Karol Berger

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2011/2012
discipline Philosophy
Professor in Fine Arts at the Department of Music, as well as an affiliated faculty at the Department of German Studies, and an affiliated researcher at the Europe Center

Research project

After Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche


My book will reexamine the interrelated answers that Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche gave to the question of how to fill the cultural vacuum created by the post-1848 collapse of Hegelianism.


The main questions I ask are:


(i) In what sense does Wagner’s evolving outlook between 1848 (when he began to work on Der Ring des Nibelungen) and 1881 (when he completed his work on Parsifal), as well as Nietzsche’s position rapidly developing between 1872 (the year of Die Geburt der Tragödie) and 1888 (the last lucid period before his mental collapse in Turin in the early days of 1889), constitute answers to the challenge of the post-metaphysical cultural vacuum that Nietzsche will eventually designate with the slogan, “God is dead”? My effort here will be to show that, even though the answers eventually arrived at by the two thinkers diverged, Wagner’s point of departure, his diagnosis of the cultural situation of his time, is similar to that later arrived at by Nietzsche. It is precisely because of this common point of departure that their positions can be fruitfully confronted.


(ii) Why should the two outlooks be considered side by side? Here I shall try to demonstrate that Nietzsche’s evolution, from the beginning to the end, was shaped by a continuous, though increasingly imaginary and one-sided, dialogue with Wagner. At the same time, I’ll show that Wagner’s purposes, in particular in Parsifal (the main bone of contention between the two authors), were formulated, and can be seen more sharply, against the background of Nietzsche’s objections. The Wagner-Nietzsche relationship is often trivialized when their conflict is reduced to a purely psycho-biographical dynamic (the younger man trying to emerge from under the shadow of an overpowering father figure; the older megalomaniac turning against an erstwhile disciple once he could no longer be counted on as a propagandist). My purpose is to show that this dynamic hides substantive issues and genuinely irreconcilable differences of outlook and that each author can be understood more fully when confronted with his antagonist.



Karol Berger (Ph.D. Yale 1975) is the Osgood Hooker Professor in Fine Arts at the Department of Music, as well as an affiliated faculty at the Department of German Studies, and an affiliated researcher at the Europe Center. A native of Poland, he has lived in the U.S. since 1968 and taught at Stanford since 1982. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, the Rockfeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study and Conference Center, and Stanford Humanities Center. In 2005-2006, he was the Robert Lehman Visiting Professor at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. He is a foreign member of the Polish Academy of Sciences. 


His Musica Ficta received the 1988 Otto Kinkeldey Award of the American Musicological Society, and his Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow the 2008 Marjorie Weston Emerson Award of the Mozart Society of America. In 2011 he received the Glarean Prize from the Swiss Musicological Society.

Selected publications


Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity, University of California Press, Berkeley - Los Angeles, 2007; paperback, 2008; forthcoming in Polish trans., Gdansk: slowo/obraz terytoria, 2011.


A Theory of Art, Oxford University Press, New York, 2000; paperback, 2002; also available in the Oxford Scholarship Online philosophy series); Polish translation: Potega smaku. Teoria sztuki, trans. Anna Tenczynska, Gdansk: slowo/obraz terytoria, 2008.


Musica Ficta: Theories of Accidental Inflections in Vocal Polyphony from Marchetto da Padova to Gioseffo Zarlino, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987; paperback 2004.


senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM)
discipline Law
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2016/2017
Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM)
discipline History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2013/2014
Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM)
discipline Political Science
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2011/2012
Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM)
discipline Political Science