Julian Young’s Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2010) is, by all accounts, a lively and original take on that great philosopher. It has been enthusiastically and positively reviewed by many respected philosophers, including Jonathan Rée, Brian Leiter, and Bernard Reginster. Unfortunately, it contains a number of passages that are copied from an earlier biography by Curtis Cate. It also claims, in certain places, to present material based on original sources, when in fact it is based on Cate’s version of these sources. A discussion of these matters can be found on this blog in posts by Eric Schliesser, Catarina Dutilh Novaes, and Mohan Matthen. The issue was raised, on this occasion, by two comments of Mark Anderson on an unrelated post by Matthen, and earlier by a critical note by Anderson in the Journal of Nietzsche Studies. (Link below.)
In 1989 the East German borders opened, and researchers descended on the Weimar archives in numbers previously unknown. As a result, Nietzsche biography has enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in the past twenty years. It is therefore troubling that none of the accounts of Nietzsche’s life in English show awareness of such recent work.
Blue goes on to list a number of publications of which Young is unaware, and mistakes made because of this. One example: “Had Young read Thomas Brobjer’s articles on the Domgymnasium and Schulpforta, he would never have said that Nietzsche won his scholarship to the latter because of his performance at school.” A trivial error, no doubt, but indicative of the detail demanded of a biographer. It’s hard to see how a philosopher as wide-ranging as Young could command these biographical sources himself: it is only to be expected that the biographical portions of his book would be derivative.
The problem is that in places Young borrows in unacceptable ways. Some passages are copied virtually word for word from Cate; in other places, summaries that should have been credited to Cate are presented as if they result from original research. These matters are more fully documented in the posts mentioned above, and in comments on those posts, all of which derive directly from Mark Anderson’s brilliant detective work here.
This kind of “borrowing” is unacceptable. Indeed, it amounts to plagiarism. (Think of how any of us would react if a thesis submitted for a PhD contained such transgressions. Or even an undergraduate essay.) We realize and acknowledge that the preponderance of Young’s work is original. But this does not make things right. As Daniel Blue writes:
Young imported two kinds of material from Cate. Obviously, there was the duplication of language, which Anderson has noted and Young has acknowledged. But this was not just a question of stylistics. Cate’s language summed up research and distilled hours spent in the libraries. This labor was Cate’s, and in the process of repeating his words Young implicitly annexed these findings as his own.
Young does not, for his part, deny what Anderson alleges. His explanation (which Blue alludes to above) is that “Over the years, bodies of material, as they moved from notes to notes and drafts to drafts, sometimes lost contact with their sources.” Understandable. But as Blue retorts: “it is the task of the biographer or historian not to forget—to bear witness to what memory has abandoned or suppressed.” Blue acidulously echoes Oscar Wilde in this regard: “[W]e may regretfully accept the loss of an occasional footnote. More difficult to understand is how he could have lost all of them.”
It is very hard to rectify the offence now that Young’s book is already in print. It would seem that at minimum, two measures are needed.
- First, Professor Young should immediately post on-line a full list of passages that are copied from Cate, and acknowledge the provenance of these passages, with a full apology. (Cate passed away some years ago, and thus did not witness the appropriation of his work.)
- Second, translations (apparently some are under way) and any new printings/editions should incorporate full corrections with apologies for the transgressions of the original.
Some might urge more drastic measures: for instance, the withdrawal of the present edition. But perhaps it’s best to leave the rest to Cambridge University Press and Wake Forest University.