Walter Kaufmann

Web Site Project


This site is an on-going information, data-collection and research project on the life and work of the late philosopher Walter Kaufmann.  The site 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.

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

  A Brief Introduction to Walter Kaufmann

    Walter Kaufmann is a 20th century philosopher most often remembered and referenced for his scholarly work, translations and anthologies of Nietzsche and Existentialism.  This is unfortunate insofar as 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.

      Walter 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 emancipation and actualization of the self-empowered, creative and socially responsible individual.  Towards this end Kaufmann repeatedly turns in his various publications and writings to discussions of thinkers and artists such as Socrates, Nietzsche, Goethe and Van Gogh in order to advocate his conception of the dynamic, contemplative and creative life that he came to see more and more throughout his career as an ideal.

    Kaufmann lived from July 1, 1921 to September 4,1980.

Biographical Information on this Site

Biographical Information from Princeton University

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.