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The Boundaries of Intellect

October 18, 1987

I share Jack Miles' concern that the popularity of Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" may have little to do with the book's true merits (The Book Review, Aug. 30). Unfortunately, you may have contributed to the problem somewhat by not exploring why Bloom concentrates on what he calls "The German Connection."

Despite that title, Bloom is more directly concerned with the intellectual movement known as historicism, than he is with nihilism, and his emphasis on modern German philosophy is part of his critique of that academically fashionable movement.

Nietzsche appears, in this book, primarily as a major influence on Max Weber, and it is the dissemination of Weberian historicist principles in a number of academic disciplines--including, most recently, literary scholarship--which most concerns Bloom. Among the tenets of strict historicism are a denial of any transcendence of cultural conditions, and an insistence that intellectual life is determined and limited by the forces at work in any historical culture. Saul Bellow's forward, you recall, takes sharp issue with the first tenet, and Bloom's focusing on the Germanic heritage of this philosophy is a tacit, but brilliant, indictment of the second.

The point is not "German villainy," but the contradiction between historicism's own principles and its wide currency. According to historicism, between German culture and thought of the late-19th and early 20th centuries and American culture of today there is a great, and impassible, gulf fixed. By stressing the philosophy's cultural heritage, Bloom suggests that the distance has been covered by historicism itself.

Historicism can lend intellectual respectability to nihilistic tendencies in any culture; Bloom wants to prevent, if he can, an American historicist counterpart to Heidegger's "Rektoratsrede." Pointing out the inner contradictions in this intellectual movement, as he also does for Freudian thought, is one part of his strategy.

Despite all this, which might have been briefly considered in your piece, I do want to express my appreciation for your own "slightly cranky but enormously stimulating" essay. Bloom, I think, intends to challenge all his readers, especially those who might agree with his choice of targets but not with his reasons for selecting them. Your essay must have helped to make that challenge clearer.


Teaching Fellow

Dept. of English, UCLA

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