1. What is an ideology?
I start with my own definition of "ideology" in my Philosophical
Dictionary, that will be used quite a lot in the present text,
since most links are to it, and it also gets quoted at various places:
Ideology: System of ideas that normally
is a simplification of some political philosophy or
that consists of ideas about what reality is (metaphysics)
and ideals about what reality and human
beings should be like (ethics).
Ideologies - if
perhaps very simple and partial, as those that are meant to keep
together the employees of a firm - are the basis of almost any human
since these only can come to be and continue to exist in a coordinated
fashion if the members of the group share assumptions, values and ends about what is
and should be, and what the group is for or against.
ideologies are either plainly totalitarian
or are at least experienced and practiced as if they are - as anybody
can see by observing party conferences, soccer hooligans, and public
statements of priests,
politicians and clergy.
points are that most ideologies - especially the political and
religious ones - are derived from an intellectually more serious (which
is not at all the same thing as: true or probable)
philosophy or religion by various simplifications and deletions; that
every group is based on some - perhaps quite minimalistic - ideology
(that at least makes the group
more important than it would otherwise be, and that assigns special
rights to group members); that ideologies make it a lot easier to
communicate and understand with those people who share one's ideology
(or know it); and that effectively most ideologies are totalitarian.
provide a - sort of - definition of "ideology" by Ernest Gellner, that
can be found in his "Words and things", that was first published in
manifests itself simultaneously as a set of ideas or doctrines, a set
of practices, and a more or less losely organized, more or less
institutionalized social group. The ideas form a reasonably connected
system, related in part by mutual entailment such that if the key ideas
are understood, the others follow, and in part by weaker relationships
of similarity and mutual suggestiveness.
can be no doubt that ideologies in this sense exist 'in the air', as
general ways of going about things, suggesting approaches, facilitating
interpretation and communication, whilst blocking alternativr
approaches or interpretations.
far, in talking of 'ideology', I have in effect been defining my use of
the term. I now wish to specify some important characteristics which
are, I think, often displayed succesful ideologies:
(1) A great plausibility, a powerful click at some one or more points
which gives it a compulsiveness of a kind.
(2) A great absurdity, a violent intellectual resistance-generating
offensiveness at some one or other points.
first of these is a kind of bait. An appealing outlook musy somehow
account for some striking feature of our experience which otherwise
remain unaccounted for, or are otherwise less well explained. The
second feature, though initially repellent, is what binds the group,
what singles out the cluster of ideas from the general realm of true
ideas. The swallowing of an absurdity is, in the acceptance of an
ideology, what a painful rite de passage is in joining a tribal
group - the act of commitment, the investment of emotional capital
which ensures that one does not leave it too easily. The intellectually
offensive characteristics may even be objectively valid: it is only
essential that, at the beginning, and perhaps in some measure always,
they should be difficult to accept. ("Words and things", p. 257-8)
Actually, I do
not think the beginning is a good definition for various
Groups are not
defined; ideologies often comprise many groups, at least in outline
form; the "mutual entailments" may be quite ideological; and there are
more and quite other things than "similarity" and "mutual
suggestiveness" that enter into most ideologies, but I will leave these
for what they are, and move to the second part, that is psychologically
acute: Many ideologies both have a part that may appeal to many; and
many ideologies also have at least one part that is quite difficult to
Indeed, I know
both parts from my knowledge of the Dutch communist party: The
attractive part was mostly equality of rights, a far more equal
distribution of incomes, and the many failures of capitalism as a moral
ideal; the unattractive part were mostly - in my case at least -
dialectics  and totalitarianism,
and indeed the last two points moved me quite radically away from
communism when I was 20, even though this did not please my decades
long sincerely communist parents .
It should also
be said that these two characteristics - having a strongly plausible
part, and a strongly implausible part - are not necessary for
quite a few ideologies, especially those that are not so much political
or religious, but relate to the family, work or amusements.
Having considered two definitions of "ideology", we turn to the next
Who uses ideologies?
The answer to this question is - in a way - very
simple: Everybody does, because everybody is part of several groups
and part of a society,
and both of these are intellectually and morally founded on some
ideology, though that may vary from very simple to rather complicated.
To consider this in some detail, we need definitions of "group" and of
thinking". Here are my own, that are uncommon in defining a basic group
effectively as a face-group, that defines itself in terms of
ganda and wishful
thinking, basically because most of the members do not
have sufficient scientific knowledge to be addressed by anything that
much from propaganda, and because most of the values that live in groups
are hard to distinguish from wishful thinking (that indeed does not
be believed while it is being practised, e.g. at work):
Group in society: Human society is
composed of groups i.e. collections of people that know each other personally, and
that play roles
in that society.
Indeed, "society" is an
term, and such society as humans know in their own experience is
made up of face-groups.
Most of what people
they know about 'society' is propaganda or wishful
thinking, and generally uninformed. Few
people realize that, if they are 75 years old, there are - in the 21st
Century - some 3 times more human beings in the world than seconds in
their lives, namely 2,365,200,000 at age 75.
Also, it is noteworthy
there is little human awareness about their own mammalian and apish
nature, although there is both amusing and bitter evidence about this
gathered by e.g. Stanley Milgram and Desmond Morris. Some relevant
One of the most essential things that gets enabled by
nearly all groups is some variant of groupthinking:
Groupthinking: The kind of thinking, feeling, valueing and desiring that
keeps human social groups
Much of the thinking that
goes into groupthinking is totalitarian
in principle, and is made up of principles
based on wishful
thinking of the following kind:
Usually the members of
groups are hardly aware that their membership is to a large extent
emotionally and intellectually based on principles such as the above,
even though it is very easy to see these principles at work in the
mental make-up or the behavior of members of other groups - political
organizations, soccer supporters, but also firms, schools, universities
etc., for one way the human animal is social is by actively belonging
to groups and by supporting the ideas, ideals, morals and practices
that constitute, regulate or support these groups.
Also, it is noteworthy
principles involved in most group-thinking are relatively
innocuous, and that most groups also practice such principles as
- Whoever does not
to Our Group is
less good (perfect, humane, religiously or
racially proper) than whoever does
- Whoever opposes Our
Group, Our Leaders,
Our Faith is,
therefore and thereby, morally or humanly
or intellectually inferior
- Whoever does not conform to the
practices and principles current in Our Group is immoral or insane
of all kinds, and the best excuse for this seems to be that, since
human beings are social animals, there is an instinctual motivation to
wish to belong to and to support a human group.
the totalitarian aspect is quite strong in almost any group (if only to
keep the differences between Us and Them clear), but that this becomes harmful
especially if this also takes the form of the last three points, that
need not at all be present in many groups, but are quite common (also
if - strongly - denied) in political and religious groups.
3. What are the strengths and weakness
basic strengths of any halfway successful ideology are due to
its weaknesses as science or as common sense: it is easily
understandable by most, both by believers and non-believers;
it simplifies reality and choices; and it tends to promise
advantages for true believers (though these promises - except to
the leaders of
an ideology or group - always are of things to come later than now,
indeed perhaps after one's death).
We first have to
distinguish science and common sense. A fairly minimalist definition of
science is this:
: Known and usually
experimentally testable rational explanations
This also covers mathematics
in so far as the theorems of mathematics concern
mathematical facts, if only about the properties of certain kinds of imaginary structures. The
explanations of mathematics are its proofs (and
eventual explanations thereof).
The reason to insist that
these facts and their explanations be recorded (if only
memorized) is that if they are not they can hardly be shared and made
the subject of critical investigation and testing: Science is a
fundamentally public affair, conducted by a public of
like-minded informed persons.
And science, or
scientific knowledge, is
special and important in that it is the
of human belief that is based on the desire to find the truth about
parts or all of reality by logical reasoning and experimental testing
The first things to notice
are that (real) science requires a lot of study; that few men
are real scientists (also amongst those who are qualified as
scientists ); that those
who are real scientists
usually are trained in and good at only the special science
they studied; and that apart from the science they specialize in
they are usually as ideological as non-scientists, if perhaps also less
easily taken in and less credulous.
Next, common sense. In most
ways common sense also is an ideology, but in any society its common
sense is much more widely adopted than ideologies are, and
indeed most ideologies presuppose a considerable part (though perhaps
not all, and especially not as regards awards) of common sense:
or supposed facts
that most non-philosophers accept as sensible, probably true, prudent
to adopt, or supported by ordinary experience. Two examples are the
existence of other
people's experiences, their being like one's own
experiences in similar circumstances, and the existence of an
all are part of.
Appeals to Common Sense
are often made in political or moral argumentation and in practical
philosophical questions ("What should I do? What should I believe? What
can I rely on?"), for various reasons, such as the desire to avoid
philosophical or metaphysical speculations, to further science, or
based on or involving the conviction, also associated with Edmund Burke
that the ordinary moral, practical and theoretical notions of common
people have been developed during ages and have been tested during
ages, and therefore deserve a greater reliance or credibility than
systems of speculative philosophy or theology.
There is rather a lot to
be said for common sense realism and
indeed also for common sense, but the problem is that for those who are
not philosophically erudite this is mostly a prejudice, if
a prudent one, whereas for those who are philosophically erudite Common
Sense in either sense, to be philosophically plausible at all, requires
a considerable amount of ingenious argument that does not belong to
ordinary Common Sense at all.
Another problem, related
to the one just stated, is that what counts as belonging to common
sense may differ considerably with the times, the places, and the men
making them then and there, and that, besides, even if two persons
agree on rather a lot of common sensical assumptions, they may still
disagree on rather a lot.
said, neither (real) science nor common sense are ideologies, and the
strengths of ideologies - easily understandable; helps understanding
reality (usually by considerable simplifications) and making
choices; promises considerable (normally: later) advantages to true
believers - are precisely
due to their weaknesses as science or common sense.
so, everybody uses at least those ideologies that mostly define
the groups he or she is a member of, and indeed most people are hardly
aware that much
of what they believe and do is ideologically motivated, and without
basis in real fact or real science.
to do against ideologies?
I think the above made it at least plausible that the
following statements are true:
- Everybody uses
- Most you hear or
read is produced by people believing some ideology.
- Very few
understand what ideologies are.
- Very few
understand the (real) reasons for their beliefs and values.
The first follows from the fact that everybody belongs
to quite a few groups, and most of these come with some ideology, that
also defines them; the second follows from the fact that nearly
everything human beings make or do is made or done by groups; the third
follows from the fact that to understand an ideology and - more
generally - the ideological tendencies of mankind, that are stronger
than mere philosophies, if only because they are a lot simpler than
most philosophies, requires that one has some intelligent interest in
some science, and only a rather small minority has that; and the
fourth fact is a plain inference from the many contradictions people
believe or value.
Now, what can we do against ideologies?
By and large not much, at least on a level that goes
beyond oneself and a few others, for ideologies rule the thinking and
the desiring of the vast majority, and the vast majority also lacks the
means to criticize ideologies rationally and factually (and this does not
mean that the vast majority understands this).
On an individual level, one can achieve rather
a lot, especially if one is blessed with a good intelligence, a fair
amount of time, a considerable curiosity, a good education, and -
especially - a sincere interest in the real truth of
things (which is only very rarely fully known).
For if one satisfies these criterions, one may be or
become a scientist or a rational philosopher, and it is only this kind
of person that is capable of judging many ideologies mostly
impartially, and to withstand their pressures to conform
to their modes of thinking and desiring on the basis of rational
Again, it is not at all necessary that scientists or
philosophers cease being ideologists, not even as regards their own
science or philosophy. In fact, in my - long and quite variegated -
experience it also is only a minority of scientists and philosophers
who succeed in emancipating themselves in most respects from relying on
ideology rather than science or philosophy, while the majorities are
scientists or philosophers mostly in a - perhaps somewhat extended -
sense, that is usually not rational, except in a minimalistic sense.
But then most emancipation must be self-emancipation,
and self-emancipation is hard, while much of it depends on time,
circumstances, character and intelligence.