21 Sep 2023 20:34

After all, to any rational mind, the greater part of the history of ideas is a history of freaks.
---E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory, p. 3
That is, the study of crack-pots, a.k.a. kooks, cranks, flakes, "authors of particularly unsolicited manuscripts", and the like. For obvious reasons, this is the golden age of psychoceramics, when a million mutant flowers bloom, and a thousand sherds of thought contend.

Currently psychoceramics is little more than recreational kook-fancying, by people like me. Some of us do it because kooks amuse us, some as a means of marking themselves as Not Normal (But Not as Strange as Those Kooks), some because they take a sympathetic interest in the fringes of human belief, and some because they take a hostile interest. I'm mostly in it for laughing at silly people and rationalist jeremiads: not very noble motives, perhaps, but there they are. Others among us are much more charitable, perhaps to excess...

This is not to say that psychoceramics couldn't play a more serious role, however. As an organized field of study, it would have a place in the sociology of science analogous to that of lesion studies in neuropsychology. A working intellectual discipline, like probability theory or Sanskrit philology, has mechanisms which keep it from going off the rails, and keep cranks from taking over; most of the time and on balance, such disciplines produce reliable knowledge. This is manifestly not the case outside the bounds of those disciplines, as those of us of a positivist or rationalist temperament are all too aware. [ETA, 2022: When I first wrote that sentence, in the 1990s, the word "rationalist" had not been appropriated as the name of an online cult.] But kooks represent not merely your average, garden-variety human irrationality and creduilty; your kook is a person who has worked at his crackpot thinking, at least as much as a probabilist or Sanskrit scholar has specialized in their discipline. It would be fascinating and useful to know what the institutions and mechanisms are which lead some to the production of reliable knowledge, and others to the production of eccentric crap, and what the intermediate stages are (IQ-mongering, some sorts of literary criticism, perhaps? less snidely: UFOlogy and systematic theology). In fact the intermediate forms, the cults and sects and organized pseudo-sciences, which inhabit, in Medawar's great phrase, Pluto's Republic, might be more informative, though less entertaining, than the ravings of individual loons, since there one can look at the effects of lesioning different institutions possessed by real science and scholarship.

One thing to investigate is where all the details come from --- psychoceramic outpourings typically have lots and lots of details, and not all of them are lifted from prior sources, but seem rather to have been spun out of whole cloth. The cognitive processes involved --- what Russell once, dispargingly, called "mere thinking" in his fellow philosophers --- would be fascinating to understand, and compare with what goes in the minds of, say, novelists, or people inventing worlds for role-playing games. Another point to look at is how crank theories are propagated from person to person, and which are susceptible to institutionalization. (This could connect to studying communities assembled around various sorts of narratives.) What are the general social conditions which promote kooks? What are the conditions which let kooks find audiences? Do e.g. bohemias act as reservoirs of kookiness, and if so why?

(Another reason to make an honest discipline of psychoceramics is that we could call it "Kook, Eccentric and Urban Legend Studies," pronounced "kewl.")

It is perhaps hard to accept that scholarly study, and all the time and energy which that implies, can appropriately be lavished on a ludicrous fantasy such as the Protocols or on obscure figures such as the hack novelist Hermann Goedsche, the cheap swindler Osman Bey, the half-crazy pseudo-mystic Sergey Nilus, and the rest. Yet it is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.

--- Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (London: Serif, 2nd edition, 1996, pp. xiii--xiv)

Drafted 03/9/1998 13:45:00