One of the papers I most enjoyed at the conference last weekend was Natalia M. Petrzela’s talk on the various origins of the wellness industry in California. A recent experience with teacher training in an idiosyncratic exercise medium had piqued my interest in this strange subculture, and Petrzela’s paper indulged my curiosity with an excellent review of the early history of women’s health clinics, yoga, and thinking on the mind-body connection.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about what, exactly, my experience consisted of – let’s suffice to say it contained an inordinate amount of “woo-woo” – but the awkwardness of being perhaps the only serious skeptic in the room pulled my thinking back to an old problem. Scholars of intellectual history obviously take ideas seriously – whatever our ideological persuasions, we can all agree on that. Yet in so doing, do we sometimes make the mistake of assuming, wrongly, that our human subjects also take ideas that seriously, even if we claim that such commitment takes place on a subconscious or structural level?
I’ll try to be specific by way of my recent experience. One of my primary frustrations during the training revolved around claims being made which, according to their logics, ultimately result in some pretty disturbing implications. If all we need to accomplish our goals is a limitless well of willpower, for example, what does that imply about people who never do find their dreams coming true? And if most of psychiatry is a money-making scheme, should we just chalk lifelong depression up to self-inflicted negativity, then? I ask these questions not because I’m actually ambiguous about the answers (which I’m sure you could imagine), but because I realized, while sitting there, that I was likely one of the few asking them at all. It did not appear to occur to the other students (judging from their enthusiastic response) that the ideas being promoted – only some of which had even remotely anything to do with the subject of being a good exercise instructor – to concern themselves with a theoretical exploration of what the world would, or should, look like if all these claims actually corresponded to, you know, reality.
This kind of thing drives people who take ideas seriously crazy. Even now, I am trying to refrain from a snarky tone and not quite accomplishing it; and if you think my frustration is palpable here, imagine how I felt at the moment. But this frustration sometimes has the consequence, I would argue, of obscuring how ideas often operate on both an individual and social level. For example, the “atheist community,” (from which I previously hail), has produced a huge amount of ill-informed discourse due to this disconnect. Seemingly missing entirely that Islam is neither a unified object nor best understood by a literal reading of the Quran, scholar Reza Aslan has repeatedly tried to correct for this distortion by emphasizing that for many (probably most), being a Muslim is a question more of identity than “belief,” narrowly interpreted. Likewise, Judaism is often described as a religion revolving not around belief in a set of tenets, but participation in a set of practices. These distinctions, when presented to atheist activists, are often ignored, dismissed, or refuted by examples of other behavior that does appear to correlate quite clearly to stated belief.
It is not that I am unsympathetic to this gut instinct; those who are interested in ideas – or even make their living from studying them! – are understandably gobsmacked when people embrace ideas without, apparently, interrogating them. (Perhaps the most acute experience I ever had in this regard was when a new friend of mine, who had just revealed her Christian faith to me, calmly responded to my question of whether or not she thought I was going to hell with a smile and a shrug, saying, “You know, I don’t really know!”)
But we cannot let this bafflement prevent us from accepting that this is often how ideas operate. There is no straight line between stated belief and behavior, and sometimes the ideas that shape behavior are not the ones stated by belief. Thus, the hard work of figuring out what, exactly, is going on – how important are a set of ideas in a given context? Are the ideas really in the driving seat, or just along for the ride? Or perhaps they are merely functioning as a back seat driver, or a distraction to keep us from keeping our eyes “on the road,” so to speak? And while the question of how people believe things without really, you know, believing them is perhaps one more for social psychologists than historians, certainly both of our disciplines would benefit greatly from further insights into this tangle. And it was exactly to this question — of what is belief, anyway? – that Kathryn Lofton’s excellent keynote address at the 2014 S-USIH conference revolved around.
Yet some of the most popular subjects of intellectual history have traditionally been studies of those who actually do take ideas very seriously –we relate to Puritans, pragmatists, and political theorists for precisely this reason, and this shared seriousness often allows us to be empathetic with them even if we passionately disagree with the ideas they embraced. And clearly, those who pursued ideas with rigor and passion have shaped much of history profoundly. I don’t intend to detract from the importance of such scholarship. I do mean to suggest, however, that we sometimes struggle with accepting what “the world of ideas” looks like for those who do not so self-consciously hold themselves accountable to them. I know for myself, at least, how often I have yearned for someone to take responsibility for the implications and consequences of their own beliefs, whether they be political or metaphysical. That yearning is understandable, and legitimate, as far as it goes. But if historians of ideas indulge too much in studying subjects that reflect this desire – of naval gazing, in other words – we might very well misread, or simply not see, the larger picture of which ideas can, necessarily, only be a part.
Moreover, sometimes it means that the ideas we work on, as they are articulated by those who advocate them, are not as important as historians of intellectual history might be inclined to think they are. This is not always a bad thing, in terms of larger consequence – although I find the sloppiness of “woo-woo” thinking maddening, I sometimes remind myself that most people who gravitate to it do not, necessarily, make the world a crueler place by following such notions to their logical conclusions and, say, blaming the victims of cancer for their own deaths. That ideas are not always that powerful – or, at least, not always in the most obvious way – might be a tricky thing for some historians of ideas to accept but, I’m convinced, such a perspective may sometimes be essential to further understanding.