Walter A. Kaufmann

Walter A. Kaufmann

Walter A. Kaufmann (1921-1980) was a member of the Philosophy Department at Princeton 1947-1980.

Born in Freiburg, Germany, in the late thirties Kaufmann escaped the persecution of the Nazis, arriving alone in the USA at the age of 17. He became a US citizen in 1944. After receiving his B.A. degree (with highest honors) from Williams College in 1941, he went to Harvard to continue his work in philosophy. His studies were interrupted by three years of military service with the United States Army (1943-1946). He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1947, and that Fall took up a position at Princeton as an instructor. Promoted to full professor in 1962, he was appointed to the Stuart chair in 1979. Although Princeton was home base for him throughout his teaching career, he held visiting appointments from time to time at numerous universities, both in the US and abroad.

Kaufmann was a philosopher, teacher, translator, poet, and photographer. He produced work of high quality at an awesome rate, from the very beginning of his career until the very end. His first book, a critical study of Nietzsche, published in 1950, immediately established his philosophical reputation. Through this book and his superb translations of Nietzsche’s works, he did more than anyone else to make intellectuals in the English-speaking world shed their misconceptions about Nietzsche and acknowledge him as a thinker of the greatest importance. An anecdote that Kaufmann used to tell indicates the magnitude of the change he helped bring about. Shortly after his arrival in Princeton as a freshly hatched Ph.D., he had the good fortune to be introduced to Albert Einstein, who opened the conversation with a question about Kaufmann’s thesis. After hearing that it dealt with Nietzsche, Einstein’s wonderful face expressed great shock and he said: “But that is simply dreadful.” This gives some idea of Nietzsche’s reputation in 1947: one associated him with brutality, madness, and the Nazis. Kaufmann devoted a lot of his prodigious energies through the years to correcting that distorted view of the philosopher he loved and admired above all others.

Not long after the book on Nietzsche, he published his second major volume, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1958), a wide-ranging attack on fundamental orthodoxies in these two areas. He wanted us to see philosophy and religion as passionate, ceaseless efforts of the human spirit towards the ideals of truth and perfection.

The Critique was followed by From Shakespeare to Existentialism (1959), The Faith of a Heretic (1961), Hegel (1965), Tragedy and Philosophy (1968), and Without Guilt and Justice (1973). With Religions in Four Dimensions (1976) and Man’s Lot (1978), he turned to books that contained not only the written word, but hundreds of his own photographs. Photography was by no means a mere sideline for Kaufmann: he took it very seriously. He wrote: “The ethos of the photographs is to reveal the You that addresses me, and to lend a voice so that it can address others as well. If one had to speak in terms of means and ends, one would have to say that in an important sense the people photographed are the end and I and my camera are the means enabling them to speak to others.” He pursued an analogous mediating aim in his translations from the German. As a translator he tried to make himself as transparent and as invisible as he could. He said: “When I translate Buber, Nietzsche, or Hegel I want to capture the unique voice that was heard only once in the course of human history.” He succeeded, and his translations of Nietzsche, of Goethe’s Faust and of Buber’s I and Thou are monuments of the art. Just before his death, he completed a large trilogy, Discovering the Mind on which he had worked for many years.

Kaufmann’s writing was deliberately provocative. “There is no better way of making people think for themselves,” he wrote, “than being provocative.” Not surprisingly, therefore, he had his share of critics. But his work occupies a special and respected place in contemporary philosophy. More important, perhaps: through his writing and teaching, he has touched the lives of thousands of people, young and old, helping them to gain a clearer vision of what they believe, what they consider important, what sort of persons they might strive to be. He had a passion for honesty and an abundance of courage. He lived his life with a truly dazzling expenditure of energy, giving tirelessly of himself. The life he wanted, he said, was one “of love and intensity, suffering and creation.” That is exactly the kind of life he had.