Stanley Corngold on Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic

Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) was a charismatic philosopher, critic, translator, and poet who fled Nazi Germany at the age of eighteen, emigrating alone to the United States. He was astonishingly prolific until his untimely death at age fifty-nine, writing some dozen major books, all marked by breathtaking erudition and a provocative essayistic style. He single-handedly rehabilitated Nietzsche’s reputation after World War II and was enormously influential in introducing postwar American readers to existentialism. Until now, no book has examined his intellectual legacy. Stanley Corngold’s Walter Kaufmann provides the first in-depth study of Kaufmann’s thought, covering all his major works.

How did you come to write this book?

There is an immediate cause and a deeper one. The immediate cause was the Princeton University Press’s renewed interest in the work of Walter Kaufmann. After publishing a new edition of Kaufmann’s masterwork Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, the Press decided to republish another distinguished work by Kaufmann—The Faith of a Heretic (1959, 2015). I was approached to write a preface and gladly accepted. To do the job I read a good deal more of Kaufmann and was struck by his astonishing range of interests and the clear and vital precision of his writing. I then proposed a book to the Press that would cover the (near) entirety of his corpus—Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic—and here it is—a critical compendium to all his major works.

You said there was a deeper reason.

Yes, my “experience” of Walter goes back to early days. As I note in a chapter on Kaufmann’s extraordinary first book, “In summer 1954, a naval cadet in the NROTC unit at Columbia University, I lay sprawling on the steel floor of the destroyer USS Steinaker reading Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, the cover quite visible and flagrant. An officer saw me and shouted, ‘Why are you wasting your time reading this book!’ Ever since then, I have felt myself especially protective of this book, the author, and his subject.

Is that necessary? Does Nietzsche need protection from serious readers?

One reads that Kaufmann, on arriving at Princeton in 1947 as an assistant professor of philosophy, was introduced to Albert Einstein; both, after all, were German-Jewish émigrés from Berlin. Einstein asked Kaufmann about the subject of his Harvard Ph.D. thesis and Kaufmann replied, “Nietzsche’s Theory of Values.” Einstein is supposed to have responded, “But that is simply dreadful!” Nietzsche had been stained with a (mostly spurious) Nazi stripe. But Kaufmann was certainly not stopped in his tracks by Einstein’s dismay or other scholars’ horror of the subject. His 1950-masterwork is an original and decisive defense of Nietzsche as a serious thinker in a humanistic tradition of Bildung (or self-formation)—a thesis that has produced volumes of critical commentary by professional philosophers even until today, some 70 years later!

Weren’t you and Walter Kaufmann contemporaries—at least for a time—at Princeton?

We were. I’d like to recall my first encounter with Walter, though, which preceded our few, informal meetings at Princeton—they were few and informal because, at that time, owing to my training, I belonged to a rival school of thought—Deconstruction or, better, Rhetorical Analysis—that called for a different way of reading Nietzsche, tending to “put under erasure” all his substantive claims. I’ll quickly add that almost all of Kaufmann’s oppositional readers were dependent on his superb Nietzsche translations! But a certain resistance to Kaufmann’s work on my part had set in at that time and even beginning with his in-person presentation of the Existentialist worldview at Columbia University in 1955. To my regret, I was unable to feel myself addressed for the very callow reason that I could not expect a professor who himself looked like an undergraduate and, as I recall, wore lederhosen, to speak with much authority. Since then, evidently, I have learned to take him very seriously!

Do you treat Kaufmann’s life and personality in your book?

Only glancingly. I’ve been eager to follow Kaufmann’s own instruction, and to address the very best part of him in the pages that he wrote. That is how he wished to be remembered. But you cannot overlook the striking features of his life and personality: the fact, for example, that at the age of 13, being dissatisfied with his converted-father’s Lutheran account of the Holy Spirit, he demanded an official state document certifying his withdrawal from the church, which prepared him for his conversion to Judaism. In fact, his heritage was Jewish in the very first place. What stands out is the extraordinary boldness of a very young man in 1933, no doubt aware of Hitler’s ascension to power, converting “back” to Judaism!

Do you treat him, then, as a Jewish writer?

Well, it is not perfectly clear what a “Jewish writer” is, beside the obvious, but the thrust of your question is to ask about his commitment to Judaism. The answer is that soon after his arrival in the United States in 1939 (he attended Williams College), he turned away from this and any other devotion to the rituals of a church or synagogue. On the other hand, his work is marked by a deep admiration for the ethical teachings of the Hebrew Bible. And he remained attached to the “religious experience” of both himself and others.

What do you mean by “religious experience” outside of an attachment to this or that world religion?

One could quote Einstein, in this case, to give color to Kaufmann’s position. Einstein speaks of “the mysterious … the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science … the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.” Kaufmann, the humanist, would locate the “mysterious” in the human aspiration to overcome its “ontological deficit”—in a word, to become more. Challenged to explain this fundamental aspiration, Kaufmann wrote, early on: “As human beings, we have ideals of perfection which we generally find ourselves unable to attain. We recognize norms and standards of which we usually fall short; we long for a triumph over old age, suffering, and death; we yearn for perfection and immortality—and seem incapable of fulfillment. We desire to be ‘as gods,’ but we cannot be so.” And still, we strive—or ought to strive. This is his great refrain: a heightening of the Faustian ideal of continual effort or—equally—of the Nietzschean ideal of self-overcoming.

And religion in this?

Toward the end of his short life, his passion for religion was enriched, if you like, by his pilgrimage to the places of religion. He traveled around the world five times and seems to have covered most of the ground by walking. He inspected the sacred places in Asia and the Middle East that armchair philosophers encounter only in photographs and in his later work Religion in Four Dimensions supplied us with these very photographs in a brilliant format.

Do you think the work of Walter Kaufmann has contemporary relevance? And whom did you imagine as your audience?

I have learned a ton from Kaufmann, both by absorbing his statements and by pushing myself to respond to them, either with gratitude or resistance. The latter, especially, called for solid commentary: I was pushed to defend my objections. I do hope the book conveys this lively obligation to the readers I wish for it.

Does a book on Walter Kaufmann inspire other books?

A mathematician, Carl Faith, recalled in his memoirs that in the 70s he had seen Walter Kaufmann and Erich Kahler—a polymathic émigré and, if I may say so, (Thomas) Mann’s best friend—frequenting Princeton’s PJ’s Pancake House.

This led me to the figure of Erich Kahler and the discovery that ca. 1940 in Princeton there was a Kahler Circle, involving several of the great German, mostly German-Jewish émigrés then living in Princeton, including, besides Erich Kahler, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Hermann Broch, and to some extent Ernst Kantorowicz, Erwin Panofsky, and Kurt Gödel. I think a wonderful book could be written about the Circle’s world of thought.

Stanley Corngold is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at Princeton University. His many books include The Fate of the Self: German Writers and French Theory; Complex Pleasure: Forms of Feeling in German Literature; Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka (Princeton); and Franz Kafka: The Ghosts in the Machine. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.