The Concept of Ideology
by Jorge Larrain
1 Historical origins of the concept of ideology
2 Marx’s theory of ideology
3 From Engels to Durkbeim: the continuing debate on ideology
4 The historicist tradition: Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge and Goldmann’s genetic structuralism
5 Ideology and structural analysis
6 Ideology and science: Marx and the contemporary debate
Ideology is perhaps one of the most equivocal and elusive concepts one can find in the social sciences; not only because of the variety of theoretical approaches which assign different meanings and functions to it, but also because it is a concept heavily charged with political connotations and widely used in everyday life with the most diverse significations. The purpose of this book is to introduce the reader to the concept of ideology by elucidating its most relevant meanings, functions and relationships, and by showing some of its methodological and political implications within the context of its various formulations.
The book is not intended to be either a merely descriptive and detailed historical review of the various conceptions or a search for a syncretic version. It aims rather at discussing analytically the basis upon which diverse schools of thought build up their theories. In doing this, it does not only try to throw light upon theoretical options, but also takes a position with respect to some of the central issues and questions which stem from them. Although the book cannot claim to be an exhaustive historical account of all the theories and interpretations concerned with ideology, I have tried to cover the most important contributions to the concept by emphasizing a critical and analytical approach within a loose historical framework. The very scope of the task has demanded a discussion pitched at a certain level of generality which necessarily precludes the development of too detailed and complicated arguments.
The main questions which this book sets out to clarify are concerned with the character, origin, scope and relationships of the concept of ideology. These questions present alternative solutions and although they overlap in some of their features, each one highlights a particular aspect which is worthwhile distinguishing.
First, the question arises as to whether ideology has a negative or positive meaning. On the one hand, ideology may be conceived in eminently negative terms as a critical concept which means a form of false consciousness or necessary deception which somehow distorts men’s understanding of social reality: the cognitive value of ideas affected by ideology is called in question. On the other hand, the concept of ideology may be conceived in positive terms as the expression of the world-view of a class. To this extent one can talk of ‘ideologies’, in plural, as the opinions, theories and attitudes formed within a class in order to defend and promote its interests. The cognitive value of ideological ideas is, therefore, set aside as a different problem.
Secondly, the question can be raised as to whether ideology has an eminently subjective and psychological character or is, on the contrary, entirely dependent upon objective factors. If subjective, ideology is conceived of as a deformation of consciousness, which somehow is unable to grasp reality as it is. If objective, ideology appears as a deception induced by reality itself: it is not the subject that distorts reality but reality itself which deceives the subject. While the subjective view emphasizes the role of individuals, classes and parties in the production of ideology, the objective view sees ideology as impregnating the basic structure of society.
A further question arises as to whether ideology should be considered as a particular kind of phenomenon within the vast range of superstructural phenomena, or whether ideology is equivalent to and co-extensive with the whole cultural sphere usually called the ‘ideological superstructure’. The first of these alternatives relies upon a restrictive concept of ideology since not all cultural objects would be ‘ideological’. Conversely, the second identifies ideology with an objective level of society which includes all forms of social consciousness.
Finally, the question arises as to how one is to tackle the relationships between ideology and science. Ideology may be conceived of as the antithesis of science; that is to say, it may be equated with preconceptions or irrational elements which disturb reason, thus preventing it from reaching the truth. So when scientific method is correctly applied, ideology is supposed to vanish. On the other hand, it is possible to stress the common features between science and ideology, rather than their differences, so ideology and science would have a common basis in the world-view of the originating class. On this view, ideology cannot be overcome by science, and science itself may become ideological.
These four basic questions are tackled under different forms and in various contexts within the six chapters of this book.
Chapter 1 sets out, in a quick historical survey, how the concept of ideology came to be produced and which traditions and authors contributed to its formation from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century. The concept of ideology is shown to have emerged from the new scientific and philosophical approach of the modern times and in close connection with the critique of religion. However, at first the term ideology was not widely used, and was first applied to designate a science of ideas. It is in Marx that the critical tradition and the term ideology fuse themselves into a new concept. Chapter 2 deals with this encounter by presenting Marx’s concept of ideology in the context of his intellectual development. With Marx the concept loses its former psychological overtones and becomes connected with the historical evolution of social contradictions. The concept of ideology is born as a critical notion which accounts for a misrepresentation rooted in material reality.
Chapter 3 is concerned with the debates and contributions to the concept by the turn of the century. A number of new developments emerge. First and foremost is the evolution from a negative to a positive concept of ideology which Lenin institutionalized within Marxist theory. Second, the beginnings of a dual interpretation of Marx are apparent in the opposition between a historicist approach (Lukács, Gramsci) and a more positivist understanding which stems from Engels. Third, beyond the Marxist debate Pareto and Freud re-introduce a psychological concept of ideology while Durkheim, in the Baconian tradition, lays the foundation of a positivist conception of ideology. Chapter 4 tackles the development of the historicist tradition in Mannheim and Goldmann, who introduce the sociological analysis of literature and cultural phenomena using the concept of Weltanschauung. Ideology acquires a more definite subjective character as the world-view or ‘perspective’ of a class and is universalized to a point where its usefulness as an analytical and critical notion can be doubted.
Chapter 5 explores structuralism in its most important manifestations: the anthropological line of Levi-Strauss and Godelier, the structural linguistic approach of Barthes and Greimas, the semiological line of Tel Quel and the Althusserian transposition of structuralist elements into Marxism. Structuralism originates, both within and without Marxism, new and forceful propositions for the understanding of ideology. Cultural phenomena are no longer understood as genetic products of a subject but rather as subjectless, synchronic, underlying structures. Hence the importance of linguistics and semiology, some of whose representatives rediscover in Freud a new source of insights into the concept of ideology. Finally, chapter 6 tackles the complex problem of the relationship between ideology and science in a global manner by reviewing and confronting three possible attitudes at the bottom of the contemporary debate on science and ideology, namely, positivism, historicism and Marxism.
SOURCE: Larrain, Jorge. The Concept of Ideology. Athens: The University of Georgia Press; London: Hutchinson, 1979. Introduction, pp. 13-16.
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