U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Varieties Of Intellectual Experience: Public, Pseudo, and Occasional Intellectuals

One way of combating past elitism in intellectual history is, with apologies to William James, acknowledging the varieties of intellectual experience. This means, to me, that a particular historical figure need not have consistently engaged in high-level thought to be an object of interest to intellectual historians.

Most past works of U.S. intellectual history have focused on public and private figures, institutions, and books that could in some sense be considered “canonical.” I refuse to dismiss all the historians who did that work, in blanket fashion, as caring only about the elites of U.S. history. Rather, I submit to you that those historians explored, in a considered conservative fashion, what they believed others could not question as topics of inquiry. This is not to deny that race, class, and gender did not factor into those choices, but rather that definitions of what constituted regular intellectual activity affected their work. It seems to me, then, that too much consistency has been sought from historical intellectual agents by intellectual historians.

Those who explore the outliers of intellectual history are sometimes dismissed as focusing on “pseudo-intellectual” activity or pseudo-intellectuals. I have experienced this kind of scorn. In working on Mortimer J. Adler, an historical figure generally disliked by mainline academics and philosophers, this prejudice is present. Of course Adler did not help his cause by regularly dismissing the products of hard-working specialists, experts, and professors. He was his own worst enemy in many ways. But Adler’s popularity, on its own, justifies him for exploration with regard to U.S. intellectual life.

I recall commentary on a journal submission, from around three or four years ago, where a reader called Adler’s activities those of a pseudo-intellectual—as if the topic was as worthy of exploration as that of a charlatan or circus performer. The reader report made the paper, based on the activities of a “pseudo,” seem like something that need not be taken seriously. Why bother? The journal editor certainly didn’t, as the paper was rejected. What the reader and editor forgot, or failed to express, was this: whether or not a pseudo or occasional intellectual always and everywhere performed at a high level, sometimes that historical figure occasionally gains high ground. At the very least, she or he does something that many others consider high-level intellectual activity. Let’s not give in to the temptation to dismiss potential avenues of thought exploration because of other, less consistent exhibitions of intellect in one’s life.

More recently I’ve given a great deal of thought to African-American intellectual life. In teaching a U.S. survey this spring, I’ve had the occasion to discuss Marcus Garvey. His founding of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) caused me to wonder about the potential for an intellectual exploration of Garvey. With that sense of curiosity in hand, I read Eric Arnesen’s review of Colin Grant’s Negro With A Hat with great interest. Arnesen chided Grant in the review for not, in my view, taking Garvey—who I’d call a public occasional thinker—seriously as an agent, or node, of legitimate intellectual activity. Arnesen wrote:

Grant’s Garvey, rarely reflective or introspective, was a “staggeringly incompetent” manager who was also prone to “spectacular fallouts” with former colleagues that generated “unbridled acrimony.” …[Grant] is less attentive to the political ideas and programs animating Garvey and his critics, or the place Garveyism occupies in the broader universe of black protest. Nor does Grant delve too deeply into Garveyism as a social or political movement or its subsequent legacy. Who Garvey’s followers were and what kinds of people were attracted to the UNIA are questions he does not systematically explore. Indeed, Garvey’s followers, who barely come into focus, are portrayed largely as simple people swayed by the man’s powerful voice, drawn in by the UNIA’s rituals and religious trappings, or seduced by its emotionalism. Whatever one may think of Garvey’s legacy, it deserves greater examination than Grant’s biography allows.

With this and my own experiences in mind, I propose that a fruitful area of future study for intellectual historians should be what I’ll call event-oriented thought. In analyzing intellectual events, one can freely explore the work of interlopers or so-called pseudo-intellectuals. Let’s group both in the class of “occasional intellectuals.” The only assumption the historian need have in these explorations is an optimistic belief that people can rise above. Profundity need not only come from those who’ve dedicated their lives to higher matters, yes?

What are some examples of event-oriented intellectualism? One might say that newspaper editorials, call-in radio, presidential debates, and tv talk shows provide opportunties for discrete high-level thought. Could Oprah’s tv show rise to a level worthy of exploration by intellectual historians? Surely. Perhaps an episode of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program? Certainly. A one-time article in the editorial section of tabloid-style newspaper? Definitely. Could an Obama-Clinton debate (to use a current example) provide fodder for intellectual historians? I would hope so. These examples, furthermore, underscore potential intersections of cultural, political, and women’s history with intellectual history. Perhaps this is just, in the end, a way of intensifying the philosophic component of certain kinds of cultural history—moving some cultural history into the category of intellectual history?

The point here is that the work of historians of U.S. intellectual life need not focus on the consistent output, over a long time span, of philosophers, academics, and public intellectuals—the regulars of intellectual history. That old approach favors established institutions, people, and commonly accepted works of thought. While those objects of an intellectual historian’s thought should never be ignored, they should also never be used to build walls around a subdiscipline. Occasional intellectuals ought to be just as important to historians of U.S. intellectual life if the field is to avoid prolonged periods of stagnation. For how many times can one take another look at Pragmatism? – TL

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You gotta watch those mis-placed modifiers, Tim: “As the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), I wondered …” Garvey might object to your presumptuous claim.

  2. Tim, I’d advise you to read a couple of reviews on ‘Negro With a Hat’ – in addition to Arnesen’s apparently agenda-driven one – in order to glean a fairer picture on the breadth of Grant’s writing. Most I’ve read have been more insightful and generous, than Arnesen. Better still, why not buy a copy of the book yourself and draw your own conclusions? Highly recommended.

  3. Dear Veronica,

    Thanks for the comment. I presently have no intention of reading Negro With a Hat. But that shouldn’t be interpreted as an unwillingness on my part to accept another point of view about the book.

    The point of my post was to prompt intellectual historians to rethink their definitions of intellectuals and intellectual events. The Arnesen review was merely a means to an end. While I took Professor Arnesen at his word, for the time being of my time-and-place weblog post, the excerpt was only to make a larger point.


    – TL

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