Afrikan Alexandrovich Spir was born on the 15th of November 1837 near the city of Yelisawetgrad (Elizabethgrad, now Kirovohrad) in that part of the Russian Empire that is now Ukraine. His father, Alexander Alexandrovich Spir, was a doctor and former professor in Moscow. His mother, Helena Arsenowna Spir (née Poulevich), was the daughter of a famous painter. Alexander Spir gave each of his five children – four boys and one girl – names derived from saint-days in the old Greek calendar. Afrikan was named after St. Africanus the martyr of Carthage. From the age of eight Afrikan was educated at military academies, including a naval school at Nikolaijeff, to which he was sent at fourteen and at which he first developed an interest in philosophy. In addition to reading (in a French translation) Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Spir was also strongly influenced by Hume at the time.
He participated in the Crimean War from 1855-56, during which he was twice decorated and made an officer. He inherited his father’s estates after his father’s death in 1852, his final remaining brother, Aristanrch, having died in 1841. In 1861, Spir freed his serfs and gave them land. The next year he left Elizabethgrad for a two year trip to Western Europe. His sister died soon after his return to Russia in 1864. After the death of his mother, he sold his estates and possessions in 1867 and left Russia permanently.
He first went to Leipzig and audited courses there at the same time that Nietzsche was a student, although it does not appear that they met. In 1869 he moved to Tübingen and in 1871 to Stuttgart. In 1872 he married Elizabeth Gatternich and the two had a daughter, Hélène. In Leipzig, Spir befriended the publisher and fellow freemason J.G. Findel, who published most of Spir’s works. His most important book, Denken und Wirklichkeit: Versuch einer Erneuerung der kritischen Philosophie (Thought and Reality: An Attempt at a Renewal of Critical Philosophy) was published in 1873. A second edition, which was the one owned by Nietzsche, was published in 1877.
In 1878 Spir contracted a lung infection. On the advice of his doctor, he moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he spent five years. In 1886 he moved to Geneva. He died there of influenza on March 26, 1890, survived by his wife and daughter. Although he spent most of his life as a philosopher, he never held a university appointment and his writings remained relatively unknown and unrecognized throughout his life.
Lessing, African Spir’s Erkenntnislehre 9-18 (Giessen: Münchow
1900); Karl Schlechta & Anni Anders, Friedrich Nietzsche: Von den
verborgenen Anfängen seines Philosophierens 119-20, 159 (Stuttgart-Bad
Cannstatt: F. Frommann 1962)
Updated 8 Mar. 2011