Walter Kaufmann

Web Site Project


This site is an on-going project on the life and work of the late philosopher Walter Kaufmann. It is maintained by Professor Andrew D. Spear in the Philosophy Department at Grand Valley State University. All correspondence regarding the site should be sent to Andrew at “speara AT”.

The goal of this site is to promote study and consideration of the original philosophical ideas of Walter Kaufmann, as well as to make available information about his life and scholarship.

  A Brief Introduction to Walter Kaufmann

    Walter Kaufmann is a 20th century philosopher most often remembered and referenced for his scholarly work on and translations and anthologies of Nietzsche and Existentialism, though Kaufmann's actual contribution to philosophy was much broader, encompassing philosophy of religion, philosophy of history, aesthetics and moral philosophy, to name only a few.

      Kaufmann's philosophy is a unique blend of scholarship, critique and positive philosophical doctrine that sees breadth of knowledge and acuity of critical analysis as tools for the development of autonomous, creative, and socially responsible individuals. Toward this end Kaufmann, in his various writings, takes thinkers and artists such as Socrates, Nietzsche, Goethe and Van Gogh as points of departure for the development of his own conception of the dynamic, contemplative, and creative life that he came to see more and more throughout his career as an ideal. Kaufmann belongs to a relatively small number of 20th century philosophers whose works have been widely read and had an impact both inside and outside of the academy. Kaufmann lived from July 1, 1921 to September 4,1980.

Biographical Information on this Site

Biographical Information from Princeton University

An Interview With Walter Kaufmann  (PDF).

Rosmarin, T. W. (1981) An Interview with Walter Kaufmann. Judaism, Winter 1981, Vol. 30, Issue 1, pp. 120-128

Posted with permission from the journal Judaism

Walter Kaufmann on the “philosophic flight”

Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Chapter I, section 5.

Walter Kaufmann

From: Kaufmann, W. (1990). Critique of Religion and Philosophy.  Princeton.  Princeton University Press

5.THE PHILOSOPHIC FLIGHT.  Philosophy, like poetry, deals with ancient themes: poetry with experiences, philosophy with problems known for centuries.  Both must add a new precision born of passion.

     The intensity of great philosophy and poetry is abnormal and subversive: it is the enemy of habit, custom, and all stereotypes.  The motto is always that what is well known is not known at all well.

     Great poetry often deals with hackneyed themes.  Sophocles and Shakespeare chose well-known stories, Goethe wrote on love, Dostoevsky on murder.  Yet what is new each time is not merely the language.  The poet's passion cracks convention: the chains of custom drop; the world of our everyday experience is exposed as superficial appearance; the person we had seemed to be and our daily contacts and routines appear as shadows on a screen, without depth; while the poet's myth reveals reality.

     Newspaper reports, and even scenes we have seen with our own eyes, are like distorted images in muddy waters of that reality which we encounter in Oedipus Tyrannus, Lear or The Brothers Karamazov.  We live upon the surface; we are like ants engaged in frantic aimlessness - and that one talent which is death to hide, lodged with us useless till the artist comes, restoring vision, freeing us from living death.

     Philosophy, as Plato and Aristotle said, begins in wonder.  This wonder means a dim awareness of the useless talent, some sense that ant-likeness is a betrayal.  But what are the alternatives?  Bacon suggested: being bees or spiders.  Some thinkers, like the ant, collect; some, like the spider, spin; some, like the bee, collect, transform by adding of their substance, and create.

     Vary the metaphor.  Men are so many larvae, crawling, wriggling, eating - living in two dimensions.  Many die while in this state.  Some are transformed and take flight before they settle down to live as ants.  Few become butterflies and revel in their new-found talent, a delight to all.

     Philosophy means liberation from the two dimensions of routine, soaring above the well known, seeing it in new perspectives, arousing wonder and the wish to fly.  Philosophy subverts man's satisfaction with himself, exposes custom as a questionable dream, and offers not so much solutions as a different life.

     A great deal of philosophy, including truly subtle and ingenious works, was not intended as an edifice for men to live in, safe from sun and wind, but as a challenge: don't sleep on! there are so many vantage points; they change in flight: what matters is to leave off crawling in the dust.

   A philosopher's insight may be a photograph taken in flight.  Those who have never flown think they are wise when noting that two such pictures are not alike: they contradict each other; flying is no good; hail unto all that crawls!  The history of philosophy is a photo album with snapshots of the life of the spirit.  Adherents of a philosophy mistake a few snapshots for the whole of life.

Kaufmann’s works, page proofs, and papers

A relatively complete bibliography of Kaufmann’s books and articles is available on this site, as is a slightly less complete listing of articles and works about or responding to Kaufmann.

The library at Princeton University has a limited collection of page proofs and other manuscripts from Walter Kaufmann’s time there. Those interested in these materials are encouraged to consult the Princeton Library Catalogue or contact the Philosophy Subject Librarian at Princeton.

The majority of Kaufmann’s personal library, correspondence, and other papers were transferred shortly after his death to the library of Meisei University near Tokyo, Japan. Since then Meisei University has changed a great deal and requests concerning the whereabouts of and access to Kaufmann’s papers have been ignored. Those interested in these papers are encouraged to contact Meisei University directly. Should anyone be successful in getting a response from Meisei about the location of Kaufmann’s papers, I would appreciate being informed as well (speara AT

Finally, for those looking to translate, excerpt, or republish Kaufmann’s works, there are two main sources to contact. For works published by Princeton University Press, it is they who should be contacted for copyright permission. For all other works, you will need to get in touch with the Walter Kaufmann Copyright Trust. Unfortunately, my contact details for the trust are no longer current so I am unable to help with requests of this sort at this time.