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Nietzsche's Reading of Emerson. A Genetic Study

Final Report Summary - EMERSON-NIETZSCHE (Nietzsche's Reading of Emerson. A Genetic Study)

Nowadays Nietzsche is one the most studied philosopher in the world. Throughout the XIX century, many books and essays have appeared on several aspects of his thought and works. In particular, the project of reconstructing Nietzsche’s library was launched by Mazzino Montinari in the 60's as a necessary complement of the critical edition. Montinari claimed that good philology is one that can transform a static text into a dynamic object, relating it to everything that comes before and after it. The ‘before’ includes not only the preparatory versions of the text (avant-text), but also the readings that influenced the author during the writing. The extra-text, including Nietzsche’s readings, the glosses of books in his library, as well as the extracts from these books, should therefore be regarded as an intrinsic part of the text and an essential element for understanding its intellectual genesis. Only reconstructing Nietzsche’s readings can the philosopher’s thought be placed in its historical and cultural context. This is extremely important in order to obviate the dangers of ideological simplification of his thought, such as those that in the XX Century brought to the “legend” of Nietzsche as inspirer of Nazism.
Emerson is a fundamental source of Nietzsche’s works. A few affinities between Nietzsche and Emerson were noted by scholars already at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, the prolonged cultural and political hostility between Germany and the US throughout the XX Century hindered the investigation of the relation between the two thinkers, both considered as cultural icons.
The relation Emerson-Nietzsche began to be studied only in the 90s and very few critical studies have appeared so far. This is due not only to the fact that scholars have begun investigating this relation only recently, but also and foremost to the fact that scholars so far have totally ignored Nietzsche’s posthumous material concerning his reading of Emerson. Nietzsche’s personal library includes two books by Emerson, which are literally covered by Nietzsche’s marginal glosses and underlinings. Nietzsche’s notebooks contain three series of extracts from Emerson’s essays that Nietzsche took in different periods of his life. Moreover, Nietzsche’s Nachlass includes also a manuscript translation of an essay that Emerson published on an English Journal and had not yet been translated into German. All this material had not been considered so far.
The present project has filled a considerable gap in the Nietzsche-Forschung, since it has produced an exhaustive monography that takes into account all different phases of Nietzsche’s reading of Emerson and all the topics that this reading concerns. But, above all, the philosophical interpretation of the impact of Emerson’s works on Nietzsche’s thought was based for the first time on a reliable philological basis. This has been produced through the methodology of genetic criticism developed by the host institution (ITEM).

First of all, the researcher dated and deciphered all Nietzsche’s marginal glosses. Secondly the researcher related them to the correspondent passage of Emerson’s works and interpreted them. Finally, the researcher related Nietzsche’s comments to Emerson’s works to the main issues that Nietzsche was dealing with while writing such comments. Finally, by applying the methodology of genetic criticism, the researcher created genetic paths that assess quite precisely the role that the reading of Emerson played within the development of Nietzsche’s thought. All topics that Nietzsche’s reading of Emerson deals with have been taken into account, as well all the phases of this reading. The research results have been collected in a monography divided in four main chapters, dealing respectively with: 1. the conflict between free will and determinism (related issues: the process of character building, moral responsibility for actions); 2. the criticism to traditional morality (i.e. deontological and utilitarian approaches) and the process of individualization (as aimed at achieving moral autonomy and an original self-expression); 3. the revaluation of individualism as suitable basis for ethics as an alternative to selfless morals based on compassion (related issue: friendship as an alternative both to solitude and compassion); 4. the great man, his constitutive untimeliness, and his role within society (related issue: the criticism of historicism).
Moreover, the genetics paths that the researcher has created have been prepared for implementation on the platform NietzscheSource ( It contains at present: the facsimile edition of Nietzsche’s manuscripts, the critical edition of Nietzsche’s works, posthumous notes, and letters; studia nietzscheana, a scientific journal devoted to the study of Nietzsche’s works and thought. A further section will be soon added, which will be devoted to the study of Nietzsche’s library. It will contains the digital reproductions of the books that belonged to Nietzsche, and scholarly comments on them. Thanks to the function of dynamic contextualisation, these comments will be linked both to Nietzsche’s works, notes, and letters, and to the books of his library. The genetics path that the researcher created within the present project will be the first to be implemented on the platform, thus serving as a prototype for further contributions.

As for the impact of the work carried out, it will be relevant on several respects:
First of all, the philosophical results of the investigation of the relation Emerson-Nietzsche correct dangerous distortions that have hindered so far a full understanding of their thought. When we look at Emerson through Nietzsche’s eyes, his thought appears immediately as extremely relevant for the contemporary philosophical debate and needful of more consideration by European scholars. In turn, when we cast some light on the influence that the reading of Emerson exerted on Nietzsche, we can no longer see it as an aristocratic, elitist, and anti-democratic thinker as many American scholars have done so far.

But the impact of this project is disruptive in particular concerning methodology. The fact that the philosophical thesis of this project rests on genetic pathways reconstructed through the analysis of posthumous notes and manuscripts proves beyond any reasonable doubt that philology and philosophy are not one the negation of the other, but disciplines that can and should coexist. This study shows - mainly to Nietzsche scholars of American area - that the analysis of the posthumous material of the philosopher is not a pleasure for connoisseurs, but a necessary precondition of a full understanding of his thinking.

Finally, the electronic implementation of the genetic pathways that will be made shortly in the section of NietzscheSource dedicated to Nietzsche’s library will revolutionize the way we publish and take advantage of the study of the sources. At present, a large proportion of the contributions on the study of Nietzsche's sources are published in the section Beiträge zur Quellenforschungen of the Journal Nietzsche-Studien. These research results are very difficult to make use of, because they are small portions of text that are organised neither thematically nor chronologically. It is therefore very difficult for the reader to correctly interpret their meaning or evaluate their effect on Nietzsche’s thought. Moreover, sources taken from a single author or even from a single work have often been discovered by different scholars at different times and consequently been published in different issues of the Journal, without any reference to each other. This research will show to the scholarly community that the problem of consulting and managing of the studies on the sources can be solved by abandoning the traditional paper publication, and opting for a publication on the web with dynamic contextualization. Obviously, the impact of the present project extends well beyond the community of Nietzsche scholars, since the prototype here realized can be easily extended to all philosophers whose works and personal libraries are published on the web.