True Philosophers Can Fly

I have not been able to read much from the works of Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann, but his name does inevitably show up if one tries to engage in a study of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). I have dabbed through pages where Kaufmann will introduce some given piece of Nietzsche’s philosophic work (or dialogue). However, I managed to read through Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy [1], where noticing upon the back a review from Theology Today wrote the book was a “splendid critique of Christianity”, and from another review that the book “will give the sincere Christian believer many headaches.”

However, upon reading through Kaufmann’s analysis of a “positive conception of philosophy” [2], he writes about this notion of “Philosophic Flight” [3]. To provide a proper sketch of Kaufmann’s thesis here, it is best to provide some background understanding

Distorted Image of Reality

Kaufmann opens this section by suggesting that “Philosophy, like poetry, deals with ancient themes: poetry with experiences, philosophy with problems known for centuries. Both must add a new precision of passion” [4]. The intensity of both disciplines, according to Kaufmann, is that they break loose with the conventional; they are the enemy of “habit, custom, and all stereotypes” [5]. Hence, upon looking at the great writers of poetry throughout history – Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Goethe, etc. – we see that their respective use of language is not what we are to expect in terms of their intensity; but, rather, the degree of conviction that is provoked from us. Thus,

the chains of custom drop; the world of our everyday experience is exposed as superficial appearance; the person we had seemed to be and our daily contacts and routines appear as shadows on a screen, without depth; while the poet’s myth reveals reality. [6]

The conventional reality that we are accustomed to as seen in newspaper reports and our own personal experience are like distorted images compared to what can be seen in Shakespeare’s Lear, or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. In a sense then, the world of “the artist” is one that tends to free the public of their “distorted vision” and elevates us from “living death.” However, in what like-minded fashion does philosophy do this for us?  Kaufmann writes:

Philosophy, as Plato and Aristotle said, begins in wonder. This wonder means a dim awareness of the useless talent, some sense that antlikeness is a betrayal. But what are the alternatives? Bacon suggested: being bees or spiders. Some thinkers, like the ant, collect; some, like the spider, spin; some, like the bee, collect, transform by adding of their substance, and create. [7]

However, Kaufmann wishes to change the metaphor here a bit. Suppose further thence Man is like larvae: crawling, wriggling, eating – living in two dimensions. Thus, these sorts of men, tend more so likely to die in this state. Others however, are transformed and take a single flight before they settle down to live as ants. More importantly, “[f]ew become butterflies and revel in their new-found talent, a  delight to all” [8].

Philosophy then to Kaufmann means “liberation from the two dimensions of routine, soaring above the well known, seeing it in new perspectives, arousing wonder and wish to fly. To quote Kaufmann in full on this point:

Philosophy subverts man’s satisfaction with himself, exposes custom as a questionable dream, and offers not so much solutions as a different life. A great deal of philosophy, including truly subtle and ingenious works, was not intended as an edifice for men to live in, safe from sun and wind, but as a challenge: don’t sleep on! there are so many vantage points; they change in flight: what matters is to leave off crawling in the dust.

A philosopher’s insight may be a photograph taken in flight. Those who have never flown think they are wise when nothing that two such pictures are not alike: they contradicted each other; flying is no good; hail unto all that crawls! The history of philosophy is a photo album with snapshots of the life of the spirit. Adherent of a philosophy mistake a few snapshots for the whole life. [9].

Philosophers of Flight

This sets the scene for Kaufmann’s understanding of certain respective philosophical thinkers. This experience of flight however, provokes an interesting question: can it be expressed or communicated? Parmenides for instance gave an attempt in a philosophic poem using the analogy of a chariot leaving the earth. Likewise, Plato sought to respectfully capture the “life of the spirit” found in his dialogues; in some instances “it takes a historian of philosophy to mistake a fleeting perspective for a position.”

However, philosophy at the height of its very best is quite helpful in its offer of truth an its invitation to a new way of life, though it does not give us all of the truth. Thus,

[t]he great philosopher generally captures something of his wonder; he communicates his own experience how the seemingly familiar appears differently from new perspectives; and he infuses the delight of his flight into his suggestions for a new map. [10]



  • [1] Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Princeton University Press: 1958)
  • [2] Ibid., xxi
  • [3] Ibid., p. 9
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 10
  • [10] Ibid.

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