- How Americans Have Received Nietzsche and Heidegger and Why It Matters
The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom's 1987 bestseller that signified the culture wars unlike any other book, blamed the sorry state of American higher education on a "Nietzscheanized-Heideggerianized Left" that arose from the 1960s. With his careful if eclectic reading of Nietzsche, and with his seventy-page chapter titled "From Socrates' Apology to Heidegger's Rektoratsrede," Bloom, a conservative University of Chicago philosopher who specialized in Plato and Rousseau, clearly assumed that the works of German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) mattered to American social thought. In this he was not alone.
From a diametrically opposite political and philosophical perspective, Richard Rorty also recognized Nietzsche and Heidegger as formidable influences on the American mind. As the person most responsible for rehabilitating American pragmatism for late twentieth-century readers, Rorty lumped John Dewey and William James together with Nietzsche, whom he called the "Prophet of Diversity," crediting them with ushering in more flexible, cosmopolitan ways of thinking. Even surer of Heidegger's place in America, in 1995 Rorty exclaimed: "It's clear that we won't be able to write the intellectual history of this century without reading Heidegger." Musing about his own intellectual history, Rorty wrote, "When I began to think that analytical philosophy was not as wonderful as I had first imagined, I began to teach Nietzsche and Heidegger" (Woessner, p. 214).
A wide assortment of twentieth-century Americans voraciously read Nietzsche and Heidegger. This is perplexing, at least on the surface. As Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen points out in her exquisitely written American Nietzsche, when reading Nietzsche became the vogue in early twentieth-century America, [End Page 122] observers noticed incongruities from the outset: "What is the philosophy of an anti-Christian, antidemocratic madman doing in a culture like ours?"
(Ratner-Rosenhagen, p. 22). Martin Woessner similarly highlights Heidegger's "surprising legacy" in his impressively argued book, Heidegger in America: "At the heart of this story is a paradox: how could a philosopher so suspicious of the very process of intellectual popularization become one of its most easily recognizable exemplars?" (Woessner, p. 3). And this paradox is nothing compared to the ironies that abound from the fact that Heidegger, so modish in America, was a committed Nazi and America hater! But beyond addressing these obvious incongruities, Ratner-Rosenhagen and Woessner also make evident that the "surprising legacy" of Nietzsche and Heidegger is perhaps not so surprising after all.
The key to understanding the American reception of Nietzsche and Heidegger is understanding America. Such is the logic, at least, of reception history, a compelling branch of intellectual history that analyzes how ideas morph when moving from one context to the next, such as from Germany to the U.S., or from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. 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" (Ratner-Rosenhagen, p. 23). 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" (Ratner-Rosenhagen, p. 27). 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" (Woessner, p. 2).
What does the American reception of Nietzsche and Heidegger tell us about America? In short, encounters with these two philosophers were encounters with American...