December 30, 2015
Crisis: On Ideologies
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1. What is an ideology?
2. Who uses ideologies?

3. What are the strengths and weakness of ideologies?

4. What to do against ideologies?


This is a Nederlog of Wednesday, December 30, 2015.

This is a crisis blog that might be regarded as a steal from myself, for I published it just over a year ago. I repeat it because I think it is good, it is original, and it makes sense, and perhaps this is the time of year for it.


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 some religion, 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 group, 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.

Most 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.

The main 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.

Next, I provide a - sort of - definition of "ideology" by Ernest Gellner, that can be found in his "Words and things", that was first published in 1959 [2]:

An ideology 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.

There 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.

So 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.

The 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 reasons:

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 accept.

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 [3] 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 [4].

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 question:

2. 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 "group-
thinking". Here are my own, that are uncommon in defining a basic group effectively as a face-group, that defines itself in terms of ideological propa-
and wishful thinking, basically because most of the members do not
have sufficient scientific knowledge to be addressed by anything that differs
much from propaganda, and because most of the values that live in groups
are hard to distinguish from wishful thinking (that indeed does not need to
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 abstract, theoretical term, and such society as humans know in their own experience is made up of face-groups.

Most of what people believe 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 that 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 points are

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 together.

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 parties, religious 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 that the above principles involved in most group-thinking are relatively innocuous, and that most groups also practice such principles as

  • Whoever does not belong to Our Group is less good (perfect, humane, religiously or racially proper) than whoever does

  • Whoever opposes Our Group, Our Leaders, Our Ideology or 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

Most groupthinking involves prejudice 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.

Note that 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 of ideologies?

The 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 considerable 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:

Science : Known and usually recorded facts and experimentally testable rational explanations thereof.

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 only kind 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 of hypotheses.

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 [1]); 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:

Common Sense: Assumptions 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 external reality 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 and conservatism, 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.

As I 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.

Even 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 a strong
basis in real fact or real science.

4. What to do against ideologies?

I think the above made it at least plausible that the following statements are true:

  • Everybody uses several ideologies.
  • 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 argumentation.

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 - ideological
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.

[1] This is especially true in the present and the last 40 years or so, when very many more people went to some university to study something than used to study. To make this possible, the demands have been steadily weakened, which enabled about a quarter or a third of the present Western populations to try "to take a degree", usually no more than a B.A.

My own guess is that the number of real scientists is at most 2 to 5% of any population, simply because most of those who qualify these days from some university are not really intelligent enough to function well as real scientists.

[2] I bought this in Penguin in the beginning of 1970, motivated by my considerable dislike of Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations", about which I also learned a reasonable amount. In fact, the book is a study and attempted refutation of linguistic philosophy, and comes with a foreword by Bertrand Russell, but while these things are relevant to some, I am not concerned with the rest of the book here.

[3] By "dialectics" I mean especially teachings that reality contains real contradictions (as in: P is both true and false). This puzzled me a lot between 15 and 17, when I finally completely disbelieved it - still regarding myself as a marxist of some kind (and also see: Marx) - because I could make no sense of it.

[4] But this did not upset our relations, and indeed they knew that my disagreements were mostly with the communist party, and not with them, and that I had studied Marx considerably more deeply than they had. (Also, the Dutch communist party ceased to exist around 1990, after my father's death, but before my mother's death. The main reasons for its ceasing to be seem to have been that by then it was a very small party, and - especially - in 1989 the "really existing socialism" in the Soviet Union, that had been a source of much strength to many communists even if they did not agree with much that happened there, had also completely ceased to be.

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