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Nihilism and the Neoconservatives: Allan Bloom's Encounter with the American Intellectual Right

Hamburger, Jacob

Before he became a national celebrity following the success his 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom hardly considered himself an “intellectual.” Reserving that term for thinkers who engage themselves in the political and cultural controversies of the present, Bloom, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, preferred to think of himself as a teacher of the great ideas of the past. Yet as the the neoconservative intellectual movement emerged as the most vocal source of dissent against the radical student movements of the Sixties, which Bloom despised, he slowly gravitated towards their cause. Bloom’s philosophical concern with nihilism – the inability to recognize authoritative foundations of belief – led him to endorse the views of neoconservatives such as Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and Nathan Glazer that American politics in the late twentieth century had been co-opted by a radicalism that rejected the legitimacy of modernity, capitalism,and liberal democracy. Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind put forward a provocative restatement of such a view as the neoconservatives sought to establish themselves as the intellectual vanguard of the American Right in the late 1980s. As a result, Bloom played a central role in helping neoconservatism form alliances with various other conservative movements in the post-Cold War context. His influence in this regard was apparent in the neoconservative polemics against “political correctness” and “postmodernism” in the early 1990s. This paper begins by highlighting the central convergences between Bloom’s ideas and the intellectual project of the early neoconservative social theorists and culture critics. Next, it examines Bloom’s engagements with the neoconservatives’ growing network of intellectual and political institutions as he began to formulate the arguments of The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom’s bestseller, it argues articulated a way for neoconservatives to reconcile their original project with the conservative mainstream during the last years of the Reagan Presidency. Finally, tracing Bloom’s impact on the “political correctness” controversies of the early 1990s, it attempts to make sense of the shift in the neoconservative rhetoric from the initial project of Bell, Kristol, and Glazer in the 1970s. Bloom’s career serves as a vivid testament to how such shifts are difficult to resist for whoever seeks to step out of the world of philosophy and theory to join the intellectuals’ world of political engagement.

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B.A., Columbia University
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January 25, 2016
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