Kaufmann was raised a Lutheran. At age 11, finding that he believed neither in the Trinity nor in the divinity of Jesus, he converted to Judaism. Kaufmann subsequently discovered that his grandparents were all Jewish. Being both descended from Jews and a convert to Judaism placed Kaufmann in real danger in the rabidly antisemitic Nazi Germany. In 1939 Kaufmann emigrated to the United States and began studying at Williams College. Stanley Corngold records that there he "abandoned his commitment to Jewish ritual while developing a deeply critical attitude toward all established religions."
Kaufmann graduated from Williams College in 1941, then went to Harvard University, receiving an MA degree in Philosophy in 1942. His studies were, however, interrupted by the war. He enlisted with the US Army Air Force, was placed at Camp Ritchie and is one of many Ritchie Boys who would go on to serve as interrogators for the Military Intelligence Service in Europe. Kaufmann specifically performed interrogations in Germany.
Kaufmann became a citizen of the United States in 1944.
In 1947 he was awarded his PhD by Harvard. His dissertation, written in under a year, was titled "Nietzsche's Theory of Values." That same year he joined the Philosophy Department at Princeton University. And, although he would hold visiting appointments in both the US and abroad, he would remain based at Princeton for the rest of his academic career. His students over the years included Nietzsche scholars Frithjof Bergmann, Richard Schacht, Alexander Nehamas, and Ivan Soll.
Kaufmann died, aged 59, on 4 September 1980.
Kaufmann wrote a good deal on the existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Jaspers. Kaufmann had great admiration for Kierkegaard's passion and his insights on freedom, anxiety, and individualism. Kaufmann wrote: "Nobody before Kierkegaard had seen so clearly that the freedom to make a fateful decision that may change our character and future breeds anxiety." Although Kaufmann did not share Kierkegaard's religious outlook and was critical of his Protestant theology, Kaufmann was nevertheless sympathetic and impressed with the depth of Kierkegaard's thinking:
I know of no other great writer in the whole nineteenth century, perhaps even in the whole of world literature, to whom I respond with less happiness and with a more profound sense that I am on trial and found wanting, unless it were Søren Kierkegaard.
Kaufmann edited the anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Kaufmann disliked Martin Heidegger's thinking, along with his unclear writing.
Kaufmann is renowned for his translations and exegesis of Nietzsche, whom he saw as gravely misunderstood by English speakers, as a major early existentialist, and as an unwitting precursor, in some respects, to Anglo-American analytic philosophy. Michael Tanner called Kaufmann's commentaries on Nietzsche "obtrusive, self-referential, and lacking insight", but Llewellyn Jones wrote that Kaufmann's "fresh insights into ... Nietzsche ... can deepen the insights of every discriminating student of literature," and The New Yorker wrote that Kaufmann "has produced what may be the definitive study of Nietzsche's ... thought—an informed, scholarly, and lustrous work."
Kaufmann wrote that
it also seems that as a philosopher [Nietzsche] represents a very sharp decline [from Kant and Hegel] ... because [Nietzsche] has no 'system.' Yet this argument is hardly cogent. ... Not only can one defend Nietzsche on this score ... but one must add that he had strong philosophic reasons for not having a system.
Kaufmann also sympathized with Nietzsche's acerbic criticisms of Christianity. However, Kaufmann faulted much in Nietzsche, writing that "my disagreements with [Nietzsche] are legion." Regarding style, Kaufmann argued that Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, for example, is in parts badly written, melodramatic, or verbose, yet concluded that the book "is not only a mine of ideas, but also a major work of literature and a personal triumph."
Kaufmann described his own ethic and his own philosophy of living in his books, including The Faith of a Heretic: What Can I Believe? How Should I Live? What Do I Hope? (1961) and Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy (1973). In the former work he advocated living in accordance with what he proposed as the four cardinal virtues: "humbition" (a fusion of humility and ambition), love, courage, and honesty.
Basic Writings of Nietzsche, designed to complement the preceding.
Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre
Religion from Tolstoy to Camus, a companion to the preceding.
Philosophic Classics, in two volumes: 1, 2
Hegel's Political Philosophy
Articles, book chapters, and introductionsEdit
'Nietzsche's Admiration for Socrates", Journal of the History of Ideas, v. 9, October 1948, pp. 472–491. Earlier version: "Nietzsche's Admiration for Socrates" (Bowdoin Prize, 1947; pseud. David Dennis)
"Goethe and the History of Ideas", Journal of the History of Ideas, v. 10, October 1949, pp. 503–516.
"Toynbee and Superhistory", Partisan Review, vol. 22, no. 4, Fall 1955, pp. 531–541. Reprinted in Ashley Montagu, ed. (1956). Toynbee and History: Critical Essays and Reviews (1956 Cloth ed.). Boston: Extending Horizons, Porter Sargent. ISBN 0-87558-026-2.
"A Hundred Years after Kierkegaard", Kenyon Review, XVIII, pp. 182–211.
"Jaspers' Relation to Nietzsche", in Paul Schilpps, ed., The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers (New York: Tudor, 1957), pp. 407–436.
"The Faith of a Heretic", Harper's Magazine, February 1959, pp. 33–39. Reprinted in Existentialism, Religion, and Death (New York: New American Library, 1976).
"Existentialism and Death", Chicago Review, XIII, 1959, pp. 73–93, also in Herman Feifel (ed.) The Meaning of Death, New York: The Blakiston Division / McGraw-Hill, 1959, Revised version printed in Existentialism, Religion, and Death (New York: New American Library, 1976).
Preface to Europe and the Jews: The Pressure of Christendom on the People of Israel for 1900 Years, 2d ed, by Malcolm Hay. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.
"A Philosopher's View", in Ethics and Business: Three Lectures. University Park, Pa., 1962, pp. 35–54. Originally presented at a seminar sponsored by the College of Business Administration of the Pennsylvania State University on March 19, 1962.
"Nietzsche Between Homer and Sartre: Five Treatments of the Orestes Story", Revue Internationale de Philosophie v. 18, 1964, pp. 50–73.
"Buber's Religious Significance", from The Philosophy of Martin Buber, ed. P. A. Schilpp and Maurice Friedman (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967) Reprinted in Existentialism, Religion, and Death (New York: New American Library, 1976).
"The Reception of Existentialism in the United States", Midway, vol. 9 (1) (Summer 1968), pp. 97–126. Reprinted in Existentialism, Religion, and Death (New York: New American Library, 1976).
Foreword to Frau Lou: Nietzsche's Wayward Disciple, by Rudolph Binion. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969.
Introductory essay, AlienationRichard Schacht, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1970
"The Future of Jewish Identity", The Jerusalem Post Magazine August 1, 1969, pp. 607. Reprinted in Congressional Bi-Weekly, April 3, 1970; in Conservative Judaism, Summer 1970; in New Theology no. 9, 1972, pp. 41–58, and in Existentialism, Religion, and Death (New York: New American Library, 1976.)
Foreword to An Introduction to Hegel's Metaphysics, by Ivan Soll. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
"Beyond Black and White", Midway, v. 10(3) (Winter 1970), pp. 49–79. Also Survey no. 73 (Autumn 1969), pp. 22–46. Reprinted in Existentialism, Religion, and Death (New York: New American Library, 1976).
"Hegel's Ideas about Tragedy" in New Studies in Hegel's Philosophy, ed. Warren E. Steinkraus (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1971), pp. 201–220.
"The Death of God and the Revaluation", in Robert Solomon, ed., Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Anchor Press, 1973), pp. 9–28.
"The Discovery of the Will to Power", in Robert Solomon, ed., Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Anchor Press, 1973), pp. 226–242.
Foreword in Truth and Value in Nietzsche: A Study of His Metaethics and Epistemology by John T. Wilcox. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974
"Nietzsche and Existentialism", Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures, v. 28(1) (Spring 1974), pp. 7–16. Reprinted in Existentialism, Religion, and Death (New York: New American Library, 1976).
"Hegel's Conception of Phenomenology" in Phenomenology and Philosophical Understanding, Edo Pivcevič, ed., pp. 211–230 (1975).
"A Preface to Kierkegaard", in Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age and Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle, trans. Alexander Dru, Harper Torchbooks, pp. 9–29. Reprinted in Existentialism, Religion, and Death (New York: New American Library, 1976).
"On Death and Lying", Reprinted in Existentialism, Religion, and Death (New York: New American Library, 1976).
"Letter on Nietzsche", Times Literary Supplement 1978 (3960): 203.
"Buber's Failures and Triumph", Revue Internationale de Philosophie v. 32, 1978, pp. 441–459.
"Buber: Of His Failures and Triumph", Encounter 52(5): 31–38 1979.
Reply to letter, Encounter 55(4): 95 1980.
"Art, Tradition, and Truth", Partisan Review, XVII, pp. 9–28.
^Tanner, Michael (1994). Nietzsche. Oxford University Press. p. 84. ISBN 0-19-287680-5.
^Jones, Llewellyn, The Humanist, Volume 21 (1961) quoted on the back cover of Kaufmann, Walter Arnold, From Shakespeare to Existentialism (Princeton University Press 1979),
^Kaufman, Walter Arnold, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton University Press 1974), on back cover, ISBN 0-691-01983-5, accessed 2012-Jul-29
^Kaufman, Walter (1974). Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton University Press. p. 79. ISBN 0-691-01983-5. Retrieved December 17, 2008.
^Kaufman, Walter (1980). Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Buber: Discovering the Mind, Volume 2. Princeton University Press. p. 6. ISBN 0-88738-394-7. Retrieved December 20, 2008.
^Kaufmann, Walter (1976), "Editor's Preface" to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, New York: Penguin Books, pp. 120–124. ISBN 0-14-015062-5
^Kaufmann, Walter Arnold (1963). The Faith of a Heretic. Garden City: Doubleday. pp. 304–305, 304–329. OL13574757M. My own ethic is not absolute but a morality of openness. It is not a morality of rules but an ethic of virtues... The first lacks any single name but is a fusion of humility and aspiration. Humility consists in realizing one’s stark limitations and remembering that one may be wrong. But humility fused with smugness, with complacency, with resignation is no virtue to my mind. What I praise is not the meekness that squats in the dust, content to be lowly, eager not to stand out, but humility winged by ambition. There is no teacher of humility like great ambition. Petty aspirations can be satisfied and may be hostile to humility. Hence, ambition and humility are not two virtues: taken separately, they are not admirable. Fused, they represent the first cardinal virtue. Since there is no name for it we shall have to coin one-at the risk of sounding humorous: humbition.
Corngold, Stanley (2019). Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic. Princeton (N. J.): Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-16501-1.
Pickus, David. "The Walter Kaufmann Myth: A Study in Academic Judgment", Nietzsche-Studien 32 (2003), 226–58.
Ratner-Rosenhagen, Jennifer. "'Dionysian Enlightenment': Walter Kaufmann's Nietzsche in Historical Perspective", Modern Intellectual History 3 (2006), 239–269.
Sokel, Walter. "Political Uses and Abuses of Nietzsche in Walter Kaufmann's Image of Nietzsche", Nietzsche-Studien 12 (1983), 436–42.
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Selected works of Walter Kaufmann.
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