All comments welcome; and, welcome as additions to the site:

Unless otherwise stated,
all content © A.E.M. Baumann


Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason


I put aside Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason only two-thirds the way through. Primarily because it really lies outside my current interests, and I picked it up telling myself I was not going to devote a ton of time to it: if it took too long to read – more to truth, if I took too long to read it –, I would put it aside. And I did.

Not to say I did not enjoy what I was reading. I can show plenty of marks in the margins to that end. But I was finding it unfulfilling. By midpoint I felt the work was dragging, especially in that the opening chapters on early American intellectualism were so intriguing. I can measure how much I am into a book by how often I am looking up footnotes: by the time I reached post war anti-communist sentiment, the footnotes were of little interest.

Why? Because as the text moves from that beginning, anchored in the writings of people like Emerson, the text loses its own intellectual grounding, and becomes merely history. But she is writing about intellectual history: that intellectual grounding cannot ever be lost without also losing the meat in the meal.

This is most evident in that Jacoby seems to use terms like 'anti-intellectualism,' 'unreason,' and 'irrationality' interchangeably. And they absolutely are not interchangeable concepts. However much fundamentalist Christianity may be anti-intellectual, it is by no means a- or ir-rational. It is, in fact, solidly planted upon a severe rationality: only, it is a rationality that starts with a different set of a priori than the scientific rationality Jacoby obviously grounds herself in. The very nature of Christian legalist interpretations of scripture lies in that rationality. Do not think, however, that scientific rationality does not itself lie upon a priori. It absolutely does. Every rational system of thought, especially to the degree it strives to sustain a pure rationality, is based upon a set of a priori; and the nature of the rationality can be discussed by viewing the limits to rationality created by those a priori. But, I digress.

Or do I? One puzzling moment. Freud is mentioned three times in the text. Twice, it is in the context of important writings in intellectual history. But the third – actually the first – seems to be openly derisive of Freud's work. I will say I continually have the feeling I am misreading the text, probably because of a flaw in the text's syntax. But however I try, the comment seems derisive and dismissive. And yet, Freud's central effort, from the start, was to make of the study of the psyche a rational science. His development is marked by the growing understanding that the nature of the unconscious makes such an endeavor impossible. It is a peculiar moment in the text – not isolated, though. Occasionally here and there Jacoby drops a line that gives away her own inherently anti-intellectual bias toward rationalism – and her inability to look beyond.

Does that condemn the book. No. I fully recommend it as a general survey of U.S. anti-intellectualism. Not, however, of U.S. unreason. They are not the same. In fact, Emerson himself was very much about unreason, however much he was also about intellectualism. The problem is that Jacoby assumes unreason to be a negative: when it need not necessarily be so. Her inability to see that is the the flaw that must be watched for in reading her book.