American Idol: On Nietzsche in America
With vigor and intelligence American Nietzsche covers a great deal of ground—more than a century of response to the philosopher, from music critic James Huneker and philosopher Josiah Royce to feminist writers Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler. The book concludes with a consideration of how three influential thinkers—Harold Bloom, Richard Rorty and Stanley Cavell—relied on Nietzsche as a way to recover “expressions of antifoundationalism on American native grounds.” Reading Nietzsche brought Bloom and Cavell back to Emerson, and helped Rorty reclaim the pragmatists William James and John Dewey. In each case, Nietzsche was the indispensable lens through which differences were clarified and understanding sharpened. Two terms are basic to Ratner-Rosenhagen’s discussion here. One is foundationalism, which means that for beliefs to be certain they must be underwritten by what Descartes called a “divine guarantee” independent of strictly human perception. The other term, antifoundationalism, means that all beliefs are in principle revisable, that none can have the absolute certainty required by Descartes. “Emersonian antifoundationalism,” Ratner-Rosenhagen writes, “is not a theory, it is a way of thinking and living in a world without foundations.” And she describes “thinking about thinking without foundations” as the principal activity of Emerson and Nietzsche, and of Cavell in his imagining of their dialogues. In the final two pages of the concluding chapter, each term appears no fewer than ten times.
At this point the limits of reception history become hard to ignore. They might be traced to Ratner-Rosenhagen’s distinction between listening and adjudicating. She is a superb listener, but a consequence of her withholding judgment is that Nietzsche’s ideas—and Emerson’s, for that matter—tend to be rendered in broad, formulaic strokes, the principal one being the antithesis of foundationalism and antifoundationalism. But there is a larger problem. From the outset of the book antifoundationalism is ubiquitous but only hurriedly defined—“the denial of universal truth”—and never reflected upon critically. This is especially unfortunate given that the book’s protagonists reflect upon it incessantly. American Nietzsche also seems to misunderstand the nature of the antifoundationalist claim, which, as the literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish rightly noted years ago, is a “thesis about how foundations emerge” and refutes the metaphysical assumption that “foundations do not emerge but simply are, anchoring the universe and thought from a point above history and culture.” In seeming to literalize the metaphorical, Ratner-Rosenhagen would have us believe that we can function in a world of constant flux, without foundations. But there is a basic logical problem here that Emerson identifies in “Circles”: “Yet this incessant movement and progression, which all things partake, could never become sensible to us, but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul. While the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides.”
Logically, we need a foundational principle to grasp the reality of “incessant movement.” Experientially, we always live with foundations, with truths and certainties, as Nietzsche but also Emerson and William James teach us. What counts is how we regard them. These thinkers regard them not as metaphysical but as agreed upon and revisable; above all, they are indispensable to the conduct of ordinary life. “Our experience meanwhile is all shot through with regularities,” James remarks in Pragmatism, where he describes our “tramp and vagrant world, adrift in space.” And he shows that “we let our notions pass for true without attempting to verify. ” In the opening of “Circles” Emerson looks at technological progress as a parade of invented foundations, all of them temporary. Just as there is “no end in nature, but every end is a beginning,” we observe in human history that “new arts destroy the old. See the investment of capital in aqueducts made useless by hydraulics; fortifications, by gun powder; roads and canals, by railways; sails, by steam; steam by electricity.” We can update his list. So there are foundations aplenty; the mistake is to revere them as God-given and here to stay. “Permanence is a word of degrees.”
Nietzsche, as a number of philosophers have argued, retreated from the radical attack on truth in his early essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” (“truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions”), which was a key text for postmodern Nietzscheans like Paul de Man. As Bernard Williams noted, “Repeatedly Nietzsche—the ‘old philologist,’ as he called himself—reminds us that, quite apart from any question about philosophical interpretations, including his own, there are facts to be respected.” And truths to be pursued: Emerson and Nietzsche, ultimately, share Plato’s vision that philosophic inquiry is a heroic enterprise: the bold seeker is on a quest for truths undetectable by slaves to conformity, truths they know will be superseded. “How much truth can a spirit bear, how much truth can a spirit dare,” Nietzsche tells us, is the ultimate “measure of value.”