|Died||September 4, 1980 (aged 59)|
Harvard University (MA, PhD)
|Existentialism, philosophy of religion, tragedy|
Walter Arnold Kaufmann (July 1, 1921 – September 4, 1980) was a German-American philosopher, translator, and poet. A prolific author, he wrote extensively on a broad range of subjects, such as authenticity and death, moral philosophy and existentialism, theism and atheism, Christianity and Judaism, as well as philosophy and literature. He served more than 30 years as a professor at Princeton University.
He is renowned as a scholar and translator of Friedrich Nietzsche. He also wrote a 1965 book on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and published a translation of Goethe's Faust.
Walter Kaufmann was born in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, on 1 July 1921.
Kaufmann was raised a Lutheran. At age 11, finding that he believed neither in the Trinity nor in the divinity of Jesus, he converted to Judaism. Kaufmann subsequently discovered that his grandparents were all Jewish. Being both descended from Jews and a convert to Judaism placed Kaufmann in real danger in the rabidly antisemitic Nazi Germany. In 1939 Kaufmann emigrated to the United States and began studying at Williams College. Stanley Corngold records that there he "abandoned his commitment to Jewish ritual while developing a deeply critical attitude toward all established religions."
Kaufmann graduated from Williams College in 1941, then went to Harvard University, receiving an MA degree in Philosophy in 1942. His studies were, however, interrupted by the war. He enlisted with the US Army Air Force and would go on to serve as an interrogator for the Military Intelligence Service in Germany.
Kaufmann became a citizen of the United States in 1944.
In 1947 he was awarded his PhD by Harvard. His dissertation, written in under a year, was titled "Nietzsche's Theory of Values." That same year he joined the Philosophy Department at Princeton University. And, although he would hold visiting appointments in both the US and abroad, he would remain based at Princeton for the rest of his academic career. His students over the years included Nietzsche scholars Frithjof Bergmann, Richard Schacht, Alexander Nehamas, and Ivan Soll.
Kaufmann died, aged 59, on 4 September 1980.
In a 1959 article in Harper's Magazine, he summarily rejected all religious values and practice, especially the liberal Protestantism of continental Europe that began with Schleiermacher and culminated in the writings of Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. In their place, he praised moralists such as the biblical prophets, the Buddha, and Socrates. He argued that critical analysis and the acquisition of knowledge were liberating and empowering forces. He forcefully criticized the fashionable liberal Protestantism of the 20th century as filled with contradictions and evasions, preferring the austerity of the book of Job and the Jewish existentialism of Martin Buber. Kaufmann discussed many of these issues in his 1958 Critique of Religion and Philosophy.
Kaufmann wrote a good deal on the existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Jaspers. Kaufmann had great admiration for Kierkegaard's passion and his insights on freedom, anxiety, and individualism. Kaufmann wrote: "Nobody before Kierkegaard had seen so clearly that the freedom to make a fateful decision that may change our character and future breeds anxiety." Although Kaufmann did not share Kierkegaard's religious outlook and was critical of his Protestant theology, Kaufmann was nevertheless sympathetic and impressed with the depth of Kierkegaard's thinking:
I know of no other great writer in the whole nineteenth century, perhaps even in the whole of world literature, to whom I respond with less happiness and with a more profound sense that I am on trial and found wanting, unless it were Søren Kierkegaard.
Kaufmann edited the anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Kaufmann disliked Martin Heidegger's thinking, along with his unclear writing.
Kaufmann is renowned for his translations and exegesis of Nietzsche, whom he saw as gravely misunderstood by English speakers, as a major early existentialist, and as an unwitting precursor, in some respects, to Anglo-American analytic philosophy. Michael Tanner called Kaufmann's commentaries on Nietzsche "obtrusive, self-referential, and lacking insight", but Llewellyn Jones wrote that Kaufmann's "fresh insights into ... Nietzsche ... can deepen the insights of every discriminating student of literature," and The New Yorker wrote that Kaufmann "has produced what may be the definitive study of Nietzsche's ... thought—an informed, scholarly, and lustrous work."
Kaufmann wrote that superficially
it also seems that as a philosopher [Nietzsche] represents a very sharp decline [from Kant and Hegel] ... because [Nietzsche] has no 'system.' Yet this argument is hardly cogent. ... Not only can one defend Nietzsche on this score ... but one must add that he had strong philosophic reasons for not having a system.
Kaufmann also sympathized with Nietzsche's acerbic criticisms of Christianity. However, Kaufmann faulted much in Nietzsche, writing that "my disagreements with [Nietzsche] are legion." Regarding style, Kaufmann argued that Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, for example, is in parts badly written, melodramatic, or verbose, yet concluded that the book "is not only a mine of ideas, but also a major work of literature and a personal triumph."
Kaufmann described his own ethic and his own philosophy of living in his books, including The Faith of a Heretic: What Can I Believe? How Should I Live? What Do I Hope? (1961) and Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy (1973). In the former work he advocated living in accordance with what he proposed as the four cardinal virtues: "humbition" (a fusion of humility and ambition), love, courage, and honesty.
As written or published by Friedrich Nietzsche in chronological order:
My own ethic is not absolute but a morality of openness. It is not a morality of rules but an ethic of virtues... The first lacks any single name but is a fusion of humility and aspiration. Humility consists in realizing one’s stark limitations and remembering that one may be wrong. But humility fused with smugness, with complacency, with resignation is no virtue to my mind. What I praise is not the meekness that squats in the dust, content to be lowly, eager not to stand out, but humility winged by ambition. There is no teacher of humility like great ambition. Petty aspirations can be satisfied and may be hostile to humility. Hence, ambition and humility are not two virtues: taken separately, they are not admirable. Fused, they represent the first cardinal virtue. Since there is no name for it we shall have to coin one-at the risk of sounding humorous: humbition.