IDEOLOGY:
DESCRIPTIVE, PEJORATIVE, POSITIVE VIEWS

by Raymond Geuss

1 IDEOLOGY IN THE DESCRIPTIVE SENSE

The term ‘ideology’ is used in many different ways; this is at least partly due to the fact that social theorists have propounded theories of ideology in the course of trying to answer very different questions. I will try to distinguish three different research contexts within which theories of ideology have been developed; corresponding to each of these three research programs there will be a family of ways in which the term ‘ideology’ is used.1

The first of the three research programs I wish to distinguish is the program of an empirical study of human groups — call it ‘anthropology.’ There are various things one might wish to study about a given human group. One might study the biological and quasi-biological properties of the group — the birth-rate, the distribution of blood-type or human phenotype among the subgroups, the resistance to or incidence of various kinds of diseases, etc. Or one might wish to study the cultural or socio-cultural features of the group — the kinship system, pattern of land-tenure, artistic traditions, religious and scientific beliefs, legal institutions, values, agricultural technology, etc. Although this distinction between the biological properties of a group and its ‘culture’ or ‘sociocultural system’ is rough and imprecise,2 let us suppose that we know clearly enough what a ‘culture’ or a ‘socio-cultural system’ is that we can make it an object of empirical investigation. Thus, for any given human group we can undertake to describe the salient features of its sociocultural system and how they change over time. If we have at our disposal descriptions of several human groups, we may begin to look for universal or invariant features which all cultures exhibit or for relations of concomitance among apparently distinct socio-cultural features; we

1 Needless to say, the following discussion makes no claim to exhaust the various senses in which the term ‘ideology’ and its derivatives have been used. Vide Lichtheim (1967); Barth (1975); and Larrain (1979).

2 Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) distinguish over a hundred senses of culture.’ Vide also D. Kaplan and R. Manners (1972).

[p. 4]


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may try to elaborate a typology of human cultures, classifying them according to their similarities and differences; if we are bold, we may hazard hypotheses about why certain features are found in certain societies or why certain historical changes take place.

In the course of this kind of empirical inquiry we may subdivide the socio-cultural sphere into different ‘parts’ for further study. Thus, vulgar Marxists distinguish between (economic) base and (ideological) superstructure. Many twentieth-century anthropologists seem to prefer a tripartite scheme which distinguishes technology (or technology / economy), social structure, and ideology, and even more complicated schemes have been suggested.3 A theory of ideology, then, can arise in the course of pursuing the project of describing and explaining certain features of or facts about human social groups; ‘ideology’ in the first sense will just refer to one of the ‘parts’ into which the socio-cultural system of a human group can be divided for convenient study. Depending on how the particular division is made, the ‘ideology’ of the group will be more or less extensive, but typically it will include such things as the beliefs the members of the group hold, the concepts they use, the attitudes and psychological dispositions they exhibit, their motives, desires, values, predilections, works of art, religious rituals, gestures, etc.4 I will call ‘ideology’ in this very broad sense (including at least all of the above listed elements) ‘ideology in the purely descriptive sense.’ In this broad and rather unspecific sense of ‘ideology’ every human group has an ideology — the agents of any group will have some psychological dispositions, use some concepts, and have some beliefs. In particular ‘ideology’ in this sense does not comprise only those beliefs, habits, attitudes, traits, etc. all the members of a group share. Human groups contain variety, diversity, and conflict. The more detailed and complete we wish our account of a given group to be, the more it will have to contain descriptions of such differences of belief, motivation, preference, attitude, etc. Furthermore, this sense of ‘ideology’ is non-evaluative and ‘non-judgmental’5 — one isn’t praising or blaming a group by asserting that its members ‘have an ideology’ in this sense.

An ideology in this merely descriptive sense will contain both discursive and non-discursive elements. By ‘discursive’ (or ‘conceptual’ or

3 Sahlins distinguishes technology, social structure, and ideology (1968, pp. 14f). Service has: technology, economy, society, polity, and ideology (1966). Kaplan and Manners give: ideology, social structure, technoeconomics, personality (1972, p. 89). Probably there is no canonical division of the society into parts which would be applicable to all societies; in fact it is often claimed that a criterion of the ‘primitiveness’ of a society is the extent to which it lacks division between economy, society, kinship system, etc.

4 Vide Kaplan and Manners (pp. 112f).

5 Vide Kaplan and Manners (p. 113).


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‘propositional’) elements I mean such things as concepts, ideas, beliefs, and by ‘non-discursive’ elements such things as characteristic gestures, rituals, attitudes, forms of artistic activity, etc.6 This distinction between discursive and non-discursive elements is not the same as the distinction sometimes made (by Plamenatz, for instance) between explicit and implicit elements.7 Clearly, discursive elements can be either explicit or implicit — agents can hold a particular belief explicitly or merely tacitly — but the distinction between ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ would seem to have no clear application to most non-discursive elements. It is hard to see what could be meant by calling a particular melody or gesture ‘implicit’ or ‘explicit’ in the sense under consideration here. Nevertheless, I would like to leave open the possibility of distinguishing between explicit and implicit non-discursive elements at least in some cases. It doesn’t seem so odd to speak of attitudes, for instance, as being explicit or implicit.8

Finally neither of the two distinctions made above is identical with Plamenatz’s distinction between unsophisticated and sophisticated elements of an ideology.9 A belief can be quite explicit but unsophisticated, as can a taste or preference.

Since I don’t want to try to give definitions of the terms used in these distinctions, perhaps an examination of an example will clarify their use. If one examines the religion of a group, one might discover that the performance of a particular ritual plays an important role — one might think here, for instance, of the role Baptism or the Eucharist play in Christianity. Of course, if the ritual is particularly important, it is unlikely that the agents who perform it will lack a term for it, but still a ritual is a set of actions, of things done, not itself a concept or belief.10

6 On p. 345 of ZR Habermas speaks of ‘die nichtpropositionalen Zeichensysteme der literatur, der Kunst, und der Musik.’ This is another one of those distinctions which are easier to see than to formulate exactly. One might want to claim that all the elements of an ideology are symbolically organised — certainly paintings, pieces of music, dances etc. are highly organised, but the organisation is not conceptual; a piece of music may have a meaning, even if one wishes to speak this way (I don’t particularly) a ‘grammar,’ but that meaning is not a proposition. Naturally, too, by ‘beliefs’ I don’t mean just simple empirical beliefs, but also normative beliefs, metaphysical beliefs etc.

7 Plamenatz, pp. 17f, 21ff.

8 Tastes, preferences, and predilections, too, can be either explicit or implicit. Certain of my tastes and preferences may simply express themselves in my customary mode of behavior. I may show no tendency to make much of them; I may in fact not even realize that I have them. We may wish to contrast this kind of case in which my tastes and preferences are ‘merely implicit’ with other cases in which I recognize, articulate, and cultivate a particular taste or preference. That in this second case I may be able to glory in my predilections only if I have certain beliefs, does not imply that the predilections. tastes, or preferences themselves arebeliefs.

9 Plamenatz, pp. 18ff.

10 Vide Burkert, esp. chapter II.


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The religion is part of the ideology of the group; the ritual is a non-discursive element of the ideology. Given that rituals can have a long life — baptism and eucharist in some recognizable form have been around for at least a couple of millennia, and, even if one takes stricter criteria of identity, the particular form of the rituals defined for the Catholic Church by the Council of Trent standardized a practice that remained more or less unchanged for half a millennium — it is likely that at different historical periods the ritual will have been associated with quite different sets of implicit beliefs and attitudes. Peasants in the Abruzzi in 1600 and English Catholics in Toronto in 1950 both participated in the ‘same’ ritual of baptism, but, given the enormous other differences between these two groups, it would be amazing if the members of the two groups had the same implicit attitudes toward the ritual, beliefs about it, etc. Again what sorts of beliefs and attitudes most people in the society naively associate with the ritual, or ‘express’ by participating in it, may be very different from the conflicting theological interpretations conceptually sophisticated members of the society give to the ritual. So at one extreme one has a set of ritual actions, a ‘non-discursive element’ in the ideology, and at the other a perhaps very sophisticated, explicit theology — a body of systematically interconnected propositions — and in between varying kinds of more or less explicit and more or less sophisticated beliefs, attitudes, habits, etc.

For certain purposes it may be useful or desirable to single out for further study certain subsets of the set of all the beliefs, attitudes, concepts, etc. a group of agents has or uses. Since there doesn’t seem to be any uniquely legitimate way to subdivide what I have called the ‘ideology in a purely descriptive sense,’ there will be a plurality of such divisions, and, corresponding to each distinguished part, a narrower, but perfectly legitimate descriptive sense of ‘ideology.’11 Thus, I may decide that I would like to retain a close connection between ‘ideology’ and ‘idea,’ and hence use the term ‘ideology’ to refer only to the beliefs of the agents in the society, i.e. only to the ‘discursive elements’ of the ideology (in the purely descriptive sense).

Habermas, in strong contrast to the earlier members of the Frankfurt School, does seem to use the term ‘ideology’ to refer in the first instance to the beliefs the agents in a society hold. The obvious next step, then, is to try to divide the set of all the beliefs the agents in the society hold into more or less ‘natural’ parts. One might then start to use the term ‘ideology’ yet more narrowly to refer to some subset of the set of all the

11 Of course, certain divisions may be more useful or illuminating than others. My general ‘purely descriptive sense’ of ideology corresponds roughly to Mannheim’s ‘total sense’ (cf. Mannheim, pp. 54ff); my ‘narrower version’ of ideology to his ‘special sense’ (p. 77).


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discursive elements. Habermas’ discussion of ideology suggests that he countenances two major ways of subdividing the set of all the agents’ beliefs, and hence of distinguishing between kinds of ideologies in the very narrow sense: (i) One can distinguish between ‘ideologies’ (i.e. subsets of the set of all beliefs) on the basis of differences in their ‘manifest content,’12 i.e. by reference to differences in what the beliefs are beliefs about. So a set of beliefs about superhuman entities who are thought to supervise and enforce standards of human behavior may be called a ‘religious ideology,’ while a set of concepts for talking about economic transactions is an ‘economic ideology.’ (2) One can distinguish between ideologies in this very narrow sense in terms of their functional properties. By ‘functional properties’ I mean the way the elements of the ideology influence action.13 So in this sense a set of beliefs of no matter what manifest content which significantly influences economic behavior could be called an ‘economic ideology,’ a set of beliefs and attitudes which significantly influences religious practices a ‘religious ideology.’

In many cases there will be a close connection between the two senses of ‘ideology’ — or at least between concrete ideologies in the two senses. Thus a ‘religious ideology’ can be either a set of beliefs ostensibly about superhuman entities, i.e. a set of beliefs with a religious ‘manifest content’ or a set of beliefs and attitudes which in fact function to regulate or otherwise influence religious behavior or practices. There is the obvious difficulty with this second sense of ‘ideology’ that there isn’t any such thing as ‘specifically religious behavior’ (except perhaps for some ritual behavior) or ‘purely economic behavior’ or what have you; actions and institutions don’t come neatly boxed into well-defined and easily identifiable types. Often one may not know how to classify a particular bit of behavior or an institution — is it a religious ceremony, an economic institution, a political institution, or some combination of all three? Furthermore there may be differences between the classification the participating agents would prefer to give and the classification we, as outside observers, might prefer. Even if there aren’t difficulties in principle about the basic classification of a certain bit of behavior as a ‘religious ritual’, it may also have political or economic aspects, overtones, or implications. The more indeterminate the notion of ‘religious behavior’ is

12 TW 160 [T1 311]. Habermas speaks of ’der manifeste Gehalt von Aussagen.’ Some of the essays in TW are translated in T 5, but the one cited here is translated as an appendix to T1.

13 Non-discursive elements cannot be ‘about’ anything in the way in which propositions can, but they can have functional properties, so the ‘religious ideology’ in this functional sense might well be taken to include pictures, chants, etc.


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allowed to become, the less well-defined will be the beliefs which might influence such behavior.

But despite the generally close connection between ideologies in the two senses, it is important to retain the distinction because some of the most interesting cases will be ones in which there are significant differences between the manifest content of the beliefs in an ideology and their functional properties — a set of ‘religious and philosophical’ beliefs about the nature of the gods may actually serve to regulate economic and political transactions. It will in general be an important fact about a given society how the various kinds of acts and institutions are mdividuated, how large a class of acts are considered to be ‘purely economic transactions’ or acts to which religious beliefs are directly relevant,14 in other words, what kinds of beliefs, beliefs of what kind of manifest content, will be able to function as ideologies for what domains of action.

In these senses, then, the group may have more than one ideology —it may have a religious ideology and an economic ideology, and the two may not appreciably overlap. ‘Ideologies’ in these narrower senses are different from ‘ideology in a purely descriptive sense’ in an important way: Every human group is composed of members who have some beliefs, and so every human group has an ‘ideology in the descriptive sense,’ but not every group will have an ideology in each of the possible narrower senses — since hunting-and-gathering bands have no state, and, a fortiori, no state-finances, they won’t have a ‘fiscal ideology’ either.

In addition to speaking of ‘the political ideology’ of the group or ‘the ideology for economic behavior’ social theorists and others often speak of ‘the’ ideology of the group simpliciter. Sometimes ‘the’ ideology of the group seems to mean nothing more than:

(a) the set of all those concepts and beliefs which do not contribute to production ‘in virtue of the material character of production'15

(b) the set of all the moral and normative beliefs16

(c) the set of beliefs the agents have about themselves as social agents.17

But often ‘the’ ideology of a group seems to mean the world-view or ‘world-picture’ of the group. This notion of ideology as world-view is not identical with our original ‘ideology in a purely descriptive sense.’ The ‘ideology of a group in the purely descriptive sense’ comprises all

14 Geertz (1971), gives examples of the way in which the sphere of what is identified as ‘religious behavior’ can vary even within the ‘same’ religious tradition.

15 Cohen, pp.47; 33f, 45-7, 88ff. McMurtry. pp. 125f, 128, 130ff, 140.

16 Plamenatz, pp. 323ff. For a related use vide Barry, p. 39.

17 the Deutsche Ideology Marx speaks of ideology as the agents’ ‘Illusionen und Gedanken tiber sich selbst,’ Marx, vol. 3, pp. 46f; 13.


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the beliefs members of the group hold (or perhaps — if this notion seem too all-encompassing and too indiscriminate to be of any use at all — it includes the characteristic beliefs widely shared among the members of the group), but of course not all the beliefs the members of a group hold belong to their world-view. Even beliefs which are widely shared and quite distinctive of members of the group need not belong to the world-view in the most normal sense of ‘world-view.’

The intuition which motivates the introduction of a concept of ‘ideology as world-view’ is that individuals and groups don’t just ‘have’ randomly collected bundles of beliefs, attitudes, life-goals, forms of artistic activity, etc. The bundles generally have some coherency — although it is very hard to say in general in what this coherency consists — the elements in the bundle are complexly related to each other, they all somehow ‘fit,’ and the whole bundle has a characteristic structure which is often discernible even to an outside observer. By an ‘ideology in the sense of "world-view"’ then is meant a subset of the beliefs which constitute the ideology of the group (in a purely descriptive sense) which has the following properties:

(a) the elements in the subset are widely shared among the agents in the group

(b) the elements in this subset are systematically interconnected

(c) they are ‘central to the agents’ conceptual scheme’ in Quine’s sense, i.e. the agents won’t easily give them up18

(d) the elements in the subset have a wide and deep influence on the agents’ behavior or on some particularly important or central sphere of action

(e) the beliefs in the subset are ‘central’ in that they deal with central issues of human life (i.e. they give interpretations of such things as death, the need to work, sexuality, etc.) or central metaphysical issues.19

These properties are no more than very loosely defined, and whether or not any purported ‘world-view’ has any one of them is a question of degree — just how wide an influence on the agents’ actual behavior must a set of elements have in order to qualify as part of the world-view of those agents? Also there is no canonical principle of ordering or weighting the various properties. So even if there were to be agreement that these five properties specify what we mean by the ‘world-view’ of a group, there would still be much room for disagreement in particular

18 W. V. O. Quine, 1963, pp. 42ff.

19 At KK 391 Habermas calls ‘world-pictures’ ‘Interpretationen der Welt. der Natur, und der Gescbichte im Ganzen.’


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cases about what should count as ‘the’ world-view or ‘the’ ideology of this particular group. Whether or not every human group will have a world-view (in the way that every group has an ideology in the purely descriptive sense) will depend partly on how strictly one construes the five properties, but also partly on how one decides to pick out human groups. Up to now we have tacitly allowed groups to be picked out any way at all. Of course it would not be correct to assume that any group of agents individuated by some biological, ethnic, economic, social, political, or linguistic criterion will share the same, one world-view. This, of course, is quite a strong (and quite an implausible) empirical assumption.

The last descriptive sense of ‘ideology’ I would like to consider is what I will call ‘ideology in the programmatic sense.’ This sense is related to the sense in which the term ‘ideology’ is used by Daniel Bell and other proponents of the ‘end of ideology’ thesis. Bell calls an ideology ‘a way of translating ideas into action’20 and defines a ‘total ideology’ as an ‘all-inclusive system of comprehensive reality, it is a set of beliefs, infused with passion, and seeks to transform the whole of a way of life.'21 So a ‘total ideology’ is

(a) a program or plan of action22

(b) based on an explicit, systematic model or theory of how the society works

(c) aimed at radical transformation or reconstruction of the society as a whole

(d) held with more confidence (‘passion’) than the evidence for the theory or model warrants.23

The addition of ‘(d)’ makes this no longer a descriptive or non-judgmental use of the term ‘ideology’ but rather a pejorative use. Even without ‘(d)’ however, the definition is still rather tendentious in that the presence of ‘(c)’ makes it artificially easy for Bell-style liberals to deny that they have an ‘ideology’ (because, presumably, liberals are not

20 Bell in Waxman, p. 88.

21 Bell in Waxman, p. 96. Bell is not very careful in attributing this notion to Mannheim. This is not the definition Mannheim gives of ‘total ideology’ when he introduces it in Ideology and Utopia (pp. 55f.); there is no implication that a ‘total ideology’ (for Mannheim) is a program of action for the transformation of a whole way of life.

22 Vide Friedrich and Brzezinski, p. 75: ‘Ideologies are essentially action-related systems of ideas. They typically contain a program and a strategy for its realization.’

23 I may be reading more into the phrase ‘infused with passion’ than is intended. I’m obviously trying to assimilate Bell’s view here with that of e.g. Popper, who seems to think that a theory of the society as a whole can have so little evidentiary support that any degree of confidence in it as a guide to radical transformation of society is more than is warranted. Vide Popper, 1971, ch. 9; Popper, 1964, sections 21ff.


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at present in the US and the Western European countries in favor of ‘radical transformation of society as a whole’). I will call ‘(a)’ and ‘(b)’ of Bell’s ‘total ideology’ (without ‘(c)’ and ‘(d)’ as necessary components) an ‘ideology in the programmatic sense.’24

24 Clearly if 'ideology’ means ‘ideology in the programmatic sense’ liberals do have an ideology — they have a general view of society and how it works, and, more important, a general view about how it ought to work. Part of that general view is that certain kinds of decisions should be decentralized. This might seem to make the notion of a programmatic ideology vacuous: that is, the 'program for action’ may be the ‘action’ of not interfering with certain parts of the economy and society. Still it seems to me not just a quibble to distinguish between cases like those of perhaps certain hunting-and-gathering societies in which people just don’t make and implement certain kinds of plans for social action at all, and cases in which people espouse laissez-faire as a doctrine, and act on the theory that society is best run when certain possible kinds of centralized planning are avoided.


2. Ideology in the Pejorative Sense

3. Ideology in the Positive Sense

SOURCE: Geuss, Raymond. The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. (Modern European Philosophy) Pp. 4-12.

Ideology Study Guide


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