The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology:
The Origins, Grammar, and Future of Ideology

Alvin W. Gouldner

chapter 2

Ideological Discourse as Rationality and False Consciousness

[Sections 0 - 5.3]

Ideology premises the existence of "normal" participants or normal speakers; of normal situations in which they conduct their discourse; of the rules admitting them to the discourse, and governing their conduct during it. This is as true of ideological discourse as of others. In ordinary language it is significant that we do not usually speak of children as having an  ideology. Commonly, ideology is taken to imply a normal speaker beyond a certain minimum age, of a certain imputed maturity and linguistic competence. In short, reference is made to a responsible and potent subject.

But it is not just because children are defined as immature intellectually that they are not commonly seen as having ideologies. For the normal expression of ideological adherence is an act in the public sphere, to which children have only limited access. Ideologies entail discourse among members of different families, not just within them; discourse among strangers, not just among friends.

Ideologies may organize social action and social solidarities in ways irrelevant to, or cutting across, the traditional structures of society—family, neighborhood, or church. Ideologies can bind men who may have little in common except a shared idea. Ideologies thus premise the possibility of powerful affinities, of claims and obligations among persons bound only by common belief.  In some part, it is possible for them to do so because of the deterioration of traditional social structures in the transition from old regime society to modern bourgeois societies.


The ideological mobilization of masses (like the use of ideology as a basis of social solidarities), premises a detraditionalization of society and of communication, [23/24] of what is allowed to be brought into open discussion, to be sought and claimed. In traditional societies only relatively fixed and limited claims might be made; and these were already known and established, for the legitimate in traditional societies is the What Has Been, the Old; only fairly fixed, limited, and stereotyped claims may be made under traditionalism. The manner in which claims could be justified was correspondingly limited. Speech was, more typically, authorized by the authority or social position of the speaker.

The emergence of ideology, however, premises that new kinds of claims and new kinds of legitimations (for them) are now possible and, at the same time, that the old stereotyped limits on what is claimable have been removed. Now, almost anything might be claimed. In this limitlessness of possibility some begin to experience themselves as potent Prometheans or, from another standpoint, as anomically insatiable. As Lucien Goldmann puts it, ". . . once the possibility of supernatural interference was destroyed, everything became both natural and possible.'' (26) Everything: including both man's terror and his reification.

An intact traditional society, then, leaves little room for the play and appeal of ideologies. But, at the same time, ideologies have their own reciprocally deteriorating impact upon traditional structures and on people's involvement in them.


Ideologies weaken traditional structures by refocusing the vision of everyday life and, specifically, by calling to mind things that are not in normal evidence, not directly viewable by the senses, not in the circumference of the immediate—they make reference to things not "at hand." One cannot, for example, see a "class," or a "nation," or a "free market," but the ideologies of socialism, nationalism, and liberalism bring these structures to mind. In doing so, they provide a language that enable interpretations to be made of some things that may be seen or heard within the immediate. Ideologies permit some of the seen‑but‑unnoticed aspects of everyday life to be seen and newly noticed. Ideologies permit interpretations of the everyday life that are not possible within the terms of everyday life’s ordinary language: an argument between workers and foreman may now, for example, be interpreted as an intensifying “class struggle.” Ideologies become the self-consciousness of ordinary language; they are a metalanguage.

The tradition‑dissolving consequences of ideology arise, in part, because they enable actors to acquire distance from the at‑hand immediacies of everyday life, to begin to see the world in ways that go beyond the limits of ordinary language; and they may create new solidarities that distance persons [24/25] from traditional involvements, from family and neighbors. Ideologies, then, enable people more effectively to pursue interests without being restricted by particularistic ties and by the conventional bonds of sentiment or loyalty that kinsmen and neighbors owe one another. Ideology serves to uproot people; to further uproot the already uprooted, to extricate them from immediate and traditional social structures; to elude the limits of the "common sense" and the limiting perspective of ordinary language, thus enabling persons to pursue projects they have chosen. Ideologies thus clearly contribute, at least in these ways, both to rational discourse and rational politics, but to a rationality that is both activated and limited by anxieties exacerbated by an uprooting from at‑hand, everyday life. Ideologies capture and refocus energies involved in free‑floating anxieties. Anxiety liquidates old symbolic commitments, allowing men to seek new ones and to judge them in new ways; but anxiety also means that this must be done urgently.


Eric Hobsbawm's discussion of the transition from the older traditionalism to the newer age of ideologies quite properly stresses that it is a passage from the dominance of religious thought systems to more secular ones: "For most of history and over most of the world . . . the terms in which all but a handful of educated and emancipated men thought about the world were those of traditional religion . . . . At some stage before 1848, this ceased to be so in part of Europe . . . . Religion stopped being something like the sky . . . became something like a bank of clouds . . . . Of all the ideological changes this is by far the most profound . . . . At all events, it is the most unprecedented. What was unprecedented was the secularization of the masses . . . . In the ideologies of the American and French . . . Christianity is irrelevant . . . . The general trend of the period from 1789 to 1848 was therefore one of emphatic secularization." [1]

If men like de Maistre, de Bonald, or Burke spoke well of religion and tradition, they spoke with a rationality and awareness that manifested that these were no longer the things they had once been, but something quite new. Most great and articulate defenses of traditionalism are, and can only be, made from a standpoint outside of it. Outside of the time when it was a viable and uncontested force, as de Maistre and de Bonald wrote following the French Revolution; or outside of the membership boundaries that the tradition had marked out, as Edmund Burke was. An Irishman seeking his fortune in England, Burke embraced its cracking traditions with the fervor of [25/26] the new convert and with the ability to see it as a boundaried whole possible only to someone not born to it. In like manner, it was only the sharp crisis of established religion that could then enable Madame de Stäel to speak of the need to believe something, and which led Georg Brandes to speak of men looking at eighteenth-century religion "pathetically, gazing at it from the outside, as one looks at an object in a museum." As Karl Mannheim observed, tradition was being transformed into conservatism via this self‑awareness and via the justification of rational discussion. Tradition was, in short, being modernized into an "ideology."


Like conventional religion, ideology too seeks to shape men's behavior. Religion, however, focuses on the everyday life and on its proper conduct. Ideology, by contrast, is concerned not so much with the routine immediacies of the everyday, but with achieving especially mobilized projects. Ideology seeks to gather, assemble, husband, defer, and control the discharge of political energies. Religion, however, is ultimately concerned with the round of daily existence and the recurrent crises of the life cycle. Ideologies assemble scarce energies for focused concentrated discharge in the public sphere. Religion constantly monitors, disciplines, and inhibits discharges of energy into the everyday life. Birth, puberty, marriage, death, and grief are its central concerns. Ideology function to change institutions by mobilizing energies and concerting public projects freely undertaken, which are justified by world-referencing rational discourse Ideology seeks earthly reaction, reform, or revolution, not transcendental reconciliation. Religions are concerned with the sacred and thus those powers within whose limits, or under whose governance, men act. Religions thus see men as limited, created, or other‑grounded beings and foster a sense of men's limitedness; ideologies, by contrast, focus on men as sources of authority and as sites of energy and power. If religions and ideologies are thus disposed to a different ontology of man, they are also, correspondingly, disposed to different epistemologies, religion making knowledge (or part of it) a phenomenon that is bestowed on men and vouchsafed by higher powers and authorities, while ideologies give greater emphasis to the self-groundedness of men's knowledge, involving his reason and his experience: cogito ergo sum.

Yet if ideologies (conceived in their modern historical uniqueness) are secularized and rational belief‑systems, they embody and rest upon a unique secularization that is linked in the West to the last great revival of religious zeal, the emergence of Protestantism. Auguste Comte's instinct here was correct, especially in his tacit linking of Protestantism to the proliferation of ideologies, which he offered to transcend via his positivism. When Comte [26/27] deplored the "anarchy" brought by the modern "liberty of conscience" he tacitly contended that this ideological diversity had a religious root. Certainly, modern ideological diversity was partly grounded in Protestantism's insistence on liberty of conscience. More than that, this liberty of conscience goes to the core of modern ideology's tacit but characteristic insistence on the individual's right to make his own judgment about the truth of claims and, correspondingly, on the importance of persuading him of that truth in its own, new ways. Modem ideology is grounded in Protestantism's conception of the rights and, as I shall stress later, of the powers, of individuals.

The age of ideology premised the prior experience of the band of emerging protest-ants; it is grounded in the diffusion of this concrete historical experience into a tacit, secularized paradigm for a broader politics of protest. Modern ideology premised Protestantism's this‑worldly ascetic activism and, on a different level, modern ideology premised the activistic inclinations with which this religious transformation—among other forces—had sedimented the modern character.


Ideology also premises the deritualization of public communication so characteristic of the Puritan revolution. In this, the sermon exhorting men to abide by the Word was substituted for the ritualized Mass. [2] Through the sermon, men were called to a unity of theory and practice and to conforming enactment with Word in everyday life and in all their deeds, rather than in the occasional Sunday ritual set apart from men’s everyday life. Unlike the Mass, which tranquilized anxieties, the sermon probed and prodded them. In the sermon, the age of ideology could find a paradigm of righteous and energetic persuasion, the paradigm of a rhetoric that could mobilize men to deeds. Ideologists assume that words matter, that they have a power that can change men and their worlds, sometimes dropping the scales from their eyes or the shackles from their hands. Ideologists, in brief, believe in the power of the idea as vested in the word.

Protestantism commonly encourages a pattern of coping with anxiety by work, rather than by ritual or magic. Resting on a sublimated Protestantism that survives the "death of God" at the level of character structure, grounded in activistic and ascetic this‑worldly impulses, modern ideological politics comes to be defined as a kind of work. [3] From this standpoint both work and worklike politics are expected to be performed diligently and methodically, [27/28] with a scrupulous surmounting of self, precisely because it is defined as pursuing a higher moral obligation that is all the more binding because it is freely chosen. Sedimented with Protestantism on the level of character structure, ideology was the Gospel of Labor in Politics.

In much the same way, Protestantism had undermined Renaissance magic and alchemy by linking control of the environment to the conduct of disciplined, routine work, thereby laying the cultural infrastructure for modern technology and science. Science and technology arise when the will to know is grounded in an impulse to control, and when this control is felt to be possible through routine work. Both modern ideology, on the one side, and modern science and technology, on the other, have a certain affinity because both in part rest on Protestantism's assumption that work is anxiety relieving.

Michael Walzer tells us of Calvin: as he “firmly believed that the terrors of contemporary life could be politically controlled, he became an activist and ecclesiastical politician. . . . In his political as in his religious thought, Calvin sought a cure for anxiety not in reconciliation but in obedience . . . he promptly engaged in sharp polemic against the Anabaptists, whose goal was not so much reconstruction as the dissolution of the political world. . . . Calvinism was thus anchored in this worldly endeavor; it appropriated worldly means and usages . . .” [4]


It was in this manner that Protestant‑grounded modern ideology premised the doctrine of the unity of theory and (worldly) practice and thereby unleashed a vast political force in the modern world, a force still powerful and far from spent. This great political power also premises that great importance is attributed to ideas. It supposes that people can have an obligation by reason of having an idea or a theory. It premises the capacity and duty of men to commit themselves to the logic of an idea, to endure its implications, despite its costs to other interests: family, friends, or neighbors.

Obedience to the word is here defined as a supreme value and as a decisive test of character. Ideologies premise that the word can lay binding obligations on persons. This is one important basis enabling ideology, as address, to counter the effect of conventional duties and institutions. It is thus that ideologies can serve as a counterweight to the "heaviness" of interests. Ideology thus implies a view of rational discourse as a potent source of world change, on the one hand, and on the other, as a source of tension with conduct grounded in interest. Ideologies foster the suppression and repression, of some interests, even as they give expression to others. [28/29]

In fighting for his ideas (or "principles"), the ideologue now experiences himself as engaged in a new, purified kind of politics. He understands and presents himself as not just engaged in politics for the old, selfish reason—to further his own interests or to advance himself “materially.” Ideological politics now claims to be a historically new and higher form of politics; a kind of selfless work. It thereby authorizes itself to make the highest claims upon its adherents. It obliges them to pursue their goals with zealous determination, while authorizing them to inflict the severest penalties on those opposing such goals.

Moreover, as politics is transformed into a sacred labor, there is greater pressure for practitioners to conceal, from themselves as well as others, any "base" motives they may have for their political activity; they thus become dulled by that distinct kind of false consciousness called "piety." They may come to believe that, unlike others, they are disinterested in personal perquisites. One specific way this is done is to define the power they seek (or exercise) solely from the standpoint of the functions it has for the group interests, rather than as an enjoyable privilege that its possessors may consume privately. More generally, their claim is that when they seek office, power, livings, tenures, or income, they do not seek them as private enjoyments but only because they advance collective interests. Ideology thus serves, on the one hand, to permit ruthlessness to others in the name of high values, and, on the other, to present oneself as having a selfless ambition, that  nonpartisanship which legitimates any claim to power. Ideology thereby permits the mobilization of power and, at the same time, allows its full and unrestrained discharge.

Ideology fosters a politic that may be set off, radically and profoundly, from prosaic bourgeois society with its moral flabbiness, its humdrum acceptance of venality, and its egoism. The conservative ideologist, no less than the radical, is in tension with a bourgeois society that is unashamedly self‑seeking and egoistic. The ideologue, by contrast with the bourgeois, claims to be altruistic, never seeking his private interest but speaking only in behalf of “the Word.” In this tension between the normal corruptness of bourgeois society and the abnormal altruism of the ideologist, political conflict emerges as a higher dramaturgy in which one side presents itself as acting out the impersonal pursuit of an idea. The vulgar venality of the bourgeois thus finds its match in the unembarrassed righteousness of the ideologist.


Ideologies entail projects of public reconstruction and require that believers support actively the accomplishment of the project and oppose whoever rejects it. This call for support is now justified by formulating a conception of [29/30] the social world, or a part or process in it. In short, each ideology presents a map of "what is" in society; a "report" of how it is working, how it is failing, and also of how it could be changed. Ideology is thus a call to action—a “command” grounded in a social theory—in a world‑referencing discourse that presumably justifies that call. Granted that it does not pursue "knowledge for its own sake"; nonetheless, ideology offers reports or imputes knowledge of the social world; its claims and its calls‑to‑action are grounded in that imputed knowledge.

Note: I am not saying that a specific view of the social world offered by ideology is necessarily "correct;" I am saying merely that ideology is a rational mode of discourse. (Thus a Socrates might use rational discourse to argue for the immortality of the soul.)


Ideology thus entailed the emergence of a new mode of political discourse; discourse that sought action but did not merely seek it by invoking authority or tradition, or by emotive rhetoric alone. It was discourse predicated on the idea of grounding political action in secular and rational theory. A fundamental rule of the grammar of all modern ideology, tacit or explicitly affirmed, was the principle of the unity of theory and practice mediated by rational discourse. Ideology separated itself from the mythical and religious consciousness; it justified the course of action it proposed, by the logic and evidence it summoned on behalf of its views of the social world, rather than by invoking faith, tradition, revelation or the authority of the speaker. Ideology, then, premised policies shaped by rational discourse in the public sphere, and premised that support can be mobilized for them by the rhetoric of rationality.

This is no new view, but is offered by a surprising variety of modern theories and ideologists. Thus Irving Kristol remarks: “Ideologies are religions of a sort, but they differ from the older kinds in that they argue from information instead of ultimately from ignorance. . . . Ideology presupposes an antecedent 'enlightenment'; before it can do its special job of work, facts must be widely available, and curiosity about the facts quickened. Men must be more interested in the news from this world than in the tidings from another. The most obdurate enemy of ideology is illiteracy . . .” [5]

Much the same view is affirmed by Stephen Rousseas and James Farganis, although from an ideological position opposed to Kristol's: ideology's "major function," they affirm, “is to apply intelligence—the fusion of passion and critical reason—to the problem of the modern world.” [6] Erik Erikson also [30/31] makes the same point from the standpoint of his psychohistory: ideology, he holds, is an unconscious tendency underlying religious and scientific as well as political thought; the tendency to “make the facts amenable to ideas, and ideas to facts, in order,” he adds, “to create a world image convincing enough to support the collective and individual sense of identity.” [7] The unspoken point here, however, is at what makes a "world image" credible differs under different historical conditions. Erikson, however, is essentially correct about the construction of world views in the modern epoch.

Ideology makes a diagnosis of the social world and claims that it is true. It alleges an accurate picture of society and claims (or implies) that its political policies are grounded in that picture. To that extent, ideology is a very special sort of rational discourse by reason of its world‑referring claims. It defends its policies neither by traditionalistic legitimation nor by invoking faith or revelation. As a historical object, then, ideology differs from both religion and metaphysics in that it is concerned to make "what is" in society a basis of action.

In Jürgen Habermas' terms: “. . . what Weber termed 'secularization' has two aspects. First, traditional world views and objectivations lose their power, and validity as myth, as public religion, as customary  ritual, as justifying metaphysics, as unquestionable tradition. Instead, they are reshaped into subjective belief systems and ethics which ensure the private cogency of modern value‑orientations (the ‘Protestant Ethic’). Second, they are transformed into constructions to do both at once: criticize tradition and reorganize the released material of tradition . . . existing legitimations, are replaced by new ones. The latter emerge from the critique of dogmatism of traditional interpretations of the world and claim a scientific character. Yet they retain legitimating functions, thereby keeping actual power relations inaccessible to analysis and to public consciousness. It is in this way that ideologies in the restricted sense first came into being. They replace traditional legitimations of power by appearing in the mantle of modern science and by deriving their justification from the critique of ideology. Ideologies are coeval with the critique of ideology. In this sense there can be no prebourgeois ‘ideologies.’” [8]


Ideologies are reports about the world, or social theories, that are both rationally and empirically supported. Almost all the major "scientific" [31/32] theories of society had the plainest ideological linkages. When Adam Smith sought to reform the relationship between government and business in England he wrote The Wealth of Nations (1776). This rational effort to persuade "established government to abandon the errors of mercantilism and to adopt the policy of internal free trade" became one of the foundations of classical political economy. And it is obvious that Karl Marx's argument for socialism produced one of the great and comprehensive social theories, as consequential for the nineteenth century in which it was written, as for our own. Correspondingly, when men like Edmund Burke, de Maistre, and de Bonald, spoke vauntingly of tradition as a foundation of social order, as the bulwark against men's susceptibility to passion, and as the repository of the group’s experience so critical to its survival, they were (as Robert Nisbet rightly says) contributing to the conceptual foundations of an entirely new intellectual discipline, sociology itself.

In ideologies, the question of the cognitive validity or "truth" of the beliefs set forth may be raised. This is inherent in the fact that the ideology, on the one hand, serves to consolidate the unity of those who already believe, the community of believers; and, on the other, it shapes their communication with nonbelievers whom they seek to recruit (or neutralize). Especially in its communication with nonbelievers, ideology is open to challenge and must stand ready to justify its claims about the world, to counter disagreement with rational rebuttal.

It is of course inherent in language that any affirmation implies the logical possibility of a negation. As Roger Trigg says, “the fact that these claims may be true also means that they could be false. . . . When I say something to you . . . you are free to disagree.” [9] At any rate, it is always logically possible, but not always sociologically feasible, to disagree with any assertion.  The logical possibility can be actualized only under certain historically limited circumstances, essentially when there is a relative equality between speakers and listeners; when one cannot readily frighten or starve the other into agreement, and when the other is defined as a full person to whom a rational appeal may and should be made. It is then that there develops a distinctive mode of justifying assertions that does not ground itself in the societal position of the speaker.

Ideologies justify problematic or challenged truths without invoking the authority of the speaker because, in addressing nonbelievers, ideologues cannot rely on "outsiders'" acceptance of those whom the ideologues view as authorities. Insiders and outsiders do not share authorities in common. Characteristically, ideologies justify assertions without relying on tradition, revelation, faith, or the speaker’s authority, but place distinctive emphasis on the importance of recourse to "evidence " and reason. [32/33]


The purveyor of an ideology, thus, in effect, says to those whose adherence he seeks, “You may believe that this is true 'objectively', true in its own right and not because I—who may be an interest‑limited person—say so.” Thus while ideologies are rooted in interests, their impersonal or "objective" rhetorics function to conceal the presence of persons who might be suspected of “reality”‑distorting interests.

Thus intimating emancipation from a distorting partisanship, ideology may now claim that its beliefs warrant acceptance by others. This, then, is the more or less tacit objectivistic grounding of all ideological affirmations about the social world. Correspondingly, it is the explicit claim of "social science" in general and positivism in particular.

It is when, as in the passage from the old regime to the new bourgeois societies, that the culture, the roles, and social structures of traditionalism are waning, that the validity of the expectations of everyday becomes (or may be made) problematic. Ordinarily, in a traditionalistic setting, the established consensual validation of the group's beliefs suppresses questions of their validity, and questions that do arise may be settled by the decision of a commonly accepted authority. Failing consensual validation, as the new industrialism succeeds and replaces the old traditionalistic arrangements, beliefs do indeed become problematic and must be given some justification—a new kind of justification, in reason and evidence, precisely because the older authorities (and, consequently, modes of justification grounded in them) have lost credit.

Ideologies, then, are belief‑systems distinguished by the centrality of their concern for What Is and by their world‑referencing “reports.” Ideologies are essentially public doctrines offering publicly scrutable evidence and reasoning on their behalf; they are never offered as secret doctrines.

The secret doctrine is that which is made available to followers, or to those already committed to a group, and who by oath or membership promise to keep secret the doctrine revealed to them. Here commitment is made to a group prior to knowledge of the doctrine it upholds. In ideology, the process is reversed; commitment to the group is made because of prior belief in the doctrine it affirms and because of that belief. In the framework of ideological discourse, it is premised that membership  follows from belief, rather than belief from membership. The premises are clearly "sectarian'' rather than “churchly.”

Again, ideologies differ also from "propaganda" which is not believed in—at least at first—by those spreading it. Ideologies are intended to be believed in by those affirming them publicly and by all men, because, they are "true," and they thus have a universal character. [33/34]

With the waning of traditionalism, there is now an increased struggle over “ideas.” This means a greater struggle over which definitions of social reality (or reports) and which moral rules (or commands) are to be dominant. Social struggle in part takes the form of contention over What Is and what should be done about it. Since the latter comes to be defined as grounded in the former, political struggle increasing takes the form of a contention among competing versions of social reality, through the mutual undermining of adversary versions of reality, and by the development of articulate “methods” or epistemologies as rhetorical recommendations for the version of reality offered.

The social definition of What Is becomes a political question, for it affects the question of which groups are subordinate and which dominant, and hence affects who gets what. “Reports” about What Is are shaped by the structures of social dominance—especially by the credit commonly given elite definitions of social reality—and these "command" actions that, in turn, affect that system of stratification. Classes and parties are thus concerned about and struggle over definitions of social reality, all the more so as no one group’s definition is established authoritatively. Both ideologies and social science contain reports about social worlds and both are thus inevitably competitors rather than simply being alternatives to one another. We might say that a social science is that distinctive form of discourse which makes focal its reports about What Is and, like both academic sociology and Marxism, holds that it does not "moralize" about what should be, but simply describes what is happening and what will happen. In other words, a “social science” does not make focal its command implications, allowing the latter to be placed in only an auxiliary awareness.

But all speech contains a command, even if only tacitly and by implication. There is always something that the speaker wants the listener to do; at the least, he wants him to listen in a certain way, with friendly care, which means that he wants the listener to adopt a certain social relationship to himself. He commonly wants the listener to change himself and his beliefs by becoming more similar to the speaker. He wants the listener to adopt the same or a similar relationship to the world, to persons and social objects in it, as he himself does. He wants the listener to see the world as he does.

The speech of both ideologies and social sciences are thus alike, both commonly contain commands and reports, statements about What Is that have implications for the listener's actions. It is not that the command is a conclusion that follows with logical necessity from the report. A command is nonetheless supported by some reports and is dissonant with others. Thus, for instance, a military order (or command) is held to be grounded in reports ("intelligence") about the enemy's disposition and strength. For example, a command to mobilize one's forces is grounded in reports that the enemy is [34/35] mobilizing or has begun an attack. Yet that command for a countermobilization does not follow with logical necessity from that report, since the group attacked always has the option of surrendering. At the same time, once a government grounds its order to mobilize in reports about the enemy's approach, then a claim that such reports are inaccurate will be dissonant with the mobilization command and will reflect discreditably on the government.

Ideologies and social science alike, then, contain both commands and reports. Reports always have implications about what may be done or might be done—to us or by us—and are thus always relevant to our values and, in that sense, are never "value free." To be value free, then, is not to be devoid of command implications but only to be silent about them. It is in part by such silence that the social sciences attempt to assert their superiority over other symbol systems, ideologies.

Conventional ideologies, for their part, however, tacitly claim a moral superiority by holding that they do not simply limit themselves to diagnosing reality, but also seek to remedy it in the light of their knowledge. In short, ideologies tacitly claim moral superiority in the name of the “unity of theory and practice” that they advocate. The social sciences, however, explicitly claim cognitive superiority precisely because their rejection of that unity presumably allows them a dispassion and disinterest that better enables them to say What Is. It is very doubtful, however, that social science's claim to a general cognitive superiority, or ideology’s claim to moral superiority, has ever really been established.


Ideology and social science are both responses to the newly problematic nature of social reality in post‑traditional society. It deserves remembering that social science, like outright ideology, also sought in its beginnings to live by the doctrine of the unity of theory and practice and to impose certain obligations for public action on its adherents. For both Auguste Comte and Henri Saint‑Simon, the new "religion of humanity" that they propounded was to be their applied science, the site for the unity of theory and practice.

At first, the new social science also sought to reconstruct society, no less than to know it. But as social science accommodated to societies, and to the growing universities in which it slowly won a place for itself , it renounced the doctrine of the unity of theory and practice. In its beginnings, however, social science's ambitions were not much different from those of other outright ideologies. It, too, believed—and believed openly—in the unity of theory and practice. In time, however, its ambition to reconstruct society was suppressed; some of social science’s adherents were—as some other [35/36] ideologies—persecuted and harried. Both the carrot and club were used against the new social science, finally inducing it to withdraw from the public arena into the isolation of the university.

But the early sociology was, from its very beginning, essentially inimical to the idea of a politics that would be open to all and conducted in the public arena. Positivism's essential posture was that public issues were now to be studied as scientific and technological problems, to be resolved by the exclusive discussion of qualified social scientists. Ideology, however, had kept the public arena open to all on the basis of men's interests and their common possession of reason; the emerging social sciences denied that mere interest and reason sufficed to admit men to discussion concerning public matters; they claimed that now such admission should be open  only to those with technical credentials.

At the same time, however, the conception of a Vanguard Party of “professional” revolutionaries, later emerging out of Karl Kautsky's and V. I. Lenin's reading of Marxism, seems essentially similar. Academic technicians and vanguard revolutionaries both define themselves as the repository of a superior knowledge that can and should be the basis of a social reconstruction. Both are elite conceptions that place other segments of society in a tutelary role, although one commonly serves to reform and integrate the status quo while the other seeks to revolutionize it.

The common view that sees ideology as a halfway house between tradition and science, and the corresponding assumption that the defects of ideology may be overcome by an ideology‑free social science, lose their force the closer one looks at them. For the historical task of ideology is not simply a critique of tradition which, once completed, may allow ideology to abdicate in favor of true social science.

If social science embarrasses ideology with questions about its empirical justification, ideology  embarrasses social science with a critique of both its social grounding and of its philosophical position. In particular, ideology develops a critique of science and of the scientific Lebenswelt, no less than of tradition and its Lebenswelt. It is one of ideology's essential social functions—of considerable cognitive relevance—to stand outside of science itself, and to reject the idea of science as self‑sufficient or self‑grounded. In other terms, ideology's critique of science, its refusal to let science be the only judge of itself, its public exposure of science's selfishness, of its irrelevance to everyday life, of its implication in the war machine, and of the egoism, the barbarism, and the limits of science, mean in effect that: ideology functions as an epistemology of everyday life. The task of ideology, then, could not end with its victory over the old regimes and their traditionalism. Ideology's face was turned forward, as well as backward; for it was in effect the only standpoint which, in a secularizing society, could provide a grounding for a critique of science and technology and thus resist their domination of the public arena. [36/37]


It was (and is) of the essence of sociological positivism that something new was believed necessary to persuade modern men—the "facts." That is, facts were needed as a "rational" rhetoric, precisely to persuade. Positivism expressly assumed that in the modern era only science could persuade reasonable men, yield consent, and thereby mobilize consensus. It was not "knowledge for its own sake" that was sought by classical French sociological positivism, but knowledge for the sake of social consensus, social order, and social reconstruction. This sociological positivism, then, was characteristically ideological in its insistence, at least at first, on such a unity of theory and praxis.

In effect, positivism, most especially Comteian sociological positivism, is the generalized self‑awareness of the new, postrevolutionary consciousness of ideology‑in-general. It was in the midst of the welter of contesting ideologies, following the French Revolution, that sociological positivism first put itself forth as the arbiter of ideologies, as providing a method that could resolve the contention of ideologies in a new consensus grounded in science. It was this rhetoric of consensus that exhibits that sociological positivism is an ideology about ideologies. Observation‑grounded "facts" would presumably resolve the anarchy born of a "liberty of conscience." Thus the sparseness of positivism, the Puritanism of its cognition (in Theodor Adorno's terms), was at first placed in the service of a consensual Catholicism. Against the divisive ferment of new ideologies, positivism asserted itself as the new, nonideology, as the supraideology, when it was also the new superideology of societal unity and “organization.”

Positivism saw the religious infrastructure of the emerging new ideological politics, but not its own religious infrastructure. When Comte decried the prevailing "liberty of conscience," he was complaining not so much about Christianity, as Bazard had claimed, but about the new Protestantism that had fragmented the old Catholic European order. Convinced that Protestantism provided no way forward to a new consensus, and Catholicism no way back, positivism opted for a new, engineered religion of its own devising; for a “religion of humanity” founded on science. It also sought a model of verification consonant with the Protestant insistence on individual choice but which, also, required that this choice be subjected to the rigorous disciplining of a method superintended by a new priesthood. Positivism, then, premised a new emphasis on the facts, resting on the infrastructure of a sectarian consciousness: “the Puritanism of cognition,” in which what had been placed in question was the ordinary individual's right and his capacity to think.

Essentially, then, positivism was grounded in a specific ideology and politics: the politics of "what is." It is the tacit affirmation that "what is," the [37/38] status quo, is basically sound; that it only needs to be fine tuned through the use of the new social science and by a "positive" appreciation of "what is," scientifically formulated by the new sociological priesthood. It is not simply that the early sociological positivism of Saint‑Simon and Comte functioned as a substitute for a waning traditional religion; it also put itself forth expressly as a new religion appropriate for modern men. But if one sees elements of continuity between the old religion and positivism's new ideology of humanity, it is also important to see the differences and the discontinuities. Even the efforts to protect and revive the old religions were then being made in newly secular ways; one can no more revive an old religion than an old love and one must not expect to restore either faith or passion.

Comte believed that the new age was to be the age of science. His genius was to foresee the future social importance of science, as his mentor Saint‑Simon had foreseen it before him. Their weakness was to foresee that dim future as a vivid immediacy; they mistook what was only dawning for what had fully arrived, thereby offending the "common sense." In the meanwhile, the dominant reality was that the new age was also an age of ideology, in which positivism took its place as an equal among equals but could not accept such equality. What positivism failed to acknowledge was that ideology was an improvement over the intellectual methods and vision of traditionalism. Positivism one-sidedly stressed the prescientific inadequacy, rather than the posttradition accomplishment, of ideology.


Ideologies are not the one‑sided thing that their enemies and friends both commonly suppose; they are not merely the false consciousness condemned by their critics nor the emancipated rationality that their adherents like to believe. Rather, ideology is both: false consciousness and rational discourse. Indeed, the same historical factors that help foster modern rationality also establish a limit on it. As a nonauthority‑referencing discourse, ideology submits to the grammar of modern rationality. No ideology holds that sheer reference to any authority suffices as a reply to those challenging its reports and commands about the world. It is what an authority has said and its intrinsic merit on which ideologies claim to rely; the propriety of citing an authority, it is held, derives from what he knows.

It may be said that this is only a “claim,” but that the reality is otherwise. It may be said that, in reality, the ideologue is "dogmatic" and actually does rely on authority per se to resolve issues and justify his assertions. But in this there is, I would suggest, a misunderstanding. The rationality of ideologists or of ideology does not reside in its practice but in the rules, in the grammar of rationality, which is acknowledged as binding. In other words,  “dogmatism” [38/39] may be a speech mistake, a departure from a grammar of rationality acknowledged to be the standard even by speakers departing from it. Dogmatism, we would say, is "deviant" behavior from the standpoint of the grammar of proper usage to which the normal believer of the ideology submits, even though it is systematically patterned by the speech variant of which ideology is one sociolect—as I shall later argue.

There are, however, difficulties here. For example, how do we know that the erring speaker really believes in the grammar he violates? If he violates it frequently, we might well wonder whether he really does believe it or is simply giving "lip service" to it out of expedience. But this would imply that the ideologist knows that a rational grammar is expected of him, and that he is subjected to pressures or temptations to accept it. This, of course, is the typical socialization situation like that in which young children find themselves vis‑à‑vis parental belief, and which, in the end, they commonly "genuinely" believe even though they begin with only “lip service.” So we are back, then, to a situation‑ in which ideologists are oriented—either by inner conviction or outward circumstance—to a grammar of rationality.

To speak of rational discourse, then, is to speak of a culture of critical discourse which accepts certain rules and commonly makes an effort to conform with them, acknowledging as wrong lapses or departures from them. Rational discourse is an historically specific culture. That is, the rationality referred to here is not some theoretically perfect mode of cognition of timeless validity. It is, rather, an historically developed set of rules for discourse which (1) is concerned to justify its assertions, but (2) whose mode of justifying claims and assertions does not proceed by invoking authorities, and (3) prefers to evoke the voluntary consent of those adressed solely on the basis of arguments adduced.

This is a culture of discourse that rests on the sociological premise that the coercive power and the public credit of societal authorities has been undermined, restricted, or declared irrelevant, and that the use of manipulative rhetoric is limited either by institutional and moral restraints or by the prevailing technology of mass communication.


The culture of discourse that produces ideology was historically grounded in the technology of a specific kind of mass (or public) media, printing, and its specific mode of production: privately owned, small‑scale, widely diffused, competitive and decentralized units. The technology of printing and its mode of organization were both independently important in the construction of modern rational discourse. Printing helped make it possible and necessary to [39/40] mobilize political support among the masses. Printing could reach the great numbers concentrated in the growing urban centers.

With the spread of literacy, it became possible and necessary for elites to ensure that these new publics would support their policies, or, at least, remain neutral to them. The decentralized structure of the printing industry also made public support (or neutrality) a necessity since the public might be reading the opposition press and be mobilized by opposing forces. Even as early as the French Revolution, the power of the Jacobin leaders was dependent on their ability to mobilize the Parisian masses which, in turn, depended in part on the support of various newsletters, newspapers, and journalists.

The age of ideology presumed literacy, the literacy of substantial publics that might be mobilized, as well as the literacy of dominant classes and political elites. A ruling class such as that of feudalism which was often illiterate, and might think of reading as an effeminate thing best left to the clergy, could not have established the sociological requisites of the age of ideology. The development, spread, and organization of printing produced the growing supply of pamphlets, newsletters, newspapers, books and journals that were partly a response to and partly a source of the growing literacy.

In one part, what printing does is establish the increased influence of written culture—it spreads writing and reading, and the forms of rationality to which the written, as distinct from an oral tradition, is disposed.

In Western cultures, rational thought pressed forward to the exclusion of the ephemeral and contingent with a corresponding selective focus on the imputedly enduring—that is, on austere abstraction. The abstract is the reduction of complexity to the "essential" via selection and simplification. Abstraction is thus a mode of decontextualization, removing or constructing a thing apart from the complexity which is its normal context in ordinary language and everyday life. Simplification, decontextualization, and abstraction permit greater concentration and control, symbolic or otherwise.

As Ernest Gellner has suggested, writing confers and is thought to confer permanency. To that extent, writing may evoke more careful thought in writer and reader. It establishes that the topic is to be taken with a certain seriousness, not having the fleeting quality of speech. And this is strengthened to the extent that writing is the scarce skill of a limited elite of scribes or literati. That something has been written, then, is often taken to impute importance to it, to claim it ought to be taken seriously, to be considered with reflection.

What the revolution in printing technology did was to democratize the culture of writing. It was consequential, though scarcely alone in this, for a quantitative increase in public discourse and, also, for qualitative changes in [40/41] its character. Like writing, printing and printed objects decontextualized speech and tended to reduce the modalities of communication.

Face‑to‑face talk is multimodal, allowing persons to see and to hear speakers. Force, tone, pronunciation, dress, manner, gesture and movement all convey information providing a context for interpreting talk. Sometimes such multimodality facilitates interpretation, providing necessary information not conveyed linguistically. Sometimes, however, it might distract the listener from the speech itself or overload him with irrelevant or useless information, thereby impairing interpretations of talk. Printing separates the talk from the talker, allowing and requiring it to be appraised without the seen-but-unnoticed, without the given-but-unintended, supports of the nonlinguistic modalities of communication.

This decontextualization can make appraisal of the validity of an argument more rigorous. It may allow it to be appraised somewhat more deliberatively and impersonally, without pressure for the rapid rebuttal of contest‑like conversation. Such distancing and depersonalization may, also, permit a greater control of affectivity thus, again, reinforcing a certain kind and measure of rationality.

Printing strengthened rational discourse both by its effect upon responses to arguments and, also, by its effects upon those offering the argument. The printed exposition of writing requires an author to finalize his argument. It disposes him to think of himself as having to prepare the "final draft" that will be printed and which, once printed, cannot easily be changed or improved, and which may be stored and read long after publication.

An author of a printed work is thus under considerable pressure to perfect his argument, prior to its publications. In conversation, however, a speaker may not think of any one statement as definitive. He does not have to anticipate the various objections to his argument in advance but may simply answer them ad hoc, as they are made. Involvement in face‑to‑face dialogue means that a speaker is concentrating upon the specific viewpoint of the other who is present. But the writer has no such limiting confinement; he may range imaginatively over a variety of possible audiences anticipating their various responses and seeking to formulate his argument so as to deal with them. A writer prepares his argument to be read by different audiences and, often, by people in later historical periods. Printing decontextualizes argument. The argument is thus less susceptible to the idiosyncratic characteristics of an immediate or local environment, and less under its influence or control; the writer is thus more likely to attend to the grammar by which he feels he should be bound.

Given the (relative) decontextualization of printing, a writer cannot rely on the seen‑but-unnoticed premises, or seen and noticed reactions, of a face‑to‑face audience. The printed exposition of arguments requires (and [41/42] allows) a writer to make explicit the chain of his assumptions and to articulate the grounds of his argument. He can allow himself to develop and present a long‑linked complex argument; for he knows his reader can read it over as frequently as necessary, without having to rely only on his memory of the argument, as would a listener. It was in part for that reason that Socrates had insisted that the dialogue required short questions and short answers. But printed argument is not constrained by the same limitation.

It is not only that printed form allows a longer, more complex argument; it also requires this because readers and writers cannot rely on their sharing a common context to interpret the other's casual, compact or cryptic speech. Given the greater diversity of his audience, the writer often cannot know what assumptions or interests his readers will bring to his work, and whether these will coincide with those he himself uses. The writer, therefore, must spell out his assumptions in greater detail if he wishes to be convincing. Oral discourse is more tolerant of casual styles of discourse, but writing fosters careful styles of discourse. With the spread of printing, then, the structure of what is regarded as a convincing argument begins to assume a specific character. This involves the ideal of a full explication of all the assumptions necessary to support the conclusions. This, too, becomes an important rule in the emerging grammar of modern rational discourse. The fullest exemplifications of this ideal, with its structure of axioms and theorems, is the geometric proof which becomes the concrete paradigm of that ideal of rational discourse.

It is in that sense that Martin Heidegger was correct in speaking of the “mathematical project” as characterizing modern science. [10] For my part, I would prefer to say that the mathematical project with its ideal of self‑sufficiency, is one of the grounds of modern science, most particularly of its rational (rather than its empirical) structure. Both science and ideology are grounded in a culture of careful discourse, one of whose main rules calls for self‑groundedness, requiring as it does—as a regulative ideal—that the speaker be able to state articulately all the premises required by his argument, and to show that his conclusions do not require premises other than those he has articulated.

This aspect of the grammar of rational discourse is, to repeat, an ideal; an ideal not of the ordinary languages of everyday life but of the various extraordinary, technical, or specialized languages characteristic of the intelligentsia. It is an ideal partly grounded in and reproduced by the special exigencies of a printed communication that increasingly decontextualizes communication, creating a situation where writers and readers may not share one another’s assumptions—or if they do, may not know it—and where these must therefore be defined. [42/43]

Certainly, however, this element in the grammar of modern rationality is not only rooted in the technology of printing. The ideal of a self‑grounded rationality was also furthered by the Enlightenment impact on religion. With the decline of conventional religious conviction and of the givenness of God, persons—and particularly the intelligentsia— were less likely to define man as God's creature and, instead, inclined more and more to believe that "man makes himself." Similarly, the political revolutions following the Enlightenment also heightened the sense of potency of ordinary persons. Enlightenment assumptions and revolutionary experience coalesced with printing technology to foster self-groundedness as a critical rule of rational discourse. This rule also spread because it corresponded to the specific status experience and the vested interests of the emerging intelligentsia. This was an intelligentsia that often freed itself of conventional churchly loyalties that moved through different social and political organizations, from the old regime salons to the revolutionary assemblies, and that travelled widely and was interested in different countries, developing a cosmopolitan self‑image as "Citizens of the World."

With the decline of the traditional clerical and aristocratic authorities of the old regime societies, the older grammars of discourse that had entailed or allowed justification by invoking authority were losing force. Discourse was now unable to justify its claims by referring to the supporting authority of another, and it was constrained increasingly to become self‑authorized. The ideal of rational discourse as self‑grounded discourse thus became increasingly both more possible and more necessary in that transitional era, when the old regimes were waning and when the new bourgeoisie was far from fully established. (It was precisely because this assumption of self-groundedness had been so entrenched in the grammar of modern rational discourse that Kurt Gödel's 1931 paper was of epochal importance, showing as it did that formal systems are unavoidably lacking in self‑sufficiency and must rest on assumptions outside their own stipulations.)

If the coalesced forces of printing technology, the decline of old‑regime traditionalism and the emergence of new Enlightenment assumptions contributed to the development of modern rationality, they also built limits into it, fostering a certain false consciousness. Specifically, as they increased the decontextualization of discourse—strengthening the speaker's orientation to his grammar and focusing attention on discourse as embodied in printed objects, there was a corresponding defocalization of those persons to whom it was addressed and of the speaker making the address.

The dialogue character of discourse thus tends to become occluded, as focal attention is given over to the printed object or to its words or ideas. The latter come to he increasingly separated from those producing them as a speech, and from the patterns of social interaction that are its meaning-bestowing context. Dialogue is thus hidden behind monologue. Talking and [43/44] listening  give way to a reading and writing that may take place alone and apart from others. With the increased decontextualization of communication, and with the spread of depersonalizing print, communication becomes a kind of ghostly, disembodied voice separated from its speaker. Communication as speech produced by a speaker (and hence dependent on and varying in character with the language spoken) becomes less visible. It is therefore now easier to assume that the meaning of a communication (as distinct from its validity) may be understood apart from the intent and occasion of the speech and the speaker.


The critique of ideology developed by Marx out of the Left Hegelian critique of religion, which had affirmed that man made god (and religion) rather than that god had made man, centered on denying the decontextualization and autonomy of ideas. Indeed, Marx defines this decontextualization as a fallacious philosophy—idealism. Marx's critique of ideology is an effort to resist the decontextualization of communication and aims to recontextualize it—to recover the context of communication as speaker‑implicated. The specific goal of a Marxist recontextualization of communication is the recovery of the class character of the speaker. Ideology is thus defined by Marx as the false consciousness of speech that mistakenly believes itself to be autonomous and which serves the bourgeoisie’s interests in social domination.

At the same time, however, this Marxist recontextualization of speech is itself limited and faces certain problems. Specifically, a Marxist recontextualization of speech, recovering the occluded class character of the speaker, inevitably invites universalization. This was essentially the tack that Karl Mannheim took, in developing his own sociology of knowledge. Mannheim regarded the self‑imposed limits of Marxism's recontextualization of speech as irrational because it was not universalized to include and to make reflexive reference to the Marxist‑self. Whatever one may think on Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, he was right in seeing that Marxism resisted efforts to see itself as a speech produced by speakers, who may also be limited by their own social context.

To view its own theories as a speech like other speeches, and its own theorists as speakers like other speakers, undermines Marxism's (and any ideology's) capacity to mobilize the action it seeks and to persuade men to pay the costs of their commitments. Relativism may foster a worldly tolerance of different gods and discourage costly sacrifices on behalf of one's own beliefs, since these are taken to be far from certain. Its attitude may promote neutrality rather than struggle against the "error" of opposing outlooks. [44/45] Marxism, therefore, could not allow its recontextualization of speech to be extended to include itself.

In this respect, Marxism like other ideologies is a rational mode of discourse that embodies a specific communication pathology—"objectivism." Objectivism is discourse lacking in reflexivity; it one‑sidedly focuses on the "object" but occludes the speaking "subject" to whom it is an object; objectivism thus ignores the way in which the spoken object is contingent in part on the language in which it is spoken, and varies in character with the language—or theory—used.

The analytic essence of ideology, common to all concrete “isms,” is precisely that it is speech that does not does recognize or make problematic its own grounds, and rejects such reflexivity as unworldly “navel‑gazing.” It is thus exemplified by Napoleon's contempt for the idéologues; but it was he rather than they who, from our point of view, was the ideal ideologue.


There are two forms of objectivism and thus, in this respect, two types of ideology. One of these is "idealistic objectivism," where the focus is given over to the logical, intellectual, or linguistic grounds of speech, while simultaneously taking as given the "material" or sociological grounding of the speaker. The second is “materialistic objectivism” where attention is focused on the socioeconomic grounding of the speaker but where the nature of speech as speech grounded in and contingent on language or theory is occluded. For all its critique of ideology, then, Marxism does not itself transcend all ideology. Marxism's ideology critique powerfully illuminated the limits of one form of ideology, that based on idealistic objectivism; but Marxism itself also generated a materialistic objectivism and remains bound by the specific, linguistic, nonreflexivity of a materialist ideology.

Correspondingly, "normal" academic social science, including sociology, remains limited by its own essentially idealistic objectivism, particularly evident in its paradoxical vision that it itself is able to elude the very social forces to which it attributes such power. The idealistic objectivism of academic sociology sometimes makes theory problematic, but commonly takes the theorist and his social situation as givens.


If ideologies are grounded in a culture of rational discourse they are also, and indeed, for that very reason, a mode of discourse that is limited by objectivism, speaking of the world in an omniscient voice, as if the world itself [45/46] rather than men were speaking. Ideology thus lacks reflexivity. As we will later elaborate, the reason for ideology's objectivism is that it is grounded in an interest that does not wish to make itself problematic and refuses to put itself in question, and hence it generates silence about itself and about the limits on its rationality.

But interests are the interests of persons or groups which also need furtherance and protection by the cooperative action of others. The problem is how to secure the support of others for an interest that one does not wish to discuss, or at least to make problematic. Depersonalized objectivistic speech does this by defocalizing the presence of such interests in part by occluding the presence of speaking persons whose visibility would underwrite the contingency of what was said, being all too evidently speech spoken by men with inherent limitations and distorting interests.

A second limitation on ideology's rationality has to do with its relation to the empirical. We might say that ideology has a certain "overconfidence" concerning its own empirical grounding. It takes this grounding as given rather than treating it as problematic and as susceptible to critical reexamination. In effect, ideology acts as if all relevant empirical issues have been resolved satisfactorily. For ideology, then, there no longer seems to be any question of fact or, more exactly, questions of fact that have policy relevance. In some part this is an expression of the frequently remarked‑upon "dogmatism" of ideology, but the problem is a broader one to which we will later have to return in a more systematic way. For the moment, a few phenomenological observations about this may be in order.

Consider the Other's phenomenology of the ideologue, how the ideologue is seen and experienced by another. The ideologue is experienced as one who does not want to "bend"—as "rigid"—while he wants the Other to "bend." There is an eristic element of struggle for sheer dominance; discourse itself has here become contest. There is a fundamental lack of reciprocity of perspectives, for the ideologue is experienced as wanting the Other to change, to see the world through the ideologue's perspective, but himself cannot or will not reciprocate by seeing the world through the Other's perspective. The ideologue is accused of violating a fundamental if tacit rule of discourse, the mutuality or reciprocity of perspectives. He is seen as being one‑sided, "his"‑sided. Discourse is thus experienced not as an "exchange" but as an agency of control by one party over another. Ideology is seen as being uncontrollably and compulsively one‑sided. As out of touch with the "Other." This is an aspect of a critical phenomenology of the ideological.

The ideologue, however, experiences himself differently. Most preeminently, he experiences himself as possessing a significant truth, a truth he does not experience as dubitable, although he does view it as embattled, subverted, precarious. For him, however, his truth is not just one other truth in a world [46/47] of truths and half‑truths, but something special which he must put forth special efforts to safeguard. The ideologue is on guard against those who, he feels, are trying to talk his theory to death. He experiences discourse as fraught with great danger, thus speaking frequently of its “traps.”

The ideologue's truth is not just a knowledge about some part of the world but simultaneously transforms the ideologue's relation to it, and does so in a way that is liberating in relation to some other, older conception of the world. It has become a center around which the ideologue's identity becomes rearranged. It is thus more than empirical bits of information that are decisive in their effects on the ideologue; there has been a larger and more subtle conceptual shift that rearranges the total architecture of his perspective on the world, and hence of his place in it. With this new truth, the whole world has a different feel. Part of what is experienced is in the nature of a rebirth of self; for with the adoption of the ideology, a boundary line has been drawn in the periodization of the self into a before-and-after coming of the ideology, into a division between the early, “archaic” self, and the new, “reborn” self. The ideology is thus in some measure self-transforming.

But now that the whole self has been reorganized in terms that hinge on the ideology, the latter cannot be lightly opened up for examination; it cannot be kept perpetually open to continual, critical reexamination or challenge. Known with an inward conviction, there seems nothing more, or at least nothing more of comparable importance, for the ideologue to know. It is not that he feels he knows all. But he feels that what he knows is decisive. To the extent that ideology becomes the grounding of identity, a person's being becomes contingent on the maintenance of that ideology and thus sets limits on the capacity to change that ideology rationally. In other words, insofar as it is self‑constituting, ideological discourse generates an identity that, like an interest, is taken or takes itself as given, and thereby also constitutes a limit on rationality.

The ideologue's task, then, is not an empirical one but something else. First he has the task of spreading the word; to tell and convince others, to help them see something of the extraordinary thing he sees. Secondly, he has the task of doing what is needed, of adopting a practice appropriate to his own new knowledge. What is needed, then, is an effective rhetoric, organization, or practice and also vigilant countermeasures to defend this knowledge from those who mean to discredit it. But what is not needed is more "research" or more "critical thinking.''


It would be erroneous, however, to conclude that this demonstrates the general inferiority of ideology's rationality in comparison with science's. It is [47/48] likely, rather, that this simply demonstrates that the points at which their rationality is limited differs, rather than implying that ideology has limits while science has none. The limits of scientific rationality are located precisely in what Thomas Kuhn defines as the hallmark of its maturity, in the very "paradigm" which is shared by members of the scientific community. "Normal science," in Kuhn's terms, is science that operates within the limits of a paradigm, "testing" and working on "puzzles" via bits of research that are implied by the paradigm.

It is just this readiness to focus on "puzzles" and tests within the paradigm that indicates that, for the most part, it remains a given for the scientific community, being that about which questions are not raised, until it produces an accumulation of anomalous findings. The limited rationality of the process is suggested, further, by the fact that the production of even anomalous findings within the framework of a paradigm does not readily generate a critical review of the paradigm. Before this commitment is surrendered or brought into question the anomalies must grow and/or there must be available alternative or competing paradigms. But Kuhn himself comes rather close to saying much the same, about the limited rationality of normal science, when he says that it begins with the end of critical reason. Kuhn thus remarks that "when I describe the scientist as a puzzle solver . . . I use the term 'puzzle' in order to emphasize that the difficulties which ordinarily confront even the very best scientists are, like crossword puzzles, challenges only to his ingenuity. He is in difficulty, not current theory. [11]  And again: “. . . it is precisely the abandonment of critical discourse that marks the transition to a science. Once a field has made that transition, critical discourse recurs only at moments of crisis . . .” [12] This strongly suggests that what Kuhn calls "normal science" can be conceived of, from the standpoint of the grammar of rationality, as a cognitive pathology.


If the analytic essence of ideology is its stunted reflexivity, concerning its own ideal or material groundings, this is in effect a critique of ideology as a limited rationality. To judge ideology in this way views it from a tacit standpoint, in terms of a certain ideal of rationality, and reproaches it for falling short of that ideal. Essential to this ideal of rationality, as already adumbrated, is the standard of self‑awareness. This prizes the speaker's capacity to speak the assumptions of his perspective, to know the rules to which he submits. [48/49] Rationality is here construed as the capacity to make problematic what had hitherto been treated as given; to bring into reflection what before had only been used; to transform resource into topic; to examine critically the life we lead. This view of rationality situates it in the capacity to think about our thinking. Rationality as reflexivity about our own groundings premises an ability to speak about our speech and the factors that ground it. Rationality is thus located in metacommunication. But the critique of a set of assumptions depends, in its turn, on using a set of assumptions; and these, in turn, must also be susceptible to critique, ad infinitum. There are probably very definite limits on any individual's capacity to reflect upon the assumptions he uses to examine the assumptions he uses, etc. Perhaps a third‑ or a fourth‑order reflexivity is the very most that can be sustained by any one person.


The grounding of such a rationality can therefore be secured only in the right of the listener to question and critique the speaker's assumptions. Such rationality, then, depends not only on the speaker but, no less, on the listener and on their interrelationship. Rational discourse entails a kind of rotating division of labor, the speaker of the moment having a vested interest in his assumptions, while the listener challenges, and, indeed, has a vested interest in his capacity to challenge, the assumptions made, and so on. Such rationality, then, is in the dialogue and in rules that permit assumptions to be examined regressively. But one should note that under these rules the particular set of assumptions at any given moment—the cultural status quo—is always subject to challenge. Inherent in this structure of rationality, then, is potential revolution in permanence, the "permanent revolution." It is the drive toward unending perfection, that unceasing restlessness and lawlessness, that was first called anomos and later, anomie.

Ideology, then, is indeed a mode of discourse with a limited reflexivity. But it is a mode of rational discourse, too, in part because it is grounded in another norm emphasizing its self‑groundedness. In other words the norm of rationality that requires metacommunication—the transformation of assumptions into problematized topics—is a form of critique limited by that other norm of rationality which seeks to make discourse autonomous, either from the language in which it takes place or from the social conditions on which it rests. This criterion of self‑groundedness is a norm of modern rationality which allows its premises to be criticized, rather than to be placed above criticism. At the same time, however, the claim that it is a self‑grounded discourse generates systematic silences about those substantial conditions, in language and society, on which the conduct of that discourse depends. It thus produces, as noted above, that pathology of cognition called “objectivism”: [49/50] communication that conceals the presence of the speaker; a sociology that conceals the presence of the sociologist; thinking that ignores the language or theory in which thought is taking place. Objectivism is that pathology of cognition that entails silence about the speaker, about his interests and his desires, and how these are socially situated and structurally maintained.

Such a rationality does not understand itself as an historically produced discourse but as suprahistorical and supracultural, as the sacred, disembodied word: Logos. Imagining itself valuable only to the extent it escapes history and society, this historical form of rationality maintains a heavy silence about its own grounding. The objectivism that characterizes ideology, then, is not peculiar to ideology. It is a cognitive flaw it shares with all discourses grounding themselves in the culture of modern rationality. The objectivism that is a limitation of reflexivity, then, is in part grounded in modern, historically contingent rationality itself. Objectivism is a cognitive “deviance” produced and reproduced by an effort to conform with that rationality’s requirement of self‑groundedness. For conformity with that norm fosters deviance from modern rationality’s other norm, that demanding self‑awareness and self‑examination. Objectivism and the critique of objectivism, then, are both produced by the grammar of modern rationality, and are symptomatic of its internal contradictions.


Our view of ideology, then, sees it as grounded in a mode of discourse that is an internally limited form of rationality. Neither the emancipation of this discourse from traditional authority, nor the false consciousness built into its grammar, emerges under any and all historical conditions. Our view of that rationality—as reflexivity about our groundings—premises an ability to speak about our speech. It is thus profoundly rooted in the decline of traditionalistic cultures and in the corresponding demystification of speech—or forms of it—as god‑inspired or as revelation, or as fused with the sacred as in Logos. In Western societies this at first most visibly emerges in the Greek city‑state; its fullest development is reached, however, only after the termination of feudalism and its political system.

The specific sociocultural conditions under which the modern grammar of rationality matures is: the waning of once traditional cultures; the decline in the sheer givenness of its values; the corresponding increased visibility of the rules that had hitherto remained largely unnoticed; the rise of cities and of urbanism; the rise of new social classes, the decline of older established elites, and the intensifying struggles among them; increasing travel, commerce, improved modes of transportation and communication, bringing increased confrontation among different cultures and within their bearers. All this [50/51] makes more visible, and more problematic, the older, once unnoticed rules by which persons had customarily lived.

The model of rationality tacitly employed in the critique of ideology as flawed rationality sees men as properly bound only by rules they can articulately justify. It premises men who have not spent their lives in viable tribal, rural, or traditional communities; who, rather, have been uprooted and anomically detached; who are now bound together less by an unnoticed, hence unexaminable culture, and more by common interests; by commitments to which they may in part attend deliberately, and whose protection or pursuit is no longer limited by traditional structures; and who have to "negotiate" with one another, to come to terms and arrive at settlements, understandings, and alliances and who arrange exchanges through persuasion, rather than direct domination. It premises an ecology of speakers who cannot give one another orders, because they have a relative equality; who have some means enabling them to resist compulsion and who must therefore be persuaded, “rationally.”


The Marxist critique of ideology had focused on certain very important specific sources of the lack of reflexivity, particularly class "interests." The Marxist critique was thus a major step in demystifying rational discourse, pointing as it did to certain of the social conditions by which rationality might be subverted and on which it depended.

At the same time, however, "class interest" was a special case that ignored other limits on rationality; for example, the cultural limits of language. This became belatedly clear, at least to certain in the Marxist community, when Joseph Stalin launched his critique of the Soviet linguist N.Y. Marr, and plainly affirmed the ambiguous place of language in Marxist theory. Marxism had, also, occluded the cognitive consequences of desire. The "passions," in short, are also important in limiting rationality: e.g., "when you're in love, smoke gets in your eyes."

Ideology, then, is one concrete, sociologically grounded limit on rationality and thus by no means exhausts such limits. To have raised the question of the effects of class interests was a profound but limited step toward understanding the hazards to rational discourse. What I am saying is that ideology is only one set of forces that limit, or may be used to strengthen and extend, rationality. The study of ideology has its value because it is part of that larger family of problems but it has a limited role in that family, for it is only a part. While my analysis here will largely focus on ideology and interests, rather than, say, desire, I shall try to remain alert to the limits of my own inquiry.

An ideology critique has a certain ambiguity, for it both accepts and [51/52] challenges the validity of the very standard of self‑groundedness or autonomy implied by modern rationality. On the one hand, ideology critique condemns speakers for failing to abide by the standard of self‑groundedness they affirm, and the "critique" itself proceeds by exhibiting (or "unmasking") those hitherto unspoken grounds, To that extent, critique accepts the grammar of rationality calling for self-grounded, autonomous speech. On the other hand, in calling attention to the force of external influences, critique denies the very possibility of fully autonomous speech and thus calls into question the norm requiring such autonomy.

If the naive, unreflexive affirmation of autonomy fosters a false consciousness, the corresponding denial of such autonomy is, on the one side, a liberative critique of that false consciousness, while on the other side, it is an opening to a positivistic accommodation to the sheer fact of limits on rationality. In short, it does not yet pose systematically the question of what may be done to overcome, to pierce, stretch, struggle against, and at least limit these limits themselves, if not remove them.


To speak of ideology critically is to condemn rational discourse when it fails by its own standards. This implies that these standards are workable and that rational reflection can transcend the interests, desires, and languages that commonly limit it. But how is it possible to transcend these limits? This seems almost like jumping over one's own shadow; for these interests, desires, and language are the very speaking subject himself. In what sense, and how, can thinking transcend the interests and desires and languages for which and with which persons think? In some part, this depends on what happens to us as we pursue our interests, or submit to our passions in our living experience and practice. Interests and desires that fail to be achieved in practice generate a very different sort of experience than those that succeed. Failures of practice subvert intentions; they liquidate commitments even to great interests and passions and they ready us for new ones, from wherever they might come.

But how can our thinking transcend the "prisonhouse of language" with which it thinks? In some part, (to repeat, some, not all of) our thinking and the language in which we think is in the service of our interests and desires; when it fails in practice to embody, to express, and to achieve them, our ways of thinking are undermined and we become ready for new ways, which is to say, new languages. Certain forms of practice can activate passions, desires, anxieties, panics, lusts, powerful sentiments, and ambitions that overwhelm grammars and liquidate, at least partially, old linguistic investments and habits, leading us to "speak in tongues," in new ways that we may not at first recognize as different and as our own. This means that we think and reason [52/53] within the perimeters of our interests, desires, and language, and not—indeed, never—outside of them, or without them.

Sentences that are true, while not necessarily dictated by grammar, are always sentences within some language, which we utter in part because of some motivating interest, desire, or intention. A language allows for the possibility that certain correct things may be said, but does not by itself ensure the truth of what is correct or require any particular true sentence to be spoken. Desire, interest, and experience are needed to actualize the possibilities of speech and of speaking truly. But whatever is spoken truly always depends on, varies with, and is limited by language.

The problem, then, comes down to whether thinking with language makes it impossible to think about language, to develop reflexivity about it. Obviously, however, metacommunication is possible. But what we say or think about a language is limited by the language we use to do so. Yet, several things need adding: First, as Bertrand Russell long ago said, in his introduction to Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico‑Philosophicus, ". . . every language has . . . a structure concerning which, in the language, nothing can be said, but . . . there may be another language dealing with the structure of the first language and having itself a new structure, and that to this hierarchy of languages there may be no limit." In short, we need not limit our thinking about language1, to language1‑thinking; we may use another, or several other languages2‑n, to think about language.

Again, this does not mean that our thinking has become language‑free. We are still limited by the language we use, our subject language, even if not by the language we think about, our object language. Still the specific limits on our thinking may have changed and differ from those imposed by language1. Multilinguality, then, constitutes a structurally different situation than monolinguality. It enhances our reflexivity about and ability to elude the limits of any one of our languages, even if not of language in general. Multilinguality is qualitatively different from monolinguality because it changes our awareness of language, increasing our reflexivity and distance toward all languages, including the one we happen to be using, as well as the one we are talking about. When one only knows and speaks one language, social reality and communication are experienced as intuitively given and it is more difficult to see that communication and social reality is language constructed and language mediated.

Persons may thus have different relations to languages, as well as having different languages. Some use a language without ever noticing that they are using it, others may make their language and its grammar objects of critical awareness. Such variations in critical awareness establish differences in the limits imposed, or the slippage allowed, by a particular language. As Ragnar Rommetveit has trenchantly remarked: “. . . the issue of imprisonment of thought in a bodily‑perceptual-motivational perspective represents very [53/54] different issues, depending on whether we study the inferences that Piaget made when he was four years old about another child's preference ordering of toys, or whether we consider his reflections, fifty years later, on the protocols derivable from such observations of egocentrism under carefully controlled conditions.” [13]

But it is not only multilinguality or reflexive distance toward language that may allow a certain escape, but, also what is done, on the basis of or with languages. Men are, but are not only, speaking subjects. They are also sensuous actors engaged in a practice which may be spoken but is not identical with that speech. Words mediate between deeds and experiences; but there are deeds that overwhelm the capacity for speech, thus imposing silences and dissatisfaction with our ability to communicate or understand our experience. If language imprisons, it is also true that our experiences and feelings may also be imprisoned for lack of a language adequate to them; and this imprisonment fosters a readiness to accept or to fashion new languages. What we call the “imprisonment of language” was likely, at some point, to have been a liberation from imprisonment in an individually unique, and hence noncommunicable, prelinguistic experience. As a practice, experience, and sentiment change, a once emancipatory language may become wooden and no longer express (but newly imprison) the changed men.

The meaning of our imprisonment in language depends fundamentally on the fact that we are not just speakers, but that our languages are part of a larger life of practice, and vary with the nature of that practice. Those who largely live a passive contemplative existence, or others who relate to the world with sensuous aesthetic appreciation, and still others who view the world as an object to be acted upon, changed and used, all engage in fundamentally different forms of practice. If their language limits what they may say and know about the world, their different practices also affect the manner in which their languages are used, the purposes they seek, the meanings they acquire, and the limits imposed by the language. The limits of a language will be more readily tolerated in some forms of practice, while in others they will chafe and foster a transcending resistance.


We began by stressing our most elemental notion of ideology as a system of symbols and of rules for using them. Ideologies, in short, are languages and our approach to them was largely that of an historical sociology of language. More narrowly, ideologies were seen as symbol systems that serve to justify [54/55] and to mobilize public projects of social reconstruction; projects which, of course, can have different magnitudes, ranging from minor civic reforms to permanent world revolutions.

We emphasized that ideology accomplishes its project‑mobilizing function in an historically distinctive manner—"rationally." We also suggested that this very rationality is an historically emergent mode of discourse, having an historically grounded grammar. The rationality of specifically ideological symbol systems is, in part, expressed in the way it connects its "reports" and commands"—to use W. S. McCulloch's and Gregory Bateson's terms.

Ideologies require that the command, or the "what is to be done?" side of language should be grounded in the "report" side, the side that makes reference to "What Is" in the world. Ideologies are thus "rational" symbol systems in that they have a "deep structure" (an analytic or a set of more or less tacit rules) requiring "the unity of theory and practice." To that extent, Marxism is only one instance of such a symbol system, albeit a relatively aware and reflexive one. (For the moment, we need simply suggest thatreflexivity” means self‑awareness concerning the rules to which one submits and by which one is bound, thereby referring to a kind of "theoreticity.")

In ideological symbol systems, then, the report side is taken, under certain conditions, to institute a secured justification for the command, practical, or policy implications of the symbol system. The practical or policy implications, correspondingly, are taken to be securely grounded in the report side of the ideology which speaks What Is or What Is Becoming.


Ideologies, then, are emergent, historically distinct symbol systems, posttraditional systems that emerge along with bourgeois social and cultural structures. Ideologies thus differ from traditionalistic value systems, religions, or myths, and have certain convergences with those symbol systems called "science." Both scientific and ideological symbol systems entail the negation of traditional value systems and share a certain rationality. Both formulate their reports about the world, or social world, in relatively focalized ways; both treat the correctness of such reports as grounded in facts and logic; and both place high value on the importance of cognitive correctness.

"Social Sciences," we may say, defocalize the command implications of their reports; contrariwise, they focalize the report side of their contents. In contrast to self‑styled social sciences, what are commonly called "ideologies" focalize both their command and their report sides, grounding the former in the latter. Ideologies thus produce a new mode of public discourse in which there is a mobilizing appeal to “publics.” Publics, we suggest, are persons to [55/56] whom there may be access via discourse; "persons" are those persuadable through discourse; but more on this, shortly.

Ideologies thus premise certain historical, sociological, and socio‑psychological conditions. For one, they premise the emergence of certain nontraditional social structures—the "public" sphere—characterized in part by a certain residuality; for publics are nontraditional structures, arrangements in part negatively defined by their release from the control of traditional social arrangements. By reason of this release, publics are those persons available for political mobilization, on the basis of a rational appeal to interests they are imputed to share. Again, I shall discuss this in greater detail later.


It is implied that the normal routines of such persons, their everyday lives and ordinary languages, do not suffice to produce a shared consciousness, a common policy, or solidary social action on behalf of it. Ideologies seem, then, at some level, to premise that the community reconstitutions they seek require a "consciousness"; and that this must come from an "outside," because the requisite consciousness will not be produced "spontaneously" by these persons' everyday lives and ordinary languages; and that therefore the ideology itself is necessary, if not sufficient, to produce a shared consciousness of the desirability of some policy and a solidary effort to enact it. This, too, is another aspect of the deep structure (or the analytic) of all ideologies.

In this respect again, Marxism (particularly in its Kautskian‑Leninist variant with its stress on a "vanguard"), is simply a special case of the importance of "outsiders" as the site from which a consciousness‑changing ideology will be brought to some enacting historical agent. "Vanguards," hold onto or seek to conserve and to "bring" an ideology to some public‑historical agent, tensively protecting the ideology from distortion by the public to which it is brought, while simultaneously modifying it to make it intelligible and attractive to that public.

The discourse through which ideologies mobilize publics thus premises the dissolution of traditionalistic, "old regime" social structures, constituting the initial social grounding for the emergence of the Age of Ideologies. These "old regime" social structures entail this overlap: the end of traditionalistic regimes with the beginning of the new bourgeois structures, but before the latter have yet entrenched themselves.


Beyond this sociological premise of ideology, the latter is also grounded in the emergence of new kinds of social selves or identities; these are commonly [56/57] characterized by their possession of a newly heightened sense of potency. That is, the persons constituting the new publics are defined (or define themselves) as foci of power who have a moral responsibility, who both can and should change their community in ways defined as rational.

The Age of Ideologies, then, implies the development of both new social structures and new selves. The self is viewed increasingly, as a rational “subject,” a locus of rational social transformation.

Posttraditional ideological discourse is rational in the following sense: it does not justify its reports or commands by claiming them to be sanctioned by authorities external to its own discourse. Its culture of discourse affirms relatively context-independent criteria of argument and persuasion. Modern ideologies thus distance themselves from prior epistemological positions which had commonly allowed reliance upon authority to justify policy recommendations. Now, in the newer modes of ideological discourse, policy can no longer be justified by making reference to the social position of those recommending it. Indeed, persons' social position may be defined, as in Marxism, as a source of their cognitive unreliability.


[1] Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1962, pp. 217, 222.

[2] Cf., P. Miller, The New England Mind. Beacon Press, Boston, 1961.

[3] Cf. Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, Harvard University Press, Cambridge. Mass., 1965.

[4] Michael Walzer, ibid., p. 28.

[5] Chaim Waxman, ibid., p. 108.

[6] Ibid., p. 216.

[7] David Apter, ibid., cited by Apter, p. 20.

[8] Jürgen Habermas, Toward a Rational Society, Beacon Press, Boston, 1970 (German volume, 1968), pp. 98‑99.

[9] Roger Trigg, Reason and Commitment, Cambridge University Press 1973, p. 153.

[10] Martin Heidegger, What Is a Thing? Henry Regnery, Chicago, 1967.

[11] In I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, Cambridge University Press, 1970, p. 5.

[12] Ibid., p. 6.

[13] In J. Israel and H. Tajfel (eds.), The Context of Psychology, Academic Press, London, 1972, p. 221.

SOURCE: Gouldner, Alvin W. The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology: The Origins, Grammar, and Future of Ideology. New York: Seabury Press, 1976. (The Dark Side of the Dialectic; v. 1) Chapter 2 (Ideological Discourse as Rationality and False Consciousness), beginning - section 5.3, pp. 23-57.

Note: Footnotes at bottom of pages in original are here converted to endnotes and numbered.

Chapter 2, Ideological Discourse as Rationality and False Consciousness:
sections 5.4 - 7 [Basil Bernstein, Elaborated & Restricted Linguistic Codes] + Bibliographical Note

The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology: The Origins, Grammar, and Future of Ideology by Alvin Gouldner

"Theory and Ideology" by Alvin Gouldner

Alvin Gouldner on the New Class & the Culture of Critical Discourse

Alvin Gouldner on Intellectuals & the Social Totality

Romanticism and Classicism: Deep Structures in Social Science by Alvin Gouldner

"Prologue to a Theory of Revolutionary Intellectuals" by Alvin W. Gouldner

"Stalinism: A Study of Internal Colonialism" by Alvin W. Gouldner

Alvin Gouldner: Notes & Commentary by R. Dumain

"Popes, Kings & Cultural Studies: Placing the commitment to non-disciplinarity in historical context"
by Karl Maton

"Historical Amnesia" by Karl Maton & Rob Moore

The Sacred and the Profane:The Arbitrary Legacy of Pierre Bourdieu by Karl Maton

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

Ideology Study Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Reflexivity & Situatedness Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

American Philosophy Study Guide

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