Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, humanist, heretic
Princeton University Press (Footprint), $89 hb, 758 pp, 9780691165011
My favourite image from Stanley Corngold’s Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, humanist, heretic is set in Berlin as World War II concludes. Young Walter Kaufmann, a German Jew forced to flee the National Socialist regime to the United States, has returned to his native land as part of the occupying forces. Kaufmann is steeped in a German intellectual tradition of Bildung, meaning education or culture. This humanist tradition sees philosophy and literature as serving to liberate, challenge, and cultivate the self.
In occupied Germany, Kaufmann sees the tradition of Bildung humiliated and degraded by the inhumanity of Nazism. Some of the canonical texts are accused of harbouring proto-Nazi ideas. Others have been claimed by Nazi ideologues seeking to fashion an intellectual foundation for the fascist regime. In a bookstore, Kaufmann discovers an edition of the works of a writer tarred more heavily with the Nazi brush than most – Friedrich Nietzsche – and is absorbed. On his return to the United States, Kaufmann commences an immensely productive career as a philosopher, translator, poet, and photographer, drawing upon and indefatigably defending this German tradition.