U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Irrational Thought and American Intellectual History*

A well known science-fiction author visits the dentist for a serious procedure. During the course of the treatment, he has a religious experience, an apparent revelation of some deep cosmic truth. He then spends most of the rest of his life attempting to refine his understanding of what he experienced.

In broad outline, this odd anecdote is the story of two famous, and rather different, twentieth-century Americans.

In 1938, L. Ron Hubbard, then a science-fiction writer for pulp magazines, underwent a dental operation. Having received a gas anesthetic, Hubbard believed that he had a brush with death, during which the secrets of the universe were revealed to him.  According to the man who later became his literary agent, Hubbard had an out-of-body experience and floated through a huge gate, on the other side of which Hubbard found “an intellectual smorgasbord of everything that had ever puzzled the mind of man–you know, how did it all begin, where do we go from here, are there past lives–and like a sponge he was just absorbing all this esoteric information.” Then, as quickly as this began, he was pulled back into his body. Following this experience, Hubbard quickly wrote a novel entitled Excalibur,  about a man who writes a secret text of great meaning. But Hubbard never published it. More than a decade later, however, he would write Dianetics. And later still, of course, he would create Scientology.  He would later claim that everyone who had read the unpublished Excalibur had experienced a mental breakdown. The last publisher he had shown it to, according to Hubbard, had set down the manuscript and immediately leaped from a skyscraper.**

In 1974, Philip K. Dick, a prolific writer who had already published most of the novels and short stories that would later make him celebrated as one of the most significant science fiction authors, had an impacted wisdom tooth removed. His dentist gave him sodium pentathol and later sent a nurse to his home to deliver a prescription of Darvon. According to Dick, a gold Jesus fish that the nurse wore on a necklace emitted a ray of light which led Dick to have a profound religious experience.  This proved to be only the first of many such experiences for the author, which would continue until his death some eight years later.  Unlike Hubbard, whose experience eventually led him to launch a new religious movement, Dick turned to writing to attempt to understand an experience that he himself had trouble grasping.  The remaining four novels he produced — the VALIS trilogy (VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1981), The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982)) as well as the posthumously published Radio Free Albemuth (1985), were all attempts to come to grip with these experiences. He also left thousands of pages of notes and literary fragments about them, which were finally edited and published two years ago as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.***

Both Hubbard and Dick have lately been the subjects of much critical attention, largely journalistic, but also scholarly.  Dozens of exposés have been written about the Church of Scientology, which has earned a reputation as America’s most notorious religion.  Though Hubbard had been taken relatively seriously as a science fiction writer early in his career (he was admired by John Campbell, the most famous of the pulp editors, and Robert Heinlein thought highly of him), Dick is, for good reason, seen as the far superior writer. And it’s not surprising that the principal interest in his religious musings has come from the literary world.  The Exegesis was co-edited by the novelist Jonathan Lethem (who counts Dick among his greatest influences) and literary scholar Pamela Jackson.  But it has also attracted the attention of theologians and philosophers.****

But neither Hubbard’s nor Dick’s religious writings have received sustained treatment by intellectual historians.  The reasons, at first blush, seem obvious. Hubbard’s ideas, though certainly influential for the unfortunate few sucked into his Church, are largely ridiculous. Most analyses of Hubbard and his movement concern themselves with the sociology of religion and the nature of the institutions that Hubbard built.  Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, the latest comprehensive look at Scientology, describes the doctrines that Hubbard propounded, but is much more interested in the operations of the Church and the way it relates to its members, especially its core of Hollywood celebrity followers. Dick’s religious ideas, though more sophisticated and potentially interesting on their merits, are deeply messy; unlike Hubbard, Dick himself never entirely felt he understood the experience he went through.  And, unlike Hubbard, Dick never attempted to to build a movement around his purported religious experience.  Were it not for books published in the last two years of his life and after his death, his experiences would have been entirely private.

Do these sorts of questionable ideas — confused, ridiculous and possibly shot through with bad faith (in the case of Hubbard) or fascinating, inchoate, solipsistic, and possibly the result of mental illness (in the case of Dick) — have a place in the intellectual history of twentieth-century America?  I think they do.

Both Hubbard and Dick are deeply influential thinkers, though their influence flows through riverbeds not much explored by intellectual historians. Hubbard’s Dianetics is only one of a number of successful, pseudo-scientific self-help books that appeared in the decade after World War II. Scientology, though unusually successful, is one of dozens of new religious movements that have sprung up throughout American history.  Dick’s intellectually serious science-fiction writing has, especially in the decades since his death in 1982, had an enormous impact on the genre in books and on screen.  Dick’s novels, which often feature characters whose very identity is called into question in the context of future societies in which technology seems to threaten stable individuality, have helped shape American self-understandings, directly and indirectly (for example, through the very Dickian film The Matrix).  All of this helps explain the enormous attention that literary scholars, science fiction fans, and even some theologians and philosophers have been willing to devote to the apparent mess that is The Exegesis. Both Hubbard and Dick were autodidacts, who drew–consciously or not–on an extraordinarily broad series of religious and philosophical traditions in their attempts to systematize their thought.

Of course, what we intellectual historians ought to do with such figures is complicated. Certainly, we can put them in the context of larger intellectual movements (Dick’s religious writings, for example, seem related to the growing interest in gnosticism in the 1970s).  But if for no other reason than that these ideas have had enormous power over people, we ought not to ignore them.

We might compare Hubbard and Dick to John Humphrey Noyes, who founded the Oneida Community in 1848. Noyes’s new religious movement, built on utopian socialist principles, including “free love” (a term Noyes coined), was widely despised in his day and today is preserved largely in the flatware produced in Oneida by a company that began within Noyes’s utopian community. But intellectual historians have long been fascinated by Noyes, because his ideas, however peculiar, had enormous historical resonance.  Noyes was also helped by his rejection of Victorian values, which future generations of academics often disliked. Though I have a hard time imagining that Dick’s and especially Hubbard’s religious ideas will ever be similarly attractive to future academics, I suspect that both will one day be seen, like Noyes’s, as having historical significance and, eventually, intellectual historians will attend to them.


* I struggled with this title.  I almost went with “crazy thought,” but that seemed too simply pejorative. “Fringe thought” was another possibility, but sometimes the fringe gets things right.  “Disreputable thought” was another possibility. The problem with “irrational” is that some irrational thought is utterly mainstream. Oh well…come up with a better title if you can!

** Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf, 2013), 28-30.

*** Simon Critchley,Philip K. Dick: Sci-Fi Philosopher, Part I,” The Stone, May 20, 2012.

****That Simon Critchley piece, linked above, is the first of a three-part series on Dick as a philosopher.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m thinking of William James and his problematic squirrel and wanting to make a distinction between these two kinds of thinking, privileging Dick’s over Hubbard’s on the basis of the effects of the experience. Dick’s religious experience, whatever its etiology, became the catalyst for a burst of creativity, soul-searching, rich and densely meaningful writing. Hubbard’s experience, whatever its etiology, became the catalyst for the founding of the Church of Scientology. If Dick had been able to construct an entire religion with its own intricate system of beliefs on the basis of (or at the impetus of) his experience, and with a massive institutional apparatus and a huge financial portfolio, would he have done so? I tend to think not — but that’s as much a trick of my temperament as theirs.

    However, if you take these two thinkers together as perhaps representative of something larger, part of a historical moment whose contours we can’t quite see clearly because we’re still very much in it, I would say that they both deal with a similar set of problems — embodiment, personhood, materiality, mortality — in a way (or in two different ways) that reflect an attempt to grapple with the vexed relationship between people and our technologies. Can we see ourselves as standing apart from the world we are making? If it is a world made in our own image, why do we feel like strangers in it? How can we not feel like strangers in it?

    It’s quite possible that Dick’s influence/perspective will prove to be the more enduring, since (so far) Scientology hasn’t fared very well in the movies. Either way, I think you’re right to suggest that intellectual historians should be and will be attentive to this kind of thinking.

  2. I dunno… The intellectual history of bad/evil ideas is obviously a fine topic, but the history of incoherent ideas seems like something other than intellectual history. I mean, these figures come to our attention for their coherent ideas, not for their incoherent ones.

    The fact that people who are capable of penetrating coherent ideas also come up from time to time with bad/incoherent ideas is of course relevant to their intellectual biographies, but not as such.

    Consider how this works in a similar field: art history. Yes, there’s a minor interest, perhaps, in, say, Picassos bad paintings (he made lots), but that’s because it’s Picasso and the bad ones may cast light on the good ones; by contrast, there’s quite rightly NO art historical interest in the paintings of, say, Nils, who never produced anything but lousy paintings.

    • I’d think that the better art-historical analogy would be the Van Meegeren “Vermeers”: objectively bad paintings that were, for a moment at least, taken very seriously. Though of little intrinsic artistic merit, they played an outsized role in the history of seventeenth-century Dutch art during the mid-20th century (if you see what I mean). And, in fact, in recent years they’ve received a lot of attention from art historians. Paintings can be significant without being any good.

      • Ben, as I see it, the van Meergeren example actually supports my point: the interest in his work follows parasitically from the interest in the “high quality” work of the “real” Vermeer. If van Meergeren hadn’t try to pass his content off as belonging to an “indisputably great” artist, then no one would have been interested in his painting — something van Meergeren himself must have known. (After all why else would he have engaged in the forgery!?)

        So, again, no doubt there’s good grounds for intellectual historians to pay attention to the “minor” (read: lesser quality, bad, or, sure “irrational”) works of artists and intellectuals who produced good/great works. The history of forgeries is in a sense a subset of this sort of work. It’s a venerable historiographical tradition.

        But the strong version of your case, if I read you rightly, is an altogether more ambitious historiographical proposal, which is that the “irrational” has an intrinsic quality. To make this case, it would seem to me, you would need to focus not on the “irrational” works by otherwise “rational” artists, but precisely on the work of artists/intellectuals who produced nothing but “irrational,” “messy,” “confused,” “ridiculous,” “inchoate,” “solipsistic” works. That really would be something really new in intellectual history, but to make this case you’ll need find examples of people who only produced “irrational” thought and then make the case that they are worthy candidates for intellectual history. This would be, say, the intellectual history of, say, Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck, rather than the intellectual history of the late works of PKD.

        My own POV is that such people are often historically interesting, but mainly as cultural symptoms, rather than for their ideas as such.

      • I think the initial interest in Van Meegeren’s paintings (at the time of their creation, when they were believed to be Vermeers) is as you say. But the current interest in them is what I had in mind.

        As for your “stronger case” version…it seems to me that historians of more distant times and places do this all the time (I’m thinking, for example, of Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms), but U.S. intellectual historians of the recent past do it far less frequently, presumably because we assume that, when it comes to nearer times and places, we already know the kinds of things one learns about popular understandings of the workings of the world from such “crazy” texts. I guess I’m not as convinced that we do. There are examples of this sort of thing in 20C USIH, however, e.g. Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More.

      • This is getting awfully skinny, but I guess I would want to ask where we finally draw a line in the sand. Would you advocate an intellectual history of, say, Honey Boo-Boo?

  3. One part of Ben’s post goes to the distinction between Metaphysics and metaphysics. In my mind, at least, the former is attached to a philosophical tradition that began (more or less) with Plato and Aristotle. The latter is rooted in spiritualism, which kind of goes towards Lora’s comment in its connection to William James and many other “strange” 19th-century spiritual trends. The latter seems peculiarly American, rooted in our seemingly boundless optimism and recreations of the Western tradition in a “new world.”

    But I’m also thinking that the topic of “irrational thought” (or fringe/crazy/marginal “thought”) goes toward the myriad of discussions about anti-intellectualism (my obsession, if I can ever get out from under my personal 1,000 lbs of great books writing projects). I want to say right off that I flatly disagree with Nils that this topic is something other than “intellectual history.” That vision is WAY too narrow for the “new intellectual history” that has arisen in recent* years. Intellectual history covers the history of thought, which means all sorts of interior calculations/reasonings, that my or may not appear in precise, or coherent, written form. It’s up to the historian to make sense of systems, not the historical actors to put together coherent systems for us to chance upon in an archives or under a mattress (or find on gold plates in caves).

    In fact, I would argue that fringe/crazy/irrational thought exists because it’s defined against mainstream thought, or mainstream intellectual currents. For USIHers then, attending to those fringe streams is about attending to both dissent and the other. We’re ethically obligated—as a class of historians—to look at it, explore it, synthesize it, and represent it, in context, for our readers. – TL

    *I have no idea what I mean by “recent”—say, perhaps, last 10 years?

  4. Great post. It seems clear to me that there is much to be learned about what is in the drinking water from the products of irrational thought — even of Dick’s kind, when there is clearly mental illness involved. Two years ago there was a great story at the NYT called “The Americanization of Mental Illness,” where it discussed how various mental health disorders across the world are increasingly being expressed in modes originating from and most common in America. This strongly suggests that while mental health disorders have an underlying biological basis, exactly how one experiences and interprets them is very much dependent on time and place. Therefore, we have plenty to learn from exactly how people “go crazy.”


  5. Provocative post Ben. Is your premise based on the notion that from the irrational we might derive the rational? Is this a kind of null hypothesis? Or are you suggesting that from seemingly irrational texts a following formed and, because of that following, the texts and following are worthy of historical examination?
    I imagine you could throw in Rev. Moon and his following and some of the more utopian ideas that bubbled about during the 60’s hippie movement. The 60’s kept crossing my mind as I read Lears, “No Place of Grace” and his discussion of late 19th c. revival of medieval virtues.

    • Excellent questions! I suppose my starting assumption is that, whatever their intrinsic merit, ideas that had cultural power are worthy of study by intellectual historians (which is what you suggest at the end of your first paragraph). Sometimes we might derive rational value from the irrational ideas themselves, but I don’t think that’s a general expectation. What one can always ask of such ideas is: who found them attractive and why? where did they come from and what, if anything, might they tell us about the larger intellectual milieu(s) in which they arose? given their popularity, what difference did they make — intellectually, socially, culturally, politically, etc?

  6. What Nils wrote above was, “This is getting awfully skinny, but I guess I would want to ask where we finally draw a line in the sand. Would you advocate an intellectual history of, say, Honey Boo-Boo?” [And this is why I draw a line in the sand on comment threading!]

    I would advocate an intellectual history of the “reality TV” phenomenon, or on notions of celebrity, etc., of which Honey Boo-Boo is emblematic. I might also advocate an intellectual history of popular ideas about, say, gender, or how gender and class intersect — and the worldview of Honey Boo-Boo et. al. surely includes opinions on such matters.

  7. I’m having trouble with the rational/irrational split, which seems to be falling back into an intellectual/cultural split. But we shouldn’t imagine that the proper subject matter of intellectual history is rational thought, precisely because “rationality” assumes a transhistorical and abstract “Reason” accessible to all at all times–it would seem to be the opposite way of thinking about thought than a historical one, which emphasizes contingencies, particularities, and differences. Some of the most significant figures in even a very conservative vision of canonical intellectual history can be very easily refigured as irrational: Hegel anyone? The metaphysical commitments of Newton might strike the contemporary observer as “irrational”. Some modern day atheists would be inclined to see the belief in God as “irrational,” and I’m assuming that we simply couldn’t write the history of thought without attention to theism. Not to mention that a significant body of modern thought from Pascal through R.D, Laing has emphasized the limits of rationality and the possibilities of a higher order irrationality as a guide to knowing and being. One person’s rationality turns out to be another’s crazy–and vice versa.

    • As I say in my first footnote, I wasn’t happy with my own title, and you’ve elaborated some of the reasons why. I wanted to profile thought that might seem unworthy of intellectual historical discussion due to its intrinsic lack of merit (in one way or another). FWIW, I’ve always found the dividing line between intellectual and cultural history to be rather porous (and that’s fine with me), but I think there are ways of attending to distinctive, written ideas that seem to me to belong more specifically to the intellectual side of the divide.

  8. Ben – You seem headed toward the view that we should focus on how “ways of attending” constitute subject matters as worthy of study, not their somehow intrinsic features. Seems like it’s the continually changing forms of organized attention in the field that define worthiness, rather than the reverse. In other words, the field is best characterized by its forms of interest or concern, not its subject matter. “Worthiness” is defined entirely through the eyes of the disciplinary beholder.

    The discussion here has been performing this attention in the mode of debating the qualifications of various subject matters.

    It’s not just that our understandings of “bad,” “irrational,” “fringe,” “incoherent,” even “inconsequential,” are temporally and culturally provincial, but that stuff that carries such labels may be more than adequate for what we “ask of” it — that it’s interesting in the ways that things are interesting to intellectual historians, that it sustains and troubles their analytical curiosities, idle or otherwise, is a space where we can ask our questions with the tools and concepts of the field.

    It seems you illustrate something of how new subject matters arise — by characterizing the future present for historians’ attention in the claim that “Hubbard and Dick have lately been the subjects of much critical attention, largely journalistic, but also scholarly,” and by extending the continuity of the field into that future by asserting their similarity with Noyes, a well-established figure in intellectual history whose ideas “had enormous historical resonance.” Maybe you don’t need to be at all defensive, saying “these ideas are ridiculous, but …” — unless intellectual historians are much more conventional than I think they are.

    Your manner of attending to Hubbard and Dick as a respected intellectual historian helps prepare the way for them to become objects of “sustained treatment by intellectual historians.” It’s just a matter of time.

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