U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reception History: A New Word for An Old Methodology?*

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?”

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It’s an interesting conceit, that all intellectual history is reception history. Maybe the classic “history of ideas” approach that Arthur Lovejoy popularized can be described as a reception history. That’s sort of what’s going on in Great Chain of Being, no?

    I’m trying to think what a reception history of the Enlightenment would be like. Now, there are definitely reception histories in the Enlightenment: Voltaire’s reception of Newton, and his and Montesquieu’s of England generally; there’s the whole movement as a reception of antiquity (but that can describe Western culture as a whole, too); Paul Hazard emphasized the impact of travel literature in the “crisis of the European conscience”; and there’s Jonathan Israel’s very controversial and dubious depiction of the Enlightenment as the reception of Spinoza. So there are definitely ways you can fit the Enlightenment into the reception framework.

    But if you do, I think you wind up eliding what is properly its own. Reception is part of it, but not all of it. There’s also the dialogue of the philosophes with each other and with their own particular contexts. The Scottish Enlightenment was an attempt to make sense of Scotland’s history and the reasons for the Union of 1707. Can you receive your own history in any meaningful sense? I also have a hard time construing the religious conflicts of the Enlightenment as part of the reception of Christianity. Is that how we’re going to describe the Reformation now? The idea of political economy was invented in the eighteenth century. I wonder what Smith, Turgot, Steuart, et al. were receiving to invent a wholly new way of understanding the world.

    This macrocosmic version of reception, then, I think does both too much or too little to be entirely useful. Too little in the sense that if “intellectual history is relevant to almost all aspects of historical reality,” then intellectual historians already understand that, just as they do that “every origin is always already a point of reception itself.” If it’s merely a new way of describing old methods, it lacks the discrimination and grain to be worthwhile.

    And it does too much in the sense that there are times when something new does show up under the sun. Kant “received” two hundred years (or two millennia, depending on how you frame it) of philosophy. To say his critical project was a response to Descartes and Hume says everything. And it says absolutely nothing. The nothing’s what matters.

    Reception history is important, and it might be helpful for intellectual historians to conceive of what they’re doing as in part reception history. But that said, it must also be said that while reception history is one way of doing intellectual history, it’s hardly the only way.

  2. This is an interesting question. I wonder whether one could answer it as follows: intellectual history includes reception history (the life of an idea in the public mind, which of course must treat the history of that public as well) and the social history of intellectuals (if that refers to the intellectual influence that thinkers have on each other). Intellectual biography, of course, allows an historian to look at both in an integrated fashion. (I had to plug intellectual biography, of course!)

  3. It seems to me that this post connects in interesting ways with Ben’s post. And it helps me to envision some ways in which advocating “intellectual history” rather than “the social history of intellectuals” actually has the effect of bringing that very “social history” — that whole wide vanished world of the past — to vivid life.

    Again, this brings me back to the question of the historian’s duty — our duty to the present and our duty to the past. We can only fulfill our duty to the present if we do right by the people of the past. And that seems to mean — oddly, counterintuitively for this new practitioner of the craft — seeking not to recover lives to make sense of ideas, but to recover ideas to make sense of lives.

  4. “Strong methodological gesture” or no, I think I’m with Martin Woessner. We are indeed always analyzing the movement of ideas between people, and how those movements eventually effect human institutions and practices. In some ways intellectual historians, as a result, always _doing_ print culture. It’s a hazard of the IH subfield. In U.S. history in relation to texts targeted at U.S. audiences, the interesting thing is how ideas cross—or are rejected by—particular social, cultural, and economic classes. There are curbs fences, you might say, around the way those kinds of ideas move. It results in a fascinating, sometimes unsolvable maze. – TL

  5. As Mike O’Connor pointed out to me in an email, Kloppenberg’s title came from William James’s original article: “Pragmatism: A New Word for Some Old Ways of Thinking.” I of course knew this but forgot about it when writing my post up this morning!

    One way to distinguish between a history of ideas and a history of intellectuals might be to distinguish between that which is being historicized. Are the ideas themselves historicized, thus analyzed according to origins and changing context? Or are the intellectuals being historicized, which implies a social history of the person who produced the idea? The former speaks to reception history; the latter more to intellectual biography.

    Both Ratner-Rosenhagen and Woessner also seem to distinguish between the history of “thought” and the history of “thinking,” with the latter having more important implications for reception history. Nietzsche’s “thought,” or his body of written work, has less to do with his American reception than the thinking Americans did with Nietzsche, than the way Americans “felt” or “experienced” reading Nietzsche, some like a “roll in the hay.”

    None of this specifically defines reception history for you Shelly. But that’s sort of the point. I’m not exactly sure how to define it.

  6. Andrew, isn’t the idea to historicize both?

    I write this aware of both how glib this sounds and how difficult this is in practice: to understand both thought and mind as both in motion and in motion in relation to each other as the whole whirligig of “the past” is itself on the move, rolling forward in time. (I suppose another ame for “thinking” might “mind in motion.”)

    Now, as motion goes, I have been spinning my mental wheels all day because of Ben’s post on embodiment — my mind is revving, though at some point I hope I can release the clutch and get it in gear for some cogent writing.

    Anyhow, though, in accordance with Ben’s timely reminder of embodiment, I should make clear that I’m not invoking “mind” as some abstraction of thinking apart from thinkers, but as a descriptor for something like the totality of conceptual presumptions, possibilities and impossibilities available to any person and/or all persons thinking in/from a particular time/place.

    So the “great thinkers” trap (a comment from Ben’s post, but I’m porting it over to here b/c it is apropos here) is no trap at all if we keep in mind (!) that, for the purposes of historical study if not for the purposes of challenging current hierarchies, an “intellectual” is someone who practices intellection — someone who thinks. So that would be pretty much Any Person Who Has Ever Done Any Thinking About Anything At All. Thus all history is, in a general way, the social history of intellectuals. We can’t access all that thinking — it’s gone, unrecorded, unrecoverable. But any text from the past instantiates that thinking, that movement of mind, and serves as a marker on the trail of an idea on the move. And, following Tim, the point of figuring out where the idea goes or doesn’t, where it flies or falls flat, and with whom, gives us a better sense of people’s minds, which, their bodies now being dust, is he only route we have left into their lived experience.

  7. Gah!

    1) Another NAME for “thinking” might be “mind in motion.”
    2) Should have said this: “We can’t access all that thinking…but any text from the past instantiates some of it,” etc. etc.
    3) …THE only route we have left into their lived experience.

    And now you know why I am happy to define “intellectual” as “anyone who thinks” — this definition allows me to include myself in a category from which I might otherwise be excluded if I were being judged on the clarity of thought expressed in this particular comment!

  8. I’m in agreement with you LD. As one of my favorite thinkers, er, minds in motion, Fredric Jameson, famously said: “Always historicize!” And he might also have said: “Historicize everything!” However, for historical projects like books to make any sense, we sometimes have to bracket off our methodologies. And by bracketing, we have to define boundaries, even if these boundaries are invented useful fictions. (Now I’m starting to sound all PoMo which is not my intention.)

  9. Is the elephant in the room the question “Is “reception history” distinctly different than intellectual history and consequently a category that requires identification as such?”
    I think the study of a given idea(s) and how it is received is informative and useful particularly when it moves from one culture to another but I’m not sure it is qualitatively different than studying the genesis and growth of an idea and its many transformations. One example might be the theory of evolution morphing (inaccurately in this case) into “survival of the fittest”. Herbert Spencer’s rendering is a misnomer gone viral and I suspect has had manifold interpretations and misinterpretations as it crossed borders. Would we study this as intellectual history or reception history or more directly is there a useful distinction?

  10. Maybe it goes without saying, but is it possible that the closer alignment (or identity) of reception history and intellectual history is an effect of the transnational turn? That is, the specific image and practice of intellectual history which Woessner is advocating sounds to me fairly characteristic of some of the assumptions of transnational history: imagining the path of ideas as a ceaseless flow, refusing the conventional contextual limits (in this case of biography, in other cases of the nation-state), and keeping an eye out for the contributions of marginalized or “minor” actors (which he says more about elsewhere in the introduction).

    It’s somewhat paradoxical that Woessner’s book is (arguably) a transnational study in national reception, but it’s clear (I think) from the little bits that are available from Google Books that he sees a study of the US reception of Heidegger as a node in a global process of diffusion and valuation of Heidegger’s work. Right after one of the paragraphs you quote, Woessner writes, “Indeed, as [Gilbert] Highet thought, intellectual history as the study of reception is ‘like making a new map, in which we can see distant countries connected by invisible tides, intellectual currents moving in strange paths around the globe'” (5). It seems to me that Woessner is arguing for the identity of reception history and intellectual history because he sees little distinction between a circulation and a reception of ideas (all ideas travel ceaselessly on “strange paths”)–which I think might be considered an insight indebted to the transnational turn.

  11. Andrew, if I may—the question of the “real” John Locke brings this to the fore for me, and I think it’s a historically core inquiry—of the American Founding’s perception of him vs. the “real” John Locke of the Straussians.

    Even if the scholars’ Locke is the true one, a Hobbesian, a radical, a rejector of the natural law tradition of Aquinas and Richard Hooker—not even a Christian, for practical purposes—does it matter?

    The “intellectual history,” of how Locke was transmitted and perhaps transmuted by Trenchard & Gordon’s excerpts and commentaries, and as he was generally received by the Founding era, is the really interesting part of the story. By the time Alexander Hamilton writes of him in “The Farmer Refuted,” John Locke is just one more soldier of the natural law tradition of Aquinas, Suarez, and of course Grotius.

    Strauss, et al., might be correct that Locke is esoterically a Hobbesian, but Hamilton in “Farmer Refuted” explicitly denounces Hobbes. This is the Locke of the Founding, the Locke of history.

    And as a possible twist—major American Founder James Wilson, in his famous Lectures on Law, is happy to take the “exoteric” Locke at his word as a natural lawyer following “the judicious” Rev. Richard Hooker, called the “founder of Anglicanism.”

    Is Wilson fooled by the exoteric Locke who praises the “judicious” Hooker but is up to something more nefarious, or does Wilson purposely ignore the “real” Locke’s Hobbesian agenda to reclaim him for Thomistic natural law and tradition in the eyes of the new American republic?

    Double whammy. I would not sell man’s disingenuousness short in these inquiries.

    These are the fun questions and the challenging ones: I think you’re onto a very live wire here re intellectual history. I’d also point to my recent exchange with Tim Lacy re the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that what started out as a Thomistic document via Jacques Maritain is [in my view] in the process of being mutated into anything but.

  12. @Paul re: the “elephant in the room.” Exactly! This is the point I was hoping to get comments on. If reception history is merely another name for intellectual history, why call it reception history? I think it should probably be considered something narrower, or else the label has no meaning. Which brings me to Andrew’s comments.

    @Andrew: Yes, Woessner situates his book as part of the transnational turn. He wants his book to point the way to fuller understandings of globalization, of the global transmission of ideas. He is explicit about this, and yet, I think time and again he demonstrates the ways in which national contexts matter in the reception of ideas. So we see that national boundaries are porous, but we also see that the ways in which people imagine America is crucial to how they receive Heidegger.

    @Tom: I think you’re right that the ways in which people read, understand, interpret, bring texts to life are often more interesting, more illuminating, than the core documents themselves. Or perhaps always, rather than often. This is certainly he point of reception history, of intellectual history. But people in general, not just historians, should be wary of fundamentalist readings of anything. There’s no such thing as one true text. An author’s intentions matter very little relative to the life of their text.

  13. as has been suggested above, i think it is more just to say that the history of ideas is always at least partly reception history–the same isn’t true, it seems to me, of intellectual history. i would hold out for effective intellectual history as an explanation of *production*, which i think it is hair-splitting to call always-also a reception.

    on the other hand, Martin Jay has a piece in New Literary History that’s something like an anti-contextualization manifesto–he suggests that ideas, texts (although, not all of them), be treated as events, the meaning of which can only be retrospectively established, and indeed is always open. i’m not sure i can entirely endorse this, but it’s a powerful argument that is, i think, entirely compatible with the line of questioning presented here. anyway, worth checking out.

  14. Hello all. I’m a master’s student in a related, yet differing field of study (M.Div.). Recently I’ve been gobbling up books that most of the contributors to this sight have labeled as “Reception History/ Transference Studies.” So far I have read Ratner-Rosenhagen’s “American Nietzsche”, George Cotkin’s “Existential America”, and Francois Cusset’s “French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & CO. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States.” I’m hoping to get my hands on Martin Woessner’s “Heidegger in America” sometime soon when my assigned reading load decreases slightly.

    I’ve noticed that among those authors only Rosenhagen belongs to a faculty that offers a Ph.D.. As a prospective Ph.D. candidate I’m wondering which schools host scholars that fit this particular type of intellectual history. Is it just necessary to apply to standard programs and hope that the dissertation adviser would be open to something along these lines (Wisconsin, Michigan, UC Berkeley, Columbia, Princeton, etc)?

    I’m primarily interested in the flow of ideas across the Atlantic to the U.S. and how they’ve developed and subsequently shaped U.S. intellectual life and culture. (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Barth, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, etc.)

    I apologize for bringing down the qualitative level of dialog. I’ve just been searching rather extensively with minimal results.

  15. Kadin, I’m a PhD student now in a program that hosts a few such scholars, including at least three I can think of who do Transatlantic intellectual history. Look up my email address in my Blogger profile and drop me a line. In the meantime, I’m sure others will weigh in here — and their judgment generally carries more weight than mine. But as a current PhD student, I’d be glad to talk to you about my program.

  16. Kadin: Thanks for your inquiry. Reception history is a branch of intellectual history, and so I think your interests in it would be valued in most PhD granting departments where intellectual historians teach. The obvious choice would be to study with Ratner-Rosenhagen at Wisconsin. But I’m quite sure all of the other institutions you mention would welcome such an approach.

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