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Reflections on Alfred’s Reflections on Hofstadter’s Reflections

This entry was posted in Conspiracy Theories on 7 June 2013 by

Reflections on Alfred’s Reflections on Hofstadter’s Reflections

Actually “reflections” might be the wrong word in Hofstadter’s case. What he delivered in his essay, which we discussed in our last meeting, was a diagnosis. Of course, Hofstadter was careful here. He states clearly in his essay that he is not talking about paranoia in a literal sense and that furthermore the “diagnosis” he delivers does not just apply to the political right. Then one reads the essay and is left with the impression that Hofstadter is talking about a literal paranoia confined to the political right. In other words, Hofstadter inserts qualifications into his essay without integrating them into his argument. They are dutifully placed at the beginning of the essay, but it is hard to escape the suspicion that they are in fact afterthoughts.


Except in one respect, and here I find myself qualifying my assessment of Hofstadter’s qualifications. Even if his disavowal of any use of paranoia in a clinical sense seemed to have little restraining effect upon the gist of his argument, it did manifest itself in the terminology. Alfred is right in his post when he points to “style” as the crucial and overlooked component of Hofstadter’s coinage; for obvious reasons, virtually all attention is directed to “paranoia.” But it is significant that Hofstadter did not call his essay “The Paranoid Mentality in American Politics”; instead the appeal to the notion of paranoia is modified and tempered by its linkage to the notion of “style.” From a historical perspective, this needs to be more closely investigated. Alfred and I discussed the possibility that the coinage could be traced back to Ludwik Fleck’s notion of a Denkstil. Perhaps, though I suspect there would have to be intermediate steps in such a transfer. Furthermore, other political scientists such as Daniel Bell were also invoking the term frequently in the 1950s.


Whatever its precise provenance, “style” has now gone somewhat out of “style” as a sociological concept – at least that is my feeling. When Hofstadter coined the term in 1963 (the essay was actually first delivered as a talk at Oxford), it however served the purpose of capturing something precisely because its intrinsic vagueness leaves a lot open. This is the positive side. The negative side? Neither it nor the qualification Hofstadter appends to his essay were able to guard against the siren call of a crude psychologism. If one is intrigued about this notion of “paranoid style,” then the expectation that the essay will provide the precise determination of its nature is a forlorn one. But perhaps Hofstadter instinctively understood that a conceptual “meme” such as “the paranoid style” reproduces itself far more successfully if it raises questions rather than answers them.