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This question stems from a much larger question that I have about reading philosophy but as I learned through a meta post, that question would be too broad for stackexchange. So, I have attempted it to narrow it down to a specific philosopher.

I have gained an interest in reading Nietzsche and I would like to know the "proper" way to do it. I am not asking for the way but for some pointers that would significantly improve my learning and understanding of his writing. For example, what are some things I need to look out for when I am reading Nietzsche? Are there people I need to read before him to gain a better understanding of where he comes from and what his ideas are? So in essence,

What are things that I need to look for when I am reading Nietzsche to help me further understand what he has to say?

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    It is indeed a problem "how to read" philosophy. In the case of Nietzsche you have very dissimilar positions. Some people said he was a protofascist (Lukács), some people said he was a proto-post-structuralist (the french school)). So, I would recommend: 1) read it without background ("let it be", it sounds silly but it does work); 2) all extremes are bad (for he was neither a fascist nor an anarchist, but a person of his time). Then you can read the intro of Gianni Vattimo "Nietzsche: An Introduction" (Standford University Press, 2002). – Strabo Aug 29 '13 at 17:15
  • I would recommend Nietzsche's Revaluation of Values: A Study in Strategies by E.E. Sleinis (1994). – Chris Degnen Mar 9 '14 at 22:00
  • Consider also his biography: growing up with many women family members, his relationship to Wagner, etc. – Drux Mar 10 '14 at 12:14
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As with many instances in the progression of intellectual history, in order to understand the now, it is important to understand what has come before the now. With specificity to Nietzsche, it is important to recognize the influences of European philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and even musicians upon him (an aside, music was an important aspect of his life). Specifically, such names that come to mind are Schopenhauer, Kant, Hegel, Darwin, and who can forget Wagner! Each of these individuals, and more, produced an impact upon his thinking, whether in his approval or disapproval of their ideas, or even more analytically, a strange, sometimes ironic mixture of both. I highly suggest reading Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate, who crafts an excellent and truly enlightening biography of the personal and intellectual history of Nietzsche, which has helped enormously in understanding his later works.

I think it somewhat vain for me to try to "correctly" answer how to "properly" read Nietzsche (or any philosopher for that matter), so I will outline how I approach his texts. Remember, this is after having read the biography mentioned above and having gained the reference, context, and knowledge of the milieu and events surrounding the numerous inceptions-and completions-of his many works. Furthermore, the astounding work of Nietzsche scholars (such as Walter Kaufmann) in the form of historical and comparative research has produced conveniently organized footnotes in most texts that I urge you not to ignore. This advice, I think, is also not particular to Nietzsche, but is a generally helpful and advantageous approach to reading philosophy in general. And as a final note, do not forget that the English text is and always will be a translation of the original German; take that as you will.

For larger, continuous works (i.e., not aphorisms):

  1. Read every word, with particular attention to unfamiliar vocabulary. Nietzsche, as a philologist, was particular about his lexical and syntactic choice, I'm sure. Performing a close read of the text will benefit you enormously, particularly when you understand the then contemporary, historical meaning of his words and phrases, for which you will need the aid of footnotes and research. Taking his words merely for granted in the modern definitions and ideations proves inaccurate. Of course, what you are reading is a translation, which I am not qualified to evaluate, but a keen attention to every word, sentence, and paragraph will fully bring you into the experience, and set you up for the next "step".

  2. Note the stylistic, punctuational choices. You will notice that many texts use italicized, parenthesized, or hyphenated text, which to me at any rate, presents a thrilling experience for reading. And this makes sense, given Nietzsche's own opinions on how to write effectively, and I believe such mechanics were present in his original drafts. Feel the words, the phrasing, the tempo, the gravitas, of what you are reading, as it will convey far more emotion and impression than a mere clinical clean read. It should 'disturb' you and make you think, which prepares you for the next "step".

  3. Read the text again, but at a different time. If you have this luxury, try reading the text after some time off, or perhaps in a different mood (one that is still conducive to reading, though). You may be surprised, offended, or confused by what he writes, which dangerously lends to the temptation of dismissing his ideas and style. Understand that he may be speaking ironically, craftily, or earnestly, but all with intent and purpose. He is not an easily philosopher to understand!

  4. Ruminate! This is the most important step, and is not necessarily the last. Think, think, think, about what you have read, and consider the implications of his writing. Nietzsche was extraordinarily productive and crams so much in so little space. Think, at any point in time in your reading or even just in the everyday, about what could have led him to write what you read, and that exactly, and not something else. Think about particular paragraphs, sentences, even words, but without forgetting an understanding of the overarching themes of his message.

As for his aphorisms, given their pithy and brief nature, you need to think long and hard about them, and not cave to the temptation of appropriating them out of context. Furthermore, it is beneficial to seek the expertise of Nietzsche researchers, who can better provide the context and clarity of how and why he wrote with an affinity for aphorisms. I could write on and on, but I hope this is a good modus operandi for approaching his fantastic works. Best of luck!

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I wish I could just comment but due to the low rep, I have to use the answer.

I agree with @Strabo that you should read Nietzsche without any prior views, opinions, or perspective on the work. I would further add, try to understand it yourself and think about what he is saying. Once you have a grasp on what you think is said and what you understand from it, then feel free to seek out other views to see if you missed something, or maybe you thought differently about something but ultimately use it to refine your own understanding, try not to fall into the common pitfalls of having your views replaced because you think someone makes a more aggressive argument or they have more standing and you feel compelled to concede to their view. Philosophy is about how you understand and feel about something, even if you happen to be in the minority view. The debate is often the best part of philosophy and journey of self discovery and expanding the mind with more perspectives.

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While I agree that it might be best to read Nietzsche without any prior knowledge I am going to contradict myself and say that having a basic understanding of Kant and Schopenhauer will be beneficial as they greatly influenced Nietzsche's earlier writing's.

  • Good point. Nietzsche used to be heavily influenced by Schopenhauer, then broke away. Also, much of what he writes seems polemical, so it makes sense to understand what it is he's criticizing. – R. Barzell Sep 30 '15 at 19:45
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    Welcome to Philosophy.SE! Can you say more? What constitutes a "basic understanding?" Having read any particular of their works? Having read the wikipedia pages about them? What specifically did they say that influenced Nietzsche's earlier writings? – James Kingsbery Sep 30 '15 at 20:17
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Philosophy is not so much about results as it is about the process of working through it. Freud and Osho are already mentioned in the comments. They were both fascinated with what is happening inside us. Freud claimed that he did not know anyone that had gone deeper into himself than Nietzsche had. Osho recommended reading of Nietzsche to be digested with lots of meditation, well knowing that leaving your old "truths" hurts and may even lead you to losing contact with the ground on which you are standing. You can never return to where you came from insisting on keeping your old ideas. Any idea might be useful for taking another step in understanding but is a hindrance to go further. If you are aiming for finding out what super-human means you most likely have a long and interesting journey in front of you.

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Most introductions on Nietzsche will deal with this question, usually under the rubric of 'his style', in one way or another, as he can be a confusing read.

Since your asking for some pointers:

You can read Nietzsche across his work on a single topic, e.g. as Derrida does on 'Truth is a woman' in Eperons. Les Styles des Nietzsche (English: Spurs. Nietzsche's Styles)

You can think about where a certain figure/name ('mask') stands for. See for example Deleuze, Nietzsche.

In aphorisms especially, be aware what the text says does not always mean this is the opinion or thought of Nietzsche. He may be speaking ironically, exaggerating, taking one extreme side to counter the other side, etc. Depending on which work of Nietzsche you want to read, most introductions/companions to that work will go into that.

I don't think 'just reading on your own' will get you very far, unless you already have a firm philosophy background already, or is frustrating, or at least won't be much of a learning experience. Try to read for yourself, check out what others say, and reread to see if you think it makes sense. On Nietzsche, there some many perspectives, there's little danger on getting hooked in just one narrow outlook.

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