Left for Dead: On the Philosophical Life and Vocation of Walter Kaufmann

By Robert L. Kehoe IIISeptember 23, 2019

Left for Dead: On the Philosophical Life and Vocation of Walter Kaufmann

Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic by Stanley Corngold

“NOBODY ENTIRELY LACKS the will to be honest; but most people settle for a rather small share of it.” These are the words of Walter Kaufmann, who refused to accept the very sorry portion of honesty that is generally deemed agreeable. What he accumulated was the wealth of a philosophical life, unencumbered by the petty habits and practices of thoughtlessness, hypocrisy, and deceit.

Born in Freiburg, Germany, in 1921, Kaufmann was raised by Protestants of Jewish descent. He returned to his native faith when he was 11, unable to accept the trinity or divinity of Jesus. When his parents encouraged him to reconsider, because they said he was too young and because of Hitler’s rise to power, he “insisted that one could not change one’s mind for a reason like that.”

Kaufmann’s immediate family departed for the United States just in time to escape the horrific violence of Nazi rule. Many of his relations, classified by ethnic heritage, did not. Upon arrival in 1939, Kaufmann lived, on paper, nothing short of a charmed American life: a European immigrant, fleeing a monstrous tyrant, swiftly climbing the latter of success (at Williams and Harvard), while answering the call of duty to defend his new homeland (in the Army Air Force and Military Intelligence Service). His time in World War II put his graduate studies on hold, but it wasn’t long after his return before he completed his dissertation at Harvard in 1947. Soon he accepted a teaching appointment at Princeton.

As the postwar boom ushered in an economy of excess, and institutions of higher learning became increasingly specialized, Kaufmann’s ascent was trained on different heights. In Stanley Corngold’s Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic, we see how his steadfast pursuit of truth was as rooted in a deep knowledge of Ancient Greek thought as it was in Old Testament prophecy, modern German poetry, and Christian theology. Long before the term “interdisciplinary” became a nostalgic marketing device to promote a form of education that no longer really exists and very few actually care about, Kaufmann was among the exemplars of what interdisciplinary scholarship could look like and what it could do.

His first major accomplishment, building on his dissertation at Harvard, was the publication of, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950). With its appearance, Kaufmann became principally responsible for bringing Nietzsche to America. At the time, the German philosopher was mostly a novelty item in the United States — powerful but obscure, and too closely associated with the rise of fascism in 20th-century Europe to be canonized by academic gatekeepers. In this sense, Kaufmann’s work was an introduction for some, and a recovery project for others. For his Princeton colleague, Alexander Nehamas, Kaufmann’s interpretation and achievement rested on the controversial claim that “Nietzsche is a rationalist heir and not, as he had been thought to be, a romantic critic of the Enlightenment.” He also worked to undermine a myth that still won’t go away: Nietzsche as proto-Nazi.

As Kaufmann argued, “Nietzsche’s books are easier to read but harder to understand than those of almost any other thinker. […] As soon as one attempts to penetrate beyond the clever epigrams and well turned insults to grasp their consequences and to coordinate them, one is troubled.” Perhaps the least troubled, and most troubling coordinator of Nietzsche’s thought was his sister, Elisabeth, who began shaping her brother’s legacy in accordance with her own ideological preferences while he was still alive and descending into madness. Married to an outspoken antisemite, Elisabeth, who curated her brother’s work, was decisive in setting the trajectory of an oeuvre that Kaufmann worked tirelessly to demythologize. Her influence was solidified as she gathered the publishing rights and, according to Kaufmann, refused to publish some of the most important manuscripts, carelessly and strategically published unfinished works, poorly edited texts, and promoted the significance of particular passages and volumes that, taken out of context, obscured the larger concerns of the author himself.

For Kaufmann, the way to demythologize was to humanize, and the way to humanize Nietzsche was to philosophize the life and work of a thinker whose style was not commensurate with the systemic coherence of Aristotle, Thomas, Kant, or Hegel. But an absence of systemic coherence does not mean an absence of coherent thought. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist is a staggeringly comprehensive and cogent study that remains as vital today as it was in the middle of the 20th century. It also did not give way to the claims of relativism or anarchy so readily imposed on the man who Kaufmann characterized as “a fanatical seeker after truth [who] recognized no virtue above intellectual integrity.”

As we see in Corngold’s account, the same could be said of Kaufmann, whose devotion and service to Nietzsche alone is worthy of considerable attention. Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic goes further, describing the broader philosophical ethos of Kaufmann’s teaching and scholarly production, which extended far beyond the horizon of one thinker. In fact, for the critical work he did in excavating Nietzsche’s life and thought, many readers will only have a faint acquaintance with Kaufmann’s name as the translator attached to their Modern Library Basic Writings of Nietzsche (1967) or Penguin Portable Nietzsche (1977). But there are no doubt others, including myself, for whom Kaufmann’s name first calls to mind books like Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre (1956), Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1958), the three volumes of Discovering the Mind (1980–’81), Tragedy and Philosophy (1968), or Religion from Tolstoy to Camus (1961).

These and other titles give voice to Kaufman’s stunning philosophical range, historical depth, and literary dexterity, the sum of which is the focus of Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic. More a work of commentary than an intellectual biography, Corngold writes with a tenacity and intensity that matches his subject — even when it’s clear that keeping up with Kaufmann is painstaking work. Of the choices, relationships, and twists of fate that animated his life we learn very little. And in this sense, a more delicate and personal account — like Rüdiger Safranski’s writing on Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer, Ray Monk’s on Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s on Hannah Arendt — would still be welcome. But as a provisional cartographer of Kaufman’s thought, Corngold proves an admirable guide.

As he points out, The Faith of a Heretic serves as the most intimate expression of Kaufmann’s interior life and public commitments. “Kaufmann would forever want to be more than a professor,” Corngold writes. That is, he wanted to model for his students what it looked like for thought to be transformed into action — even when action came in the form of philosophical or literary expression. Where philosophy theoretically requires leisure to function, and the modern university created comfortable conditions for philosophical reflection and expression to occur, The Faith of a Heretic marks the more perilous intellectual, if not always sociopolitical, terrain on which philosophy invites us to travel. Kaufmann carefully engages some of the most treacherous interpersonal and intercultural battles that have been fought throughout human history, and the private discomforts we must assume if we are to fight, or make sense of, those battles honestly.

Because, as Kaufmann writes, honest appraisals of faith and morals often lead to hurt feelings and even war, “most people speak dishonestly of the most important subjects.” And worse, in a state of presumption or resignation, “[m]any recent philosophers prefer not to speak of them at all.” For Kaufmann, this was a pervasive, lamentable, and distressing silence that needed to be broken. How could reticence about religion and theology lead to anything more than ignorance of religious and theological traditions? How could confused interpretations of the Old and New Testament lead to anything more than dismissive, muddled, or overzealous treatments of formative cultures and institutions? And what good is philosophy, if its timeless pursuits are increasingly obscured by petty domestic infighting between the annoyingly abstruse (Continental) and the presumptuously ascetic (Analytic)?

The Faith of a Heretic is a passionate plea to address these questions with the clarity they deserve, wrestling them away from philosophers whose motivations were too obviously informed by career advancement, and theologians who too readily fabricated doctrines of god in their own image. The crisis he witnessed in philosophy was one in which the discipline had “become a profession — a job rather than a vocation,” such that if Plato or Spinoza actually applied to graduate programs they and their (too modest or too ambitious) projects would likely be rejected. The crisis in theology, especially Christian theology, was one of obscuring reality with a spiritualized otherworldliness, simultaneously ignoring moral responsibility while reinforcing predetermined cultural biases; Jesus is as easily construed as a fire-brand fundamentalist as he is a radical socialist, or bourgeois liberal. But with “salvation” at stake, theologians can always escape the need to explain themselves, or live in accordance with the claims of their faith. After all, the world we know is only a temporary home.

For Kaufmann, such intellectual failure and moral frivolity was not grounds for categorically dismissing philosophy or people of faith. Rather, it compelled him to offer a more robust and forthright account of the human condition. It was the calling of the philosopher and humanist to reconfigure what had been sundered by philosophy’s very recent personality disorder and theology’s ongoing shell game, championing a spirit of “self-making via thought that is deep enough, daring enough,” to confront the darkest hours of existence, and ascend to its greatest heights. “My own ethic,” he wrote, “is not a morality of rules but an ethic of virtues. It offers no security but goals.”

The goals for Kaufmann rested on four pillars: humility, love, courage, and honesty. As evinced by Socrates and the Hebrew prophets (who Kaufmann revered), to live a life in accordance with these virtues invites ostracism, exile, and the branding of heresy. Where most are trained and content to prize comfort and self-interest, the philosopher and prophet stands in the gap, echoing Socrates who denounced the false justice of the benevolent dictator and Jeremiah who refused covering “the wound of my people, lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” It is easy to demand or lay claim to justice: to make sacrifices for it is not.

In this vein, Kaufmann reserved some of his most ruthless criticism for American Protestants of every stripe. Where the fundamentalists would claim the United States as a Christian nation, he unequivocally illustrated how “our form of government depends utterly on the widespread abandonment of any deeply felt faith in traditional Christianity.” Where mainline liberals have long since given up on belief in hell, the more troublesome reality for Kaufmann was that “few have ever given any thought to the idea that they might end up there.” All of which points to an ethic of complacency and conformism, tempted to delight in the false peace of dishonesty, but inevitably inviting intellectual and moral chaos. A practicing Protestant myself, I could lament that Kaufmann so accurately characterizes the transgressions of (if I must) my people. But is an uncriticized faith — in a religion, political movement, hero, or friend — worth believing any more than an unexamined life is worth living?

The examined life Kaufmann envisioned did not require a prized academic life or position. It did require the provision of an education, no matter how elementary, so we can “learn to understand views different from one’s own and to outgrow the narrow-mindedness and lack of intellectual imagination that cling to us from childhood.” To learn in this way sets us in the direction of a humble ascent, fortifying the individual to take pleasure in and weather the vicissitudes of life. It should also inform how we understand and approach our dying. In The Faith of a Heretic, he wrote:

If one lives intensely, the time comes when sleep means bliss. If one loves intensely, the time comes when death seems bliss. […] The life I want is a life I could not endure in eternity. It is a life of love and intensity, suffering and creation, that makes life worthwhile and death welcome. There is no other life I should prefer.

For Kaufmann, philosophy isn’t just about learning how to die. It is a discipline that prepares its faithful participants to be left for dead — following the great thinkers, prophets, and occasional martyrs of the past whose reward for defending a more honest and courageous way of life was to be ignored, shunned, betrayed, abandoned, and sent away. Though Kaufmann remained at Princeton until his death in 1980, as Corngold’s closing scene illustrates, toward the end of his life he began to lose favor with some of the same colleagues, students, and reviewers who once heralded his fresh iconoclasm. But in this, Kaufmann was simply living out a calling that required a sturdy enough disposition to fend off petty grievances and to be enriched by the suffering we all experience. In the face of such suffering, philosophy promises no comforts. But it does promise that we can die in peace having given an honest account of our short and frail existence. To give Kaufmann the last word, “It is better to die with courage than to live as a coward.”


Robert L. Kehoe III writes from Madison, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and their four children. He is an editor at The Point Magazine, currently at work on a book about philosophy and athletics.

LARB Contributor

Robert L. Kehoe III writes from Madison, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and their four children. He is an editor at The Point Magazine, currently at work on a book about philosophy and athletics.


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