Interview with Thomas Christ, Author of Thinking About Thinking

What do you hope your readers take away from this book? 

Interview with Thomas Christ, Author of Thinking About Thinking

I hope that the reader learns to share the theory-based way of thinking developed in Section I of the book, that he or she finds that this way of thinking explains the differences between the yeomanry and cognoscenti as it is applied in Section II of the book and that the proposals for moderation of these differences as outlined in Section III of the book make sense.

Tell us about the process for coming up with the cover. 

The concentrically circular motif on the front cover depicts the cognoscenti in the center with the yeomanry on the periphery.  This deliberately reflects the relative positionings of these two sectors in American society, with the cognoscenti located in formal organizations more central in the society and the yeomanry positioned in smaller traditional organizations at the periphery of the society.

What was the highlight of writing this book? 

The most intellectually satisfying part of writing the book was the discovery that I could create a Sociology of Knowledge based on conventional theoretical sources (Marx, Mannheim, etc.) and then—with the application of a distinction between formal and informal organizations (which I had studied in graduate school)—come up with a reasoned distinction between the yeomanry and the cognoscenti and their respective ideological characteristics

What books or authors have most influenced your own writing? 

Substantively, the principal influences are those most frequently cited:  Marx, Mannheim, Riesman, Berger.  Stylistically, I think that I have been influenced by the writings of Tom Wolfe.

Who is the author you most admire in your genre? 

The book is dedicated to David Riesman.  I read his book, The Lonely Crowd, as an undergraduate, and his ideas have importantly informed my own thinking, particularly with respect to Section II of my own book.

What do you like to do when you are not writing? 

I enjoy playing with and training my bird dog, Tink, and hunting grouse with him during the season.  I enjoy sitting on my deck in the late afternoon, watching the Virginia evening come.

Favorite artist and favourite song? 

The late and underappreciated Jim Ringer.  He had many great songs, but I’d highlight Tramps and Hawkers.

Your hero? 

I inherited one hero—Albert Einstein—from my Dad.  My other hero growing up was Rocky Marciano, The Hard Rock from Brockton, Mass.

If you could invite one person to dinner, who would it be and what would you cook?

I would invite Dorothy Parker—the wittiest mind the anglophone world has ever produced—and I would cook her a Thai beef curry, a recipe developed by my Dad and refined by me over the decades.  It’s quite piquant, so we’d drink plenty of cold beer.

Share something your readers wouldn’t know about you. 

My wife and I lived by ourselves on an island in the Chickahominy River for over five years while I taught at the College of William and Mary.  I commuted by small skiff.


Interview with Thomas Christ, Author of Thinking About Thinking

Now, we have addressed, above, two examples of ideology constituting a badge of group affiliation—one from the yeomanry and one from the cognoscenti—but there are many other such examples characterizing the yeomanry and the cognoscenti. Public expressions of support for any of the ideological themes associated with one’s own group are a show of group affiliation, and we have seen how strong the ties of such affiliation can be.

“Fashion” is a noun in the English language generally used to denote items which are exhibited to indicate affiliation with one’s favored group. Now, in conventional parlance fashion is most typically used to refer to couture, to millinery: to an individual’s choice in dress, in hats, shoes, belts purses, and so forth. And, clearly, such fashion choices are indicative of socioeconomic status and level of sophistication. The same, though, could be said of music: Do you listen to Baroque or country . . . or classic rock or hip-hop? And the same could be said of one’s choices of art, food, and drink (Do you drink buttermilk or kefir, Black Label or Taras Boulba?), personal vehicles, entertainment, and so on.

Socioeconomic status and the sector divide are not the same, even though there is some correlation such that the cognoscenti are, on average, more affluent and educated than the yeomanry. That having been said, the yeomanry/cognoscenti cleavage cuts across the income scale. A self-employed plumber and a museum art director probably have similar incomes, but the former is a yeoman, and the latter is a cognoscente. Moreover, it is likely the plumber and the art director will make systematically different choices in music, in food and drink, in vehicles . . . and in ideology.

Thus it is that one’s ideology comes to be a matter of fashion. One’s ideology comes to signal whether one is a member of the yeomanry or the cognoscenti. Just like a belt or a purse, one’s ideology indicates one’s group affiliation. Beyond this, all the cultural choices that correlate with ideology become indicia of sector affiliation: whether one drives a pickup or a Prius, whether one supports Republicans or Democrats, whether one listens to Country or Hip-Hop, whether one wears work boots or Birkenstocks.

A few years ago it became the fashion among some young rural men to install large, faux plastic    testicles on the trailer hitches of their pick-up trucks. Quite a sight for the car following. You never saw these “truck nuts,” as they were called, on a Prius, a Toyota model which appeared about coincidentally. The cultural clash alone would have forced the poor hybrid off the road.

To call ideology “fashion” might seem to trivialize ideology (and, some would say, fashion as well). This, however, is a profound misunderstanding of the importance of the linkage between ideology and fashion. If ideology is fashion—and if fashion consists of the styles embraced by “good” people—then being able to successfully label one’s opponent ideologically unfashionable means that you have labeled him or her the opposite of a “good” person, viz., a bad person! This is a profound power, and a power given its profundity by the concurrence of the ideological community: All Good People will agree with my position! And the evidence for my opponent’s position—and the quality of the reasoning with which it is argued—are irrelevant. How many times has the reader seen, in a debate, one of the parties seek to label their opponent’s position “racist” or “sexist” or “socialist,” or “elitist” or “communist?”

Her position is racist? His position is socialist? Quod Erat Demonstratum! An argument is won by the local popularity of its conclusions or implications and not by the quality of argument or the evidence that supports those conclusions or implications. This is—very literally—argument by popular demand, argument ad hominem. The argument is judged not by the evidence for the argument, the strength of its reasoning but by the identity of its proponent.  The sociology of ideology which has been presented here accounts for not only the occurrence of such ideological forms but of where and among whom they occur . . . and, of course, why.

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