Sunday, August 16, 2009

A thought on ideology

To describe someones politics or scholarly work as "ideological" has become to describe their thoughts as biased, rigid and impervious to reality. Politicians seeking to present themselves as all things to all people strive to affect a post-ideological worldview, keen to stress that the old definitions of left and right are outdated and that all they are now interested in is "what works" (as opposed, presumably, to former generations of politicians with their blithe disinterest in outcomes).
Many political scientists also claim to have put aside ideology, focusing purely on cause and effect and leaving the more grubby normative questions to politicians. By contrast, those scholars who reject the scientific approach claim that the inevitable existence of ideology in our minds renders all attempts to explain the social world biased and subjective, often producing what is little more than fiction.
We can cut through all this with seven words: ideology is not the same as dogma. 'Ideology' needs urgently to be rescued from its current status as a swearword of intellectual discourse. The reality is that ideology, unlike dogma, is a vital component of our capacity for rational thought.
Ideology is the organising framework whereby we use our existing knowledge and understanding, together, crucially, with our moral values and priorities, to help make sense of the world around us. As a tool of rationality it can and ought to be responsive to the facts, adapting as new information comes to light. The more conscious we are of the existence of our ideology (or worldview) the more likely it is to evolve in a useful manner. Dogma, by contrast, will remain rigid and inflexible in spite of contradictory evidence or countervailing argument. This is the central difference between the two.
To speak of ideology as though it were dogma, and to make the unlikely claim to have dispensed with ideology in one’s own political views or scholarly work, may serve to obscure the fact that ideological assumptions - intellectual or moral - will always underlie our analysis. This does not mean that the presence of ideology renders all points of view subjective and of equal value. Some are right, some are wrong; all exist on a scale somewhere between those two poles and most, to a greater or lesser extent, are contestable under rational enquiry. The point is that we cannot ignore the presence of the ideological framework through which those views are constructed, or excuse ourselves from the task of defending it.
It is preferable, in my view, to accept, indeed to embrace our inner ideologue (as distinct from our inner dogmatist), acknowledging the presence of all the rational and moral elements at work in our attempts to understand the world. To do so will be to keep these intellectual endeavours honest and to enhance their quality by making full use of the cognitive tools at our disposal.

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