Nietzsche's Reading and Knowledge of Philosophy

A Study, Survey and Handbook

by Thomas H. Brobjer (Author)
©2023 Monographs XIV, 264 Pages


Nietzsche read far more widely, and more actively, than he led us to believe. Reading was his most important intellectual stimulus: he lived a very isolated life for most of his career, particularly in the 1880s. Much of what Nietzche thought and wrote, therefore, came in response to his reading.
This book is an in-depth study of Nietzsche’s reading and his knowledge of philosophy and philosophers. It examines his relation to the major European thinkers and Eastern traditions, as well as his knowledge and reading of intellectual women and journals of philosophy.
Author Thomas H. Brobjer has gathered much previously unpublished information about Nietzsche's reading and library, including a great deal about the annotations he made in his books. Nietzsche’s Reading and Knowledge of Philosophy will be useful as a handbook for anyone interested in the philosophical context of Nietzsche’s thought. It will become an important reference work for all those interested in Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Tables
  • Full Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1. Nietzsche’s Reading of and Relation to Classical German Philosophy
  • 1.1 Introduction
  • 1.2 Nietzsche’s View of German Philosophy and German Philosophers as a Group
  • Nietzsche’s Knowledge and Reading of Specific Great German Philosophers
  • 1.3 Rationalist Philosophy: Leibniz
  • 1.4 The Counter-Enlightenment: Hamann, Jacobi and Herder
  • 1.5 German Idealistic Philosophy: Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Herbart
  • 1.6 “Religious” and “Materialistic” Philosophy: Schleiermacher, Marx and Feuerbach
  • 2. Nietzsche’s Reading of and Relation to British Philosophy
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2 Nietzsche’s Knowledge of the English Language
  • 2.3 Secondary Sources for Nietzsche’s Knowledge of British Philosophy
  • Nietzsche’s Reading and Knowledge of Individual British Philosophers
  • 2.4 Bacon
  • 2.5 Hobbes
  • 2.6 Locke
  • 2.7 Hume
  • 2.8 Nietzsche’s Relation to British Utilitarianism and Utilitarians
  • 2.9 Bentham
  • 2.10 Mill
  • 2.11 Spencer
  • 2.12 Bain
  • 2.13 Hartley
  • 2.14 Bagehot
  • 2.15 Carlyle
  • 2.16 Coleridge
  • 3. Nietzsche’s Reading of and Relation to French Philosophy
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 Nietzsche’s Knowledge of the French Language and Reading of French Books
  • Nietzsche’s Reading of the French Moralists and Related Thinkers, 1876–1883
  • 3.3 La Rochefoucauld
  • 3.4 Vauvenargues
  • 3.5 Chamfort
  • 3.6 La Bruyère
  • 3.7 Fontenelle
  • 3.8 Stendhal
  • Further Reading of French Philosophers, 1876–1883
  • 3.9 Diderot
  • 3.10 Helvétius
  • 3.11 Charron
  • 3.12 Montaigne
  • 3.13 Voltaire
  • 3.14 Pascal
  • 3.15 Comte
  • 3.16 Descartes
  • 3.17 Montesquieu
  • 3.18 Rousseau
  • 3.19 Other French Writers
  • 3.20 Contemporary French Philosophy
  • Nietzsche’s Reading of Representatives of the School of Idealistic Evolution
  • Nietzsche’s Reading of the Second-Generation French Positivists
  • 4. Nietzsche’s Reading of and Relation to Eastern Philosophy
  • 4.1 Nietzsche’s Reading of and about Eastern (Indian) Philosophy
  • 4.2 Nietzsche’s Reading about Chinese and Japanese Philosophy and Culture
  • 5. Nietzsche’s Reading of and Relation to Women Writers and Feminism
  • 5.1 Sources of and Influences on Nietzsche’s Views of Women and Feminism
  • 6. Nietzsche’s Reading of Journals of Philosophy
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.2 Nietzsche’s Reading of Philosophical Journals
  • 6.3 Nietzsche’s Probable Reading of Other Philosophical Journals
  • 6.4 Further Philosophical Journals
  • Bibliography


Nietzsche was not only an unusually original thinker, he was also a thinker who read and responded to and extensively used contemporary and historical thinkers’ views, ideas and values. A large number of interpretations of Nietzsche’s philosophy are published every year in the form of books and articles. But there has been a shortage of studies that show how Nietzsche worked and thought. Studies that discuss what questions and thinkers he responded to and by which and whom of them he was influenced. A few such studies have been published, mainly in German, but they all deal with specific questions, thinkers or books. Studies of the context of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and especially of his reading, are essential for a correct understanding of his thought and to avoid anachronistic readings. Nietzsche did not think in a vacuum. The present study aims to fill this gap by summarizing many years of work on his library and about his reading generally, and by collecting all we know about the philosophical influences on him. He certainly read much more than he led us to believe, and this reading often constituted the starting point for, or counterpoint to, much of his own thought and writing. Nietzsche attempted to present an alternative way of thought and values to that of most of European philosophy, but he did so by being in a continual dialogue with this tradition.

This study contains much previously unpublished information about Nietzsche’s reading and library, including a great deal about the annotations he made in his books. This book has been written so as to be useful as a handbook for anyone interested in the philosophical context of, and the influences on, Nietzsche’s thought. Hopefully it can constitute an important reference work in the form of a study-and research tool for those who are interested in Nietzsche’s philosophy.

This book can be regarded as a late companion volume to my Nietzsche’s Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography (2008). That volume followed Nietzsche’s life and reading. This present study looks instead on Nietzsche, so to speak, from the outside, and discusses his reading and knowledge of philosophy and philosophers, by examining his relation to the major European thinkers, to the major eastern traditions as well as his knowledge and reading of intellectual women and journals of philosophy. This book is thus more of a handbook, where one can go to find out what was Nietzsche’s relation to and what he had read by, for example, Hegel, Voltaire, Hume or Comte.

Nietzsche read much more, and more actively, than he led us to believe. Reading was the most important intellectual stimulus for Nietzsche, whom for most of his career, and especially in the 1880s, lived a very isolated life. Much of what he thought and wrote was done in response to reading. Nietzsche read few women, and even fewer women were regarded as philosophers in and before the nineteenth century. However, most of the women Nietzsche read were “modern” women, and several of them such as George Sand, Madame de Staël, George Eliot (the translator of D. Strauss’ The Life of Jesus) and Lou Salomé can be regarded as contributors to philosophy. I discuss Nietzsche’s reading and relation to them in Chapter 5. Nietzsche’s reading of journals has not been examined at all and was more limited, but nonetheless more extensive than has so far been recognized. In this study, I for the first time have examined the extent of his reading of philosophical journals, and show that not only did he read several of them (he even published an until recently unidentified short autobiographical note in Philosophische Monatshefte which I found and was able to identify), but also that his thought in many respects was more “timely” than is commonly assumed when compared to what themes were discussed in philosophical journals. Examining Nietzsche’s reading of these journals places us right into the middle of the nineteenth-century philosophical context.

KSA is the conventional abbreviation for Friedrich Nietzsche: Kritische Studienausgabe, 15 volumes, edited by G. Colli and M. Montinari (1967ff., 1980). Volume 14 is a commentary volume. KSB is the abbreviation for the corresponding eight volumes of Nietzsche’s letters, by the same editors. These letters have not been translated into English, except a small selection by Christopher Middleton, in Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche (Cambridge, 1969, 1996). I refer to Nietzsche’s letters by recipient and date, which makes them easy to identify, as they are published in chronological order in KSB. Letters to Nietzsche have been published in the larger bound edition, KGB (Friedrich Nietzsche: Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Briefe). KSA does not contain Nietzsche’s writings before he became a professor at Basel in 1869. This material has been published in KGW, section I, volumes 1-5 (i.e. Friedrich Nietzsche: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, also initiated by G. Colli and M. Montinari). This material had earlier been published in Friedrich Nietzsche: Frühe Schriften (München, C.H. Beck’sche Verlag, 1933-1940, reprinted 1994), 5 volumes, abbreviated BAW (followed by volume and page numbers). A concordance between the pages of the KSA-volumes and the later KGW-volumes is included in KSA 15. However, since the identifying numbers, e.g. 5[171], are the same in both versions, it is generally easy to find any KSA reference in KGW.

This handbook contains revised versions of several of my texts that have previously been published, but which are not easily available. Chapter 1 contains a revised version of “Nietzsche as German Philosopher: His Reading of the Classical German Philosophers” in Nietzsche and the German Tradition, ed. Nicholas Martin (Peter Lang, Oxford, 2003), 39-82. Chapter 2 contains a revised version of chapter 2 of my study Nietzsche and the “English”The Influence of British and American Thinking on His Philosophy (2008, Humanity Books, Prometheus Books, now Rowman and Littlefield, all rights reserved). Chapter 4 contains revised versions of two articles, “Nietzsche’s Reading about China and Japan”, Nietzsche-Studien 34 (2005), 329-336 and “Nietzsche’s Reading about Indian Philosophy”, Journal of Nietzsche Studies 28 (Autumn 2004), 3-36.


Nietzsche’s Reading of and Relation to Classical German Philosophy

1. Introduction

2. German Philosophers as a Group

3. Leibniz

4. Hamann, Jacobi and Herder

5. Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Herbart

6. Schleiermacher, Marx and Feuerbach


Nietzsche’s final view of the more important of the classical German philosophers is expressed in Ecce Homo: “In the history of knowledge the Germans are represented by nothing but ambiguous names, they have ever produced only ‘unconscious’ counterfeiters (– Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Schleiermacher deserve this description as well as Kant and Leibniz; they are all mere Schleiermacher, mere veilmakers – )”.

In this chapter I will examine what lies behind this outright rejection of them and more extensively discuss and emphasize the evidence we have of what Nietzsche had read by, and to a lesser extent about, them. This has received little attention but is important both for understanding the reasons for his rejection and critique of them, as well as for judging the seriousness and depth of his views. I will also discuss his first impression of them, which in almost all cases was much more positive than his later, better-known, views. Surprisingly, no overall investigation of this type seems to have been carried out previously.

Nietzsche’s knowledge of and relation to German philosophers can be divided into three groups: first, the classical German philosophers whom he referred to as “German philosophers” and whom the middle and late Nietzsche criticized severely for being metaphysicians and essentially Christians; second, a disparate group of thinkers and philosophers whom he read but rarely referred to; and finally, the “implicit” group of German philosophers whom he neither read nor referred to, such as Wolff, Mendelsohn, Jacobi and, of course, many others.

The second group includes German thinkers whom Nietzsche praised but did not refer to as philosophers, such as Lichtenberg and Lessing; a group of philosophers whom he criticized but rarely read and seldom mentioned individually, the materialists; and a disparate group of mostly contemporary philosophers whom he read intensively, but rarely, if ever, mentioned in the published works, such as Lange, Liebmann, Dühring, Mainländer, Hartmann, Bahnsen and Teichmüller, discussed in my book Nietzsche’s Philosophical Context.

In this chapter I will discuss Nietzsche’s view of, relation to and reading of the classical German philosophers Leibniz, Hamann, Jacobi, Herder, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Herbart, Schleiermacher, Marx and Feuerbach.1 His relation to these thinkers is often discussed or mentioned, and some of them, like Feuerbach, may have been important for his intellectual development, but the majority were probably of little direct importance for him. Nonetheless, they constitute an important background to German philosophy in the second half of the nineteenth century generally, and to Nietzsche’s thought, and he referred to them relatively frequently.

It can be argued that Nietzsche should not be regarded as a German philosopher at all. First, at the age of 24 he “resigned” his Prussian citizenship and thereafter remained stateless for the rest of his life. Second, the strongest early philosophical influences on him were not German but Greek and American, in the form of Plato (and other ancient Greeks) and Emerson. He was for a time strongly influenced by Schopenhauer and Kant, but he later rejected this influence, while this was not so for the influence of Emerson and the Greeks. Third, he never even mentioned a number of important German philosophers, such as Wolff, Mendelsohn, Thomasius and Jacobi, and he apparently did not read anything at all, or only very limited amounts, of Leibniz, Fichte, Schelling, Herbart and others. Fourth, Nietzsche himself did not want to be a German philosopher. He was the most anti-German of all German philosophers and suggested “German” as a new four-letter word suitable when something was very superficial.2 He claimed that it would be easier to translate his books into French than into German, and he regarded himself as a good European.

However, his criticism notwithstanding, Nietzsche was a German philosopher, who spoke and wrote in German and lived in a German cultural climate. This becomes evident when one looks at his thought at closer range. Nietzsche was immensely concerned about German culture. This is reflected in the fact that German and Germany are two of the most frequently occurring words in his writings, and that he wrote chapters entitled “What the Germans Lack” and planned to write whole books on this theme. It is true that his first close encounter with philosophy seems to have been through Emerson and Plato rather than through German philosophers, but before long he came under the strong influence of Schopenhauer, Kant and Lange. Furthermore, criticism of or lack of interest in the great German philosophers was more the norm than the exception among professional philosophers in the second half of the nineteenth century.

That the young Nietzsche had a relatively limited knowledge of philosophy is confirmed when we examine his reading. His reading was very much more extensive in the fields of classical philology and literature, including literary criticism, than in philosophy. The word “philosophy” or “philosopher” does not occur in Nietzsche’s letters at all before he turned 20, and in no relevant sense until after his discovery of Schopenhauer. Furthermore, when one examines the journals Nietzsche read, one finds that journals in philology, literature, music and general culture each outnumber the philosophy journals (which we will discuss in the last chapter of this study). Moreover, the only classical German philosopher in Nietzsche’s library today is Schopenhauer (although he once also possessed at least a few works by other classical German philosophers, as I will indicate below).

One should thus beware of assuming, ab initio, that Nietzsche had a close knowledge and first-hand experience of the great German philosophers. On the other hand, the Zeitgeist during the second half of the nineteenth century was so saturated with metaphysical philosophy and the ideas of the great German philosophers that, even without first-hand reading, a German student or intellectual would have been familiar with them.

Nietzsche’s View of German Philosophy and German Philosophers as a Group

Nietzsche’s repeated vehement criticisms of German philosophy and the great German philosophers – with such statements as “German philosophy is at bottom – a cunning theology”3 and “the erring instinct in all and everything, anti-naturalness as instinct, German décadence as philosophy”4 – can easily lead one to the impression that he was both well informed about German philosophy and philosophers, and consistently hostile to them. This, however, is far from correct.

The early Nietzsche had a positive view of German philosophy, based mainly on his high regard for Kant and Schopenhauer, but also influenced by Wagner and, through him, German nationalism (which even led him to hold a positive view of the Reformation and Luther). At this time, he associated German philosophy with German music and with Greek antiquity, including tragedy. German philosophy (Kant) had shown the limits of science and thus enabled us to curb Socratic optimism and scientism.5 In his most optimistic moods, Nietzsche saw a possibility for the birth of a new tragic age in Germany.6 However, in general he said relatively little about German philosophy and philosophers, and his statements were, on the whole, mild, suggesting that he was not particularly involved with German philosophy at the time.


XIV, 264
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (May)
Nietzsche’s reading library knowledge of philosophy German philosophy British philosophy French philosophy Eastern philosophy Journals of philosophy Women writers Thomas H. Brobjer Nietzsche’s Reading and Knowledge of Philosophy A Study, Survey and Handbook
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. XIV, 264 pp., 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Thomas H. Brobjer (Author)

Thomas H. Brobjer is a professor in the Department of History of Ideas at Uppsala University, Sweden. He has written several books on Nietzsche: Nietzsche’s Ethics of Character (1995), Nietzsche and the 'English': The Influence of British and American Thinking on His Philosophy (2008), Nietzsche's Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography (2008) and Nietzsche’s ‘Ecce Homo’ and the Revaluation of All Values (2021). He has also written a large number of articles on different aspects of Nietzsche’s thought and on influences on him, especially emphasizing Nietzsche’s reading and library. Together with Gregory Moore he is editor of Nietzsche and Science (2004). He is presently working on different aspects of the late Nietzsche’s thought and his books from 1888, as well as continuing studying many aspects of Nietzsche’s reading.


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