition, and to be its advocate and defender in a time in which he felt academic philosophy had lost its way. He welcomed the opportunity to enter the fray of popular debate as a public intellectual who was more than willing to continue Nietzsche's effort to fight the good fight of disillusioned enlightenment that was neither religious, scientistic, nor historically optimistic. He thought that philosophy could and should make a difference in human life, and that that difference should be in the direction of an uncompromisingly secular, post-metaphysical, strongly individualistic, but intensely interpersonal, existential humanism. Had he lived to develop and make a case for that vision of authentic humanity, he might well have attained the recognition in the philosophical community that escaped him.

See also Continental Philosophy.


works by kaufmann

Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950.

Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958

From Shakespeare to Existentialism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959.

The Faith of A Heretic. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.

Cain and Other Poems. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962.

Hegel: A Reinterpretation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.

Hegel: Texts and Commentary. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.

Tragedy and Philosophy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.

Hegel's Political Philosophy. New York: Atherton Press, 1970.

Without Guilt and Justice: from Decidophobia to Autonomy. New York: P. H. Wyden, 1973.

Existentialism, Religion, and Death: Thirteen Essays. New York: New American Library, 1976.

Religions in Four Dimensions: Existential and Aesthetic, Historical and Comparative. New York: Reader's Digest Press, 1976.

The Future of the Humanities. New York: Reader's Digest Press, 1977.

Man's Lot. New York: Reader's Digest Press, 1979.

Discovering the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill, 19801981.

Richard Schacht (2005)