Ittai Orr, Yale University

Barra Dissertation Fellow 

“American Intelligences: Varieties of Mind Before IQ”

Ittai’s research excavates a wide range of eighteenth and nineteenth-century popular, literary and scientific texts from both sides of the Atlantic for lost meanings of “intelligence” before the advent of modern intelligence testing at the turn of the twentieth century. Before IQ there was not one “intelligence” but a variety – not one measure of the functionality of the human mind but multiple competing standards. The unified “mental capacity” natural historians believed people of color, impoverished immigrants and women lacked, and for which those who were called “idiots” stood as the determinative and stigmatized “other,” was neither uniformly defined nor universally valued before eugenics. Highly individualized “inflamed personality,” spiritual knowledge, poetic talent, capitalist sagacity, “subjective intelligence” common to all, the natural wisdom and rascality of laborers and servants, and “intelligence with the earth”: each emerges as the true marker of mental excellence in different contexts, each defiantly celebrated as the reason “par excellence” in the clash between the aristocracy of the old world and the emerging democracy of the new. Not only does this project overturn the interpretation of the canon of antebellum American literature as a conscious reflection of American intellectual power, it also suggests that since the mind’s function was only determined imperfectly and as the result of historical conditions, it may be defined differently again.


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