Nietzsche Preface Project

From time to time Susan has uncanny “potentia” intuitions which fill her with an overwhelming certainty that something must be done. Invested with weird authority — and with a loving imperiousness that not only forbids but precludes argument — she issues decrees. The most recent was directed at me. The command: Produce a podcast, a Nietzsche seminar, where you (Stephen) guide me (Susan, and maybe eventually one or two others) through the process of reading and understanding Nietzsche.

You cannot and should not argue with Susan when she gets like this, plus I’m flattered that she wants to invest time and energy in doing this, so obviously I’m starting work on the project right now.

I know exactly what text I want to study. For a long time, I have harbored the hunch that it might be fruitful to read Nietzsche’s late prefaces together as a single work. However, I’ve never actually done it. I don’t remember the content of these prefaces sufficiently to imagine the likely results. This is an experiment, which seems fitting, if not essential, to this project. For this reason, the episodes will be unscripted. We will not preread the material. We will not edit out our missteps and errors. We will “show our work” and demonstrate “philosophy in the making”.

But I do want to establish clear context in the first episode: what we are doing, why we are doing it, why anyone should join us, and — perhaps most importantly — how we will go about collaborating. I’m terrible at improvising sequences. I jump around, omit details, skip steps, digress, backtrack and make a mess of it.

So I’ve been designing a script, just for the first episode, and here it my first draft:

Brief backstory of Nietzsche’s Prefaces

In the years between 1883-1886 Nietzsche’s philosophy crystallized. He wrote and published his magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Beyond Good and Evil, which was intended as a polemical presentation of the ideas animating Zarathustra.

This new clarity drew a bright line between the earlier works and what Nietzsche now understood to be his destiny. Before, he was a wanderer, impelled toward something important but unknown. Now he understood where he was headed, and he understood clearly where he needed to go.

With this new clarity he could now retrospectively situate his previous work within this context. To that end, he wrote new prefaces for his earlier works — Birth of Tragedy, Human, All Too Human, Daybreak, and Gay Science.

These prefaces, taken together, tell a coherent story of a journey toward an unknown, unmapped and unmarked destination, impelled and guided by intuition, whose purpose can be known only in hindsight. And they also impart the hindsight itself, most importantly, the obscure purposes driving his work, and the kinds of experiences, problems and responses these purposes induce in him. This, I claim, supplies an attentive reader with the tools needed to navigate the terrain of Nietzsche’s wanderings — and to blaze paths in one’s own personal wanderings in unmapped, unmarked regions — as well as make clearer sense of Nietzsche’s later work.


Before we dive into the work I want quick acknowledgement The direct inspiration for this Preface Project was Jurgen Habermas’s Philosophical Introductions. Here’s the blurb on the cover:

On the occasion of Habermas’s 80th birthday, the German publisher Suhrkamp brought out five volumes of Habermas’s papers that spanned the full range of his philosophical thought, from the theory of rationality to the critique of metaphysics. For each of these volumes, Habermas wrote an introduction that crystallized, in a remarkably clear and succinct way, his thinking on the key philosophical issues that have preoccupied him throughout his long career. This new book by Polity brings together these five introductions and publishes them in translation for the first time. The resulting volume provides a unique and comprehensive overview of Habermas’s philosophy in his own words.

General Approach

We will begin with the “present” from which Nietzsche wrote his prefaces, the newly completed Beyond Good and Evil. The first preface we will read will be from that work. We will treat it as the key for understanding the earlier works, in two senses of key. First, I believe (from my own experience as a reader) that at least one important symbol, ubiquitous in and central to all of Nietzsche’s work, is illuminated in this short passage, which can be used to unlock at least one set of meanings across Nietzsche’s corpus — including these prefaces. But also, it sets the tonal key, which we should use to attune ourselves to the rest of the prefaces.

With our ears so equipped and attuned we will read each of the prefaces, in order of publication, starting with the brutally self-critical preface to Birth of Tragedy, then Human, All Too Human, then Daybreak, and finally The Gay Science.

We will be using the Cambridge editions:


We will not read these prefaces straight through. A mistake many novices make when reading Nietzsche (and other existentially challenging writers) is to expect him to build a system of information, one clear fact at a time. A lot of the time Nietzsche’s intent is destructive — demolishing entire cultures or epoch on a grand scale, or vivisecting one’s own most intimate and cherished ideals. He is destroying the familiar and beloved in order to clear ground to build new, inconceivable understandings, for which one is not yet prepared. The work is not straightforward.

It will make far more sense if we think of this reading less as informing ourselves on what Nietzsche believed to be true, and more like learning to play a new piece of music.

We will try to understand the rhythm, phrasing, focus and emphasis of each sentence. And we will interrogate each word, to understand the range of meanings and resonances it might bear, exploring the polysemic possibilities, until one meaning crystalizes for us. Then we will play the sentence at full tempo and hear it as a spontaneously understood whole. This process will then proceed one sentence at a time, and we will carry the spontaneous understanding to the whole paragraph, then the whole preface, and eventually to the prefaces taken together (con- “together” + -ceived “taken”) as a single given. And we will experience it as given to us by Nietzsche, the least dead author the world has ever known, providing we want him to live and work to bring his work to life in this manner.

There is strong textual evidence that this is how Nietzsche wished to be read, and some of the strongest comes from the preface to Daybreak, which I will preview here, but which we will read better later:

This preface is late but not too late — what, after all, do five or six years matter? A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento. It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading: — in the end I also write slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste — a malicious taste, perhaps? — no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry’. For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow — it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of ‘work’, that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to ‘get everything done’ at once, including every old or new book: — this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers … My patient friends, this book desires for itself only perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well! —

My Own Ulterior Motive

My life changed dramatically and for the better with my first encounter with Nietzsche. The experience changed how I read, what I expect from reading, what I expect from philosophy — what I expect from life.

I spent about five years immersed in Nietzsche’s world, and then the next fifteen puzzling over its implications. What kind of world is this, where the translated words of a flawed man dead for a century could radically transform my fundamental experience of life? These questions carried me in many different directions, but perhaps the most interesting was where it intersected with my professional life.

Without going too far into it, I have come to see philosophy as closely related to design, and if fact I now view philosophical works as artifacts that can be developed in designerly ways and evaluated as designs.

In this project, I hope to gather a rich set of demonstrations of where and how I see this happening and to continue developing my vocabulary and repertoire of concepts to convey and support my view of this new designerly way of approaching philosophy. To keep things simple and clean, I am going to try to keep this personal purpose in the background, and separate it from the reading, but I might add reflections to the end of some of the episodes.

Then we will start into the preface to Beyond Good and Evil, whose first line is the best of any book I’ve ever read.

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