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“Like Specters in the Present Age”

For Freiburg researchers the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is the link between joint projects that cover a more than 200 years’ long history of ideas

Freiburg, Jul 21, 2021

In 2019 the University of Freiburg dedicated an institute to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) – the only one of its kind in the German speaking area: the Nietzsche Research Center (NFZ) brings together academics from various disciplines on joint projects that reveal the social relevance of the philologist and controversial philosopher. At the University of Freiburg’s Department of Philosophy, Nietzsche represents a hub enabling researchers to enter into a dialog about each other’s focal areas.

The Department of Philosophy is located in Collegiate Building I of the University of Freiburg. Photo: Harald NeumannDas Philosophische Seminar befindet sich im Kollegiengebäude I der Universität Freiburg. Foto: Harald Neumann

Seen as a figure of crisis and upheaval – honored, misinterpreted and feared by many – he remains enigmatic and relevant long since his death: “Friedrich Nietzsche is a central link for many historic as well as contemporary debates. His thoughts, often distorted, continue to affect the 21st century, like specters in the here and now,” says Prof. Dr. Andreas Urs Sommer, who holds the Chair of Cultural Philosophy and is the director of the NFZ. Nietzsche-related research involving many faculties flourishes at the center, Sommer reports.

Several publications such as one about Nietzsche and the Reformation have been completed since the NFZ was founded. A book about Nietzsche’s legacy and another about Nietzsche and French Existentialism are currently being written, and various work groups are engaged on unconventional approaches to the philosopher: for instance, one that is studying participation and Unconditional Basic Income at the Freiburg Institute for Basic Income Studies (FRIBIS) is drawing connections between this and Nietzsche’s concepts of freethinking creativity. For another research team Nietzsche’s fundamental ideas on resentment play an important part in relation to today’s populist body of thought.

“Nietzsche represents a time in which fixed ideas of good and evil began to falter,” says Sommer. Beliefs that Christianity or the Enlightenment had regarded as natural or even God-given could no longer withstand the chaotic and threatening reality of modern life. Society began to debate new values – and they were varied, different and even contradictory. “Nietzsche is so interesting to our present discussions about values because he exemplifies a radical critical way of reflecting on them,” Sommer explains – and these must be considered unconnected from Nietzsche’s own ideals, such as the trials and tribulations associated with the controversial term of ‘Will to Power’.

A tradition in Freiburg: Hermeneutics and Phenomenology

The NFZ started with the involvement of the faculties of philosophy, philology, theology, law and medicine. Economics have since joined too. However an interfaculty relationship is not always essential: “At the Department of Philosophy Nietzsche acts as an interface who productively unites many perspectives and research interests,” says junior professor Dr. Philipp Schwab, director of the department. “On the one hand Nietzsche refers back to the engagement with the classical traditions of the history of philosophy, which is an intense focus of examination in Freiburg. On the other he points towards the 20th and 21st centuries, because he is one of the most prominent interlocutors for  philosophy and science in the attempt to reach an understanding of their own times,” explains the department director.

Schwab’s interests embrace the question of how Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, the prominent minds of classical German philosophy around 1800, shaped the thinking of their successor Nietzsche. The Freiburg traditions of hermeneutics and phenomenology are also in dialogue with Nietzsche, albeit through the lens of another prominent figure: “Martin Heidegger worked on Nietzsche throughout his entire life. In his lectures in Freiburg in the 1930s he went into the question of how philosophy can still position itself if formerly unchanging traditions and beliefs collapse.”

French phenomenology and poststructuralism with representatives such as Paul Ricœur, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida also constantly refer back to Nietzsche, often in a critical engagement with Heidegger’s controversial readings of Nietzsche. This is likewise an essential element of the Freiburg tradition, which examines the crisis-ridden 20th century, and which continues today at the Department of Philosophy, Schwab emphasizes. The professorship in Hermeneutics and Phenomenology, which pools most of this tradition, is currently seeking a new holder.

Studying the transformation of the modern world

A bridge from Nietzsche into the 21st century is formed by Prof. Dr. Oliver Müller, who studies the historic lines of the philosophy of technology. Müller’s current interests focus on ‘transhumanism’, “a half philosophical, half technological-euphoric movement that attempts to completely rebuild humans using biomedical means, to create a being which has set aside the essential features of what it now means to be human,” he explains. This could for example be a creature that has immense intellectual and physical strength, is invulnerable or even undying. Many representatives of the movement see the intellectual roots of its conception of humanity and faith in progress as lying in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. “Yet transhumanist debates in recent years have also increasingly related to Friedrich Nietzsche,” stresses Müller, “think for instance of his concept of the ‘Superman’ – to transcend the human, to outgrow oneself is then willingly construed as a prototranshumanistic program.”

At the NFZ Müller wants to study the role that Nietzsche plays in the different strands of transhumanism, “because there are thoroughly contradictory views of him among experts.” Also this project cannot fail to include an encounter with Heidegger’s work and his engagement with Nietzsche. Like other philosophers, from the 1920s Heidegger began to understand that humans had to turn technology into an object of philosophic reflection. The First World War changed society drastically and gave people the impression that their reality was entirely being subordinated to technology. “They realized that technology was more than just the use of instruments,” Müller states – and therefore it became a new theme in philosophy: “Besides the classical disciplines such as ontology, metaphysics and ethics came the philosophy of technology, which considers how our relationship to ourselves and the world change in a modern technical civilization.” By sharing ideas with his colleagues at the NFZ he wants to investigate how Nietzsche’s Superman figure was taken up and transformed in debate in the 1920s to 1950s, in the search for orientation at a time of existential chaos. This perspective will also contribute to the study of the transformatory processes of the modern world – a focus that networks the divisions of the Department of Philosophy.

In the coming semesters the NFZ aims to present Friedrich Nietzsche increasingly to the public: currently planned is a series of lectures designed to introduce his life and work to the general public, reports Andreas Urs Sommer. “As soon as the pandemic allows it, we want to fill large lecture halls again,” says the NFZ director. So the specters of Nietzsche will continue to make ripples – not just in the present, but also in the near future.

Rimma Gerenstein


Department of Philosophy

In recent years the University of Freiburg’s Department of Philosophy has restructured: today, its key areas include the pre-modern period and the Islamic world, the philosophy of the present and technology, cultural philosophy with a focus on Nietzsche, classical German philosophy and its reception, and the Freiburg traditions in phenomenology and hermeneutics.

Department of Philosophy at the University of Freiburg

Nietzsche Research Center