Ideology (was: RE: Dialectical Materialism again - reply to Mark Lause

loupaulsen at loupaulsen at
Tue Jul 29 09:27:52 MDT 2003

Mark L. wrote:

> The phrase "ideology" is more coherent and precise than "ideologizing."

But then he wrote:

> Ideology is when we are so convinced by ourselves or others that a
> pattern we perceive is real that we absolve ourselves of critically
> processing new information that might lead us to revise our assumptions.
> And, yes, any kind of perceived pattern can become an ideology.

This sounds as if he is trying to warn us against ideology.  (And he
implicitly compares ideology to believing in astrology and so on.)

Nobody wants to think of him or herself as some sort of fanatical adherent of
superstition who doesn't look at the evidence.  However - stepping back a bit
from the word 'ideology' - we all have 'theories' about how the world works,
and we use these theories until they seem not to work, and we don't reassess
and reprocess and re-evaluate them every time some contrary data point comes

For example, one such theory might be a 'conservation of household objects'
theory: 'household objects remain in the house unless they are purposefully
removed from the house.'  Suppose one day however I can't find my favorite
coffee cup even though I have "looked everywhere".  I can take this as a
refutation of 'conservation of household objects theory': "Things just
disappear around here... the world is just not a stable place."  Or I can have
faith in my theory and resolve to search harder and more creatively.  In this
case I believe the second is the wiser choice.  Faith in a good and well-
tested theory, resisting "sufficiently small" quantities of contrary evidence,
is a virtue, not a vice.

As to "ideology", my dictionary (which, I concede, is a bourgeois dictionary)
defines it as "a systematic body of concepts, esp. about human life or
culture" and also as "the integrated assertions, theories, and aims that
constitute a sociopolitical program."  The latter of these largely sums up the
stuff that Marxists (for one) have in stock, use, and try to convey to
others.  We have theories; assertions (data; things we believe to be true);
and aims.  The aims, the element of purpose, are what distinguish Marxism from
a mere body of static predictive or explanatory theory (even academic Marxist

But then since everyone has theories, beliefs, and aims, it follows that just
about everyone has an ideology of some sort.  If this is so then it's not a
matter of whether or not to avoid ideology - not only is it undesirable to do
so, it may be logically impossible to do so.  The point is then to compare
ideologies and expose which ones are composed of correct data and well-
grounded theories and worthy aims, and which are not.

I have heard 'ideology' used in a pejorative sense before - though I can't
remember where exactly - but I don't think that sense is correct.

Lou Paulsen
> The phrase "ideology" is more coherent and precise than "ideologizing."
> The project of trying to understand the world around us involves thought
> that may well be ideologizing but might well avoid being ideology.
> One of the best insights of psychology is that the human brain has such
> a tendency to make sense of what we perceive that it tends to discern
> patterns even when they aren't there in the real world.  Consider
> optical illusions. ( or
> or
> We can look at the same stars and see either burning gases or gods
> sending us coded messages that those among us with the right know-how
> and faith can decode.  Astrology survived for thousands of years and
> still does because it meets psychological needs in a way that's socially
> safe for the hierarchy but because those who believe it have learned to
> understand their experience in its lights.  Those who want to believe
> such things will readily cite some open-ended statement from the
> astrology column or a fortune cookie as proof that the particular
> illusion they are seeing is real.
> Here's a social illusion, shaped by the fact that American society
> actively discourages class consciousness, but sanctions awareness of
> race.  The cops stopped a young African-American acquaintance of mine
> was stopped at night, while driving his clunker of a car through a rich
> neighborhood.  "I know they stopped me because I'm black, but I don't
> understand how they knew it.  Do they have some special infrared device
> to look into our cars at night."  He'd learned to ascribe these kinds of
> problems so exclusively to race that he was asking entirely the wrong
> question.  In fact, they had stopped me in the same neighborhood within
> a day or say and I am white, but was driving my clunker of a car.
> Because my student had learned to see these things purely and simply in
> terms of race, he was trying to figure out how the cops had night vision
> to see the driver.  The reality was that the cops had no such night
> vision but were reacting to the presence of a cheap car, clearly driven
> by someone who couldn't have been living in the area.  Obviously, how
> drivers are treated after being stopped in that neighborhood varies
> greatly with race, age, demeanor, etc.  The point is that when we learn
> to process our experience using a simple pattern, these assumptions
> cloud more than they clarify.
> Ideology is when we are so convinced by ourselves or others that a
> pattern we perceive is real that we absolve ourselves of critically
> processing new information that might lead us to revise our assumptions.
> And, yes, any kind of perceived pattern can become an ideology.  As you
> very rightly point out, Darwinian evolution can be expanded into a
> pattern and our understanding of that pattern is shaped by cultural
> assumptions and values that tend to sustain the concept of "fitness" as
> a justification for hierarchy.
> Indeed, Darwin's gradual model of evolution owed less to observation
> than to assumptions about the change in his Victorian world.  Scientists
> like Stephen Jay Gould write about "punctuated equilibrium"--the
> tendency of life not to change when it doesn't have to do so...and then
> to change by great leaps and bounds when necessity requires it.  (When
> Gould died, there were a number of posts on this list that are probably
> in the list archive.) Gould's version of Darwinian evolution not only
> matches the biological reality, but this version of change also better
> matches the way society tends to have changed in the past.
> Academic social sciences are all about model building and discerning
> patterns based upon what can only be limited samplings of reality and
> little or no testing of those samplings.  ...that and blue-sky
> theorizing that reveals much about the screen savers that replay in
> their heads and little about the reality around us.
> On the other hand, trying to process the information we encounter
> critically isn't ideology and doesn't need to be "ideologizing".
> Solidarity!
> Mark L.

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