U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Zombie Ideas In U.S. Intellectual History: An Etymological And Epistemological Study

I first ran across the phrase “zombie ideas” in Paul Krugman’s writings, either here or here—probably the latter. In the first post from November 2007, Krugman refers to this document from the Health Policy Institute, titled “Lies, Damned Lies, and Health Care Zombies: Discredited Ideas That Will Not Die.” That study introduces the following phrase in its text: “These false ideas (or “zombies”) carry with them implicit policy recommendations bearing on some aspect of health care financing” (p. 6). The HPI piece was written in 1998.

Although I have found several other instances, beyond HPI and Krugman, where the phrase appears, the year 1998 seems to mark the first public appearance of the phrase “zombie ideas” in thoughtful public discourse. So much for etymology. Perhaps one of our readers—a historian with a penchant for lexicography and a fetish for the undead (hah!)—can add to this story?

But what does the phrase mean? And what is its epistemology? Addressing the former question, Krugman called them “false stories that refuse to die, and just keep coming back.” The 1998 HPI study correspondingly says they are ideas with a “tendency to re-emerge.” It then indirectly expands the definition of the phrase in several ways:

Yet in the United States the idea that consumer co-payments make good economic (and perhaps moral) sense steadfastly resists permanent burial. Why? The interest in user charges bears the familiar hallmarks of a zombie. First, in spite of its popularity, it is intellectually dead, and second, its overwhelming appeal is a product both of its public resonance, and of the efforts of powerful interest groups to keep it on the agenda (p. 24).

Teasing my concerns from the context of the HPI excerpt, it appears that zombie ideas are (in order of importance):

(1) intellectually dead, or are between death and life currently (hence they arise from the grave);
(2) bad (or evil);
(3) scary (people tremble at the emotional encounter);
(4) kept alive by interest groups (political or otherwise); and
(5) primarily political (or at least zombie ideas recur in this context the most).

I do not mean this list to be exhaustive; consider it a beginning. BTW: In a more humorous vein, it seems the HPI study is THE starting point for understanding zombiology in the realm of ideas.

As for epistemology, what of the science or study of this phenomenon (zombiosis, if you prefer) in the world of ideas? How does this process happen? Perhaps only the specialized historical study of interest groups will reveal changes over time: the peculiar phases, duration, and, most importantly, how zombie ideas are killed once and for all (or are they!)? It seems clear that politicians would benefit from an exhaustive study of these ideas.

I am most curious, speaking somewhat more seriously, of what ideas the historians of U.S. intellectual life feel are zombies? What ideas have recurred the most, or are the most relevant, in the history of the United States? Of course an answer to this question might indict the historians themselves. For the question could be phrased: What ideas have historians resurrected over and over to explain change in U.S. history, particular with regard to its intellectual life? So this could digress into an ad hominem thread that beats up on particular historians. That’s not my goal. Besides, a comparable taxonomy has already been constructed once before by David Hackett Fisher.

What say you? What are the most important, most cited, or most over-used ideas in U.S. intellectual history? Or what have I missed in defining the meaning of zombie ideas? – TL

18 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. In order of overuse and importance, respectively,

    1. American exceptionalism and/or providentialism.
    2. Turner’s frontier thesis.
    3. Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities.”

    Nos. 1 & 2 have been sufficiently criticized. As someone who works on print culture and the public sphere, however, I am deeply ambivalent about Anderson’s imagined communities. The phrase is unavoidably useful for describing a community bounded primarily by ideas rather than material or class interests. Yet, it has become so ubiquitous in the literature on print culture and the public sphere that an interdisciplinary intellectual community has been formed by its use – the unofficial academic “imagined communities” fan club. When an interpretive tool has becomes code for “my ideas are or ought to be part of the conversation,” it is time to take a fresh look at the concept.

  2. Neil,

    On #1, were you referring to America’s “Christian foundations”? That was one of my big candidates for the list.

    My only problem with your “imagined communities” example is that it hasn’t had enough time to die and come back.

    – Tim

  3. Tim – Fair point about imagined communities, the idea appears to be as vital as ever and shows no sign of imminent decline. So it isn’t a zombie idea. Anyway, I was serious about my ambivalence, it has been a very useful idea, and hasn’t been around all that long, the book was first published in 1983. My point is that it seems overused and a bit tired. But your comment raises another interesting question. What do you call a preternaturally long-lived idea that refuses to die? A vampire idea?

    Your point is equally valid for American exceptionalism and providentialism, neither idea has ever really died and then risen from the cultural graveyard. Both ideas certainly include the idea of “Christian foundations,” but there are so many quasi-secular, civil religious variations and restatements that it cannot be reduced to a simple Christian nationalism.

  4. Neil: “Vampire ideas”—nice. I do agree on the tired part in relation to imagined communities. As for our point about ideas never ~really~ dying, perhaps extended hibernation counts as death in the epistemology of zombie ideas. – TL

  5. Tim: I think you are on to something here with zombie ideas. Perhaps an interdisciplinary graduate program at UC Santa Cruz or, better yet, UChicago, in the Epistemology of Zombie Ideas. Or Lacy’s House of Epistemological Horrors, which in addition to zombie ideas would catalog vampire ideas and other assorted intellectual monstrosities. Covering laws, perhaps?

  6. Does “double consciousness” as an explanation/description of the African American experience count as a zombie idea? Or is it simply dead….or undead…or alive? (Adolph Reed, Jr., worked hard to try to kill it over a decade ago)

    Incidentally, at least as described by Krugman and Neil, zombie ideas don’t actually have to go through a fallow, “really dead” period. They just need to be bad, scary, and artificially revivified for political (or quasi-political) reasons.

    Also, do we need to add Frankenstein ideas: truly dead thoughts brought back to life by single intellectual entrepreneurs (or, better still, not-so-fresh thoughts pieced together from bits of dead ones by such Dr. Fs)?

    Incidentally, this is all reminding me of Hannah Pitkin’s Attack of the Blob, an interesting work of political theory concerning Arendt’s concept of “the social,” which Pitkin compares The Blob (fig. 1).

  7. Ooops. In my last comment, for “Krugman and Neil” read “Krugman and Tim”….of course I now realize that I’m invoking Tim’s original post to argue with Tim in comments.

    So a point of clarification, Tim: do “zombie ideas” need to actually spend some time really dead to qualify, or can their zombification be more or less instant at the moment in which they ought to be dead (which would, incidentally, be an acceptably George Romero-y thing to happen).

  8. Ben,

    We’ll have to get Lauren or James Levy involved to obtain a satisfactory answer to your double-consciousness-as-zombie-idea question. Or maybe we can solicit Andrew to get his colleague Toure Reed involved?

    In our USIH zombiosis, we can create a qualifier that “dead” also means dormant, hibernating, or in a vegetative state. This is based on the fact that many had either considered the purported zombie idea “dead,” or thought that the idea should have been dead.

    I’m going to say that Frankenstein ideas are qualitatively different in that, while still scary, the revivified idea appears fully alive (unlike a zombie), more powerful, less apparently evil, and less controllable than the earlier version. So a potential example of a Frankenstein idea might be states’ rights as connected to the Catholic moral idea of subsidiarity. The old states’ rights idea, therefore, is as a valid, solidly connected root but the new iteration is more powerful, more inclusive, less apparently evil, etc.

    – Tim

  9. The New York Times Magazine has published its Ninth Annual Year in Ideas on the New York Times website. In addition to a wealth of other cultural curios and oddities, two pieces provide an interesting twist to Tim’s post on Zombie Ideas, one on the pulp-fiction zombification of Jane Austin’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice, and the other an epidemological study of zombie attacks.


    As a further aside, the Urban Dictionary lists over 200 words and phrases related to zombies, and is well worth checking out for a good laugh.


  10. And now I see, via Crooked Timber, that the working title of a forthcoming book is as follows: Zombie Economics:Undead Ideas that Threaten the World Economy. This fits in the politics theme as laid out in my working definition of zombie ideas. – TL

  11. The intellectual origin of “zombie ideas” should surely go back at least as far as Marx. There’s a line in his book on 1848 about undead historical ideas roaming across the political landscape. It’s somewhere near the beginning. Spectres, by some readings, but I’ve always glossed it as zombies.

  12. jackmormon,

    To which book by Marx are you referring? I’m pretty sure you don’t mean the *Communist Manifesto*, because its opening lines refer to the spectre of Communism, not any older ideas.

    – TL

  13. If Marx is on the scene, Weber can’t be far behind. I’m reminded of the famous passage in The Protestant Ethic in which Weber claims that the idea of duty in one’s calling wanders around in modern life “like the ghost of dead religious beliefs”.

    But just to resurrect this thread, which is in danger of dying itself: it’s not at all clear what it means for an idea to be “dead,” although a zombie idea is clearly one that cannot be killed because it is already dead. The way Krugman uses it, it seems clearly ideological. One party has demonstrated to its own satisfaction that an idea is not true (whether by empirical or logical means or by reference to a cultural environment in which life support for that idea has been removed). The problem is that the idea retains a life for others who stubbornly refuse to accept the diagnosis of the original party. Declaring an idea “dead,” then, appears to be an ideological move. So, laissez-faire economics, for example, killed by the entire experience of state management and intervention in the 20th century still refuses to die for the true believers. It might help here to consult William James on the distinction between live and dead beliefs in “The Will to Believe”.

  14. Excellent observation about Krugman’s (and John Quiggan of CT’s) use of the term to designate ideas which (in their estimation) should be dead, but aren’t, Dan. James, I think, understands live and dead beliefs relative to a particular believer, which isn’t that far from Krugman’s use. That is, the ideas Krugman calls zombie ideas are, for him, dead in a Jamesian sense. In much of this thread, however, dead ideas seem to be defined in more historical and social terms.

  15. Ben, right. I’m just not clear on what it might mean for ideas to be dead historically or socially, since it seems to come back to the possibility of belief for one group of people or another. The accusation that somebody is believing in a dead idea or giving it new life as a zombie idea is usually an attempt to deny that collective belief in that idea is plausible or reasonable, mostly by assuming that the idea has been demonstrably proved to be wrong. As historians, of course, we’re mostly in the business of digging up the graves of dead ideas so we can do a postmortem on them, and I suppose we usually do that by trying to reconstruct the environment in which such an idea was believable and made some kind of coherent sense (as well as diagnosing what killed it). So, we’re resurrectionists of a sort. But this is different than contemporary polemics where the notion is that we’re taking sides with living ideas against the threat of resurrected undead ones. But I like the idea of zombie ideas! What next, mummy ideas?

  16. I was thinking of the 18th Brumaire. From the first page, after the famous “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” business:

    “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.”

    And he goes on to repeat this metaphor of “conjuring up of the dead” several times in the first section. It’s been hard for me ever since not to imagine the (semi-)revolution of 1848 as Evil Dead 3 with better writers.

  17. jackmormoon: Thanks! But again, tradition—per Dan’s comment about historians being grave diggers—is different than resurrecting for consumption. And I think that’s key, returning to my definition in the original post, particularly subpoint 5, is politics. Politics is about action and compromise, which involves a kind of consumption. So is the zombie idea healthy? Maybe this becomes a subpoint: One test of a zombie idea is whether it adds anything new or productive to living recipients of the idea. – TL

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