Review of Anthony Jensen, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of History

Reviewed By: Jennifer O. Gammage

Jensen, Anthony K. Nietzsche’s Philosophy of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 978-1-10-702732-9. (hardcover). xii + 250.


Anthony K. Jensen’s Nietzsche’s Philosophy of History is a welcome treatment of an under-appreciated aspect of one of Nietzsche’s most influential philosophical contributions. Despite the title, Jensen’s painstakingly researched account could just as easily be considered a history of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Although Jensen is primarily writing from and for the Anglo-American tradition of scholarship, his historical research makes this book helpful for a Nietzsche scholar of any school. The book follows a chronological trajectory, tracing the development of Nietzsche’s meta-historical thought from his philological writings through Ecce Homo, ultimately culminating in his positive contribution to the philosophy of history: Nietzsche’s mature conceptions of what Jensen refers to as his perspectival theory of explanation and representational anti-realist position of description and justification.

Jensen’s first chapter analyzes Nietzsche’s early philological works to argue that he started out as an ontological and representational realist employing naturalist, psychological models of explanation to account for discrepancies of record. Jensen argues that Nietzsche is committed to ontological and representation realism in all of his early works. For early Nietzsche, the philologist or historian can accurately represent past events as they actually happened. Jensen will go on to argue that Nietzsche later lets go of his representational realism while retaining his ontological realism, but in this chapter and the one that follows he claims that Nietzsche’s early meta-historical views were not so radical. In fact, according to Jensen, Nietzsche’s appeal to psychological factors retains a sober naturalism in contrast to his contemporaries, who employed supernatural mechanisms as historical drivers. In highlighting Nietzsche’s appeal to psychological motivations such as hate, jealousy, fear, and the need for recognition, Jensen does a fine job bringing out the ways in which his early work already foreshadows his later genealogical work.

Jensen’s second chapter dives more deeply into the historical context of Nietzsche’s days as a student and philologist, situating him within the debate between his two teachers, Ritschl (a student of Hermann’s Sprachphilologie, with its emphasis on verifiability and rigor) and Jahn (a student of Boeckh’s Sachphilologie, with its emphasis on the pedagogical power of research into antiquity). What is most striking about Jensen’s work here is his refusal to neatly locate either Ritschl or Jahn too rigidly within the camps of their mentors. Instead, he offers a more robust and careful analysis of the ways in which Nietzsche inherited an approach that blends strict method with hermeneutic and humanistic focuses from these mentors. Jensen determines that Nietzsche’s break with Ritschl and Jahn was not so much based on a disagreement of method as it was a rupture between world-views. Although this claim is somewhat confusing given Jensen’s formulation of Nietzsche’s split with Ritschl and Jahn — as one in which Schopenhauer’s idealistic metaphysics won out over Ritschl’s empiricism and Wagner’s aristocratic artist won out over Jahn’s democratic ideals of enlightenment — Jensen’s claim that the dispute was not a methodological one merits recognition insofar as it warns against any easy interpretation of Nietzsche’s ambivalence regarding philology and philosophy.

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