Walter Kaufmann: The Man Who Saved Heresy

Dale DeBakcsy

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By 1950, American freethought lay in shambles. To declare oneself an atheist was to be, in the public perception, a freedom-hating Soviet and a Nietzsche-spouting Nazi, somehow simultaneously. Its guiding lights wildly misappropriated by totalitarian charlatans, and even its most levelheaded assertions seized upon by a repressive academic and political structure, skepticism stumbled under the almighty eye of McCarthy and the wrath of the neighborhood PTA. Atheism, even when not directly illegal, was intellectually disrespectable. And though the salvation of philosophical atheism was a hard-won group effort, I think it safe to say that it would not have happened so quickly or completely without the efforts of one man: Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann.

Kaufmann was a titan of an academic, the man America sought to explain the battle between Continental existentialism and British positivism as we tentatively found our intellectual feet again amidst the empty clang of Eisenhower prosperity. His translations of Nietzsche, Goethe, and Buber are the standard editions still, a half-century after their publication. And his 1958 Critique of Religion and Philosophy was, for skeptics, the hefty, rigorously philosophical masterwork that filled the lean years between Russell and the New Atheism, the academic tour de force that would serve as inspiration for a new, humanity-oriented but analytically sharp generation of freethinkers.

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