First, I haven't read the book; but have come across some excerpts in one of Foucaults essays.

It occurs to me that given Nietszches famous antipathy to Christianity, and that Adam/Eve were evicted from the garden after have eaten of the tree of knowledge, from innocence to labour and sorrow, that knowledge saddens. Is Nietzsche trying to reverse this connection? That is Science shouldn't be taken in its contemporary meaning, the exact sciences of mathematics, cosmology and physics; but in the more archaic meaning of scientia ie knowledge itself? And thus to reverse the Melancholic Science of Christian culture to a Gay Science of the future?


The Gay Science is a rambling mass of loosely connected pieces somewhat like the Jewish Wisdom literature in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. It does not directly develop or converge, and it tries to be more honest to various moments and tropes than to any organizing theme or structure. Many of the segments are short dialog-format jokes.

The first English translator (Common) thought that this notion of 'science' was alien enough to ours, and enough closer to the usage in 'Wisdom Literature' that he translated it 'Wisdom' -- giving the work the title "Joyous Wisdom". But other choices he made were so bad that most folks now use a more literal translation throughout, including the title.

Literally, the word for science here is 'wissenschaft', and is formally parallel to the Greek word 'mathematike', both mean very generally 'rigorous techniques for handling knowledge', and neither corresponds narrowly to what we now think of as their modern synonyms. He also gives the title in Italian: 'La gaia scienza', capturing the fact that in other languages there is less of a 'doing of knowing' than just 'knowing' with the 'doing' left automatic.

One of the tropes early in the book is racial style, the distinction between Germanness, for instance, and Romanness or Greekness, even occasionally 'Orientalness', in the style of philosophy, law, morality or presentation. I think the choice of parallelism in verbiage here is significant from this point of view. What he is doing is 'that German thing', and maybe 'that Roman thing', but not 'that Greek thing'. Even if they are all thinking of what they are doing as the same sort of thing, they would disagree that they are actually doing anything alike. (At the same time, he works hard to escape from his own notion of 'Northernness', so it is a well-intended racism, and I think the intention is to emphasize relativism between cultures, not biology or tribal affiliation.)

Wissenschaft in German historically includes poetry, and Nietzsche makes a point of this by starting and ending the book with poems -- the introduction is in the form of something like drinking songs, and the final section is (slightly) more formal poetry. To me the argument being made seems to be to stretch the word's breadth and just stop being so fussy.

  • I've come across the term Wissenschafte somewhere; how is it formally parallel to mathematike, in what way do they formally correspond? Foucault makes a show of racial style (European vs Chinese) in the introduction to The Order of Things - which annoyed me, because the example (script) he chose got it so wrong; as you say with N his 'racism' is well-intended. The Chinese academic that helped Ezra Pound with his translations of Chinese poetry said something similar in observing the differences between European & Chinese philosophy - that the European style was so abstract. Jan 4 '15 at 16:08
  • They both mean basically 'thought-craft', 'mathe' and 'wissen' are both 'knowing' or 'learning' and '-ma' and '-schaft' are both endings one adds to make a reference to a craft or discipline.
    – user9166
    Jan 4 '15 at 16:40
  • Two quibbles: 1) "Wissenschaft in German historically includes poetry". As a somewhat historically informed native speaker, I'm pretty sure that's not the case. Can you give any reference to support this claim? 2) "La gaya scientia" is not an italian translation. "Scientia" is Latin (it would be "Scienza" in Italian), "la gaya" might be Spanish, but I'm not sure.
    – DBK
    Jan 6 '15 at 11:31
  • It is "gaia scienza", sorry to miscopy. The idea is that studing Ovid, or Euripides had once been Wissenschaft, and had since ceased to be, but that on the Provencal model Neitzsche wanted for that to be true of modern art. So there is a lot of purposeful blurring of the lines between art and science.
    – user9166
    Jan 6 '15 at 15:55

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