A few weeks back, while I was reading Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche, I posted here asking readers to list their favorite reception histories. Thanks to you all for helping put together a very comprehensive list. Today, having just read Martin Woessner’s really smart Heidegger in America, I post again about reception history, this time asking more of a meta-question: Are intellectual history and reception history two words for the same thing? Woessner comes close to making this argument, at least insofar as intellectual history is understood to be the history of thought and the history of thinking, not necessarily the social history of intellectuals.
One thing I noticed about both the arguments of Ratner-Rosenhagen and Woessner: The key to understanding the American reception of Nietzsche and Heidegger is understanding America. Such is the logic, at least, of reception history as they seem to understand it. Reception history for them is about how ideas morph when moving from one context to the next, such as from Germany to the United States, or from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. Their reception history is also interested in how ideas represent culture; how ideas help people cope with culture; how ideas even sometimes remake culture. Ratner-Rosenhagen “argues that confrontations with Nietzsche laid bare a fundamental concern driving modern American thought: namely, the question of the grounds, or foundations, for modern American thought and culture itself.” In other words, she is less interested in Nietzsche, per se, or those intellectuals who fashioned themselves “American Nietzscheans,” and more focused on those “American readers making their way to their views of themselves and their modern America by thinking through, against, and around Nietzsche’s stark challenges.”
Woessner frames his book similarly: “Heidegger’s reception tells us as much—if not more—about the course of American intellectual and cultural history over the past half century as it does about Heidegger himself.” But Woessner takes this a few steps further, in what amounts to an ambitious if not downright grandiose methodological plea. I will quote Woessner extensively to give you a taste of his strong methodological gesture.
“Detailing how Heidegger was (re)made in the U.S.A. will demonstrate how the history of ideas might be reconfigured for a new era.”
“And yet many intellectual historians continue to work as if such messy realities (that texts and contexts go together) do not impinge upon the life of the mind, as if the widest context necessitated by intellectual-historical inquiry is that of an intellectual’s biography. In doing so, they needlessly narrow the scope of the history of ideas when, in truth, intellectual history is relevant to almost all aspects of historical reality.”
“If these assumptions are correct, then it can only be beneficial to view all history of thought in terms of reception history. What the intellectual historian does, fundamentally, is trace networks of reception: he exposes hidden and not-so-hidden influences; he charts legacies of thinkers, books, ideas, discourses, and concepts.”
“All intellectual historians are interested in the fate of ideas as much as their origins, especially since every origin is always already a point of reception itself. Although the dynamics of reception are more noticeable when translation across national or linguistic boundaries occurs, because the distances between the contexts of creation and reception are often greatest in these instances, we should not lose sight of the fact that ideas are always and everywhere caught up in a process of reception.”
“From the moment an idea is expressed, either verbally or in print, it is traveling.”
What do you all make of this? Is it a new way of saying something old? Or is it a stark challenge? I’m genuinely undecided.
* My title is, of course, a riff on James Kloppenberg’s classic article, “Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?”