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The American Nietzsche? Fate and Power in Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s Pragmatism

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Essays, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on February 15, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Seth Vannatta of Morgan State University recently coauthored a piece with me on Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The piece appeared in the fall 2016 issue of UMKC Law Review.

Richard Posner is one of the few legal minds to have noticed the affinity between the philosophies of Holmes and Nietzsche. Dr. Vannatta and I hope to expand the circles of interest in this topic.

Our article demonstrates how Holmes’s pragmatism both comports with and departs from Nietzsche’s existentialism. Holmes’s pragmatism shares with Nietzsche’s existentialism a commitment to skepticism, perspectivalism, experiential knowledge, and aesthetics, as well as an abiding awareness of the problematic nature of truth and the fallibility of the human mind.

We suggest that Holmes was familiar with Nietzsche’s writings and that the two thinkers turned away from Christian ethics and glorified the life struggle in distinctly evolutionary terms. Both men celebrated the individual capacity to exercise the will for purposes of personal autonomy, greatness, and creative or aesthetic achievement. Nietzsche, however, did not share Holmes’s belief in the pragmatic potential of meliorism, which marks the distinction between their notions of fate.

The thinking of Nietzsche and Holmes converges in the person of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a manifest influence on both Holmes and Nietzsche and whose thinking on fate and power, inflected as it is by aesthetic pragmatism, shapes our understanding not only of Holmes and Nietzsche in isolation but also of Holmes and Nietzsche as paired, ambitious philosophers concerned about the role of fate and power in human activity.

The article is available for download here in the SSRN database for those who are interested in reading more about this curious relationship between two intellectuals whose ideas shaped society during the 20th century.

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