If you haven’t yet read James Livingston’s JAH review of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche, well, what are you waiting for? Here’s a snippet from the introductory paragraph: “This book could rehabilitate the project of intellectual history, which, notwithstanding its recent resurgence—as witness the recent founding of the journal Modern Intellectual History and its flamboyant other, the Society for U.S. Intellectual History—has lately suffered from its understandable urge to interpret the big ideas of famous or influential intellectuals, a small, typically neurotic, and unenviable slice of modern industrial society.”
You might also be interested in my Reviews in American History essay that looks at both American Nietzsche and Martin Woessner’s Heidegger in America: “How Americans Have Received Nietzsche and Heidegger and Why It Matters.”
I liberate two paragraphs from behind the paywall:
Although Ratner-Rosenhagen and Woessner approach their subjects in similar fashion—especially in that both argue the thinker whose reception they chart was integrated into American social thought in ways that often bore little relation to his actual philosophy—their methodologies indeed diverge in subtle yet important ways. Ratner-Rosenhagen is invested in the history of how American readers felt when reading Nietzsche. By quoting Janice Radway’s aphorism, “reading is not eating,” Ratner-Rosenhagen makes clear that for her, reading is a transformative means of reception. “What made Nietzsche a genius” to the young radicals of the early twentieth century, those like Goldman, “was that his language enabled the reader to feel his ideas” (Ratner-Rosenhagen, p. 155). Likening it to a “romp in the hay,” these readers “described their experiences of reading Nietzsche as intoxicating, bracing, challenging, ennobling. But most of all, the experience taught them about the value of ideas as an experience, and words as a vital form of action” (p. 166). As Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy: “The existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon.” Reading Nietzsche was an aesthetic phenomenon that gave meaning to life where God no longer could. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s fascinating interlude chapter, “Devotions”—an analysis of the many letters sent to the Nietzsche archive by Nietzsche’s lay American readers, what she calls “American Nietzsche ephemera”—offers primary source evidence to illustrate her thesis. “The letters provide an opportunity, rare for intellectual historians, to enter the moral worlds of general readers and hear their longings, their ideas about ideas, and their concerns about the modern forces undermining American intellectual life” (p. 197). Whereas most reception historians only empower readers by way of theoretical armatures, Ratner-Rosenhagen attributes agency to readers by way of empirical evidence. This is a remarkable accomplishment, not least because it finally upends Henry May’s half-century-old conventional wisdom that Nietzsche was “too alien” to have had much influence on American social thought.
Woessner attempts to show that Heidegger is not strange to America by arguing that it is Heidegger’s “persona most of all that has had such far-reaching influence in American intellectual life” (Woessner, p. 91). Like Ratner-Rosenhagen, Woessner recommends that intellectual historians be “as interested in the history of thinking as the history of thought” (Woessner, p. 89). But whereas Ratner-Rosenhagen is cognizant of the history of thinking as feeling, Woessner makes sense of it as style. “What Heidegger’s students absorbed, after all, was not so much a specific doctrine or dogma, but a methodology that was rooted in a specific philosophical attitude or style” (Woessner, p. 89). Put differently, Heidegger and his acolytes “privileged the arch conception of the philosopher as an exegetical magician: each sought to place philosophy beyond the purview of mass society, thus ensuring that it remained the province of only those who had ears to hear” (Woessner, p. 89). One can see this style in Heidegger’s student Leo Strauss, who loathed Heidegger’s existential grasping for Being, but mimicked his style of reading and teaching texts. A whole school of American political philosophy emerged from this style, as Strauss and his ubiquitous students, including Allan Bloom, taught a generation of conservatives how to read and write texts at two levels: at a low level that laypeople could understand, and at a lofty level that a natural aristocracy fit to govern could comprehend. One can also see the Heideggerian style, to a lesser extent, in Derrida’s “death of the author” deconstruction, where meaning is found in the reading of the text itself, rather than in the context of its production.
If this isn’t enough, stay tuned for our American Nietzsche roundtable in May, which will features essays by Livingston, Corey Robin, Wilfred McClay, and a response from Ratner-Rosenhagen.