It feels like people clumped themselves into intellectual movements more 30 years ago than they do today. There were paleoconservatives and neoconservatives. There were modernists and postmodernists; liberals, realists, and neoliberals; communitarians and liberation theologians; Jungians and Freudians; Straussians and deconstructionists; feminists and post-feminists; Marxists and democratic socialists. Maybe there were even some transcendentalists, existentialists, pragmatists, agrarians and Gnostics floating around.
Now people seem less likely to gather in intellectual clumps. Now public thinkers seem to be defined more by their academic discipline (economist or evolutionary biologist) or by their topic (race and gender), than by their philosophic school or a shared vision for transforming society.
The forces of individualism that are sweeping through so much of society are also leading to the atomization of intellectual life. Eighty years ago engaged students at City College in New York sat in the cafeteria hour upon hour, debating. The Trotskyites sat in one alcove and the Leninists sat in another, and since the Trostkyites were smarter and won the debates, the leaders of the Leninist faction eventually forbade their cadres from ever talking to them.
But today we live in a startup culture. There’s great prestige in being the founder of something, the lone entrepreneur who creates something new. Young people who frequently say they don’t want to work in some large organization are certainly not going to want to subsume themselves in some pre-existing intellectual label.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
The Internet has changed things, too. Writers used to cluster around magazines that were the hubs of movements. On the Internet, individual posters and tweeters are more distinct, but collectives of thinkers are less common.
The odd thing is that it was easier to come to maturity when there were more well-defined philosophical groups. When there was a choice of self-conscious social movements, a young person could try them on like clothing at the mall: be an existentialist one year and then join a Frankfurt School clique the next. This was a structured way to find a philosophy of life, a way of looking at the world, an identity.
Eventually you found what fit, made a wager, joined a team and assented to a belief system that was already latent within you. When I joined National Review at age 24 I joined a very self-conscious tradition. I was connected to a history of insight and belief; to Edmund Burke and Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham. I wanted to learn everything I could about that tradition – what I accepted and what I rejected – as a way to figure out what I believed.
When you join a movement – whether it is deconstructionist, feminist or Jungian – you join a community, which can sometimes feel like family in ways good and bad. You have a common way of seeing the world, which you want to share with everyone. When you join, people are always pressing books into your hands.
Believing becomes an activity. People in movements take stands, mobilize for common causes, hold conferences, fight and factionalize and build solidarity. (I remember late night at one conference dancing near four generations of anti-communists.)
There are opportunity structures for young people to rise and contribute. First you set out the chairs for the meetings; later you get to lead the meetings. Young people find that none of the mentors is perfect, so they can’t be completely loyal to any particular leader, but they can be loyal to the enterprise as a whole, because it embodies some real truth and is stumbling toward some real good.
The whole process arouses the passions. Today universities teach “critical thinking” – to be detached, skeptical and analytic. Movements are marked by emotion – division and solidarity, victory and defeat.
There are fervent new converts, and traitors who “break ranks.” There are furious debates over strategy; the future design of society is at stake. There are inevitably love affairs and breakups. People learn ardently, with their hearts.
As in any love, there’s an idealistic early phase, then a period of disillusionment, and then, hopefully, a period of longer and more stable commitment to the ideas. The movement shapes one’s inner landscape. It offers a way to clarify the world; a bunch of books to consult if you need to think through some problem.
Of course there is often rigidity and groupthink, but people can also be smarter when thinking in groups. For example, movements pool imagination. It’s very hard to come up with a vision so compelling that it can provide a unifying purpose to your life. But such visions emerge in a movement collectively, and then get crystallized by a leader like Martin Luther King.
It all depends on taking steps that are less in fashion today: committing to a collective, accepting a label, keeping faith, surrendering self to a tradition that stretches beyond you in time.