U.S. Intellectual History Blog


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.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It’s not just a problem for historians doing research: it’s a serious pedagogical one as well. Students wrestle all the time with “If they think [x], why did they do [not-x]?” and fall very easily into the idea of hypocrisy as an explanation or that only pure orthodoxy is a ‘real’ manifestation of a tradition.

    • Exactly. My students often do this with Jefferson, for example; well, he must be a hypocrite! Well yes, he was; but that’s not an ending point is it?, but rather a starting one.

  2. Robin Marie — great post.

    I am struggling, in my own work, with the (dis)connect between the ideational and the incarnational — ideas in the abstract v. ideas as lived experience. It seems to me that what we intellectual historians read as the disconnect between people’s professed ideas and people’s actual lives is probably more our inability to discern or articulate the asystematic systems of ideas that structure our subjects’ lives and their perceptions of the world — perhaps because our human subjects have not articulated these ideas via some textual evidence, which is what we privilege as a discipline. It’s not that people don’t take ideas seriously, but perhaps that they don’t take systematicity seriously. I’m willing to believe that we’re all the children of James and Emerson, but that the intellectual historians among us (myself included) are the “problem children,” wanting to systematize and render consistent or coherent — wanting to extract or abstract — the conceptual from the experiential.

    I’m not saying this is a bad problem to have or to be — I mean, how would we do this work otherwise? It seems to me that the very (often unrecognized) conflictedness of people’s conceptions of the world provides the friction that makes historical change possible.

    I offer this comment not as a corrective to your observations — which all track with my own frustrations and experiences from time to time — but as a way of musing alongside.

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

    • Thanks for this LD! I like your frame of “the incarnational” and the idea that people take ideas seriously but not “systematicity seriously.” I guess I get confused then, however, at how or why ideas have consequences if there is not necessarily any connect between the ideal and the lived reality. Perhaps a better way to express my frustration is not to revolve things around the question of whether or not people take ideas “seriously,” but whether or not they hold themselves accountable to, and responsible for them. And then I realize as I say that what a prudish old fashioned Protestant I sound like!, nooooo!! Oh well, that Lessing quote about the superstition in which you grow up is a favorite of mine for a reason!

  3. I have never heard the word “woo-woo” before, could you explain a bit? 🙂

    What LD says about the incorporational versus the ideational is on point. We could translate the former as the sphere of affects and emotions that produce individual and social beliefs. Of course, the separation between the incorporational and the ideational is an artificial construct, constructed because not only because of ideological reasons, but also, well, because of the challenges of thinking of affect and ideas together (say, as embodied ideas). It is interesting to think about the idea, as an operative concept in the discipline of intellectual history: what gives a particular discourse the value of “idea”? Is there discursive production that is not an idea? Thinking through the responses to this question, which at first sight seem obvious, is essential to produce a more open-ended practice of intellectual history (some would call it a way of decolonizing it, untangling it from its white Eurocentric conventions).

    • Hi Kahlil! So “woo-woo” is a (derogatory) term for a diverse set of ideas that range from: extreme claims about the power of positive thinking (i.e., “The Secret”), notions that the discoveries of quantum physics mean that we can basically “create our own realities” (i.e., Deepok Chopra) through willpower, anti-science notions with some respectable roots in anti-pharmacutical companies dissent (but like so, the anti-vac crowd and the woo crowd often overlap), ideas about the energy of the universe and your own energy (for example, a nice young man who happened to be on the mat next to me during yoga once thanked me afterwards for my “positive energy” during the practice, which he felt apparently effected his practice in a positive way), and well, I could go on but I think you get the idea. The thing is that the variety of ideas is so diverse and who believes what is by no matter holistic or coherent in any systemized way and so I don’t really know if there is one term that encompasses all these ideas other than “woo,” which is problematic as it is a derogatory term. I suppose the closest thing would be New Age, but that seems too wide, as it could also just include people who like to listen to Enya and burn candles during a bath, both of which would include me :p

      As for the rest of your comment here: totes, totes, and totes. I think the limited way the Western heritage has brought us about thinking about ideas contributes greatly to my general sense of confusion.

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