We Philosophers

Constantine Sandis
5 min readApr 25, 2019

Friedrich Nietzsche described his books Human, All Too Human and Thus Spoke Zarathustra as ‘a book for free spirits’ and ‘A Book for All and None’, respectively. What did he mean by this? A clue may be found in his uses of ‘we’ to pick out — and where necessary create– the groups to which he belongs:

‘we northeners’ (Beyond Good and Evil § 48); ‘we free spirits’ (BGE § 61); ‘we first born of the twentieth century’ (BGE § 214); ‘We scholars’ (BGE § 204); ‘We artists’ (The Gay Science § 59); ‘we [good] Europeans’ (GS § 352, BGE Preface); ‘we incomprehensible ones’ (GS § 371); ‘we modern men’ (GS § 375); ‘we new philosophers’ (Will to Power § 988); ‘we philosophers of the present and the future’ (WTP § 1034); ‘we pagans in faith’ (WTP § 1034).

Nietzsche’s uses of ‘we’ are expressive not only of the time and place in which he is writing, but also of his intellectual pre-occupations and ambitions. As such, it is never entirely clear when he is inviting the sympathetic reader who identifies as free, modern, and new to join him in his quest, and when he is simply telling his readers about his own kind (the 20th century European man). His writings are in principle for all, but in practice most probably for none, not least because Nietzsche is pessimistic about the likelihood of being understood by anyone in his lifetime. By the time of his last book, 1888’s autobiographical Ecce Homo, the first personal plural has given way to an ‘I’ that bombastically proclaims to be incredibly wise, clever, and a destiny, though this is arguably at least in part a parody of Wagner’s autobiography My Life(completed eight years earlier).

Uses of ‘we’ typically contrast with a ‘they’ that is at the very least implied. Nietzsche’s ‘others’ explicitly include the following sets of people:

‘the Greeks’ (GS §§ 155, 356; BGE § 260), ‘savage tribes’ (GS § 147), ‘these English [men]’ (BGE §§ 252), ‘the Celts’ (BGE §48), ‘The Chinese’ (BGE §§ 267), ‘’the Jesuits’ (BGE §§ 48), democrats (BGE, Preface). ‘the Brahmins (BGE §§ 61)’, ‘the Jews’ (BGE §§ 61, 250), ‘the first Christians’ (Daybreak §§ 72), ‘German middle-class Protestants’ (BGE §§ 58), and, indeed, ‘the German(s)’ (BGE §§ 11,28, 246).

Nietzsche, who spent most of his life stateless (having given up his Prussian citizenship at the age of 24 to work in Switzerland) knows…

Constantine Sandis

Co-founder of Lex Academic & Visiting Professor of Philosophy, University of Hertfordshire.