[Essay] On Prefaces in Kant, Hegel & Nietzsche — Josh Mcloughlin

For Søren Kierkegaard, ‘the preface […] contains things of the utmost importance’.[1] Novalis insists the preface, far from dispensable, constitutes ‘a poetical overture’ containing instructions for ‘the usage of the book’ and the key to its ‘philosophy’.[2] In German critical philosophy, the preface is vitally important. Immanuel Kant, founder of the ‘critical philosophy’, a self-reflexive interrogation of ‘the relation of all cognition to the essential ends of human reason’ that became the enduring question of modern German philosophy, prepared a ‘substantially revised’ preface for the 1787 edition of Critique of Pure Reason.[3] Kant’s successor Georg Hegel, despite his ostensible repudiation of prefaces as ‘inappropriate and counterproductive’, not only repeatedly employs prefaces, but uses the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit to reflect at length on the role of prefaces in philosophical thinking.[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, as Martine Béland notes, wrote ‘more prefaces than books’, and urged his friend Georg Brandes ‘to read all the fresh prefaces’ of his reissued ‘earlier writing’. ‘These prefaces, read in order’, said Nietzsche, ‘may, perhaps, shed some light on me’.[5]

What, then, is a preface? Gérard Genette is the foremost theorist of ‘paratexts’, of which prefaces are a major subtype.[6] For Genette, prefaces are textual ‘thresholds’ containing ‘strategies’ that shape a text’s ‘reception’.[7] Genette echoes Philip Lejeune, for whom a paratext is ‘a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading of the text’.[8] The first function of ‘the authorial preface’ is to ‘ensure that the text is read properly’ by ‘providing […] guidance for reading’—this is what Novalis calls instructions for ‘the usage of the book’.[9] The preface is also deeply ‘concerned with the field (thematic or formal) into which the single work fits’. Accordingly, another key function of the preface is an ‘insistence on the originality’ of its subject. Genette notes the contrast in literature between the ‘classical’ tendency ‘to insist on the traditional nature of its subjects’ and the modern emphasis on all-new subject matter. However, as we will see, the philosophical preface partakes of both modern and classical sensibilities, since its subject remains constant whilst the radical ‘novelty’ of its treatment is perenially ‘insiste[d]’ upon.[10] Whilst useful in highlighting the general importance and some functions of prefaces, Genette does not offer a hermeneutic or means of illuminating the ‘things of utmost importance’ Kierkegaard says they contain.

Frédéric Cossutta, who does examine philosophical prefaces, finds that ‘forewording action[s] […] link […] linguistic and extralinguistic contexts’. Yet, Cossutta’s ‘approche discursive’ does not examine prefaces in relation to ‘the field’ of critical philosophy or the texts they prepend.[11] In 2011, the annual conference of the International Nietzsche Research Group invited papers on ‘Nietzsches Vorreden’. However, as Béland notes, only Paul van Tongeren published his paper, arguing that Nietzsche’s vorreden (prefaces) document his self-discovery and his corpus constitutes a ‘preface to the experiment of a singular life’.[12] Béland extends van Tongeren’s connection between Nietzsche’s prefaces and ‘lived experience’ to argue that Nietzsche encourages his readers to imitate the dramatised version of philosophy staged in the preface. Like Cossutta, van Tongeren and Béland connect prefaces to ‘extralinguistic contexts’, but offer little insight into how Nietzsche’s prefaces relate to other prefaces or the field of critical philosophy. Tellingly, Béland concludes her study by remarking: ‘it is surprising that the prefaces of Nietzsche attract far fewer comments than the books they precede’.[13]

The most important examination of a philosophical preface is Jacques Derrida’s ‘preface about prefaces’ in Dissemination.[14] Derrida’s reading of Hegel’s preface to the Phenomenology seems to match the Genettian schema of prefatory functions.[15] As Derrida shows, Hegel cannot do without the preface, even as he aggressively disavows its use to philosophy, because of Hegel’s need to ‘correct the historical error into which philosophers of both former and latter days have allowed themselves to stray’. The preface, for Derrida, enables the philosopher to ‘enter into conflict with’ their predecessors, just as Genette says the preface ‘insist[s] on the originality’ of the text in relation to other ‘treatments’ on the subject.[16] Jean-Marie Schaeffer seems to echo both Genette and Derrida when he argues that philosophical prefaces engage in the convention of ‘distrust’, juxtaposing the radical or far-sighted author against the narrow-minded orthodoxy of past and present thinking.[17] ‘[T]he preface […] must make the text intelligible’, says Derrida, agreeing with Genette, for whom the preface ‘ensure[s] that the text is read properly’.[18] The philosophical preface, says Derrida, ‘marches out into [the] territory’ of philosophy, just as Genette says the preface situates the text within ‘the field’.[19] Triangulating Genette, Derrida, and Schaeffer, then, we can say that the key functions of the philosophical preface are: preparing the ground for the text by providing ‘guidance’ to the reader and ‘ensur[ing] that the text is read properly’; situating the text in relation to ‘the field’; correcting the ‘errors’ of former and current thinkers; advertising the ‘originality’ of the text; and juxtaposing its author against the orthodoxy of past and present philosophy.

Whilst the study of prefaces has produced important scholarship in other disciplines, those concerned with critical philosophy have not fully examined how different philosophical prefaces relate to one another.[20] A crucial aspect that has gone unnoticed is how the relation of preface to text, wherein the one prepares the ground what follows, expresses the relationship that the critical philosophies of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche present themselves as having with the history and future of philosophy. Kant is the model here, framing the first Critique as a ‘grundlegung[21], a ‘laying of the ground’[22], ‘foundation’,[23] or ‘groundwork’[24] for a perfected ‘future system of metaphysics’.[25] The 1781 preface to the first Critique announces that it was borne of the ‘need to clear and level a ground that was completely overgrown’, and to ‘prepare the field for [metaphysics] by a critique of the organ, namely pure reason itself’.[26] As Gary Hatfield notes, this mentality is ‘characteristic of post-Kantian German thinkers’, who ‘attempt, each in his own way, to rebuild philosophy from the ground up’.[27] As we will see, both Hegel and Nietzsche follow the grundlegung model laid out by Kant’s critical philosophy in general and the prefaces to the first Critique in particular, claiming to ‘rebuild philosophy’ and forecast its future.

How do Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche’s prefaces construct this philosophical history? How do prefaces articulate the grundlegung and sketch the philosophical future? One way to answer these questions is to see the philosophical preface as a ‘crisis’ in and a ‘critique’ of (the history of) philosophy, in the senses of those words theorised by Reinhart Koselleck. The philosophical preface encompasses the two meanings of the Greek krisis noted by Koselleck: it is both an ‘objective crisis’, an assessment of the ‘progress of [philosophy’s] disease’; and a ‘subjective critique’, that is, a pronounced ‘verdict of judgement’ on philosophy’s ‘recovery or death’.[28] To put it another way, the prefaces of critical philosophy simultaneously announce a crisis, the ‘point at which change must come, for better or worse’, and present their critique as the ‘crucial turning point’ in the crisis afflicting philosophy.[29] Philosophical prefaces are crises that, as Koselleck says, ‘both indicate and intensif[y] the end of an epoch’.[30] Michel Foucault echoes Koselleck’s connection between crisis, critique, and ‘epochal change’ when he calls ‘critique’ ‘a means for a future or a truth that it will not know nor happen to be […], an instrument for those who fight, resist, and who no longer want what is’.[31] Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche present their work as inaugurating a crisis in and critique of philosophy, using the preface as a ‘means for a future’ which simultaneously announces and precipitates an ‘epochal change’ in the history of philosophy by laying the groundwork (grundlegung) for a perfected ‘future system’.

Kant and the ‘revolution’ of philosophy

Kant frames his critical philosophy as an ‘epochal change’ in the history of philosophy, an ‘entire revolution’ ‘in the way of thinking’ that is both a point of crisis in and a restorative critique of metaphysics.[32] Guyer and Wood say Kant ‘never cared much about the history of philosophy’.[33] Yet, Kant pointedly locates his critical philosophy firmly within that history. The 1781 to Critique of Pure Reason reflects and descants on historical and contemporary metaphysical systems, proclaiming:

Now after all paths (as we persuade ourselves) have been tried in vain, what rules is tedium and complete indifferentism, the mother of chaos and night in the sciences, but at the same time also the origin, or at least the prelude, of their incipient transformation and enlightenment, when through ill-applied effort they have become ob­scure, confused, and useless.[34]

Here are both aspects of Koselleck’s krisis: an ‘objective crisis’ (a state of ‘chaos and night in the sciences’) and a ‘subjective critique’, a ‘crucial turning point’ that anticipates ‘the origin, or at least the prelude, of their incipient transformation and enlightenment’.[35] Reason, Kant says, ‘will no longer be put off with illusory knowledge’, announcing a point of crisis in the history of philosophy which ‘demands that reason should take on anew the most difficult of all tasks, namely, that of self-knowledge’. Kant seeks to ‘institute a court of justice, by which reason may secure its rightful claims while dismissing all its groundless pretensions’. This ‘court’ is Kant’s text itself for, as he says, ‘this court is none other than the critique of pure reason’.[36] As Koselleck shows, krisis had a powerful ‘juridical meaning’, framing ‘electoral decisions, government resolutions, decisions of war and peace’ in ‘court’.[37] The 1781 preface, then, brings about a crisis in two senses: it announces a ‘turning point’ for philosophy and sets up a ‘court of justice’ to critique it.

Derrida says that correcting the ‘historical errors’ of previous philosophers is central to prefatorial thinking. Likewise Kant, who claims:

I have succeeded in removing all those errors that have so far put reason into dissension with itself in its nonexperi­ential use […]. [T]here cannot be a single metaphysical problem that has not been solved here, or at least to the solution of which the key has not been provided.[38]

Kant goes on to herald a new chapter in the history of philosophy following the crisis his Critique both sets in motion and resolves. ‘In a short time’, according to Kant, and thanks to the ‘unified effort’ of readers, metaphysics will be ‘complete’, such that ‘nothing remains to posterity except to adapt it in a didactic manner to its intentions, yet without being able to add to its content in the least’.[39] If the 1781 preface sketches out the crisis of philosophy and presents the Critique as a grundlegung, that ‘prepare[s] the field’ for a ‘future system’, the 1787 preface goes further, presenting it as an ‘entire revolution’ and situating Kant’s critical philosophy even more pointedly within the history of scientific thought.[40] Tracing a line from Aristotelian logic to contemporary metaphysics, the 1787 preface presents a Kantian ‘revolution in the way of thinking’ that will ‘transform the accepted procedure of metaphysics’ in a way that parallels the great advances in mathematics, natural science and physics.[41] Kant prepares the ground for his ‘revolution’ by first re-diagnosing the crisis in philosophy:

Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing.

Kant sweeps over the history of philosophy ‘up to now’, announcing an ‘objective crisis’: ‘all attempts […] have […] come to nothing’. Then comes the ‘turning point’: ‘Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition’.[42] Kant calls the Critique the ‘preparatory activity necessary for the advancement of metaphysics as a well-grounded science’, forecasting ‘the future system of metaphysics’ more vividly than in the 1781 preface.[43] The 1787 preface, then, is perhaps the originary Foucauldian ‘means for a future’: redoubling the presentation of the critical philosophy as grundlegung, it emphasises the Critique as a turning point in the crisis afflicting philosophy. It diagnoses and corrects the errors of past and present philosophy, advertises a ‘revolution in the way of thinking’, and forecasts a perfected ‘future system’ by presenting critical philosophy as a grundlegung.

Hegel and the ‘completion’ of philosophy

Kant’s model was taken up eagerly by Hegel. The importance of the preface to the Phenomenology is well-attested. Walter Kauffman quotes Rudolf Haym, Herman Glockner, and Herbert Marcuse praising the preface as a ‘masterpiece’ essential to ‘master[ing]’ Hegel.[44] Alexandre Kojève called the preface ‘the key to understanding [Hegel’s] whole system’.[45] Yet, Hegel, as Christopher Johnson notes, expresses his ‘distaste for prefaces’ at every opportunity.[46] In the Phenomenology, Hegel calls the preface a ‘superfluous’ externality—an ‘outwork’, as Derrida puts it—to the text proper.[47] The Phenomenology, like reason itself, Hegel’s preface insists, should stand and unfold itself without the ‘assistance of a prefacing metadiscourse’.[48] In The Science of Logic, Hegel says, ‘in no science is the need to begin with the fact itself, without preliminary reflections, felt more strongly than in the science of logic’. Unlike ‘other science[s]’, logic ‘cannot say what it is in advance’ and ‘only emerge[s] as the final result and completion of its whole treatment’.[49] In the preface to Philosophy of Right, Hegel says that the ‘foreword’ is for ‘external and subjective comments’ only and does not constitute ‘scientific and objective treatment’.[50] Despite this apparent mistrust, however, Hegel’s Phenomenology, long before Derrida’s Dissemination, contains the first ‘preface about prefaces’.[51] Indeed, Hegel anticipates Genette’s schema of prefatory functions:

In the preface to a philosophical work, it is customary for the author to give an explanation— namely, an explanation of his purpose in writing the book, his motivations behind it, and the relations it bears to other previous or contemporary treatments of the same topics.[52]

 Like Kant’s, Hegel’s prefaces situate the text that follows in relation to ‘other efforts’ in order to initiate a crisis in and critique of philosophy. To present his own revolution, Hegel invokes Kant’s, recounting how ‘a long time was needed both to draw attention to the present as such, an attention that was called experience, and to make it interesting and to make it matter’, referring to Kant’s argument that philosophy cannot and should not seek to go ‘beyond the boundaries of possible experience’.[53] After invoking Kant’s ‘revolution’, Hegel inaugurates a fresh krisis of his own:

Now it seems that there is the need for the opposite, that our sense of things is so deeply rooted in the earthly that an equal power is required to elevate it above all that.[54]

Like Kant, Hegel diagnoses a crisis in the ‘the present age’ whilst, at the same time, announcing ‘the prelude’ to a ‘transformation’:[55]

Spirit has shown itself to be so impoverished that it seems to yearn for its refreshment only in the meager feeling of divinity, very much like the wanderer in the desert who longs for a simple drink of water […]. It is not difficult to see that our own epoch is a time of birth and a transition to a new period. Spirit has broken with the previous world of its existence and its ways of thinking.

Directly echoing Kant’s language, Hegel casts his intervention as a ‘revolution’: ‘the beginning of a new spirit’.[56] Hegel provides what Koselleck calls a ‘verdict of judgement’ on the state of philosophy: ‘[formalism] will not disappear until the knowing of absolute actuality has become completely clear about its own nature’. Hegel also announces what Koselleck refers to as the turning point, the ‘epochal change’ that crises precipitate: ‘our own epoch is a time of birth and a transition to a new period’.[57] Following the Kantian model, Hegel presents the Phenomenology as a grundlegung firstly by distancing it from past philosophy:

Nowadays the task before us consists not so much in purifying the individual of the sensuously immediate and in making him into a thinking substance which has itself been subjected to thought it consists instead in doing the very opposite. It consists in actualizing and spiritually animating the universal through the sublation of fixed and determinate thoughts.[58]

Hegel invokes Descartes’s attempt at ‘purifying the individual of the sensuously immediate’ via the cogito before reframing the ‘task before us’ as ‘bringing philosophy nearer to the form of science—to bring it nearer to the goal where it can lay aside the title of love of knowing and be actual knowing’. In this sense Hegel’s preface, like Kant’s, is a Foucauldian ‘means for a future’. Echoing Kant in forecasting a ‘future system’, Hegel’s Phenomenology brings philosophy nearer to its end of ‘actual knowing’ and heralds a time when spirit ‘ripens slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of its previous world’.[59] Derrida misses the mark when he says that ‘Hegel declares the completion of philosophy’.[60] Rather, Hegel’s preface announces a new ‘epoch’. As a grundlegung, the Phenomenology does not ‘complete’ but rather prepares the ground for philosophy. ‘Consciousness’, says Hegel, ‘is approaching the status of science’— but it is not there yet, just as Kant says the first Critique is a means to ‘someday carrying out the plan that criticism prescribes, i.e., in the future system of metaphysics’ but is not yet a perfect ‘system’.[61] Hegel’s preface, then, closely follows the Kantian prefatory model. It announces a crisis in the ‘world’ and its ‘ways of thinking’ and supplies a critique, in the form of the ‘actualizing and spiritually animating the universal’, that would resolve this crisis by laying the ground for a philosophy of the future:

a time when the universality of spirit has grown so much stronger, and, as is fitting, when what is purely singular has correspondingly become even more a matter of indifference, and so too when the universality of spirit now both sticks to its entire breadth and claims all the cultural wealth it has built up.[62]

This forecasted, anticipated ‘when’ becomes Hegel’s refrain as he seeks to ‘supplant’ Kant’s own ‘revolution in the way of thinking’ with the ‘beginning of a new spirit [as] the outcome of a widespread revolution’ of his own.[63]

Nietzsche and the ‘sickness’ of philosophy

Unlike Hegel, Nietzsche stressed the importance of the preface in general and its use in understanding his own work in particular. As van Tongeren notes, Nietzsche wrote ‘new prefaces for almost all his earlier books’, and these prefaces ‘should be read not only in connection with the works they preface but also in relation to each other’.[64] Yet, such a study does not exist. In 1872 Nietzsche sent Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books as a Christmas gift to Cosima Wagner, a collection he urged Erwin Rhode to read because it was a ‘major’ part of his thinking.[65] Nietzsche’s prefaces follow the model established by Kant and developed by Hegel, initiating a crisis in and critique of philosophy to bring about an ‘epochal change’ in the history of philosophy.[66]

Like Kant and Hegel, a key concern of Nietzsche’s vorreden is, as Genette says, ‘to ensure that the text is read properly’. The conclusion to the preface to Daybreak reads: ‘My patient friends […] learn to read me well!’.[67] He encourages readers to ‘first read my earlier writings’ before reading the Genealogy and offers instructions for reading his ‘aphoristic form’: ‘An aphorism honestly coined has not been “deciphered” simply because it has been read through, rather its interpretation must now begin, and for this an art of interpretation is needed’. ‘Ruminating’ is what Nietzsche recommends to cultivate the ‘art’ of interpretation.[68] Like Kant and Hegel, Nietzsche takes care to situate his intervention in the history of philosophy. In the preface to Beyond Good and Evil he frames all previous philosophy as a ‘noble (though childish) ambling and preambling’ to his own thought.[69] He counterposes his work to the ‘Vedanta doctrine in Asia’ and ‘Platonism in Europe’ and relates how he ‘struggle[d] […] with my great teacher Schopenhauer’.[70]

Most importantly, Nietzsche follows Hegel in attempting to ‘supplant’ Kant’s first Critique when he questions the primacy of ‘so-called “experiences”’.[71] In the preface to Daybreak he asks: ‘Why is it that from Plato onwards every philosophical architect in Europe has built in vain?’ before attacking the Kantian ‘answer’ to ‘this question: “because they had all neglected the presupposition for such an undertaking, the testing of foundations, a critique of reason as a whole”’, offering instead ‘the correct answer’: ‘all philosophers were building under the seduction of morality, even Kant’.[72] This invocation of Kant is crucial, and Nietzsche follows Hegel’s lead, announcing his departure from philosophical precedent—from the ‘critique of reason’ no less—order to clear the way his own ‘future system’. Before that is possible, however, Nietzsche, like Kant and Hegel before him, initiates a crisis in and a critique of the present state of philosophy.

Where Kant mobilised the juridical sense of the Greek krisis, Nietzsche invokes its medical meaning, that is, a ‘crucial turning point in a disease’, by framing the crisis in European philosophy as a sickness.[73] In the preface to the Genealogy, Nietzsche condemns ‘the [Platonic] “good”’ with which Europe has been obsessed as ‘a poison, a narcotic’.[74] In the preface to Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche says, ‘as physicians we could ask: “How could such a disease infect Plato?”’.[75] He identifies ‘the last sickness’ as a ‘morality of compassion’ whose ‘symptoms’ have ‘seized even the philosophers and made them sick’.[76] Accordingly, the ‘turning point’ in this disease, the ‘overcoming of sickness’ as Andrew Huddleston puts it, the ‘subjective critique’ that makes sense of resolves the ‘objective crisis’, is framed as a physical restorative: ‘now that [Plato’s error] has been overcome, and Europe breathes a sigh of relief after this nightmare, and at least can enjoy a healthier […] sleep, we, whose task is wakefulness itself’.[77] Nietzsche lays bare the critical prognosis needed to resolve this crisis in health of European philosophy: ‘Let us speak it aloud this new challenge: we need a critique of moral values, for once the value of these values must itself be called into question’, he says, to generate ‘knowledge of a kind that has neither existed up until now nor even been desired’.[78] This is, in effect, Nietzsche’s version of Kant’s ‘revolution in the way of thinking’, a turning point in the history of philosophy—or as Nietzsche puts it, a ‘turn so sharp and disinterested an eye in a better direction’.[79] In the preface to Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche frames his oeuvre as a series of ‘persistent invitation[s] to the overturning of habitual evaluations and valued habits’ once again echoing how Kant positions the first Critique as a ‘revolution’ of thought.[80]

Like Hegel, then, Nietzsche follows Kant in framing his thought as a radical and original ‘epochal change’ in the history of philosophy. ‘So much in contradiction to my environment, age, models origins’, Nietzsche says, and ‘with a completely new set of questions and as it were new eyes’:

I found and ventured a number of answers […] until I finally had a land of my own, a ground of my own, an entire unspoken growing blossoming world, secret gardens as it were, of which no one was permitted an inkling.[81]

Nietzsche also positions his critique as a Foucauldian ‘means for a future’, forecasting a time when ‘free spirits’ can ‘one day exist’: ‘I see them already coming, slowly, slowly’, he says. This future, following a ‘long road’ of ‘convalescence’, leads Europe away from its current sickness and towards a future of ‘certainty and health’, with ‘the great health’ a favourite Nietzschean refrain in The Gay Science and Ecco Homo.[82] Nietzsche’s prefaces, then, encompass the two meanings of the Greek krisis noted by Koselleck: they pronounce an ‘objective crisis’, an assessment of the ‘progress of [philosophy’s] disease’; and offer a ‘subjective critique’, a pronounced ‘verdict of judgement’ on philosophy’s ‘recovery or death’.[83] Like Hegel and Kant, Nietzsche positions his philosophy as a grundlegung, laying the ground for a philosophy of the future.

Conclusion: The history of philosophy as crisis and critique

Prefaces in general and the prefaces of critical philosophy in particular are vitally important, yet further work is needed to uncover their significance to the texts they prepend and the field of critical philosophy more generally. Genette and Lejeune call attention to the importance of prefaces and their basic functions but offer no interpretation of philosophical prefaces as such. Cossuta’s approche discursive, treating the preface primarily as a means of understanding ‘extralinguistic contexts’, fails to see how prefaces connect with texts or, indeed, with other prefaces. Nietzsche’s prefaces have attracted some attention but Béland and van Tongeren are concerned to link the philosophy of Nietzsche’s prefaces to the ‘lived experience’ of author and reader. Derrida remains the most important reader of philosophical prefaces, yet his reading of the preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology mistakenly concludes that Hegel declares ‘the completion of philosophy’. In fact, the preface only goes so far as to announce that ‘consciousness is approaching the status of science’, and the Phenomenology ‘bring[s] science nearer to the goal where it can lay aside the title of love of knowing and be actual knowing’.

This essay has offered a new way to understand the philosophical significance of the prefaces of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche: to read them as both crisis and critique. For Koselleck, ‘crisis’ had ‘demarcated meanings in the spheres of law, medicine, and theology’ of Ancient Greece but ‘since 1780, has become an expression of a new sense of time which both indicated and intensified the end of an epoch’. Perceptions of ‘crisis’, then, are ‘perceptions of […] epochal change’.[84] The prefaces to the critical philosophies of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche construct ‘a sense of time’, a conception of the history of philosophy unfolding in the dyadic interplay of crisis and critique, in order to both ‘indicate’ and ‘intensif[y] the end of an epoch’.

Kant’s first Critique establishes the model by pronouncing a crisis of ‘chaos and night in the sciences’ before offering a ‘critique of pure reason’ as a ‘revolution in the way of thinking’, a grundlegung that paves the way for ‘the future system of metaphysics’.[85] Hegel, despite disavowing the utility of prefatory discourse for serious philosophical reflection, nevertheless follows Kant’s example, inaugurating a fresh crisis by offering a ‘revolution’ of Kant’s ‘revolution,’ that would ‘elevate’ spirit beyond Kantian ‘experience’.[86] Like Kant, Hegel situates his text at a crucial ‘turning point’ in the history of philosophy, a new ‘epoch’ and ‘a time of birth and transition to a new period’. Nietzsche follows suit. But where Kant invokes the juridical meaning of the Greek krisis to present his critique as a ‘court of justice’, Nietzsche summons its medical usage, framing the crisis in philosophy as a ‘poison’, ‘sickness’, and ‘disease’ and his ‘critique of moral values’ as a tonic to restore the ‘great health’ of European philosophy. Like his predecessors, Nietzsche forecasts a philosophy of the future, a time he sees ‘already coming, slowly, slowly’, when ‘free spirits […] one day exist’; and like Hegel seeks to ‘supplant’ the Kantian emphasis on the ‘boundaries of possible experience’. The future, for Nietzsche, is made possible by his grundlegung, a philosophical oeuvre that ‘overturn[s] […] habitual evaluations and valued habits’ and generates ‘knowledge of a kind that has neither existed up until now nor even been desired’.[87]

What Kierkegaard and Novalis claim, then, seems to hold: prefaces do indeed contain ‘things of the utmost importance’. Far from being auxiliary to the texts they prepend, prefaces play a crucial role, laying the groundwork for the future of philosophy by instigating a crisis in and a critique of its history.


Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder and editor of New Critique.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Prefaces and Writing Sampler, trans. Todd Nichol (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 90. As Hugh S. Pyper notes, Kierkegaard’s prefaces are more theological than philosophical; less concerned with the history of philosophy than with eschatology. As such, I do not discuss Kierkegaard’s prefaces here. See: ‘Promising Nothing: Kierkegaard and Stanisław Lem on Prefacing the Unwritten’ in, International Kierkegaard Commentary Volume 9 & 10: Prefaces and Writing Sampler and Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, ed. Robert L. Perkins (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006), 68-85.

[2] Novalis, ‘Philology’ in, Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia: Das Allgemeine Brouillon, trans. and ed. David Wood (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007), 97.

[3] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, ed. and trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 694-695; Guyer and Wood, ‘Introduction’, 1-80, 1; 6. Hereafter: ‘CPR’. On the influence of Kant’s ‘critical philosophy’, see: Sally Sedgwick, ed. The Reception of Kant’s Critical Philosophy: Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[4] Georg Hegel, ‘Preface’ in, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. and ed. Terry Pinkard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 3-48, 4.

[5] Martine Béland, ‘Les préfaces de Nietzsche: invitation à la philosophie comme expérience’, Revue philosophique de la France et de l’étranger, 139 (2014), 495-512, 495n; Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Nietzsche to Georg Brandes, Nice, December 2, 1887’ in, Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Christopher Middleton (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1969), 277-279, 278.

[6] Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 1.

[7] Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2.

[8] Philippe Lejeune, Le Pacte autobiographique (Paris: Seuils, 1975), 45.

[9] Genette, Paratexts, 197; 209.

[10] Genette, Paratexts, 200; 224.

[11] Frédéric Cossutta, ‘La préface en philosophie: une approche discursive’, Argumentation et analyse du discours, 22 (2019) <https://journals.openedition.org/aad/2990> [accessed Jan 11 2020—my translation].

[12] Béland, ‘Les préfaces de Nietzsche’, 495n; Paul van Tongeren, ‘Epilogue: Preface’, Friedrich Nietzsche and European Nihilism (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018), 155-156, 155. This epilogue is, in effect, a translation and summary of van Tongeren, ‘“Ich” bin darin […] ego ipsissimus […], ego ipsissimum”: Nietzsches philosophische Experimente mit der literarischen Form der Vorrede’, Nietzsche-Studien, 41 (2013), 1-16.

[13] Béland, ‘Les préfaces de Nietzsche’, 495; 511.

[14] Genette, Paratexts, 235; Jacques Derrida, ‘Outwork, prefacing’ in, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (London: Athlone Press, 1981), 1-60.

[15] Pyper calls ‘Outwork’ the Derridean version of Genette’s study of the paratextual’. See: ‘Promising Nothing’, 73.

[16] Derrida, ‘Outwork, prefacing’, 19.

[17] Jean-Marie Schaeffer, ‘Note sur la préface philosophique’, Poetique, 69 (1987), 35-44 [my translation].

[18] Derrida, ‘Outwork, prefacing’, 38; Genette, Paratexts, 197.

[19] Derrida, ‘Outwork, prefacing’, 19-20; Genette, Paratexts, 224.

[20] See, for example: Bill Bell, ‘Victorian Paratexts’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 27 (1999), 327-35; Helen Smith and Louise Wilson, eds. Renaissance Paratexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). There havae been several commentaries on Hegel’s preface. See: Richard Schact, ‘A Commentary on the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit’, Philosophical Studies, 23:1 (1973), 1-31; Howard P. Kainz, ‘Hegel’s Characterization of Truth in the Preface to his Phenomenology’, Philosophy Today, 113:3 (1969), 206-213.

[21] On translating ‘grundlegung’, see: Allen W. Wood, ed. and trans. ‘A note on the translation’ in, Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), xiii-xvii.

[22] Martin Heidegger explained grundlegung as the ‘Kantian […] laying of the ground for metaphysics’. See: ‘The Starting Point for the Laying of the Ground for Metaphysics’, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, trans. Richard Taft (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), 3-12, 3.

[23] Guyer and Wood, ‘Introduction’, CPR, 2.

[24] Kant says that ‘reason cannot […] be denied such progress, if it is prepared and secured through better groundwork’; the editorial gloss on ‘groundwork’ is ‘grundlegung’, see: CPR, 655. Kant dwells on ‘well-grounded science’ in a note to the 1781 preface to CPR, see: 100n.

[25] Kant, ‘Preface b’, CPR, 106-124, 119.

[26] Kant, ‘Preface a’, CPR, 99-105, 105; 120

[27] Gary Hatfield, ed. and trans. ‘Introduction’ in, Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Come Forward as Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), ix-xxxiv, ix.

[28] Reinhart Koselleck, ‘Crisis’, trans. Michaela W. Richter, Journal of the History of Ideas, 67:2 (2006), 357-400, 358-361.

[29] Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1988), 104.

[30] Koselleck, ‘Crisis’, 358.

[31] Koselleck, ‘Crisis’, 358; Michel Foucault, ‘What is Critique?’ in, The Politics of Truth, eds. and trans, Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997), 23-82, 25; 35. Michael Foucault, ‘Table ronde du 20 mai 1978’, Dits et Écrits, vol II (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), qt and trans. in Gerald Raunig, ‘What is Critique?: Suspension and Recomposition in Textual and Social Machines’, trans. Aileen Derieg, The Art of Critique, 4 (2008) <https://transversal.at/transversal/0808/raunig/en> [accessed 14 Feb 2020].

[32] Kant, ‘Preface b’, 113; 108.

[33] Guyer and Wood, ‘Introduction’, CPR, 6.

[34] Kant, ‘Preface a’, 99-100.

[35] Koselleck, ‘Crisis’, 358-359.

[36] Kant, Preface a’, 110-111.

[37] Koselleck, ‘Crisis’, 359.

[38] Kant, ‘Preface a’, 101.

[39] Kant, ‘Preface a’, 104-105;

[40] Kant, ‘Preface b’, 113. Kant’s analogy between his ‘revolution’ and ‘the first thoughts of Copernicus’ are highly contested, but there is no need to rehearse them here. For a full discussion, see: Miles Murray, ‘Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’: Toward Rehabilitation of a Concept and Provision of a Framework for the Interpretation of the Critique of Pure Reason’, Kantian Review, 22:4 (2017), 661-681.

[41] Kant, ‘Preface b’, 106-109.

[42] Kant, ‘Preface b’, 110.

[43] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 12, my emphasis; Kant, ‘Preface b’, 119.

[44] Walter Kaufmann, trans. ‘Preface to the Phenomenology’ in Hegel: Reinterpretation, Texts, and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 363-457, 363.

[45] Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, ed. Allan Bloom, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), 144n.

[46] Christopher Johnson, System and Writing in the Philosophy of Jacques Derrida (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 167.

[47] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 3.

[48] Johnson, System and Writing, 167.

[49] Georg Hegel, ‘Introduction’ in, The Science of Logic, trans. George Di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 23-44, 23.

[50] Georg Hegel, ‘Preface’ in, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H.B. Nisbet and ed. Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 9-23, 23.

[51] Genette, Paratexts, 235.

[52] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 3.

[53] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 7; Kant, ‘Preface a’, 99; 102; ‘Preface b’, 111; 112.

[54] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 3.

[55] Kant, ‘Preface a’, 99-100.

[56] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 9.

[57] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 12.

[58] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 12.

[59] René Descartes, Discourse on Method in, Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. John Cottingham and Robert Stoothoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 20-56, 36; Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 12; 9.

[60] Derrida, ‘Outwork, prefacing’, 47; 29.

[61] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 12, my emphasis; Kant, ‘Preface b’, 119.

[62] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 9.

[63] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 9.

[64] Paul van Tongeren, Reinterpreting Modern Culture: An Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philosophy (Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2000), 12.

[65] Michael W. Grenke, ed. and trans., ‘A Gift for Cosima’ in, Friedrich Nietzsche, Prefaces to Unwritten Works (Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2005), 3-11, 3-4.

[66] Koselleck, ‘Crisis’, 358.

[67] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Daybreak: Thoughts on the prejudices of morality, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, eds. Maudmarie Clark and Brian Leiter (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1-6, 5.

[68] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, in On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swense (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1988), 1-33, 6-7.

[69] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Judith Norman, eds. Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 3-4, 3.

[70] Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Beyond Good and Evil, 4; ‘Preface’, Genealogy, 4.

[71] Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Genealogy, 1.

[72] Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Daybreak, 2-3.

[73] Koselleck, Critique and Crisis, 104; Koselleck, ‘Crisis’, 366.

[74] Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Genealogy, 5.

[75] Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Beyond Good and Evil, 4.

[76] Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Genealogy, 4.

[77] Andrew Huddleston, ‘Nietzsche on the health of the soul’, Inquiry, 60:1 (2017), 135-164, 139; Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Beyond Good and Evil, 4.

[78] Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Genealogy, 5.

[79] Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Genealogy, 6.

[80] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Human, All Too Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 5-11, 5; Kant, ‘Preface b’, 108.

[81] Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Genealogy, 2-3.

[82] Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Human, 8-9; Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans, Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1971), 382; Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967), 2. For a full discussion of the importance of the concept of ‘great health’ in Nietzsche, see: John Richardson, Nietzsche’s System (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 137-138.

[83] Koselleck, ‘Crisis’, 358-361.

[84] Koselleck, ‘Crisis’, 358.

[85] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 12, my emphasis; Kant, ‘Preface b’, 119.

[86] Hegel, ‘Preface’, Phenomenology, 7; Kant, ‘Preface a’, 99; 102; ‘Preface b’, 111; 112.

[87] Nietzsche, ‘Preface’, Genealogy, 5.

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