“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.” 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.
 – du Pont de Nemours, National Education, p. 124.
 – 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?