U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Psychology of Anti-Intellectualism: Historiography and Theory

Obama-Onion-Schizophrenic-NationOver the winter, once the book is fully out there, I’ll be contemplating and drafting an article on anti-intellectualism for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of American Political Culture.* Taking this on was no small thing for me. Several years ago, after writing entries for three different history-oriented encyclopedias, I swore off the genre: too much work, too little rewards, deadlines annoyingly timed, over or under-active editors, encyclopedia never received, etc. But this project offers me space (3500 words) to expand my thinking on a topic that has grown near and dear to me.

The working title for my piece is simple: “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” I’ve been pondering the subject as far back as graduate school when, like most readers here, I was introduced to Richard Hofstadter’s 1962 classic with the same title. I once wrote a long paper on the topic, in 2008, for the First Annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference (for a panel with Andrew Hartman, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, and James Levy). I am hoping that the current project catalyzes even more work on the subject (e.g. article for a Big Journal, a book, etc.).

Toward those larger ends I’ve created an extensive Zotero database on the subject (or “AI,” as I’ve taken to shorthand). Within that database I’ve split the topic into several tentative subgenres that are both transcendant and immediately historically conditioned:

– Against Intellectuals/Academia/Experts/Elites
– Anti/Un-reason
– By Intellectuals! (yes, my folder title has the exclamation point)
– Common Sense
– Conspiracy Theories
– Crazy-Fringe Thought (that are not full-on conspiracy theories)
– Cultural
– Despair Over Reasonable Citizenry
– Economics: Rationality-Irrationality
– Education and Academic Freedom
– Emotions–Esp. Fear
– Historiography
– History-related (sort of a denial of historical facts category)
– In Popular Culture
– Partial Reason as AI
– Plain Speech
– Polemics Against AI
– Political Varieties
– Psychology of
– Race
– Regional Varieties
– Religious Varieties
– Simplicity-Honesty-Deception-Naivete
– Theory and Definitions

There’s some obvious overlap here. The folders with the greatest numbers of citations are Theory, Political Varieties, Against Intellectuals, Anti/Unreason, and Historiography. I welcome your suggestions for other subgenres and themes.

One of the oldest, still-fascinating, and most controversial subgenres deals with the psychology, or perhaps sensibility, of anti-intellectualism. This began in Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Therein he dealt with resentment and suspicion in relation to the intellectual life. But psychological vein continued more explicitly, and in a pathologizing fashion, in his 1965 follow-up, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Other books by a variety of authors have dealt, directly and indirectly, with psychological and paranoid AI in conservatism (e.g. Daniel Bell’s edited collection, The Radical Right, 1962, 2000). That kind of analysis persists, especially in relation to far-right Tea Party politics after 2008.

If pseudo-psychology is a problematic strain of thought in those earlier studies, this more recent study brings questions of psychology, ideology, and politics back to the foreground. The link starts with summary news about one study, then puts it in conversation with another researcher’s work. Here are some excerpts:


[Dan] Kahan conducted some ingenious experiments about the impact of political passion on people’s ability to think clearly. His conclusion, in Mooney’s words: partisanship “can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”

In other words, say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions. It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem. The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are. We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe. …

[Brendan] Nyan and his collaborators have been running experiments trying to answer this terrifying question about American voters: Do facts matter?

The answer, basically, is no. When people are misinformed, giving them facts to correct those errors only makes them cling to their beliefs more tenaciously. …

In Kahan’s experiment, some people were asked to interpret a table of numbers about whether a skin cream reduced rashes, and some people were asked to interpret a different table – containing the same numbers – about whether a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns reduced crime. Kahan found that when the numbers in the table conflicted with people’s positions on gun control, they couldn’t do the math right, though they could when the subject was skin cream. The bleakest finding was that the more advanced that people’s math skills were, the more likely it was that their political views, whether liberal or conservative, made them less able to solve the math problem.

I hate what this implies… I’m not completely ready to give up on the idea that disputes over facts can be resolved by evidence, but you have to admit that things aren’t looking so good for a reason. …
What these studies of how our minds work suggest is that the political judgments we’ve already made are impervious to facts that contradict us.


Emotions and beliefs, then, most often trump reason—even when bigger, contradictory facts and reason itself stand tall against our positions. Anti-intellectualism is, of course, a part of the human condition. But so what? Men are not angels. We’ve always known this. Indeed, speaking to the political problem this poses, one of our American founders thought that government was the solution to the problem that men are not angels.** The founders thought a representative republic was the best correction for the problems of unreason, irrationalism, and anti-intellectualism. But that line of thought seems to assume that government can’t be profoundly manipulated by persistent, socially-embedded anti-intellectualism. If we are all hardwired to this kind of sensibility, then efforts at correction, if possible, must be more profound.

To that end, Hofstadter’s work on anti-intellectualism spent a lot of time on the issue of schooling. That points to a cultural (in the broadest sense) rather than political solution. A properly functioning education system would mitigate the possibility of a persistent, socially-embedded anti-intellectualism from debilitating any political system based on voting. Properly educated citizens are not angels, but they decrease the possibility of political failure based on devilish, demonic behavior. Our social ego might tame by our social id; reason might, at least, better oversee our passions.

The nice thing about the research of Kahan and Nyan is that it, to my mind, enables or rejuvenates a psychological theoretical component in anti-intellectualism. The old, seemingly linear formula on the topic looked like this: anti-intellectualism –> psychology –> pathology –> paranoia. In the end this discredited both psycho-historical explanations and the topic of anti-intellectualism (whether applied to right or left-leaning actors on the political spectrum). – TL


* It’s an ABC-CLIO project.

* James Madison: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” Federalist No. 51. From here.

15 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. A very interesting project! Not having read the study you cite, I wonder if it may be possible to conclude from it that AI is culturally conditioned at a very deep level, instead of innate?

    Along the lines of suggestions, I was recently reading a book by David Holmgren, one of the founders of permaculture. He surprised me by hopefully mentioning that a future scenario resulting from the crises of peak energy and climate change might include some kind of spirituality as an “antidote” to the “secular humanism” that has gotten us into this mess. I was disappointed (because I think environmentalism, like other science, should be secular), but I was also impressed that this guy who isn’t a philosopher or historian, just naturally assumes the “failure” of, basically, the Enlightenment. I’d love to dig for the rots of that idea sometime.

    Also, I found it interesting that AI also means artificial intelligence. I wonder if the belief of technologists that they are close to understanding the processes of the human brain (wrong as many of them may be) have somehow devalued thought. After all, if a machine could (even theoretically) do it, then it can’t be what makes us human, right?

    • The AI used above, by me, is my own shorthand, my own re-purposing. I haven’t seen anyone else use it. So I don’t think it’s a phenomenon. Still, I like the play on words. Anti-intellectualism is, in fact, a kind of artificial, substitute intelligence. It’s an id-for-ego thing.

      Related aside: Let’s not forget about Aaron Lecklider’s recent contribution to this topic. Here’s USIH review by Andrew Seal, and here’s another by Todd Gitlin. – TL

    • The science and spirituality debate is an interesting and live one. I feel that there should be a place for the Romantic and the spiritual in life and indeed I would see this as not anti-intellectual but part of the intellect, understood in its widest sense. Of course I don’t know the author to whom you refer, but if he is demanding or asking that people adopt a particular mystical creed that would be a problem. As for the root of the idea it goes back to Horkheimer and Adorno and similar critiques of the Enlightenment. Anti-science attitudes are rife in art and culture, from Wordsworth’s “murder to dissect” to arguments against Western imperialism. The Enlightenment wasn’t a failure; it had problems; but it was a process with which we are wrestling.

  2. Tim, this looks fascinating, and I’ll definitely be following your work closely, as it relates somewhat to my dissertation research. I want to push back against the term “pseudo-psychology,” however. Some of us working with the demarcation problem in the history of science try to avoid this kind of language unless our actors themselves are using it. I’d like to recommend the essay “Science, Pseudoscience, and Science Falsely So-Called” by Daniel Thurs and my advisor Ron Numbers: http://books.google.com/books?id=wcoXmJNEhekC&pg=PA281&dq=Ronald+numbers+pseudoscience&hl=en&sa=X&ei=90REUuvPNdCsqwHzx4CgDw&ved=0CD0Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=Ronald%20numbers%20pseudoscience&f=false

    Keep us posted on the progress of your book — I’ll certainly be looking forward to reading it!

  3. Thanks for the ref to the Egghead piece, which I missed when it came out.

    The privilege thing returns to me, reading that piece. In addition to the issues it deals with, I think AI is sometimes fed by the sheer stupidity of intellectuals. Take Oscar Handlin’s pulitzer-winning book, The Uprooted. “I have not found it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation,” he says in the intro. Freed from any obligation to support his generalizations with the experiences (much less the voices) of real people, Handlin paints a picture of superstitious, ignorant peasants who are too thick to understand the new society they found in America. He actually goes so far as to write first-person interior monologues for his benighted subjects, like the Italian-American housewife afraid of another pregnancy. “I guess you’ll have to sleep on the fire escape again, Joe.” REALLY?

    I think this would be enough to convince some readers that intellectuals such as Handlin are talking out their butts, and are the beneficiaries of a system that privileges their biases (albeit wrapped in high language) above everyone else’s. Just sayin’.

  4. Very intriguing.
    Two general questions: first, was the 60s counterculture as guilty of antiintellectualism as the far right, they being romantic in some way? second, does technology promote antiintellectualism because we don’t need to really think to act in the world?
    Thanks again

    • Howard: As I see it, historically that is, no particular political party or leaning on the liberal-conservative spectrum is more guilty than the other. I don’t want to give away my deepest thoughts, but let’s just say it’s a “structural” problem that involves several structures. As for technology, well, all material things can be misused (rocks, guns, smart phones, cars, etc.), but the common factor is human intentions and use. So, no, I don’t think that technology is a driving variable in anti-intellectualism. – TL

  5. Not so much an argument as a rhetorical tactic: Troll the reactionary dregs of the right—birthers, Birchers, and of course Joe McCarthy–and therefore, with opponents such as these, left-liberalism must be “intellectualism.”

    The implicit premise for Hofstadter-type polemic is of course that left-liberalism has the weight of social “science” and reason behind it, although this is a questionable claim. One could easily troll the dregs of the supporters of left-liberalism and find ample paranoia and ignorance there as well. Al Sharpton, for shorthand.

    Further, there is the implicit premise that “the right” is the storehouse of all the remaining ills of the human condition whereas “the left” is the author of all human progress. To oppose progress is of course inherently anti-intellectual.

    However, not all “progress” is good, and not all ideas are equal. Indeed, experience teaches us there are precious few good ideas, but an infinity of bad ones.

  6. Great post Tim. I’ve always thought that the term politically correct had certain AI elements. Politically correct is dismissive without explanation; it voids the discussion from the moment it’s invoked, shutting down further inquiry. Likewise I think anti intellectual is a phrase found in the culture wars that the left uses when it meets resistance from defenders of the status quo or fundamentalist thinkers. It is intended to disarm much as politically correct has a similar purpose for those from the right.

    While thinking of the term AI I went to Wikipedia for a further definition of the word intellectual here is a part of that definition:

    ”The intellectual is a specific variety of the intelligent, which unlike the general property, is strictly associated with reason and thinking. Many everyday roles require the application of intelligence to skills that may have a psychomotor component, for example, in the fields of medicine, sport or the arts, but these do not necessarily involve the practitioner in the “world of ideas”. The distinctive quality of the intellectual person is that the mental skills, which he or she demonstrates, are not simply intelligent, but even more; they focus on thinking about the abstract, philosophical and esoteric aspects of human inquiry and the value of their thinking.”

    This discussion seems like part of a continuing conflict that pits the ‘hard sciences’ against the ‘soft sciences’ which involves not just competition for funding and recognition but a more personal animus regarding value. In short, hard science produces concrete facts that manifest themselves in practical use; soft science is abstract, hard to comprehend and can’t be easily quantified. If one is anti-intellectual he/she is generally arguing from a utilitarian point of view and dismissing the benefits of critical examination whether about self, nation, world or universe.

    Jonathon Haidt in his book ‘The Righteous Mind’ predicates his argument on the supposition that we make judgments from emotion and justify them with reason which agrees (sounds to me from your description) with the research of Kahan and Nyan. Haidt goes some distance in his book to establish that he is a ‘moral psychologist’ who follows experimental scientific precepts and careful quantification and consequently, is not a clinical or social psychologist. The implication being that he’s not touchy, feely, he’s deals in hard science.

    • Paul: Thanks for the long, engaged reply. Muchas gracias.

      You’re right to make a connection between political correctness and anti-intellectualism. I’m sorry I hadn’t thought about it before now. And the accusation that AI is a left weapon against conservatism has much evidence behind it (e.g. see Hoftstadter’s works, among many others, Jacoby, etc.).

      Political correctness does, it seems to me, have a shut-down-the-discussion-of-conservatives element to it. I’ve never looked at the history of the term or the phenomenon. Here’s a brief recap in Wikipedia (distinguishes between term and phenomenon there). A great many of the citations in the Wiki write-up relate to polemical books (complaining about PC), but there is some psycho-social research out there. It should be noted that “inclusive language” is a positive term for what some would call PC.

      I observed very few history-related books on the Wiki reference list. There is Diane Ravitch’s *The Language Police* (2003). I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how historical she is in that particular book. Geoffrey Hughe’s *Political Correctness: A History of Semantics and Culture* looks like the best prospect for historical reflection—for making solid connections to anti-intellectualism and other historical works.

      I wonder if Andrew Hartman is addressing PC in his upcoming book on the Culture Wars? I’ll ask him. In the meantime I’m going to think a lot more about this. I predict a separate USIH post in the future. – TL

  7. This is my favorite post in some time on this site, well, because I am such a fan of Hofstadter’s original book, feel it holds up and consider it a major and important work of intellectual history. Regarding PC, it is important to note two contrasting accounts. One is that it emerged as an ironic self description on the New Left in an American context. Less amusing and more accurate is to trace it back to Maoist China. After all in that particular Marxist context involving self-criticism and the achievement of correct “Lines” politically correct was used as an objective and normative notion. Somehow it came over to the U.S. etc. I suspect, because of the bit of influence Maoism had on the Left, including the Women’s Movement (when the abuses and crimes of that regime were less known or acknowledged). I’ll never forget an academic function in which an earnest and not at all joking professor railed against Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers musicals for being “incorrect” because the male always led! As for intellectualism, I take the intellect to be a place of high curiosity and passion for ideals and values of all kinds and love of learning in general. Looked at in this way anti-intellectualism would be a refusal or suspicion of such things. Maybe the only real anti-intellectuals are the jocks who rarely crack open a book. (Though Hofstadter does a good job with corporate practicality as anti-intellectual)

Comments are closed.