January 8, 2013

“Let’s give Ideology the quits” [guest post by sdferr]

Why are we wedded — if we are, as it seems we are — to the use of the term ideology when we cite our political dispositions? Is it a matter of necessity? A matter of mere alterable preference? A matter of superior rhetorical utility?

Or might it rather be some sort of colossal cosmic irony, an infection in our commonplace political vocabulary by a received term we were handed down [in relative innocence] by our parents and teachers, a term which only seems to meet a descriptive need, a handy name for political categorizations, but a term about whose implications we have no earthly clue?

So, I’ve got a bug biting me, and though I know my occasional plaints about it may often seem a rhetorical triviality (or an out and out nuisance) to no particularly reasonable purpose or end, still I can’t seem to shake my urge to speak up, to once again suggest we abandon such usages conscientiously, intentionally, as usages against our interests.

Ok, someone may say, but why? What’s the problem? Ideology is a perfectly good word, everybody uses it all the time, and for the most part everybody gets what it means when they do use it. And that, as it happens, is the problem.

On a straightforward literal [albeit naive] translation of the Greek words from which ideology is derived, we get something like “an account [-ology] of ideas [ideo-]”  Hmmm, that doesn’t sound right. At least that’s not the way we use it today.
So, I’ll just pull down the first current dictionary definition I find, here:

1. the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.

And that is just about right, with perhaps one little addendum: the wrong doctrine, the wrong myth, the wrong belief — etc.

But how is this? Why wrong?

Wrong because that’s the pretzeled twist Napoleon gave the new meaning he imparted to the term, the meaning that has come down to us, and that’s the spin Karl Marx picked up to focus on when he amplified its use along Napoleon’s lines, again passing it on to us.

Wrong because of the rigidities implied, wrong because political thinking can’t be a rigid formulaic or algorithmic affair, a machine-like stamping out of parts each identical to the last, isn’t in fact ever a ‘lock-step’ dogma, but is necessarily a rational business of rational agents — us — which in turns implies an urgency, if a quiet urgency at times, in search of the truths about political matters.

But in order to see where the term ideology actually gets its start, let’s back up a moment, circa 1796, to be rough about it: this is the approximate moment at which our term ideology was coined — a neologism as we say — by the French philosophe Destutt de Tracy, contemporary to James Madison (Tracy was two years younger, they both died in 1836), metaphysical hero to Thomas Jefferson, stalwart Republican of the French Revolution, devoted follower of the judicious John Locke, and adoring commentator and critic of Montesquieu. Tracy had in mind — as we can see from the Greek “-ology” appendage of his new term — to name a “new” science(!) — the science of ideas; or to say it another way, a thoroughly modern empirical-scientific study of thinking.

Neologisms were all the rage at the time, just as new sciences themselves along with their discoveries (Elements! — Oxygen! — Phlogiston!) were also all the rage, popping up like rabbits reproducing on the plains of Australia.  For there was thrilling Enlightenment abroad in the lands of Europe and America, technologically magnificent Enlightenment bringing new knowledge of all sorts to mankind, not least the sorts which would sure-footedly guide man’s political aspirations.  To that end, Tracy reasoned, we were in need of a scientific determination of the sources of our thoughts, and our moral guides, the bases of our politics — and most of all we were in need of c e r t a i n t y (in the best modern way): no mush allowed.  I quote Eva Brann (The Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, M.I.T. Press 1979, ch. 2, p. 93):

Nor was metaphysics admitted to Jefferson’s school, in accordance with du Pont de Nemours’s plan for the national university, which was to exclude the “unintelligible theological gibberish called metaphysics.”[44]   In the exact place that was traditionally assigned to First Philosophy, that is, to ontology or the science of being, Jefferson placed Ideology, the science of mind (and a word with a terrific future). Jefferson’s Ideology was a doctrine, already mentioned in my first chapter, propagated by Destutt de Tracy, whom he considered with Dugald Stuart as “the ablest Metaphysician living; by which I mean Investigators of the thinking faculty of man.” (To Adams, 14 March 1820.)  His works “will render more service to our country than the writing of all the saints and holy Fathers of the church have rendered.” (To Lafayette, 8 March 1819.)  To make Ideology accessible in America, Jefferson himself corrected the translation of his “Treatise on Political Economy”, which is prefaced by an outline of the doctrine of Ideology: Ideology is above all an antimetaphysical polemic, which leads to an empirical method of analysis.  It begins in a critique of human faculties in which they all come to be regarded as senses.  An interaction between these and external matter is posited.  The doctrine fitted well with Jefferson’s “habitual anodyne”, the transformed Cartesian formula, “I feel; therefore I exist.” (To Adams, 15 August 1820.)  This sensational materialism was also summed up in the fact that Tracy ranked it, and Jefferson accepted it, as a branch of zoology! — Jefferson’s First Philosophy comes, strictly, under natural history.[45]

[44] –  du Pont de Nemours, National Education, p. 124.

[45] – Destutt de Tracy,  A Treatise on Political Economy, to which is Prefixed a Supplement to a Preceding Work on the Understanding, or Elements of Ideology (Georgetown: 1817; reprinted by the Detroit Center for Health Education); Adrienne Koch,  The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), pp. 64-82; Ideology as zoology, p. 67.

That’s a very different meaning of ideology than what we’re used to intending, no?

But, according to Tracy’s political opponent Bonaparte, Tracy’s term is an absurdity and an affront to his Bonapartean political authority.  Hence, wrong.  And wrong it is indeed, says Marx: “. . . it was this negative sense of the term which Marx had in mind in his writings on Ideology (he called Tracy a “fischblütige Bourgeoisdoktrinär”—a fish-blooded bourgeois doctrinaire). ”

But is it wrong to us?

Well, it isn’t right to us, is it?  Do we think we can or even ought to recover Tracy’s intention and apply this meaning to the term as we ourselves use ideology in ordinary discourse?  Recall, Tracy follows Locke as a blank-slatist where it comes to the human mind — only the senses count for Tracy: we arrive from our mother’s womb empty of all mental content; we fill ourselves up over time with sensations and only sensations. It is from these alone that our thoughts are made.  This is an epistemology of a completely materialist stripe, it hopes.

Yet for us this isn’t nearly a tolerable account of human cognition.  It simply doesn’t trace with our current understanding of the human mind, its development in individuals, and therefore, human nature.

So, I would suggest we simply abandon the term altogether. It isn’t much useful in its original sense, save where referring to Tracy’s own theories (and has been replaced today in that context by other terms of brain science, for instance, neuro-science, neurology, neurocognitive, and so on), and as a political descriptor, it amounts to a self-delivered slap in the face.  Why would we want that?  I mean, where’s the good in it, unless we’re hiring it done?

Posted by Jeff G. @ 9:10am

Comments (30)

  1. And when we do wish to cite our political dispositions, what word should we use?

    If I intend ideology to mean simply “political dispositions,” and if that is how it is understood by others, what is the harm?

    The language is full of words that no longer mean what they were coined to mean. For that matter, when I take out my cell phone and say I’m going to dial up a friend of mine, people who have never seen a rotary phone know what I mean.

    But if you have a better choice of word than “ideology,” sdferr, let’s consider adopting it.

  2. I hadn’t in mind prescribing to others any particular term or terms from among the myriad alternative choices we may have McG, in part I think, simply because they’re so numerous in the first instance, and in part because it’s a hard enough task to argue such an abandonment (though I’m still not clear in my own mind why or how we seem to want to retain ideology: I mean, is it simply the ease of habit? Or are there genuinely positive virtues inherent in the term?) — why take on another difficulty where it mayn’t be necessary? In general, I’d guess people will make their own decisions either way, keeping the one or choosing some other. I’m merely suggesting a rationale for giving it up, but if keeping the term is better done in the full light of day, at least the keeping will be in keeping with better understanding the underlying fwap.

  3. Given what’s become of the meaning of “liberal,” the perversion of “ideology” seems modest by comparison.

  4. Liberal at least had a long assed run in its own incarnation — what, like twenty-five centuries or so before it was spun upsidedown — poor Tracy’s novelty didn’t last ten years before it got topsy-turvy’d.

  5. To me, that makes it the far worse loss. It’s one thing to turn a pole barn into a whorehouse; it’s quite another when you convert a centuries-old cathedral.

  6. I can’t help but agree with that Squid, liberal is indeed the referent to far more important aspect of life in need of preservation (though I think the notion of ridding ourselves of ideology by choice is part of that maintenance). On the other hand, I suspect that the long run of use in liberal’s proper sense will not be possible to be overwritten entirely, if only because you and I can notice the abuse so readily: or it’s an easier recovery. We have only to notice that Mrs. Clinton and Barry Obazma had chosen to leave off calling themselves liberals, reaching back to pick up progressive instead.

  7. I’ll eventually come to a large(er) keyboard and expand, but for now what McGehee said.

    All’s I know fo’sho is that far-Left ‘ideology’ is perverse and unconditionally anathema to the continued successes of this Republic. Chart me opposite and contrarian to that mindset, that set of catechisms, that dogma, belief set, cult, persuasion, those canons. That weltanschauung.

  8. I’ll eventually come to a large(er) keyboard and expand, but for now what McGehee said.

    By all means serr8d, please do. Then we can chew the fat and gristle more thoroughly.

  9. Wrong because of the rigidities implied, wrong because political thinking can’t be a rigid formulaic or algorithmic affair, a machine-like stamping out of parts each identical to the last, isn’t in fact ever a ‘lock-step’ dogma, but is necessarily a rational business of rational agents — us

    This is, for me, where the harm lies. The term “ideology” carries the implication that political thought can be divided up into some small finite set of little boxes and each person can be assigned to a box. Squashing human square pegs into an ideology’s round hole.

  10. Squashing human square pegs into an ideology’s round hole.

    Ain’t it the ruin?

    Tracy certainly didn’t have that in mind, though he may have undershot the problem of epistemology at which he aimed: he wasn’t looking to carve up humanity as a whole into parts, but to find something universal about human beings as such.

    However, the earlier problem discovered — it’s not like political philosophy wasn’t aware that our account of knowledge is not intimately linked to our politics from the very beginning of political philosophy — is that certainty may not be available to us as human beings, and therefore our politics may be better off reflecting that ground truth.

  11. As the old joke goes even a physicist trying to help his friend improve his poultry farm will want to start out by getting the farmer to stipulate to the assumption that each chicken is an identical spheroid of uniform density. Sometimes abstraction, compression, or simplification, lead us to great theories that only give so so real world results. You have to engage with reality off the page at some point and you often lose a lot of certainty when you do.

  12. I don’t have the time to crystallize my own thoughts here (and doubt they’d be particularly insightful anyway) but maybe this Niemeyer offering might also be interesting to others in light of sdferr’s post.

  13. You have to engage with reality off the page at some point and you often lose a lot of certainty when you do.

    Yep, and as both Quine and Sellars have suggested, will also already be heavily (and questionably) theory bound when you do.

  14. Thankyou bh.

    When Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism appeared on the world scene, we were fortunate to have a word by which to distinguish philosophy from the idea system of political adventurers. Adventurers they were who assumed that, given total political power, they could change not only laws and institutions but, indeed, being itself, including the nature and destiny of man. Thus we learned to see the ideologies of our age not as something that one could take or leave, but as an abyss threatening mankind with total catastrophe.
    Liberalism is essentially sentimental benevolence. Liberals are in love with their own feelings rather than the reality at which their benevolence is aiming. If conservatives find liberals repugnant for this reason it must be that they affirm life’s reality rather than their own emotions. It follows that conservatism cannot be a doctrine, as liberalism and socialism are. So it is true what Irving Kristol, accusing forefinger raised, has said about conservatism: It had and has no ideology. And it is true what William Buckley remarked in The Jeweler’s Eye, that conservatism cannot be defined because, in its essence, it is an attitude. One can only describe it empirically: “Look—this is a Conservative!”

  15. For myself, I don’t have any particular need to use the word “ideology” beyond simply needing a convenient and mutually agreed-upon word for the pseudo-philosophy most participants in political discussions use as the origin for their arguments.

    Maybe “political pseudo-philosophy” would be a usable substitution, for those occasions when we feel like explaining why we’re not just saying “ideology.” But under normal circumstances I fear it would derail the intended direction of whatever discussion is underway.

  16. I mentioned to geoffb a couple of days ago something possibly useful here: “Only a couple of days ago I had occasion to remark on the term as it was used self-referentially by a leftist Albert Gore associate in a Politico piece Jeff cited — to this effect: “. . . what a strange path for a word: moving from ‘how people think’ to ‘people who can’t think’.” And that latter characterization doesn’t come from me, I hasten to add, save insofar as I merely repeat the commonplace characterization as used by no less than the Great Obazma: only recall where he recently spoke of the Republicans as fixed by their ideology on certain ‘inadequate’ solutions to the fiscal cliff ‘crisis’, whereas he, the Great Obazma had only the most healthy intentions toward the good of the whole in mind, perfect pragmatist that he is.”

  17. Well by gosh, the little god-king gets to decide what words mean. After all, he won!   ;-)

  18. Heh, ‘winning’ after all, is his principle, so consistent too, though he doesn’t say so in precisely those terms.

  19. So Obama is Humptey-Dumptey then. That works for me.

  20. He’s certainly got no complaints about the fall just past. He thinks it was great.

  21. At the risk of sounding like a Simple Simone, I believe the term we are looking for is Principles rather than Ideology.

    Principles don’t leave much room for interpretation, whereas ideology is all about interpretation.

    Just my 2¢.

  22. I think the formulation is more along the lines of: My (wise, correct) political philosophy is founded on principle; your (shallow, incorrect) political beliefs are just ideology.

  23. Digging around in the wiki about Russell Kirk (after coming on the praise of Russell Kirk in Niemeyer’s essay bh linked) and then reading in an address (linked in the wiki) which Kirk gave in 1988, criticizing Neoconservatives, I just a moment ago happened upon this passage by Mr. Kirk, (who himself refers back towards Mr. Niemeyer!: round and round we go — wheeee!), just to toss another faggot on the fire:

    **Infatuation with Ideology. An instance of this lack of wisdom is the Neoconservatives’ infatuation with ideology. Some of you ladies and gentlemen present here today may have heard some years ago my exchange, on this very platform, with Mr. Irving Kristol, concerning ideology. He and various of his colleagues wish to persuade us to adopt an ideology of our own to set against Marxist and other totalist ideologies. Ideology, I venture to remind you, is political fanaticism: at best it is the substitution of slogans for real political thought. Ideology animates, in George Orwell’s phrase, “the streamlined men who think in slogans and talk in bullets.”

    Over the years, I have written a good deal about the curse of ideological infatuation; so I do not propose today to digress at any length on that grim subject. I refer you, rather, to the recently-published collection of Dr. Gerhart Niemeyer’s essays entitled Aftersight and Foresight. In his essay “Ideas Have Also Roots,” Professor Niemeyer reproves Mr. Kristol for his unfortunate advocacy of a “Republican ideology,” and goes on to describe the unhappy infiltration of ideological illusions into American politics.

    Role of Humpty Dumpty
    . “Ideology is not confined to communists and fascists,” Dr. Niemeyer writes. “We, too, have our share of it, and it shows in our policies. All modern ideologies have the same irrational root: the permeation of politics with millenarian ideas of pseudo-religious character. The result is a dreamworld. Woodrow Wilson dreamed both of ‘a world safe for democracy,’ and of ‘enduring peace , “world safe from war.’ More recently, our national leaders have talked about ‘creating’ a new society, a ‘Great Society,’ and to that end making ‘war against poverty,”war against hunger,”creating new men,’ ‘making the world new as at the beginning,’ building ‘a city shining on a hill.’ All these presume that man could create himself, implying that he is not a creature, dependent on God, but the master of his own soul and destiny. Civilizational activities are given the character of salvation and thus stamped with a label of sacredness.

    A very recent example of this puerile infatuation of the Neoconservatives with “a new ideology” or “an American ideology” is a very lengthy, highly pretentious article by Mr. Michael Novak in the fall 1988 number of that interesting magazine 77tis Wodd [sic — I can’t decipher this to save it, suggestions welcome — sdferr] Entrenching himself behind a formidable array of footnotes – most of them citations from his own writings – Mr. Novak advocates ideology as “an indispensable but secondary guide to social action.” Unlike many Neoconservatives, Mr. Novak does pay some respects to religion in this essay – conveniently ignoring the unpleasant fact that all ideologies are anti-religions, or inverted religions. But the reader may suspect, uncomfortably, that Mr. Novak’s sentiments are much like those of the late Robert S. Kerr, long senator from Oklahoma, who was given to intoning from time to time, “God always has His arm around my shoulder.” In his role of Humpty Dumpty, Novak presumes to redefine this word ideology: he instructs us that “Ideology is a guiding vision of future social action.” Words mean, of course, whatever Humpty Dumpty and Michael Novak wish them to mean.**

  24. From an “about the author” page on Michael Novak:

    He serves on editorial boards of several publications and organizations here and abroad. He was co-founder of This World, Crisis, and First Things, and was publisher/editor of Crisis until 1996.

    I would guess that “77tis Wodd” is an OCR scrambled “This World”. a scramble at least two other places have left in their quote that you have used here.

  25. The article was “Michael Novak, “Narrative and Ideology,” This World 23 (Fall 1988): pp. 69, 73. ” which I can’t find online.

    Here is the Kirk piece without the bad OCR.

  26. Thank you bh for introducing me to The Imaginative Conservative site.

    Much food for thought here and there.

  27. What Bob said! Damn fine site it is. And geoffb! That’s the solution I’ll bet: good on ya.

  28. Ideology is a touchstone or talisman for people with some very bad assumptions in the same way theology provides answers for people of faith. When reality conflicts, reality is pushed aside, ignored, or hidden away where no one can see it — for their own good, of course.

  29. I don’t see the point in giving up the term ‘Ideology’ because it does apply to those who believe in a system of ideas that will ultimately lead to some form of Heaven On Earth [Immanentize The Eschaton]. They take a scientific approach and believe Human Life can be organized and governed by a set of ideas developed in the sterile laboratories of the mind, far away from Reality.

    The term differentiates this approach from those who oppose and reject such an conceptualization to Life. A non-ideologue [ie: a conservative or Classical Liberal] believes in the art of the possible whereas the Ideologue believes in the art of the fantastical.

    When applied to the thinking of someone, the term tells you immediately that arguing with said person is a waste of time because all ideologues have willingly enslaved themselves to a system of ideas and have, therefore, become dogmatics, fanatics. They cannot allow dissent to be legitimate because, to do so, is to allow the questioning of their system of ideas and any deviation in the formula they have concocted in their minds will cause the whole edifice to collapse.

    Also, as Russell Kirk wrote in The Errors Of Ideology:

    Ideology provides sham religion and sham philosophy, comforting in its way to those who have lost or never have known genuine religious faith, and to those not sufficiently intelligent to apprehend real philosophy. The fundamental reason why we must set our faces against ideology—so wrote the wise Swiss editor Hans Barth—is that ideology is opposed to truth: it denies the possibility of truth in politics or in anything else, substituting economic motive and class interest for
    abiding norms. Ideology even denies human consciousness and power of choice. In Barth’s words, “The disastrous effect of ideological thinking in its radical form is not only to cast doubt on the quality and structure of the mind that constitute man’s distinguishing characteristic but also to undermine the foundation of his social life.”

    It’s a very useful word.

    [A PDF of Mr. Kirk’s essay may be found here:

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