How Cognitive Revolutions Altered the Ways We Think and Feel

An innovative way to make intellectual and cultural history relevant to today’s students.

March 30, 2022

For good or naught, contemporary U.S. society is in the midst of a cognitive and cultural revolution. The most striking sign of change is the decline in religiosity among the young, whether defined in terms of church membership, churchgoing or belief systems.

But this revolution goes well beyond the drift toward secularization. The ways we speak about gender, race and sexuality bear the imprint of postmodern ideas about identity and power that differ markedly from those dominant a generation ago.

There is a shift in attitudes, values and moral perceptions, and a heightened sensitivity to language, risk and psychological well-being, that strike me as genuinely new.

I am old enough to have lived through a series of cognitive revolutions—fundamental shifts in outlook, discourse and ideas. These include the post–World War II psychological and sociological revolution and the rights revolution of the 1960s. Each of these revolutions profoundly altered attitudes, mind-sets and value systems. Their impact was obvious and inescapable and could be seen in the tendency within organized religion to embrace the language of psychology and the therapeutic, or the application of the terminology and concepts of sociology when speaking about families or bureaucratic organizations, or adopting the discourse of individual rights in the way we understand the world or how we craft arguments.

Academic fields of study go in and out of fashion. In my discipline, there have been surges of interest in various kinds of history, followed by retreats. For a time, diplomatic history, environmental history, family history, immigration history, legal history, medical history, military history, policy history, public history, social history, urban history, women’s history, the history of childhood, of religion, of sexuality, of technology held sway, dominating the profession.

But while the field has never disappeared, it’s been quite a while since intellectual history attracted the attention it deserves. In fact, none of the departments I have taught in currently has a self-identified intellectual historian.

Let me take care not be misunderstood. There is a thriving Society of U.S. Intellectual History. Scholarly journals abound, including History and Theory and the Journal of the History of Ideas. Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian and New Yorker contributor, and perhaps the most prominent of all American historians, is herself an intellectual and cultural historian. Among the most influential recent books in U.S. history, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, is a history of ideas.

And yet, intellectual history as a stand-alone field is in retreat, and few students are introduced to anything more than the most superficial introduction to intellectual history. The field’s interests increasingly absorbed into other subfields. The recent death of Leo Marx at the age of 102 seems emblematic of the end of a particular approach to American intellectual history that focused on cultural symbols and collective myths.

The reasons for intellectual history’s marginalization are obvious. It’s seen, all too often, as an elitist enterprise that typically focuses on the ideas of great white men rather than on the ideas of the working class or of nonwhites or of activists.

When one speaks about intellectual history, it’s unclear whom or what one is actually referring to. Is it the history of intellectuals or the literati and other highbrows? Is it the history of cultural movements, like the Baroque, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Transcendentalism or Victorianism? Is it the history of ideas, of religious or aesthetic concepts, of cultural symbols and collective myths, of moral attitudes and beliefs, of people’s mental life or of their styles, sensibilities and emotions?

Nor is intellectual history’s impact immediately apparent. For all the talk of history’s cultural turn, most historians have little interest in treating ideas as free-floating entities or in streams of ideas that converge or conflict. To my amazement, we all too rarely see history as driven by contrasting and clashing ideas or values.

Yet if history is indeed the study of change and of struggles and debates, then it’s certainly the case that many of the most important cultural developments have entailed shifts in and arguments over values, outlooks and ideologies. If we truly want to produce students who are cultural literate, who truly understand that history is not simply about demographic or economic or political change, but about the clash of ideas and shifts in cultural values, then we should ask ourselves: How can we make intellectual history relevant to the current generation of undergraduates?

I believe that one answer is to reimagine history as a succession of cognitive and cultural revolutions. Some are obvious: the Scientific Revolution. The Humanitarian Revolution that fundamentally altered attitudes about cruelty and poverty and challenged long-standing defenses of slavery. The late-18th- and early-19th-century Liberal Revolutions that gave rise to new notions of the nation, of citizenship, of constitutional and economic liberties, and of natural rights. The Romantic Revolution, with its emphasis on subjectivity and the solitary self, the superiority of the imagination and feelings over reason, the quest for the transcendent, and the glorification of nature.

Of course, we mustn’t oversimplify these revolutions by ignoring their complex roots, their contradictions, their complex lines of development or their critics. But it’s essential, in my view, to remind students that how we see the world differs in far-reaching ways from those in the past, and that we shouldn’t be surprised when our successors, in turn, embrace values that differ from ours.

Historians are often reluctant to use the word “revolution,” which implies the sudden and comprehensive overthrow of an existing system, whether political or intellectual. After all, real revolutions are rare. The very concept of a prehistoric cognitive revolution has been questioned, for example, by paleo-archaeologists, who have challenged the idea that a genetic mutation 40,000 years ago abruptly altered human behavior, producing “flexible language, communication about third parties, and collective fictions.” Somewhat similarly, a number of psychologists have questioned the notion of a cognitive revolution within their discipline, involving the rejection of behaviorism and the embrace of various cognitive and constructivist theories of learning during the second half of the 20th century.

Yet the word “revolution” nevertheless remains useful when it signals fundamental shifts in outlook, values and sensibilities.

We can endlessly debate whether all history is, as Marx thought, the history of class struggle and of shifting modes of production. Or whether modern history involves the consolidation of and competition among nation-states or the rise of individualism. We can continuously contest the role of “great men” or accident or long-term demographic or economic forces in driving historical change. We can argue perpetually over whether Hegel was right when he claimed that history is an intelligible process involving the realization of human freedom, or whether Theodore Parker was correct when he insisted that while history’s arc is long, it bends toward justice, or whether Steven Pinker is accurate in insisting that history is defined by advances in rationality, liberty and progress.

But I can say with certainty that history is ultimately about the clash of ideas, struggles over values and shifts in cognitive understandings, and intellectual and moral frameworks.

Wouldn’t it make sense, therefore, to teach history, especially at the introductory level, in more sweeping terms, as what it is: A series of paradigm shifts, punctuated equilibriums and, yes, cognitive revolutions?

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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