by Luke Wilkinson

Nicolas Guilhot is a professor of intellectual history at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He has published several books on theories of international relations, most recently After the Enlightenment: Political Realism and International Relations in the mid-20th Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). He has also edited a number of volumes and published myriad articles on the relationship between historiography and international relations. Currently, he is working on a book on conspiracy theories in European History. He spoke with Luke Wilkinson about his recent JHI article, “A Primitive Kind of Superstition”: The Idea of the Paranoid Style in Art, Psychiatry, and Politics” (volume 84, issue 2). They discuss “the invisible” in politics, liberalism, and the relationship between psychoanalysis and intellectual history.

Luke Wilkinson: You end your article by suggesting that Hofstadter, Gombrich, and Popper all relied on the concept of “style” to unpick totalitarian ideologies. In so doing, you suggest, they ultimately failed at a historical interpretation of politics and instead diffused the mythical and apocalyptic dimensions of the “style” hermeneutic into liberal Cold War analysis, producing a form of liberal ideology. You seem to suggest that this was the result of the hermeneutical tool of “style” occupying an undefined position between art history and psychoanalysis. Are you trying to unpick an alternative intellectual history of liberalism that does justice to the form in which it developed during the Cold War?

Nicolas Guilhot: It would be presumptuous of me to say that I am unpicking an alternative intellectual history of liberalism, since others have done that remarkably well: I’m thinking of Helena Rosenblatt, Duncan Bell, or Sam Moyn’s recent book. By now we have a fairly good sense of how liberalism reinvented itself as a tradition that it never was and generated all these potted histories. What I am trying to do is contribute to this revisionist historiography by exploring the role of the idea of “conspiracy theory” in shoring up the self-image of contemporary liberalism. It was everything but a marginal idea: as I try to show in the book I am writing, it emerged on the ruins of historicism and pretty much at the same time as the “end of history” was declared. It captured the dramatic transformation of the relationship between politics and time that animated liberalism, and in particular the refusal to think about the future in terms of fulfillment. The affinities between the idea of conspiracy theory, the postmortem of historicism, and the rise of neoliberal visions of power and society are striking. “Conspiracy theory” turned anything even remotely indebted to historicism and made it the bogeyman of Cold War liberalism. But this was a very dubious operation: conspiracy theory was supposedly characteristic of religious thinking, the social sciences, antisemitism, historicism, and it was soon extended to include political ideologies, specific psychopathologies, and indeed forms of political rhetoric. What is striking in retrospect is that this unwieldy assemblage didn’t unravel—we are still saddled with it. The glue that held it together was this very loose notion of “style” that made it possible to conflate phenomena that were often incommensurable.

LW: Quentin Skinner in his seminal essay of 1969 states that “psychoanalysis is indeed founded upon” the possibility that an observer can give “a fuller or more convincing account of the agent’s behaviour than he could give himself.” This, he states, is the opposite of what intellectual history should be founded upon—i.e., that we should attempt to understand what the author intended to say. Do you think the psychoanalytic can be an element in the methods of intellectual history? Or are the two approaches to understanding politics incompatible?

NG: It’s interesting you mention Skinner, because he was somehow part of the history I sketch in the article. The idea that “style” is a matter of actual choice, or of “authorial intention” if you want, rather than the visible manifestation of some elusive and invisible collective entities, was central to Gombrich’s attempt at shifting the discussion of art onto a more individualistic, Popperian terrain. One of the sources of inspiration he mentions is a book by the linguist Stephen Ullmann, Language and Style, published in 1966, where the idea of motive and intentionality is applied to texts, not pictures. Ullmann suggested that authors had at their disposal various paradigms or repertoires they could use, mix, or overturn—that is a very Cambridge idea, and you can see how Pocock and Skinner developed their formula for intellectual history within a context characterized by the shift away from social and cultural history and the development of methodological individualism in the social sciences. Mind you, none of this takes anything away from their tremendous contribution (nor, for that matter, from Gombrich’s!) but it points at the general direction of this contribution and at the intellectual context of the time very much characterized by a move away from Marxist or even social historiographies.

Now regarding psychoanalysis, I think that declaring it beyond the pale has been a huge loss for intellectual history. Skinner certainly has a point—but, again, remember that he was doing something similar to what Gombrich was involved in. The issue is not simply one of individual choice and meaning, and we make a mistake when we consider psychology the instrument of a reductio ad individuum and the bracketing out of social and cultural factors. There is no incompatibility between psychology and the collective or the social. The tradition of existential psychology, for instance, is one that focuses on the non-individual aspects of psychic life, or rather it considers the individual as a result, not as a starting point. It attends to what it means to inhabit a world—a collective reality. Its importance for anthropology, cultural history, but also intellectual history cannot be overstated. And there is a rich line of thinkers who have contributed to or been inspired by it: Karl Jaspers, Ludwig Binswanger, and even Foucault, whose lessons on Binswanger have recently been published. In intellectual history, one could mention Gerald Izenberg. In this tradition, psychology is an essential perspective to observe cultural phenomena. Thankfully, there are signs of a renewed interest in psychology and psychoanalysis in intellectual history. What insights can be gained is something one can see for instance in Patrick Weil’s recent book about Bullitt and Freud’s study of Wilson, The Madman in the White House. And Ernesto De Martino’s incredible book The End of the World will soon be published by University of Chicago Press: it is an amazing vindication of the importance of psychology for cultural anthropology and history.

LW: In many ways, Hofstadter is attempting to explain the role of “the invisible” alongside “the visible” in American politics. The parallels with our own contemporary moment in politics are striking—there is certainly now an obsession with “the invisible,” with conspiracy theories dominating the popular socio-linguistic discourse. Should we lean into such parallels? Either way, what is the “invisible” and how can political thought understand it?

NG: The parallels between what Hofstadter described and our moment are obvious but perhaps also misleading. Or rather: these parallels have less to do with the reality of the moment than with the concepts and the language we use to navigate it. Of course, we can talk about the resilience of certain forms of “populism” and many people turn to Hofstadter to make sense of what is going on today: his essays on populism and on the paranoid style were reissued a couple of years ago in the Library of America collection and the blurbs as well as the introduction make clear that it is because they allegedly speak directly to our present and basically explain the Trump phenomenon. But if you look closely, you realize that people like Edward Shils or Hofstadter have defined populism not so much politically as psychologically, as a sort of political manifestation of the belief in conspiracy theories. Populism, for them, was defined by conspiracism and its consequences: the rejection of pluralism, the distrust of institutions and traditional checks and balances, the suspicion vis-a-vis the elite. Almost immediately, a number of historians—Comer Vann Woodward, Norman Pollack—have shown that this characterization was untenable. And yet, what is striking is how stable this discredited definition of populism has been from Hofstadter to contemporary liberal political theorists: when you read Jan-Werner Müller or Nadia Urbinati, for instance, you realize that the features they attribute to populism are exactly those that Shils was listing in the mid-1950s, when he wrote The Torment of Secrecy. This raises a number of questions: it suggests that the term “populism” comes loaded with a whole set of attributes and consequences that have more to do with the term itself than with the social or political movements under scrutiny. “Explaining” populism these days usually means nothing more than analytically unpacking a concept—it doesn’t explain anything and is almost tautological. I’m not suggesting that it is necessarily wrong; in some cases, the description may be accurate and aptly qualify specific movements: but then it’s by coincidence, not because of some timeless essence of “populism.” I think it’s important to challenge this sort of complacency and show that it is more a building block of liberalism’s self-image than a useful concept.

As for what is “invisible,” this is a great question, and indeed a great challenge. There is nothing wrong per se with thinking about invisible processes. As soon as we abstract from reality—as soon as we speak about collective entities, such as social classes, or the state, or nations, or whatever—we are dealing with invisible phenomena. Is this conspiracy theory? Is religion—to take an extreme example—conspiracy theory? You can see the sort of problems that arise. Then, what is invisible is also what is not yet present, what is still to come: the future. Does this mean that when we try to predict or shape the future we are involved in conspiracy theory? That’s what Popper thought—for him, anything deviating from methodological individualism was conspiracy theory—and to some extent he succeeded in persuading liberals that this position was central to their identity as liberals.  But liberalism also lost its soul in this operation and abdicated the possibility of delivering the kind of radical reforms that it still pursued during the interwar era. We also live in societies that are obsessed with transparency, where nothing is supposed to be invisible. But this is a naïve idea, and I think that visibility and transparency and surveillance are very unevenly distributed in society. This is also a reminder that what is “visible” and what is “invisible” is not a given: it depends on what instruments we give ourselves to make certain phenomena visible. Inequalities, social, economic, gender and racial biases: all these things must be made visible in order to become an object of reform. Making visible structural realities, collective interests, objective responsibilities is not indulging conspiracy theories.

Luke Wilkinson is completing an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. He has recently finished his MPhil dissertation on the “father” of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938). In this work, he attempts to reveal the complex relationship between Islamic philosophy and intellectual history. His has also written on Iranian intellectual history, the relationship between psychoanalysis and intellectual history, and Lebanese politics.

Featured image: Roman pavement mosaic, from E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, public domain, Wikimedia Commons.