Mar 122010

I was rereading Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche last night, focusing on the bit about Nietzsche’s “style of decadence.” This should be interesting to any of us but especially to writers of nonfiction. Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche is an anti-system thinker; he attacked the idea that the classic philosophical ideals of system, coherence and completeness were a guarantee of truth (recall how Kierkegaard mischievously titled his great work Concluding Unscientific Postscript). His style of decadence was aphoristic and fragmentary. Each piece was a thought experiment, not necessarily meant to reveal a truth. He called them Versuche, experiments or attempts (reflect on how this resonates with Montaigne’s essais, the root of which is the verb essayer, to attempt or try), and they varied in length from a line to several pages. He’s difficult to read because he is playful and ironic and because of this open and hypothetical quality. His style is also dialectic in the sense that he often approaches a topic by critiquing the assumptions of conventional philosophical arguments, thus trying to find a negative or backwards path to a substantive claim.


Each aphorism or sequence of aphorisms–and in Nietzsche’s later works some of these sequences are about a hundred pages long, and the aphoristic style is only superficially maintained–may be considered as a thought experiment. The discontinuity or, positively speaking, the great number of experiments, reflects the conviction that making only one experiment would be one-sided. One may here recall Kierkegaard’s comment on Hegel: “If Hegel had written the whole of his Logic and then said… that it was merely an experiment in thought…then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.” (Journals, ed. Alexander Dru, 134). Nietzsche insists that the philosopher must be willing to make ever new experiments; he must retain an open mind and be prepared, if necessary, “boldly at any time to declare himself against his previous opinion” (FW 296)–just as he would expect a scientist to revise his theories in the light of new experiments.

Think how liberating it must be to imagine each piece of writing as an experiment, as a trial balloon, as inquiry instead of conclusion; too many writers inhibit themselves by trying to stake out their territory, by trying to tell the truth. Instead of writing, This is what happened; you write, Is this what happened, or this, or this?

Theodor Adorno practiced Nietzsche’s dialectical and aphoristic style in spades. See his Minima Moralia. Ludwig Wittgenstein invented one totalizing systematic philosophy in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and then turned around and invented a fragmentary anti-systematic philosophy in the Philosophical Investigations (fragments and thought experiments on the nature of language). See also E. M. Cioran’s books of aphorisms. e.g. The Trouble With Being Born.


  No Responses to “A Note on Nietzsche’s “experiments” as technique”

  1. Imagine if Nietzsche had started a blog. . . .

  2. I was reading a bit at Beyond Good & Evil the other day and I was struck by how his long sinuous sentences tend to be extended sneers. The aphorisms are sort of sneerettes. You don’t know me. I never asked to be born. Truth schmooth. Everyone at my school is a loser dork. Everything sucks and I’m not going to be a loser hippie like you but a big winner because I see the truth that doesn’t exist….

    • I always thought that was part of the point of an aphorism, that it should seem smart and arrogant, a bravura performance, a piece of verbal prestidigitation meant to stop the crowd in its tracks.


  3. Well, maybe. Most objective debate in discussion has been stopped in its tracks, and I think a loosening in style has contributed to that. Of course we always appreciate as smart the arrogance we agree with. In fact, most of N’s aphorisms are quite neutral. I guess that in the messy moment we’re in I’ve come to react testily to that adolescent bravura “Everyone hitherto has been stupid.”

    • The whole thing about an aphorism is that it plays with balanced opposites or contraries; it’s a formal production and thus artificially focused. This is partly why it is also lapidary, witty, arrogant, and a crowd-stopper. But with every aphorism there is an inevitable aftermath when the reader ponders and thinks, Wait a minute! And that’s where new thought or new clarifications begin to happen.

      In the miasma of current cultural and political debate, one longs for a speaker with wit, arrogance, and the linguistic capacity to turn a show-stopping aphorism. Unfortunately, wit is no longer an approved category of thought. And hardly anyone even knows what an aphorism is.

      I am thinking of having the FIRST ANNUAL NUMERO CINQ APHORISM CONTEST. You and I would be the judges. What do you think?


  4. Well, I was parrying at Nietzsche’s decadent tone, rather than attacking wit or any kind of barked paradox that might stop a lynch mob in its tracks. Most of the people I’ve heard talk about Nietzsche at academic table or in the business inspiration books seem to think of him as Ayn Rand’s mentor.
    The aphorisms must be in Latin, Greek, or Arabic. The prize must be a private viewing of nine hour Warhol Factory movie of a horse being beaten to death. I will be the corrupt judge who for a fee guarantees losing.

    • Kit,

      So I went ahead and launched an aphorism contest. You’re the co-judge (I can, of course, over-rule you). You can also enter the contest. I ignored your suggestion about Latin, Greek and Arabic. You have to share whatever fees you collect. Get used to it. The world of blogging is dog eat dog. We are in a Lawless Realm. In lieu of payment for your time, I am sending you an autographed photograph of myself.


  5. One of the more interesting women in our village spends much of each day down on the shore rocks in all weathers screaming across the waters, commanding God to send her a man of her own to bully. As I held your strangely retouched, autographed photo of yourself in some bewilderment, a thought-stopping epiphany seized me. Yes, all that was needed to do a little random act of kindness was to scrawl the phone # under your john hancock….
    I will await wisdom with trepidation. I know you know how much I fear and loath thinking. You’re drawing me out into the world of hurt for my own good.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.