Here at the site we are engaged in a very special kind of research, which could perhaps be called psycho-biography, i.e. trying to find some unity between a person’s cognition and a person’s life. The genre is by no means a new one, but what distinguishes it is that there is so much bad material out there and only a select few titles that really stand out (a good one being, for example, Personality, Character, and Leadership in the White House).
As so much of the material in this genre is of rather poor quality, we were thrilled to discover that the Princeton professor of philosophy Walter Kaufmann, who is widely known for his Nietzsche translations, had crafted a three-volume work in this genre called Discovering the Mind. We devoured the 1,100-something pages, and integrated a great deal of Kaufmann’s research into our site, but the work was not without problems, as detailed below where we dig into all three volumes of Discovering the Mind: Volume 1: Goethe, Kant, and Hegel, Volume 2: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Buber, and Volume 3: Freud, Adler, and Jung.
Volume 1: Goethe, Kant, and Hegel
What immediately strikes the reader is that this work is not so much about Kaufmann’s interpretations of the philosophy of Goethe, Kant, or Hegel, but more of a gossipy biography. This is somewhat unexpected, as Kaufmann was a professor of philosophy at Princeton University. Kaufmann also states in Volume 3 of this series that he is against gossip-as-method. But is he really?
From the outline of the work it would appear that Kaufmann thinks Discovering the Mind is going to elucidate a sort of applied philosophy that will show us how we humans discovered ourselves in modern times. However, the work can at best be read as a biography or a study in lifestyle, as it contains little criticism of the actual thoughts and doctrines of the thinkers that are examined.
In volume 1, Goethe is cast as a super genius, but the reader isn’t really treated to any substantial things that Goethe actually contributed which might merit the high praise. And Goethe’s completely clueless theory of colors is glossed over with a dash of the hand: “Goethe or Newton – it doesn’t matter who was right about colors,” we are told.
At the same time, we get from Kaufmann a mild resistance to the use of mathematics in natural philosophy. Newton is cast as a villain who separated the living (nature) from the lived (human understanding). This may be a fair point, but Kaufmann never has the guts to spell out his disagreement in full force – he just hints at it here and there. And of course Kaufmann doesn’t answer the question of how humanity was ever going to get to the moon if we had stayed with Goethe’s literary-aesthetic conception of science rather than adopting the Newtonian approach as we did.
Kaufmann appears to feel that the way Goethe lived his life was a contribution in itself – a contribution that exceeded the actual, factual contributions of Newton. Well, okay – but how are we going to cure polio or eradicate malaria with Goethe’s poetry-science?
As Goethe is the hero, it follows with some predictability that Kant is the villain. Kant-the-man is psychologized (rather than Kant’s thoughts being analyzed) and Kant is diagnosed as a compulsive personality that is unable to enjoy life. It is hinted by Kaufmann that Kant would be Freud’s overcompensating anal type. As such, Kant is repeatedly faulted by Kaufmann for his lack of spontaneity and vitality in his own life and for his lack of eloquence in writing.
By now it will probably be obvious that Kaufmann is using his own personal sentiments, rather than any impartial standard, to evaluate the thinkers that he examines in these volumes. It will come as little surprise, then, to see that while Hegel is shown to have had the exact same faults of style that Kant had, Hegel is nonchalantly excused from the heap of blame that befalls Kant. Hegel was a genius, we are told, and the fact that he was a bad writer is not enough for us to dismiss him. So we see that what is an unforgivable crime in the case of someone that Kaufmann doesn’t like (Kant) is but an excusable occurrence when Kaufmann happens to like the thinker (Hegel).
So we arrive at a major weakness of this work: What governs the judgment of a thinker is not so much what that thinker said or wrote, but Kaufmann’s personal feelings with regards to that thinker. Naturally, this gets more than a little irritating in the course of the 1,100-something pages that constitute the three volumes of Discovering the Mind.
Doubly ironic, Kaufmann says in volume 3 that he does not like to base his inquiries into certain thinkers on gossip (he is speaking specifically of Paul Roazen’s attempts to capture and document anecdotes about Freud from the people who knew him while such first-hand testimonies were still available – Freud is Kaufmann’s hero, and he doesn’t want Freud soiled by such gossip, we are to understand). Yet in the case of Hegel, Kaufmann readily indulges in psychologizing interpretations about what Hegel wrote on the relation between brother and sister in his philosophy. In Hegel’s philosophy the relation between brother and sister is not merely an example of opposites being secretly part of each other, as would be the normal understanding of his work. Oh no, in Kaufmann’s view, Hegel’s thought on the relation between brother and sister has to do with the fact that Hegel was secretly attracted to his own sister and Kaufmann jumps to enforce his interpretation with anecdotal evidence about Hegel liking his sister. Now this interpretation may well be true, but with regards to Kaufmann’s stated methodology there is only to say: So much for not liking gossip!
Finally, some nitpicking with regards to the first volume:
- Kaufmann’s psychologizing is not always of a very high order: Kant’s run-on sentences in his works are all but postulated to be because of the chronic constipation that troubled him in his own life.
- Kaufmann’s philosophical understanding does not seem to be on the level that one would expect from a professor of philosophy at Princeton: Kaufmann calls Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena a theory of two different “worlds” when they are in fact two modes of conceiving (phenomena) and perceiving (noumena) the same world.
- Hume is likewise misunderstood to have said things that he quite simply never said.
Volume 2: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Buber
Again, as with the first volume, we must say that we are rather perplexed with regards to both Kaufmann’s purpose in writing this work and his stated attitude towards gossip. As stated, Kaufmann says that he is against gossip-as-method when analyzing philosophers, but in this volume (as well as the others) he sure spends a lot of time using exactly this method. In our opinion, what Kaufmann means when he says that is against gossip is rather that he is against gossip that soils the thinkers whom he himself likes (Goethe, Nietzsche, and Freud in particular), but not against gossip that soils the thinkers whom he doesn’t like (Kant, Heidegger, Adler, and Jung.)
After some initial comments on minor thinkers, such as Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, we move on to Kaufmann’s big idol, namely Nietzsche. Kaufmann quotes Nietzsche liberally, and – akin to how he portrays Goethe as a good example for mankind because of his aesthetic-poetic lifestyle – Kaufmann appears to think that Nietzsche is a good example of what he would like a human to become insofar as Nietzsche defied the advice of his doctors not to read and write, as doing so strained his eyesight and gave him migraines. Nietzsche as the proud, solitary figure answering his existential calling is held up to be a model for all mankind. One may freely agree or disagree with this view, but at the end of the day, the fact remains that it doesn’t really tell us much about Nietzsche or his thought – it primarily tells us something about what Kaufmann thinks of Nietzsche and what Kaufmann thinks a human being should be.
It is not that Kaufmann should necessarily be barred from sharing these feelings with us, but what we are missing here is actual arguments for his statements. From the book, it appears that Kaufmann, like Nietzsche, is answering his existential calling to glorify and laud his heroes but, unlike Nietzsche, Kaufmann has no arguments for why we should follow him – only “a personal ecstasy of the heart,” as Rousseau once said.
As Kaufmann’s primary claim to fame in the academic world is his scholarship on, and translations of, Nietzsche, one would expect the exposition on Nietzsche to be the meatiest part of Discovering the Mind. But on the contrary, we are treated to some very poor, if not to say trivial, inquiries into the life and thought of Nietzsche.
For example, at one point Kaufmann purports to answer the charge that Nietzsche’s idea of the Will to Power has a fascist ring to it. But instead of disproving this by harking back to Nietzsche, expounding on the man’s political views or biographical details, we get the following argument from Kaufmann:
- Nietzsche says that the Will to Power drives all life.
- People think this sounds fascist-like.
- But in fact, if you walk into a car dealership, we can see how the salesman is offering power seats, power steering and the like, and people buy it, which shows that everyone has Will to Power!
One couldn’t trivialize Nietzsche more even if one tried. And there are other examples of a similar order.
After Nietzsche, we get Kaufmann’s discussion of Heidegger. Kaufmann is very critical of Heidegger, and with good reason, but his criticisms of Heidegger mostly revolve around the following points:
- Heidegger wrote badly.
- Heidegger was a Christian.
- Heidegger was a Nazi.
All of the above is true. But what is missing from the picture is a criticism of Heidegger’s actual ideas, rather than just the marginalia that surrounds him. Some of Kaufmann’s research on Heidegger is valuable to later scholarship, and for that Kaufmann must be commended, but his treatment of Heidegger could have been much more instructive and valuable to the reader if he had related the biographical details that he has uncovered directly to Heidegger’s thought.
Finally, it must be said that the repeated charge of writing badly – which Kaufmann levels at everyone whom he does not like (including Jung) under the motto of “style is the mirror of the soul” – becomes almost farcical when considering that Kaufmann simultaneously takes offense at the notion that good writers win proponents (such as himself) simply because they write well. “Focusing on writing style is a way to devalue a thinker and the thoughts that he produced,” Kaufmann admonishes. Yet at the same time it is embarrassingly obvious that Kaufmann has to some degree been won over by Goethe, Nietzsche, and Freud because of their literary style. To give but two examples, page after page is dedicated to faulting Heidegger and Kant for their bad prose, while Nietzsche and Freud are continuously lauded for their prose, to the extent where one loses track of the thoughts being discussed. At one point, Kaufmann even interrupts a Nietzsche quote that he is in the middle of reproducing in order to interject his own commentary: “What a wonderful coinage!” Nietzsche’s literary style is indeed enviable, but Kaufmann’s personal rapture at the sight of it is a clear giveaway of the fact that he has, in no small part, been taken in by the style – especially when Kaufmann is so short on arguments in general.
Volume 3: Freud, Adler, and Jung
In the final volume of the work we are treated to Kaufmann’s exposition of the origins of modern psychology. The thesis here is that Freud was a first-rate intellect and that Jung and Adler were minor voices who were driven by the urge to supplant Freud – in Freud’s own words: To be popes instead of the pope. Now it is certainly true that Jung did some unethical things to try and supplant Freud, including collaborating with the Nazis, and as for Adler, he did vehemently deny ever having been a student of Freud, although he plainly was one in his early years. Still, we find that Kaufmann is overly partisan in favor of Freud and biased against the contributions of Adler and Jung.
What sets volume 3 of Discovering the Mind apart from the two prior volumes is that not only is Kaufmann partisan, he is also extremely emotional in his defense of Freud. The question of why Kaufmann is so emotional in his defense of Freud, when he was more restrained with regards to Nietzsche and Goethe, is indeed an interesting one. One conjecture that presents itself is that Freud was not as unproblematic a thinker or as lily-white a person as Kaufmann wants him to be, and on some level Kaufmann knows this. Evidence to the contrary is therefore dismissed on the grounds of being unacceptable to the emotions rather than because of actual arguments.
The converse of this phenomenon is that we cannot simply be allowed to hear Kaufmann’s arguments in favor of Freud (arguments which are often quite good, by the way). No, before we can get to an actual argument about Freud we must first get one or two paragraphs of Kaufmann singing Freud’s praises in an interminable stream of adjectives; how good Freud is, how well Freud writes, how honest and noble Freud is and so on and then we can get to the actual argument. This phenomenon repeats throughout the volume, which is one reason why volume 3 of Discovering the Mind ends up being considerably longer than volume 1 and 2.
Don’t get us wrong. We the admins generally find that there is much to admire about Freud. But Kaufmann’s defense of Freud is of a nature that we cannot accept. Just like how it didn’t matter to Kaufmann whether Goethe was wrong about his theory of colors, it also does not matter to him that most of Freud’s thinking has been discredited by the experimental method. As a reader, one gets the notion that even subjecting Freud’s theories to the experimental method is a boorish approach – a “lack of respect for the divine.” The epistemological status of Freud’s theories seems to be an inconvenient truth to Kaufmann, one that he tides over by pitting the great Freud against the small minds that work to confirm or deny his theories though scientific experiments – to Kaufmann that is just “busywork” which, in Kaufmann’s view, seems to disqualify the findings all together. (One wonders if Kaufmann would have felt the same way if the experimental studies had confirmed Freud’s theories.)
Worse still, Kaufmann appears to be doing away with all contemporary standards of historical writing and research in his defense of Freud. On the question of whether Freud stole his ideas from Nietzsche, Kaufmann “resolves” the matter as such:
“The idea that he did this and then lied about it twenty-five years later can be ruled out on the basis of our knowledge of Freud. I have never found him to be dishonest about anything.” (p. 268)
So matters of historical fact can now be decided on a personal evaluation of a person’s character? As any student of history knows, the historiographical record is filled with admirers who ardently attest that so-and-so was a saint without a black streak in his character. The profound irony here is that Kaufmann, the Nietzsche lover, keeps saying that he is no moralist, no Manichean. But in the case of Freud, Kaufmann appears to think that if Freud’s was not always a paragon of excellence in his conduct, then whatever black spots that he had in his personal life will drag Freud’s contributions to the history of ideas down with them. In other words, for all his fascination with Nietzsche and all the ‘self-overcoming’ of inherited values that a Nietzschean is supposed to show, Kaufmann is actually strikingly moralistic, and moralistic in an eminently Christian sense at that!
As mentioned, Kaufmann is hostile to Adler and Jung. Kaufmann does get the better of Jung in a few places, calling Jung out as a charlatan who believed himself to be an expert on everything and also busting Jung on his mistake of thinking that Adler was introverted and that Freud was extroverted (in Psychological Types §91). But Kaufmann also profoundly misunderstands Jung’s concepts of introversion and extroversion. As is so often the case, Kaufmann thinks that Jung’s typology is a type of behaviorism, arguing that Jung was an extrovert (!) because he laughed out loud in social settings (!) and that Freud was an introvert because he was shy (!!).
So is Discovering the Mind a historical study? Or is it a tale of heroes and villains? Certainly, the latter. Freud, Nietzsche and Goethe are the heroes and Kant, Heidegger, Adler, and Jung are the villains. Fair enough, but let us be honest about the nature of the work. This is not an impartial historical account and it is not a philosophical critique of the thinkers examined. It is a sort of biased lifestyle review with a good deal of psychologization thrown on top. It is also a personal credo – an apologia for Kaufmann’s philosophical preferences.
As we have said, Kaufmann is well-known for his translations of Nietzsche into English. He is in fact the most widely read translator of Nietzsche and writer introducing Nietzsche to the Anglo-American world. But having read Discovering the Mind, we can’t help but wonder: Since Kaufmann’s dealings with Kant, Jung, Adler and others are so subjective and tendentious in this work, how does that bode for Kaufmann’s supposedly objective and impartial translations of Nietzsche? And how does that bode for the future of Nietzsche scholarship in the English speaking world? Will Kaufmann in time be revealed as a blame-shifter and a translator with a personal agenda? That is certainly a suspicion that one would do well to take note of after reading this work.