Teaching Nietzsche, and the Irony of Nietzsche’s own Commentary on Aphoristic Style

I teach Simone De Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity. It’s a lovely book and one can get from existentialism what some analytic philosophers get from teaching feminist ethics of care–a critique of foundationalism in ethics, how one’s subjectivity and concrete situation might alter what one asks from philosophy itself, and moral generalism. Of course, these are not the only items one can get out of her work. The same may be said for teaching Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals.

Since I am teaching the Genealogy, I am currently outlining it for the purposes of lecture, and what I find when I do this now is that there are many levels of textual experience. These levels of textual experience correspond to how demanding I form my expectation of the text in question. For the first year student, I typically do not expect as much accurate exegesis from them as much as I want to get my first-year students on the path of realizing how difficult university reading can be (of course if these two things converge, that makes me the happiest as a teacher of philosohy) There will be many classes where they will read complicated material, a first year philosophy class and possible courses in history, sociology, and literature to name a few. When students complain that “they will never use this,” I tend to point out those times in life where difficult reading will be required of them, regardless if it occurs in Nietzsche, a rental lease, or when they sign all the paperwork attached to their FAFSA loans.

Nietzsche’s texts can be challenging. The Genealogy is absolutely wonderful. It moves between rhetorical license and philological reasons for Nietzsche’s skepticism concerning morality. In many ways, its an artistic presentation of philosophy, but unlike other works, it moves between argument and rhetoric much more naturally than his other works. In the Genealogy, Nietzsche even meditates on what it means to read his own aphoristic style. This might surprise many. He writes, “An aphorism, properly stamped and molded, has not be ‘deciphered’ when it has simply been read; rather, one has then to begin its exegesis, for which is required an art of exegesis…one thing is necessary above all if one is to practice reading as an art in this way, something that has been unlearned most thoroughly nowadays—and therefore it will be some time before my writings are readable” (23).

What I find interesting is that this is where the preface ends. For him, the aphoristic style “is not taken seriously enough” (ibid). And the type of reading we encounter in Nietzsche is one where he forces upon his readers an eternal struggle to find the meaning of his intention, yet this is the goal of all reading. The struggle of wrestling with an author’s meaning in a difficult passage requires perseverance and patience. Put another way, the irony is that what he demands here is nothing short of the end goal to which my ethics class is but one bump in the road of the university student’s journey. I just hope his style does not scare them off because his writing can be very powerful. As I often encounter in my student’s this perseverance and patience is the hardest thing to teach, and without the student’s willingness, a teacher often finds resistance in the student. In my experience, I can overcome this resistance, but in so doing, I must re-teach what it means to read a text to students coming out of high school. That’s the most disturbing part of teaching university classes—the amount of deprogramming what high school teachers transmit to the students (which often boil down to a series of oversimplifications) and the students assuming that reading and writing can be as simple as deciphering passages in standardized testing and writing the classic 5-paragraph essay.

When students enter my class, they have never taken a philosophy class, especially Fall classes. Unlike France, these students may have never heard of Plato, let alone Nietzsche. In the Fall, all my students are entering freshman and usually speckled in the back with the occasional upperclassmen waiting to fill their general education requirements. That’s why it’s very crucial to lecture on how to read and then practice that reading. With respect to the Genealogy, I have a few strategies in mind that has worked in the past with The Ethics of Ambiguity. Let me tell you what I did last year, and what I will be doing differently this year.

With the Ethics of Ambiguity last year, I had students develop questions that they turned in on Wednesday (of a standard M, W, F class), and then I would develop am entire lecture to answer their questions for the whole class on Friday. With the question submissions, students knew ahead of time that they will be singled out since I am answering their direct concerns Friday morning. In almost every case, the student is asking what I as a philosophy major wondered about, and as such, the students soon learn that asking critical questions of the text is expected (and even encouraged). Through discussion, they see their questions and hopefully a few exemplars amongst their peers. This exercise can take a whole class period (and maybe part of another), but what this also does is keep in check “where they are” versus “where you think they should be.” Many students can ask the same question in different ways, and you can show them that they are not alone in their struggle with the text. That’s the whole reason I do this assignment. I caution, however, that oversimplifying a student’s concern with others without mentioning their name is counterproductive. You want your students left with the impression that you have given weight to their question fairly, so if you do thematize their question alongside similar – if not identical questions – is explain how all of the thematized questions belong to each other. The whole purpose of this assignment is to impart students why we read read philosophy critically and to have them collectively share in the same experience.

This year I want to do a question paper. Students will pick the best of their questions (or maybe I will) out of three, and they will write a two page paper detailing a difficult passage that generated their initial concern. In so doing, they are not to come to any resolution about the passage, but explain what they find confusing about the passage. Therefore, the question paper is to ask a question of the text, the type of question that moves between the lines of a philosophical text and demonstrates an openness to explore the text. With respect to Nietzsche, I am hopeful this assignment might move beyond the very flowery prose. Students might ask about a section of the text that has no real import or ask questions that delay the progression of their understanding. I anticipate some students identifying irrelevant passages to their stated confusion, and if that happens, that’s okay. That’s a wonderful teaching moment we professors can readily embrace since students must learn what is essential to a text’s overall argument and how to articulate why they found it problematic in the first place. You may be surprised that the student was right to be confused. The whole aim of the question paper, as I am conceiving of it, is to demonstrate the health of being confused. So many times, my students are flustered. They think that philosophy, like so many other subjects, has a “right answer.” When they learn otherwise, when they learn that philosophy is “not so simple,” they become agitated, so I’d rather teach them the intellectual humility of philosophical reflection. Philosophers are often confused. That’s the starting place of many of my inquiries, and what that should do is to be a call to think more about it. Life is never so simple, and is challenging–like reading Nietzsche.

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