Where Philosophy Meets Poetry in Nietzsche's Writings from 1872-1873

  • Lorenzo Serini


         The quarrel between poetry and philosophy is certainly one of the principle problems of Nietzsche’s thinking, and this is so on many levels: his works are often relegated to poetry by certain philosophers and scholars; Nietzsche perceives himself not only as a philosopher but also as a poet; and poetry – and art in general – plays a fundamental role in his philosophy. Of course, all these levels are essentially intertwined and perhaps can be reduced to the last one: for Nietzsche poetry has a crucial philosophical relevance.         The aim of my paper is to individuate where philosophy meets poetry within Nietzsche’s thinking and, thus, to show the relevance that he ascribes to poetry in his philosophical project. In order to do so, I will locate the quarrel between poetry and philosophy in Nietzsche’s theory of language: in the first place, in fact, poetry and philosophy meets in their common linguistic medium. And, secondly, I will include the quarrel between poetry and philosophy into the wider framework of Nietzsche’s reflection on the conflict between art and science. However, this approach runs into a great interpretative difficulty: Nietzsche’s thinking about art and science changes many times over the years; and, therefore, the location of philosophy in the territory of art or science becomes more difficult due to the variable time.         The question of whether philosophy is more akin to poetry or science, in Nietzsche’s writings, takes place within the wider problem of the conflict between art and science, which absorbs his investigation throughout his career, and describes the trajectory of his thinking. Nevertheless, over the years he changes position regarding this dispute. To oversimplify: in his early writings, Nietzsche advocates art and criticises science; in his middle-period writings, he revaluates science against art; and, in his later writings, he seems to retrieve both art and science, by focusing on their conflicting but necessary relationship. Accordingly, in his oscillation between art and science, over the years Nietzsche changes also his idea about the relationship between philosophy and poetry.         For this reason, in my paper I will narrow my focus to Nietzsche’s mostly unpublished writings from 1872-1873 to look at his thinking on art, science, and philosophy in the period of transition from The Birth of Tragedy (1869-1872) to Human All Too Human (1876-1878). The unpublished writings and notebooks from this period of change are very important, I think, to understand his way to deal with the relationship between poetry and philosophy: here young Nietzsche – without the responsibility of speaking in public – begins to distance himself from the ‘metaphysic of the artist’ presented in The Birth of Tragedy, which is overtly committed – and therefore restricted – to the Schopenhauerian philosophy and the Wagnerian cultural project. In his unpublished thinking from 1872-1873 Nietzsche tries to develop a «language of his very own»[1] and attempts a new, non-metaphysical, solution to the problem of the tragic; and, in doing so, he often wonders about the role and the nature of philosophy, in relation to art and science. In this context the quarrel between poetry and philosophy is thus especially evident and heated. Moreover, as I wish to show in this work, Nietzsche, in experimenting new paths of thinking, lays the foundations for his mature philosophy.[1] In “An Attempt of Self-Critique” (1886) Nietzsche retrospectively confesses that in The Birth of Tragedy he forced himself to express his thinking in the Schopenhauerian and Kantian languages: «I now regret very much that I did not yet have the courage (or immodesty=) at that time to permit myself a language of my very own for such personal views and acts of daring, labouring instead to express strange and new evaluations in Schopenhauerian and Kantian formulations, things which fundamentally ran counter to both the spirit and taste of Kant and Schopenhauer» (BT “Attempt”, § 6, p. 10).


- Works by Nietzsche

AOM = Nietzsche Friedrich (1879) Assorted Opinion and Maxims, in Human All Too Human, ed. by R. Schacht, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

BT = Nietzsche Friedrich (1872), The Birth of Tragedy, ed. by R. Guess & R. Speirs, transl. by R. Speirs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

D = Nietzsche Friedrich (1881), Daybreak, ed. by M. Clark & B. Leiter, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

GM = Nietzsche Friedrich (1887), On the Genealogy of Morals, ed. by K. Ansell-Pearson, trans. by C. Diethe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

GS = Nietzsche Friedrich (1882), The Gay Science, ed. by B. Williams, transl. by J. Nauckhoff, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

HH = Nietzsche Friedrich (1878), Human All Too Human, ed. by R. Schacht, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

KSB = Nietzsche Friedrich (1986), Sämtliche Briefe. Kritische Studien- ausgabe in 8 Bänden, ed. by Giorgio Colli & Mazzino Montinari, DTV/de Gruyter, München/Berlin.

LR = Nietzsche Friedrich (1872-1873) “Description of Ancient Rhetoric” in F. Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language, ed. & transl. by S. L. Gilman/C. Blair/D. J. Parent, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

PT = Nietzsche Friedrich (1872), “On the Pathos of Truth” in Writings from the Early Note-books, ed. by R. Geuss/A. Nehams, transl. by L. Löb, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

TI = Nietzsche Friedrich (1889) Twilight of Idols, in The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of Idols and Other Writings, ed. by A. Ridley & J. Norman, transl. by J. Norman, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

TL = Nietzsche Friedrich (1873) “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” in Writings from the Early Note-books, ed. by R. Geuss/A. Nehams, transl. by L. Löb, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

WEN = Nietzsche Friedrich (2009), Writings from the Early Note-books, ed. by R. Geuss/A. Nehams, transl. by L. Löb, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

WLN = Nietzsche Friedrich (2003), Writings from the Late Note-books, ed. by R. Bittner, transl. by K. Sturge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Z = Nietzsche Friedrich (1883-1885), Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ed. by A. Del Caro & R. Pippin, trans. by A. Del Caro, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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