Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Nietzsche and Acoustics

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_464


Acroamatic Auscultation Disposition Philosophizing with a Hammer Intonation Proportion Resonance Stimmung Sympathetic Vibration Temperament 


Friedrich Nietzsche’s interest in acoustics, auditory perception, and musical experience – while not pedagogical in the conventional sense – lead to some of the philosopher’s most trenchant critiques of institutional education and proposals for its reform. The most extended discussions of education are contemporaneous with his tenure at the University of Basel from 1869–1879. In works from subsequent years, focusing more generally on German culture and the quality of German scholarship, his observations are often framed in terms of acoustics and musical experience. And shortly before his collapse, Nietzsche’s acoustical thinking assumes a material form with his proposal to philosophize with a hammer.

Sources for Nietzsche’s Acoustics of Education

Many of Nietzsche’s early reflections on education depend on the appropriation, adaptation, and extension of the German word Stimmung. In the study of acoustics, Stimmung refers to vibration, frequency modulation, and oscillation. In the musical lexicon, it designates resonance, voice, and intonation. And in psychology it denotes mood or disposition. Out of the varied meanings of Stimmung, including suggestive associations among various fields of knowledge, Nietzsche forges a hermeneutic constellation – as versatile as it is incisive – for his critique of education.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Stimmung already occupied a prominent position in German thinking and was frequently associated with the topics of education [Erziehung] and maturation [Bildung]. In his Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant describes the free play of imagination and intellect characteristic of aesthetic judgment as the proportionate attunement [proportionierte Stimmung] of the higher faculties (2002, p. 197). Schiller, in the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), explains that only those with an aesthetic disposition [aesthetische Stimmung] can apprehend the “revelation of reason in the sphere of the sensuous” (2004, p. 97). And in the essay “Thinking for One’s Self” (1851), Schopenhauer describes an active education growing out of the student’s experience and reflection, rather than the passive reception of words read aloud by the teacher. The indispensible mediator between experience and understanding, in Schopenhauer’s view, is the formative power of the student’s disposition [Stimmung]. Moreover, all subsequent reflection is guided by principles analogous to those governing melodic invention and elaboration (Schopenhauer 1974, p. 22).

Jacob Burckhardt, professor of history at the University of Basel and friend to Nietzsche during his time there, frequently uses musical terminology in thinking about history and historiography. Burckhardt formulated these ideas in lecture courses, attended by Nietzsche, on “The Study of History” (1870) and “Greek Cultural History” (1876). In these, Burckhardt described the history of the ancient world as “a fundamental chord [Grundton] heard in all fields of learning.” Furthermore, only the study of ancient history can dispel the “acoustic illusion [of] thought and argument multiplied to ubiquity by the press […] whose noise drowns out any voice of the past” (Burckhardt 1965, p. 91).

A fourth source for Nietzsche’s acoustic evaluation of education is Hermann von Helmholtz who, in On the Sensation of Tone (1863), describes the ear as a mechanism whose cilia vibrate, in sympathy, with the frequency modulations produced by the sounding object. Additionally, Helmholtz argues that our perception of differences in timbre when the same musical tone is sung by different voices or played on different instruments, results when auditory perception combines the fundamental pitch and the harmonics, or overtones, idiomatic to the different sources of production. While we apprehend the result of this combination rather easily, hearing the individual harmonics is more challenging however, by withdrawing one’s attention from other parts of the combination one can learn to hear them (Helmholtz 1954, pp. 65–74).

Nietzsche, Education, and Acoustics

In a series of public lectures on education delivered in 1872, subsequently published as On The Future of Our Educational Institutions, Nietzsche finds the curriculum and pedagogy in contemporary gymnasia unacceptable. Echoing Schopenhauer, Nietzsche champions an acroamatic, or spoken, pedagogy through which students are connected to the educational institution “by the ear alone,” instead of one where the teacher, who reads when speaking, aims to reach as many students as possible. Nietzsche believes the “strange speaking-and-listening procedure” of an acroamatic pedagogy constitutes an “education toward culture” and exemplifies true academic freedom, inasmuch as “even the listening and the selection of what is listened to is left to the independent decision of the liberal student” (2007, p. 96). A fuller discussion of acoustics in these lectures may be found in my “Nietzsche’s Acoustic Philosophy of Education and the Designation of Genius.”

A similar concern with the deficiency of contemporary education, and the consequent impoverishment of German scholarship, is found in all four of the Untimely Meditations (1873–76). In “David Strauss the Confessor and the Writer” (1873), Nietzsche considers the erosion of scholarly standards in the midst of a “philistine” culture. In the prose style of Strauss, Nietzsche detects an ear no longer able to hear “the aesthetically subtle and powerful laws of tone that govern the life of the writer indentured to good models and strict discipline” (1990, p. 63). Strauss is esteemed because in his work fellow scholars find a reflection of themselves. Even a reader who might disagree with Strauss, nevertheless “feels so certain he is hearing the echo of his own voice, that a false sense of unity is created” (1990, p. 45).

The second Untimely Meditation, “On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life” (1874), includes a devastating critique of contemporary historiography and the teaching of history. Throughout, Nietzsche argues for an understanding of history and a reform of its pedagogy in acoustic and musical terms. Nietzsche describes the typical historian as “an echoing passivity” from whom only the “overtones” of “the original, basic historical tone” can be heard. In short, the contemporary historian is nothing more than “an echoing passivity” (1990, p. 114). This especially acerbic characterization results from Nietzsche’s wedding of Burckhardt’s metaphor of history’s Grundton to Helmholtz’s explanation of sympathetic vibration.

As a remedy, Nietzsche posits a “republic of genius,” an idea borrowed from Schopenhauer, where great historical voices of the past speak in tones audible only for the true historian, one with an appropriately tuned and sympathetic disposition. The scholarship of those possessing such a disposition “reformulates a well-known, perhaps common-place theme, an everyday melody, […] making the familiar sound like something wholly new” (1990, p. 118). As an educator, the true historian transforms the student’s “unconscious resistance” to “traditional education” into an “outspoken and loudly sonorous awareness” (1990, p. 145). For an extended discussion of musical acoustics in this Untimely Meditation, see my “Nietzsche, Beethoven, and the Composition of History” (Mosley 2014, pp. 24–40).

In the third Untimely Meditation, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” Nietzsche recounts how reading Schopenhauer introduced him to education as the cultivation of genius. However, Nietzsche finds a fundamental contradiction in the “two educational precepts in vogue today.” One he calls inner education, “the recognition of the powers of each student,” while the education of the outer demands “all of a student’s abilities be brought into a harmonious relationship.” He finds a resolution to this opposition in the figure of Benvenuto Cellini – the sixteenth century goldsmith, sculptor, draftsman, soldier, musician, and poet – in whom “everything – all insight, desire, love, hatred – converge in a single career.” Like a composer, the “radical strength” of Cellini’s character shapes the strains of inner and outer into “a polyphonic unity” (Nietzsche 1990, p. 167).

The contribution of music to a vibrant culture is the topic of the fourth Untimely Meditation, “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth” (1876). For Nietzsche, the reciprocity of tone and word in Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk is an answer to a “crisis which by now spread throughout the civilized world,” namely, “language is everywhere diseased [and] as far removed as possible from the strong emotions it was originally able to arouse with greatest simplicity” and “express in the domain of thought”. To bridge the gap requires the “inspiring soul of music.” However, education in music is “most shameful lack” of contemporary education (Nietzsche 1990, p. 270). Nietzsche believes the disposition of those who experience Wagner’s combination of tone, word, and gesture – like Athenian citizen whose disposition relied, to a significant extent, on the cultivation of musical taste – might once again be fit for responsible participation in matters of State (1990, p. 278).

From Nietzsche’s first years in Basel to his collapse in Turin, the contrasting character of Apollo and Dionysus, and the genius of their uneasy “marriage” in Attic tragedy, was central to Nietzsche’s thought. If The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872) is concerned, to some degree, with the pedagogical significance of Greek tragedy, then the same can be expected from the rebirth of tragedy in the music-dramas of Richard Wagner. Central to each, according to Nietzsche, is the “aesthetic listener” attuned to the primal dissonance heard in the Dionysiac dithyrambs (Nietzsche 1999, p. 108). Moreover, just as the critical human beings belonging to the Socratic community signaled the end of Greek tragedy, the “critical historical spirit of contemporary education” has produced abstract and “mythless” human beings “deaf to tragedy’s music” in Wagner’s music-dramas (Nietzsche, 1999, p.109).

Human, All too Human (1878), Nietzsche’s first book length work since The Birth of Tragedy took shape in the years just before deteriorating health ended his academic career. During this time, Nietzsche reassessed his earlier works and found in each the same unexamined idealism responsible for the decline of contemporary culture. In Ecce Homo (1888), Nietzsche describes the book as a “monument to a crisis […] I used it to liberate myself from things that did not belong to my nature. Idealism is one of them: the title says ‘where you see ideal things, I see – human, oh, only all too human!’ […] The tone, the sound, has completely changed” (1995, p. 6).

As might be expected, Human, All too Human includes Nietzsche’s rejection of music as the most adequate representation of the will he found so attractive in Schopenhauer and, along with it, his loss of faith in Richard Wagner’s aesthetic vision. Nevertheless, acoustics and musical experience remain essential to education and the creation of a vibrant culture. For example, in §242 Nietzsche explains that the exceptional student is formed not so much by institutional education, but in spite of it. For such students, “the greatest disorder, confusion of objectives, and unfavorable circumstances” are harmonized by “an inborn, indestructible strength” whereby “the individual is set in place within the counterpoint of private and public culture” (Nietzsche 1995, p. 6)

The acoustic properties of language and its rhetorical formulation are essential features of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1884), regarded by Nietzsche as his most important book. Here Nietzsche recounts the life of an acroamatic teacher who speaks and sings with the voice of a prophet. When Zarathustra announces the coming of the “overman” his words are met with silence because of the audience’s pride in German education. Zarathustra concludes, “I not the mouth for these ears” (Nietzsche 2006, p. 9). Later, when Zarathustra enters the so-called Land of Education he encounters beings “baked from colors and paper slips glued together” and “written over with signs, and even these are written over with signs.” Zarathustra’s response, seemly the only response he finds appropriate, is to laugh (Nietzsche 2006, p. 94). And later, tired from travelling in foreign lands, where “everyone talks” and “no one knows any more how to understand,” Zarathustra retreats to a “home in solitude.” There, “being wants to become word” and “becoming wants to learn from me how to speak” (Nietzsche 2006, p. 146).

In the Gay Science (1882–87), which is contemporaneous with Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche joins laughter – a vocal expression without semantic content – to poetry and dancing in the attempt to reframe philosophy as a gaya scienza. However, so Nietzsche contends German education lacks this “one great means of education; the laughter of higher men; for in Germany, these do not laugh” (2001, p. 137). When assessing the quality of German speech, the philosopher makes the hauntingly prescient observation: “Just listen to the shouted commands that positively surround German cities […] what presumptuousness, what raging sense of authority, what scornful coldness reverberates from this roar! […] The Germans are becoming militarized in the sound of their language” (Nietzsche 2001, pp. 101–103).

Nietzsche provides a brief phenomenology of musical experience when he describes how we learn to love. At first, he explains, we must simply “learn to hear a melody or figure at all”. Then, with “effort and good will” we “stand it despite its strangeness”. Finally “comes the moment when we are used to it; when we expect it; when we sense we would miss it if it were missing [and] it continues to compel and enchant us until we become its humble and enraptured lovers, who no longer want anything better from the world than it and it again […] It is in just this way that we have learned to love everything we now love” (Nietzsche 2001, p. 186).

In works from 1886–1888, Nietzsche frequently alludes to philosophizing with a hammer. This is not, however, his first use of the metaphor. It first appears, some 25 years earlier, in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks of 1873, followed by references in The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and The Genealogy of Morality. Nietzsche uses the hammer for new tasks and it yields more refined results in Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer from 1888. In the Preface to Twilight, written three months before the philosopher’s collapse, Nietzsche’s speaks more definitively about his philosophical hammer. Forged from the complementarity of musical acoustics and philosophical judgment, it is a hermeneutic-pedagogic instrument. Just as the physician determines health or illness according to the sounds elicited by tapping the patient’s body – a procedure known as auscultation [Abhören] – Nietzsche’s hammer taps the most revered thinkers and influential ideas of the past to sound out [aushorchen] their resonance in the present. The hammer also acts as a tuning fork [Stimmgabel] in reference to which instruments are tuned prior to a performance. In the same way a pleasing performance relies on members of the ensemble playing in tune with one another, Nietzsche’s tuning fork tests the attunement of one mode of thinking with another (2005b, pp. 135–136).


While Nietzsche’s acoustic critique of education borrows from earlier sources and adapts ideas from other domains of thinking, his (re)formulation and deployment of them is both novel and incisive. As a consequence, Nietzsche introduces new values for the appraisal of teaching, learning, and thinking about education. These include sympathy between the speaking voice and the listening ear; a musical disposition informed, in part, the acoustic properties of language; the deafness induced by critical-historical scholarship; laughter as the most adequate response to philistine culture; and the necessity of an education in music for a living connection to myth, an aesthetic attitude toward life, and the creation of a vibrant culture.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Bellarmine UniversityLouisvilleUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Babette Babich
    • 1
  1. 1.Fordham UniversityNew YorkUSA