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Masters and Saints: William James as Early American Interpreter of Nietzsche

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Lucas McGranahan
University of California, Santa Cruz
United States

William James (1842–1910) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) were contemporaries who, while living on different continents, made remarkably parallel contributions to the history of philosophy. James’s and Nietzsche’s critiques of the tradition were equally sweeping, and they shared a revolutionary vision of philosophy as new kind of practical discipline that construes individuals as active, multivalent, self-fashioning organisms. Given their similar views and shared historical moment, it is a striking fact James and Nietzsche worked almost entirely independently of one another. In fact, in the one place where James attempts a substantive discussion of Nietzsche, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he reads Nietzsche uncharitably and with seemingly no appreciation for their shared philosophical orientation. In this paper I take a closer look at James’s attempt at a discussion of Nietzsche in the Varieties, demonstrating that James and Nietzsche actually agree considerably on the very point where James attempts to take Nietzsche as a foil: that is, on their exemplars of ethical character. In fact, James and Nietzsche share an entire framework of philosophical anthropology, including both descriptive and normative commitments, even if they are starkly opposed on certain specific issues such as the value of democracy.


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