For a new Bildung: Nietzsche’s critique between education and “spirituality”

1In the context of the critical reception of Nietzsche’s work, the word Bildung has suffered from misuse, lending itself to much confusion. Translated as “culture,” as “education,” or as “training,” [1] the word regularly demonstrates its complexity and leads readers astray. It has often been pointed out that the presence of the word Bildung in Nietzsche’s work is sometimes concealed, yet constant. The word reappears several times in his body of work and not only, as some have often repeated, in its initial phase—where this question admittedly plays an important role. On this point, Walter H. Bruford notes: “It is clear from innumerable references in Nietzsche’s works that the idea of ‘Bildung’ was one of his principal preoccupations at all stages in his life […].” [2]

2We can say that the word Bildung in Nietzsche’s work, while maintaining a certain level of equivocity, seems to refer to the intellectual training of a particular individual. However, we would like to show that the word carries a much deeper meaning that must be clarified. To do so, we will first rely on the definition given by Wilhelm von Humboldt, who greatly influenced Nietzsche’s thinking regarding Bildung. In Humboldt’s work, the question of the term is closely linked to the question of language, which he considers as “the organ of inner being” or even “this being itself.”

3Humboldt defines Bildung as follows:


[W]e mean by this something at the same time higher and more inward, [3] namely the disposition that, from the knowledge and feeling of the entire mental and moral endeavour, pours out harmoniously upon temperament and character.[4]

5In Humboldt’s definition, which places the word Bildung in opposition to Kultur (culture), we note that Bildung seems to deal specifically with the subject’s intimate being, referring to nothing less than their interiority. In this sense, Bildung clearly distinguishes itself from Kultur, which indicates a more general, but also more external, dimension to the subject. On the basis of this nuance that Humboldt gives us, we may put forward the hypothesis that Bildung describes a process requiring the subject to come to terms with the deepest part of themselves. Bildung, describing an inner state, seems to concern not only the acquisition of knowledge, but also a real change of ethos on the level of the individual and their character. In any case, it seems that Bildung, contrary to its more general connotations, concerns the subject’s deeper existence and their spiritual formation, [5] which expands to encompass the entire universe.

6On the basis of this perspective on “spirituality,” we will approach the question of Bildung in Nietzsche’s work. Consequently, this term will be interpreted—in its authentic sense, claimed by Nietzsche himself—as the formation of an individual whose aim is themselves, working at nothing less than their construction of self, as a unique specimen participating in a society. We can then translate Bildung as “elevation (or formation) of the self” (in the last case, only if we use “formation” in its first sense of “the act of giving form” [6]). But in order to comprehend what “the formation of the self” represents within Nietzsche’s philosophy, we should take a moment to place the philosopher’s thinking in this respect in the correct sociocultural context, which first involves Nietzsche’s own education at Schulpforta, then the years spent in the theology department at the University of Bonn, but especially his experience teaching at the University of Basel.

7Nietzsche first studied at Schulpforta, where he was admitted in 1858. The exclusive school was located in the former buildings of the Pforta Monastery, a 12th century Cistercian abbey near Naumburg. “Pforta” has its origins in “porta,” the Latin word for “gate”: it is not insignificant that the school trained many future members of the Prussian ruling class. It was a center of humanist culture: Schlegel, Fichte and Ranke were among its students. The instruction was characterized by this humanist approach, concentrating on the philological study of Antiquity and the classics, but also by spiritual learning associated with the critical tendencies of Lutheranism (so it is no accident that the school produced atheist thinkers).

8At Pforta, each school subject was approached and considered as a complement to the formation of the individual in the education of both his [7] “mind” and “body.” [8]

9The years spent at Pforta were a major influence on Nietzsche’s thinking in the area of “teaching matters,” particularly in the importance he gave—even as late as 1888—to attending a good school and his recognition of the difficulty in instructing oneself if, on the contrary, one attended a bad school. After graduating, Nietzsche studied theology at the University of Bonn, where one of his professors, the philologist Friedrich Richtl, became a true spiritual master for him. In 1868, Richtl recommended Nietzsche for a post at the University of Basel. [9]

10But the “Basel phase” seems to have been traversed by three main fields of tension. The first, combining Wagner’s music and Schopenhauer’s philosophy, should be considered as the birthplace of the work that would become The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. The second, whose aim was to “do away with the bogus form of culture” [Gebildetheit] that Nietzsche took pleasure in defining as a “sham-culture,” established the critical foundation for achieving “the true Bildung.” This critical turn was the subject of the lectures entitled On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, as well as the Unfashionable Observations, in particular “Schopenhauer as Educator.” The third phase’s goal was to incorporate the question of philology into this elimination of “sham-culture,” as Nietzsche considered the discipline the tool enabling the escape from that degenerated state. Here, it is important to stress to what extent his philological training should be considered the fundamental precondition for his critical philosophy. [10]The question of the philological method in Nietzsche’s work then appears as inextricably linked to his critique of Bildung: he seems to apply the philological strategy to the critical interpretation of culture and the world. [11]

11We will now focus on the second horizon of thought among the three just mentioned. This amounts to asking the following question: “In this ‘modern’ context, what is the role played by the institutions that are mandated by the State to instruct ‘new’ individuals?” To answer this question we will first refer to Nietzsche’s lectures On the Future of Our Educational Institutions (Gedanken über die Zukunft unserer Bildungsanstalten), which he wrote in Basel between January 16 and March 23, 1872. Nietzsche invites his readers to enter into the fiction of a dialogue between a philosopher and his disciple, who converse with two other young people; but he also invites those readers to put themselves “in the position of a young student” [12] who has “experienced” something “almost unimaginable” at a time such as the “restless, turbulent” [13] one in which he lived. By drawing on a particular context for the content of his critique, i.e. the Industrial Revolution and the great changes—on both sociocultural and anthropological levels—that came about as a result, Nietzsche starts by characterizing the educational institutions of his time as “institutions for the struggle to survive.” This is first because these institutions were fond of a “Bildung” propped up by the sensation of lack and kept alive through the acknowledgment of generalized misery, but also because gain and profit seemed to be their instructors only goal. Using nature as an infinitely exploitable resource, these institutions and their promoters kept themselves well away from any creativity and extolled the construction of a conformist individual, one easily manipulated and wholly submissive. Nietzsche describes this situation in “Schopenhauer as Educator”:


The occupation with scholarship, when it is not guided and limited by any higher educational maxim, but instead is increasingly unfettered, adhering to the principle “the more the better,” is certainly just as pernicious for the scholar as the economic doctrine of laissez-faire is for the morality of entire nations.[14]

13But Nietzsche’s critique of the “institutions for the struggle to survive” follows two different dynamics: if, on the one hand, he expresses a great fear of seeing the true Bildung supplanted by a culture that is already one based on free-market principles, on the other hand this fear does not turn to despair. Instead, it seeks to motivate the process for creating a new culture capable of training the “new” individuals to become themselves. Incidentally, this question is raised at the beginning of the second Basel lecture when the “honest disciple” of the philosopher in the imaginary dialogue speaks to his master of his discouragement. What interests us here is firstly the philosopher’s response:


[…] “You have said enough, my poor friend,” he said. “I understand you better now, and I should not have spoken such hard words to you before. You are right about everything—except your discouragement. Let me now tell you something that will give you solace.”
“How long do you think today’s schools will persist in the educational practices that weigh so heavily upon you? I make no secret of what I think: Their time is past, their days are numbered. The first man who dares to be completely honest about them will hear his honesty echoing back from a thousand other brave souls. […]”[15]

15Instead of indulging in a pessimistic acknowledgment of the end of culture, which Nietzsche sees as the consequence of the “poverty of spirit in pedagogy” of his time, the philosopher in the dialogue bequeaths the destiny of Bildung to the authenticity of the “philosophers to come,” the adventurers of knowledge: only they will know how to save Bildung from its degenerate state. But what is so degenerate about the instruction given by the teachers in these institutions? What is this tendency that must be subverted? Nietzsche makes it clear in the next part of the dialogue:


There is no true creative talent here, which is to say truly practical men with good new ideas, who know that real genius and correct practice necessarily go together; our plodding practitioners have no good ideas, and thus no correct practice, either.[16]

17This passage raises an especially important question concerning the problem under discussion. For Nietzsche, the teacher must embody a combination of “real genius” and “correct practice.” The “spiritual” formation of the people to come must be placed in the hands of truly practical men, capable of reestablishing the connection between knowledge and existence. [17] Here, Nietzsche resuscitates an idea of knowledge from Antiquity: knowledge should never be an end in itself, and must contribute to nothing less than the self-fulfillment of the subject. But this way of considering learning seems entirely neglected in what Nietzsche calls the “institutions for the struggle to survive.” These establishments, offering institutionalized education, merely preach the gospel of modern times, whose most dazzling symbol is journalism. They therefore promote an education against culture, for the values they teach are not an integral part of the disciplines in this curriculum; consequently, these values are perceived as external to the existence of these institutions.

18From this point on, Nietzsche contrasts these “institutions for the struggle to survive”—where the discourse of the practitioners of information decidedly prevails over the real teachers, intuitive and practical—with those he describes as true “institutions of education,” in which not only a different relationship to “pedagogical matters,” but also a new way of looking at the world and people, must be cultivated. This means forming an individual who is not only in harmony with nature, but who can also let their own originality come forth from inside of it. The subject needs to have the sensation that they are the embodiment of the unity of all natural things, while at the same time feeling the glow of their oneness within nature.

19Placing himself in the tradition of Goethe, Nietzsche therefore responds to his era with a conception of education as “the fundamental idea of culture,” assigning “one single task” to the individual: “to foster the production of philosophers, artists and saints within us and around us, and thereby to work toward the perfection of nature.” [18] Consequently, we understand that the task of dealing with the “matters of Bildung” acquires a privileged value for Nietzsche: it concerns the destiny of the human being and their relationship with other people and the world.

20Such matters are accompanied by the idea that teaching must begin “not with wonder” (as it did before Nietzsche), but rather with “horror.” He then adds: “[N]o one incapable of such a feeling should touch pedagogical matters.” [19] A vision like this recalls one from The Birth of Tragedy where the philosopher laments the coming of homo historicus, who will be responsible for the destruction of the tragic coexistence between Apollo and Dionysus. Horror is interpreted in such a context as a “chaotic primal soup” that is simultaneously dangerous and yet absolutely necessary: Apollo, the symbol of organizing force, must intervene to temper Dionysus who, left to himself and his powers, would only be capable of destruction. In this scenario of the struggles between opposing yet complementary forces, educating oneself means not so much becoming better as feeling the sensation of momentary perfection and trying to hold onto this moment of ecstasy for as long as possible. As an experience that remains partly inexplicable, education is considered by Nietzsche as the process through which a subject surpasses their normal state and reaches a superior one, that part of themselves that resists change. Bildung, in its authentic expression, is therefore primarily the human being’s struggle against their time, against what prevents them from being great at that moment in time.

21We find a similar image in “Schopenhauer as Educator,” a text we may read as a development of the ideas already covered in the Basel Lectures. Here is where Nietzsche defines education as what “transport[s] us beyond ourselves, thereby transporting us once again outside any community of active people,” [20] as a struggle against that which, in culture, fuses us to “what in this age is fashionable.” Like the philosopher, the teacher must be unzeitgemäß, unfashionable, and be capable of acting “out of season,” i.e. despite and against the currents of their day. Such a conception of unfashionableness, as a privileged temporality of an immanent idea of education, invites us to act against the temporality of history and to go beyond it. As something internal to the subject that creates more enduring values and truths, the unfashionable temporality is deeper and more resistant to the needs of time:


If every great human being prefers to be viewed as the true child of his age and, at any rate, suffers more severely and with greater sensitivity from its ailments than do all the lesser human beings, then the struggle of such a great person against his age appears to be nothing but a senseless and destructive struggle against himself. But indeed, it only appears to be so, for in his age he struggles against what prevents him from being great, and for him that simply means: from being free and entirely himself.[21]

23We see that Nietzsche’s critique of Bildung is directed against those who, in the tradition of Hegel, had imprisoned such a question inside a process that alienated the subject: as this process placed what is “true” outside of them, the subject would end up losing themselves in order to carry out the creations of the mind imposed by the dominant culture, i.e. by an agent external to themselves. By opposing the theologization of a state that treats history as sacred and administers the interests of a subject whose oneness is shattered—a subject deprived of their being—the critique of Bildung discovers its true meaning. In the Unfashionable Observations, Nietzsche pursues this line of thinking in his critique of the philosophers who wanted to make history a science, whom he considers guilty of breaking the link between history and life:


[A] brilliant and magnificent star […] has indeed come between them, the constellation has, indeed, been altered – by science, by the demand that history be a science. Today life no longer rules alone and constrains our knowledge of the past: instead, all the boundary markers have been torn down and everything that once was is now collapsing upon the human being. As far back into the past as the process of becoming extends, as far back as infinity, all perspectives have shifted. No past generation ever witnessed an unsurveyable spectacle of the sort now being staged by the science of universal becoming, by history; but, to be sure, it is staging this spectacle with the dangerous audacity of its motto: fiat veritas pereat vita. [22]

25In our view, the critical argumentation of the Unfashionable Observations, which deepens the examination of the themes announced in the Basel Lectures, reveals the profound sense of Nietzsche’s thinking on Bildung. For him, the instruction given in the “institutions for the struggle to survive” is of a “historical” type: as the disciplines are approached from the perspective of the history of ideas, not as themselves, they can hardly be called “instruction” from the point of view of what they can develop within the individual and thereby participate in the fulfillment of their being.

26This idea again affirms the demand that Nietzsche puts forth in the Lectures: the teacher has a duty not only to be a scholar, but also and above all a practical individual.

27The ideal philosopher-teacher is not only someone who—following the example of Schopenhauer—is capable of unlocking a person’s “central strength,” [23] but also someone who knows how to guide that person in order to prevent them from acting in a way that could destroy all the other potential outlying strengths (an idea that relates back to the one previously mentioned from The Birth of Tragedy). “Educating a human being to make them a human being”: for Nietzsche, this is the teacher’s boundless task. The teacher can “transform the entire human being into a solar and planetary system [and] discover the laws of its higher mechanics.” [24] A critique of Bildung like this, at the heart of the young Nietzsche’s concerns, will evolve over the years into that light thought, conceived during his trip to Sorrento, [25] of “teachers teaching themselves.” This conception, which only seems to be a dream, clearly shows that the line of Nietzsche’s thought in the area of “pedagogical matters” remained unbroken.


  • [1]
    Translator’s note: the English translation of the critical edition of Unfashionable Observations also translates it as “cultivation.”
  • [2]
    Walter H. Bruford, The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: “Bildung” from Humboldt to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 164.
  • [3]
    Our italics.
  • [4]
    Wilhelm von Humboldt, On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and Its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, ed. Michael Losonsky, trans. Peter Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 34-35.
  • [5]
    We use the term “spirituality” in a special sense pertaining to the practices a subject may undertake with themselves in order to gain access to the truth of their inner being. We refer to the work done by Pierre Hadot, Michel Foucault, Paul Rabbow, etc.
  • [6]
    Translator’s note: Which is its first sense in English, though occasionally used in philosophical contexts through expressions such as “the formation of the subject.”
  • [7]
    Translator’s note: The school did not become coeducational until 1949.
  • [8]
    Music and gymnastics, in particular, were highly respected practical subjects in the Schulpforta curriculum.
  • [9]
    When he was appointed to the post, Nietzsche confessed to his friend Erwin Rohde: “I am smothered in happiness…” In the same letter Nietzsche defines philology as a “kitchen utensil,” a necessary object for correctly preparing what nourishes our mind. (We may then dare to suggest a metaphor: the utensil of philology should help us cook the concepts that will nourish our knowledge).
  • [10]
    Nietzsche repeatedly insisted on the benefits of philology, especially in the preface to Dawn where he explains that it “teaches how to read well.”
  • [11]
    A question of this kind deserves a fuller exploration, but in the context of this article we will refer the reader to detailed studies on the question such as Carlo Gentili’s essay, Nietzsche (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2001). [Translator’s note: the work seems to have been translated into German and Spanish, but as yet not in English.]
  • [12]
    Friedrich Nietzsche, Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, ed. Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, trans. Damion Searls (New York: New York Review Books, 2015), p. 4.
  • [13]
    Nietzsche is probably talking about himself and the period when he and a group of classmates decided to found a small community comprising individuals who watched over each other while sharing certain tastes in art and literature. We know, in fact, that in 1860, during his time at Pforta, he created a small literary society called Germania with his friends Krug and Pinder. According to the tenets of this society, each of its members had to present a work of some sort to the others once a month; it was apparently through this exercise that Nietzsche discovered Wagner.
  • [14]
    Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” in Unfashionable Observations, trans. Richard T. Gray (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 177.
  • [15]
    Nietzsche, Anti-Education, p. 20-21.
  • [16]
    Nietzsche, Anti-Education, p. 21.
  • [17]
    It would seem that one of the points that Nietzsche develops during these lectures is the need to overcome the disjunction between knowledge and subject that is a concern of philosophers, especially Descartes. While Pierre Hadot dates this separation to the shift from Ancient philosophy to Christianity, Michel Foucault places it with Descartes himself: after him, there was a belief in a subject who, as such, had access to the truth and therefore no longer needed to carry out a transformation within themselves in order to gain access to the truth of their being.
  • [18]
    Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” p. 213. [Translator’s note: the quote preserves the italics from the original text.]
  • [19]
    Nietzsche, Anti-Education, p. 21.
  • [20]
    Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” p. 208.
  • [21]
    Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” p. 194.
  • [22]
    Nietzsche, “On the Utility and Liability of History for Life,” in Unfashionable Observations, p. 109.
  • [23]
    Nietzsche develops this idea of a person’s “central strength” in “Schopenhauer as Educator.” He criticizes two maxims of education that were in fashion at the time: one requiring the teacher to discover their students’ strongest point and then focus all of her or his energy on developing it; the other, on the contrary, demanding that the teacher “draw on and foster all existing abilities [of the student] and bring them into a harmonious relationship.” (“Schopenhauer as Educator,” p. 175)
  • [24]
    Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” p. 176.
  • [25]
    See Paolo d’Iorio, Le Voyage de Nietzsche à Sorrente (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2015) [Nietzsche’s Journey to Sorrento: Genesis of the Philosophy of the Free Spirit, trans. Sylvia Mae Gorelick (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016)].