U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Plate o’ Shrimp, or Toward an Intellectual History of the New Age?

One of the many excellent papers I heard at our recent conference was (longtime friend of USIH) Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s “Philosophy out of Doors: Thinking as a Handicraft and Spiritual Practice in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)” One of the main questions Jennifer addressed was how intellectual historians should treat a work like Pirsig’s novel. Is it philosophy? Pirsig certainly intended it as philosophy and many of his readers experienced it as philosophy, but few if any academic philosophers took it seriously.

Much of the lively conversation that followed Jennifer’s paper concerned contexts in which one might consider Pirsig’s work. Mike O’Connnor offered the thought that, from the point of view of the academic discipline, it was philosophy…just not very good philosophy. Brian Lloyd, who later gave a very interesting brown-bag presentation on the Jefferson Airplane’s “We Can Be Together,” suggested that the novel could best be understood as a late work of the Sixties counterculture. I thought that it might even more profitably be considered alongside such other Seventies works as Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970), Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters (1979) and Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel Escher Bach (1979).

On Saturday after the conference, I had breakfast with a former colleague of mine, also a U.S. intellectual historian, who is no longer an academic. When I mentioned Jennifer’s Pirsig paper to him, he said “oh…you mean a history of the early New Age.” And, of course, he was in many ways correct…though interestingly I don’t think anyone used the words “New Age” in discussing Jennifer’s paper. As it turns out, my friend happens to be considering writing a book on another aspect of New Age thought.

And lately I’ve been thinking about the history of Western Buddhism….which can also fit into this broader category.

Are we three alone? Perhaps there’s an emerging intellectual conversation here.

Just to lay a few more cards on the table:

After a lot of historical neglect, the Seventies* are finally getting the attention they deserve from historians. Indeed, it’s telling that one of the first important scholarly works on the decade bore the title It Seemed Like Nothing Happened. That was certainly the way I experienced the Seventies at the time. After the Sixties, an important decade in which vast cultural, political, and social changes seemed to take place, the Seventies felt like an anticlimax. But in retrospect, they seem more and more like a watershed period, albeit one whose significance eluded many of those living through it.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and 1970s, so New Age spirituality was a huge part of the greater world of my childhood…though it had relatively little direct impact on myself or my family. Indeed, my attitude to things New Age was–and to a great extent is–largely skeptical/hostile.** As a result, there’s a side of me that doesn’t want to take this material seriously. But ultimately I think such concerns are misplaced, even in regards to the fuzziest aspects of New Age thinking. As the rationalistic Judaic scholar Saul Lieberman famously said of Gershom Scholem’s work on mysticism, “nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship.” New Age thought strikes me as an important part of the broader intellectual history of a crucial era of which we’re only now beginning to take historical stock. Which might in turn explain why a number of us seem to be circling around these issues in our thinking.***

Of course, there might also be a more New Age explanation….


* When I followed Brian Lloyd’s comment about a Sixties context for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by suggesting instead a Seventies context, Jennifer correctly warned against putting too much weight on decades as analytic categories. I basically agree with this. Nonetheless, it seems to me that enormously important things happened in American thought, culture and politics between, say, the election of Nixon and the election of Reagan and that this period still has not yet received the attention it deserves.

** Those who know me, however, are aware that attitudes of skepticism/hostility are often starting points for my projects.

*** I should stress that I have no plans at this point to actively work on Western Buddhism and I don’t know the status of Jennifer’s work on Pirsig.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. For what it’s worth, on the Seventies as a decade deserving of attention, I can think of at least two other survey-style books apart from Caroll’s that lay out the time period with some degree of selection, emphasis, and narrative: Schulman’s *The Seventies* and the-barely-deserving-of-this-list-due-to-ideological-slant Frum’s *How We Got Here: The Seventies*. Of course these books only indirectly address the decade’s intellectual history.

    I think the reason that New Age as a philosophy hasn’t been thoroughly explored as an independent intellectual entity is because Evangelicals set it up as a religion to be rejected. So books that cover 1970s religious history would cover the New Age movement indirectly, as something reacted against. And then this balloons in the 1980s and even stretches into the 1990s (though it transforms into Wicca, etc.). What’s weird to me is that, in my experience, I never heard Pirsig’s book connected to New Age thinking. But I was young when it appeared. – TL

  2. Thanks, Tim! I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that Carroll’s book was the only thing out there, but the list of books on the Seventies is still kinda thin, compared not only to works on the Sixties, but those on the Eighties, as well.

    Off the top of my head, one could also add Phillip Jenkins’s Decade of Nightmares and Laura Kalman’s Right Star Rising to the list of books on the Seventies.

  3. Although I unfortunately missed Jennifer giving her paper, since I was attending Ray’s equally fun panel on civil religion, I’ve since had the chance to read it. Wonderful stuff. I had hoped to blog on it this Friday, and towards thinking about an intellectual history of the 70s, but Ben stole my thunder! I may still write about the 70s. If so, my launching pad will be Rick Perlstein’s review essay, based on a number of books on the 70s, recently published at The Nation. Perlstein is currently writing a book on the 70s. There’s tons of new stuff on the 70s. Perlstein mentioned no less than 12 recent books on the decade!


  4. Ben: Do the books by Jenkins and Kalman cover particular topics, or are they surveys? Perhaps they’re mentioned in the article AH just provided. I’ll go check it out. – TL

  5. Perlstein writes about both the books in his essay. The Kalman is a fairly old-fashioned general account with a political focus. Jenkins book (which Perlstein only mentions in passing) is a smart but somewhat tendentious cultural history that argues that the roots of the triumph of conservatism in the eighties lie in a broad and panicked Seventies cultural backlash against the changes wrought by the Sixties.

  6. I might be drinking too much of Perlstein’s Kool-Aid, but these two books sound particularly exciting:

    1. Cowie, Jefferson. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.
    2. Maier, Charles, ed. The Shock of the Global.

    – TL

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