- American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen
In writing this reception history, Ratner-Rosenhagen depicts a constellation of interpretations of Nietzsche that emerged throughout late nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. In documenting American interpretations of, and engagements with, Nietzsche’s philosophy, she aims to show that Nietzsche’s American readers took up his texts as a means to understand the experience of living in a democratic, pluralist society that lacked the “grounds, or foundations, for modern American thought and culture” (23). But if Americans looked to Nietzsche for a way to understand their lived experience, Nietzsche, in turn, had looked to Emerson. She substantiates the claim that Nietzsche drew heavily on Emerson, and thus on an American intellectual tradition, by examining the marginalia in Nietzsche’s heavy notated copies of Emerson’s texts, evidence of Nietzsche’s engagements with Emerson’s ideas in his notebooks, Nietzsche’s own claim to have read Emerson more than any other philosopher, and comparative analyses of Nietzsche and Emerson by scholars such as George Kateb and Herwig Friedl. The structure of American Nietzsche, then, is this: interpretation of Emerson’s ideas is crucial to Nietzsche’s philosophy, and this accounts for why Nietzsche’s ideas resonated with so many Americans. Central to the book is the claim that ideas about what it means to live in a world that lacked moral certainties crossed and recrossed the Atlantic from nineteenth-century America, to a Germany characterized by decaying aristocratic structures, back to the America of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, transmutating as they moved from one context to another.
Ratner-Rosenhagen shows that Nietzsche took from Emerson a model of philosophy that seeks to comprehend, rather than transcend, everyday experience. Emerson’s influence on Nietzsche resulted, she writes, from his having discovered in Emerson “a new kind of thinker who believed that ontology and epistemology were useful only insofar as they addressed the fundamental question of philosophy: . . . ‘How shall I live?’” (Emerson in Ratner-Rosenhagen, 5). Ratner-Rosenhagen points out that Nietzsche’s conceptions of the will and of power are also part of his Emersonian inheritance. In an early essay written in response to having read Emerson, Nietzsche defined the free will as “nothing but freedom of thought” and argued that it “is only an abstraction indicating the capacity to act consciously; whereas by fate [or power] we understand the principle that we are under the sway of unconscious acts” (Nietzsche in Ratner-Rosenhagen, 14). Nietzsche follows Emerson in claiming that the role of the philosopher is to exercise the free will in order to critique inherited truth claims, and that truth claims take the form of power insofar as they strive (not always successfully) to expand their influence. Crucial to what Nietzsche took from Emerson, according to Ratner-Rosenhagen, was the belief that a relationship exists between free will (in the above sense of the capacity to question) and power (as manifested in religious faith, historical beliefs, physiological [End Page 369] influences, and social and political institutions), and that the role of the philosopher is to determine how they are related (13–17).
Ratner-Rosenhagen differentiates her book from the bulk of reception histories, which, she claims, catalog the reception of an author without asking how the work helps readers understand their world and thus without asking why readers took up a particular text in the first place. American Nietzsche instead seeks to “recapture the lived experience of historical persons” in order to see how their engagement with particular ideas revealed their moral world (24). She interprets evidence that they saw Nietzsche’s challenge to the foundations of all religious, political, philosophical, and cultural authority both as a European event and as simultaneously deconstructing and reconstructing the boundaries between the domestic from the foreign, between what was American and what was European. While they saw his aristocratic radicalism and his master morality as a foreign influence that was a decadent...