Nietzsche is commonly said to be an aphoristic writer, perhaps the master of the aphorism. Yet it is not clear what is entailed by this stylistic designation or how far it takes us in understanding Nietzsche's thought and writing. It is a mistake to see Nietzsche's writings as exclusively aphoristic, if this is meant to imply that his writings lack philosophical and literary structure. Certainly sections of those books (conveniently numbered and titled) can be regarded as independent aphorisms (if aphorisms are ever independent, a question which must be assessed). In fact the long third essay of The Genealogy of Morals claims to be an interpretation (Auslegung) of just one aphoristic sentence from Zarathustra. Yet Nietzsche does not say that the interpretation of the aphorism is independent of the rest of his thought and writing; and the form of the interpretative essay need not itself be aphoristic. As Nietzsche was himself aware, the aphoristic form is a dangerous temptation. It invites us to classify what we are reading as belonging to a rather minor literary and philosophical genre. We're tempted to suppose that the aphorism is simply an amusement, a playful recreation, perhaps, from the difficult pursuits of science and philosophy which should be expressed in more continuous and systematic forms. The aphorist, it is supposed, is the jesting or satiric counterpart of the thinker. Even if we are inclined to see some philosophical value in individual aphorisms we may find their collection formless and bewildering.

Document Type


Publication Date


Publisher Statement

Copyright © 1984 Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. This article first appeared in Man and World 17, no. 3-4 (September 1984): 399-429. doi:10.1007/bf01250460.

Please note that downloads of the article are for private/personal use only