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A (R)evaluation of Nietzsche’s Anti-democratic Pedagogy: The Overman, Perspectivism, and Self-overcoming

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In this paper, I argue that Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of self-overcoming has been largely misinterpreted in the philosophy of education journals. The misinterpretation partially stems from a misconstruction of Nietzsche’s perspectivism, and leads to a conception of self-overcoming that is inconsistent with Nietzsche’s educational ideals. To show this, I examine some of the prominent features of the so-called “debate” of the 1980s surrounding Nietzsche’s conception of self-overcoming. I then offer an alternative conception that is more consistent with Nietzsche’s thought, and provides a more nuanced understanding of Nietzsche’s “anti-democratic” pedagogy. Ultimately, I argue that while Nietzsche’s educational philosophy is not egalitarian, it can be effectively utilized in “democratic” classrooms, assuming his concept of self-overcoming is properly construed.

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  1. 1.

    Bingham wrote a short but spirited reply in which he defended not so much the cogency of his interpretation of Nietzsche but his method of expressing that interpretation. While he therefore did little to keep the dialogue between him and Fennell alive, he offered a moving portrait of two fellow educators—rooted in their own incommensurable traditions—doing their own part to share Nietzsche with their students and the world.

  2. 2.

    In making this claim I do not assert that the entire education system, or even entire schools, can utilize Nietzsche’s pedagogy. I agree with Johnston (1998), when he argues that “there are too many hurdles, too many philosophical, social, and political difficulties, for a systematic adoption of a “Nietzschean” education at the university, state, or national levels” (p. 68). I disagree, however, with Johnston when he goes on to claim that the production of the self-overcoming individual is antithetical to education (p. 82). As I will illustrate in my assessment of Fennell’s arguments concerning Nietzsche’s anti-democratic educational views, individual classroom teachers can help cultivate self-overcoming in their students.

  3. 3.

    By “traditional” I mean the concept of self-mastery that refers to the moderation of one’s passions and desires by one’s rational faculty. Nietzsche’s concept is distinct from the traditional, but it shares more with it than the alternative notions of self-overcoming that I will examine.

  4. 4.

    In highlighting some of the shortcomings of Fennell’s article, I do not wish to be perceived as repudiating all of Fennell’s arguments. On the contrary, I support the majority of his theses, and, in fact, find them to be an excellent corrective to some of the trends in the philosophy of education journals regarding Nietzsche’s thought.

  5. 5.

    This raises the first problem with Aviram’s paper. Aviram uses “overman” to signify not an ideal that transcends man as he currently is, but as an achievable human ideal. He claims that he is justified in using “overman” in a very general sense, not as a superhuman individual who does not exist, but as a “higher” man, a human full of self-overcoming. Since Nietzsche clearly distinguishes between the higher men and the overmen, I think it is problematic to use the term “overman” for both. However, for the sake of the analysis of Aviram’s argument I will continue to use the overman as if it were a realizable ideal.

  6. 6.

    This fact is echoed by Solomon and Higgins (2000) when they say: “A curious perversity in Nietzsche scholarship is that some commentators have preferred Nietzsche’s scrambled notes to his masterful publications” (p. 83). Other authors who oppose the unrestricted use of Nietzsche’s Nachlass include Magnus (1988), Clark (1990), Alderman (1977), and Leiter (1994).

  7. 7.

    References for all of Nietzsche’s texts will be abbreviated according to the following: A (The Antichrist), BGE (Beyond Good and Evil), D (Daybreak), EH (Ecce Homo) FE (On the Future of our Educational Institutions), GM (On the Genealogy of Morals), GS (The Gay Science), HH (Human, all too Human), SE (Schopenhauer as Educator), TI (Twilight of the Idols). References for all passages will use section numbers rather than page numbers with the exception of SE and FE.

  8. 8.

    For a thorough explication of this passage and its implications for perspectivism and Nietzsche’s criteria for truth, see Clark (1990) and Leiter (1994).

  9. 9.

    Other philosophers of education whose conception of self-overcoming at least partially shares in Hillesheim’s and Rosenow’s include, to name a few, Aloni (1989), Sassone (1996), and Bingham (2001).

  10. 10.

    As my analysis of self-overcoming will illustrate, power should not be construed as power over others, political power or economic power; these forms of power are inferior and even a form of weakness. For Nietzsche, the ultimate form of power is power over one’s self—the ability to love life in all its vicissitudes and difficulty; the ability to say Yes to fate and to encourage the affirmation of life in others.

  11. 11.

    There is a tendency in contemporary scholarship to treat Kaufmann as a historically important, but ultimately unreliable reader of Nietzsche. This is troublesome because I have read very few arguments repudiating his reading of Nietzsche—one noteworthy example is Robert Solomon who frequently engages Kaufmann’s “mistakes.” Generally, however, Kaufmann is discounted by off hand comments often related to the belief that his reading of Nietzsche is “too humanistic.” Undoubtedly, there have been more sustained and rigorously argued repudiations of his interpretation; the problem is that no one, in my experience at least, is referencing those repudiations. It almost seems that Kaufmann is ignored or dismissed primarily because he is considered outmoded. Indeed, as one anonymous reviewer of this article suggested “Many contemporary students of Nietzsche, especially those in Education and opinion-makers upon which philosophers of education are apt to rely, consider Kaufmann old-fashioned and superseded. This judgment regarding Kaufmann, while no doubt flawed, is widely and unreflectively held.” This is not to say that Kaufmann’s interpretation is not without its flaws. But it behooves readers of Nietzsche, especially educators, to offer him a fair hearing. Does his interpretation square with what Nietzsche affirms or does it not? That is the question that must be asked. It must be asked because Kaufmann’s interpretation may help to protect us from allowing our culturally embedded biases pre-determine our reading of Nietzsche. Kaufmann’s ideas may have been expressed decades ago, but that is precisely why they may afford important insights into Nietzsche’s writings and our own cultural biases.

  12. 12.

    See also GM, II, 12, where Nietzsche claims “that in all events the will to power is happening,” and that “the essence of life [is] its will to power.”

  13. 13.

    See also TI, “Morality as Anti-nature,” 1–2.

  14. 14.

    As we have seen Aviram does try to distinguish between the forms of power but because his conception is based on a fundamental flaw, his distinction between the forms of power loses its force.

  15. 15.

    For another analysis of reason as a type of passion, see Nietzsche (D, 109).

  16. 16.

    See also (BGE, 36 and GM, II, 12).

  17. 17.

    For an important analysis of this reading see Conant’s (2001) article “Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of Schopenhauer as Educator.”


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Correspondence to Mark E. Jonas.

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Jonas, M.E. A (R)evaluation of Nietzsche’s Anti-democratic Pedagogy: The Overman, Perspectivism, and Self-overcoming. Stud Philos Educ 28, 153–169 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-008-9107-1

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  • Nietzsche
  • Self-overcoming
  • Self-mastery
  • Perspectivism
  • Overman
  • Will to power
  • Education
  • Pedagogy