by Raymond Geuss


The descriptive and explanatory project outlined in section and the critical project discussed in section 2 are not the only two research programs in which a concept of ‘ideology’ might come to figure. It isn’t just a neutral fact about human groups that each has a ‘culture’ or ‘sociocultural system,’ a set of characteristic attitudes, habits, beliefs, modes of artistic expression, perhaps even a characteristic world-view; participating in a culture is a way of satisfying certain very deep-seated human needs. Humans have a vital need for the kind of ‘meaningful’ life and the kind of identity which is possible only for an agent who stands in relation to a culture.47 Traditional religious world-views owe their persistence to their ability to meet some of these basic needs. They do this by providing agents with approved models of action, goals, ideals, and values, and by furnishing interpretations of such important existential features of human life as birth and death, suffering, evil, etc. In addition to such basic existential needs, human agents and groups have more mundane needs, wants, and interests which a given set of habits, beliefs, and attitudes, a given ‘culture,’ can satisfy more or less adequately. Starting, then, from the wants, needs, interests, and the objective situation of a given human group, we can set ourselves the task of determining what kind of socio-cultural system or what world-view would be most appropriate for that group, i.e. what ‘ideology’ (in some descriptive sense of the term) is most likely to enable the members of the group to satisfy their wants and needs and further their interests. I

47 Vide ‘Konnen komplexe Gesellschaften eine vernunftige Identitat ausbilden?’ (in ZR), sections V, VI, and VII of ‘Bewußtmachende oder rettende Kritik — Die Aktualität Walter Benjamins’ (in KK), sections II. 6 and 7 and III. 4 of LS, and TG pp. 163f.

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will call this the task of producing for the group an ‘ideology in the positive or laudatory sense.’ Ideology in this sense is quite different from ideology in either the descriptive or the pejorative senses. Whereas an ideology in any of the descriptive senses is something one finds (or perhaps postulates hypothetically for explanatory purposes), and an ideology in the pejorative sense is something one finds and isolates in order to criticize, an ideology in the positive sense isn’t something ‘out there’ to be found by even the most careful empirical investigation. It might be a desideratum for a particular society that it have an ideology in this sense, but the ideology is something to be constructed, created, or invented; it is a verité a faire.48

Possibly the first sketch of this program of constructing an ideology in the positive sense for a human group occurs in Lenin’s What i.s to be Done?49 Here Lenin argues that the beliefs and attitudes most of the members of the working class actually have are not beliefs and attitudes appropriate to their objective situation. Not only doesn’t the proletariat now have a set of beliefs and attitudes which will enable it to satisfy its basic needs and further its vital interests, but left to its own devices (‘spontaneously’) it won’t ever develop an appropriate form of consciousness; at best it can aspire to a trade-union consciousness which is a debased form of ‘bourgeois ideology.’50 The correct proletarian world-view must be introduced into the proletariat from the outside by the members of a vanguard party (many of whom may well be of bourgeois origin). When Lenin calls upon party intellectuals to help ‘the labour movement . . . elaborate . . . an independent ideology for itself,’51 he is obviously not using the term ‘ideology’ in a descriptive sense. He is not calling on them to find out what beliefs and attitudes those in the labor movement actually have — to elaborate them would merely yield some further form of ‘bourgeois ideology.’ Nor is he using the term in a pejorative sense — he is not suggesting that party intellectuals disseminate some form of false consciousness among the working class. The ‘independent ideology for the labor movement’ is the set of those attitudes and beliefs which would best enable the workers to restructure society in their own interest.

If we are looking for a characterization of it that will make ‘positive ideology’ a separate category, distinct from ideology in the pejorative sense, it isn’t sufficient to say that a positive ideology enables the agents effectively to satisfy some of their needs and desires. First, there must

48 The term is from Merleau-Ponty; vide TP 425ff.

49 Vide Seliger, pp. 81ff.

50 Tucker, pp. 27ff, 32.

51 Tucker, p. 27.


be some restrictions on the kinds of wants, desires, and interests a positive ideology is to satisfy — we will want to exclude overtly sadistic desires, desires to enslave, exploit, or dominate others, etc. Then there must also be some restrictions on the way in which the needs and desires of the group are satisfied — we will probably want to disallow conscious or empirical falsehoods or patently inconsistent beliefs, inculcation of attitudes of hysteria or paranoia, etc. Suppose that the members of some group have very strong aggressive desires, and suppose further that they cling hysterically to a set of patently false beliefs which focus their hostility on the members of some powerless minority. This set of beliefs may be quite effective in enabling them to satisfy their aggressive desires without fear of retaliation, but if we allow it to count as an ‘ideology in the positive sense,’ the distinction between an ideology in the positive sense and an ideology in the pejorative sense will become blurred.

In certain cases the problems which make these further restrictions on the notion of ideology in the positive sense necessary may not arise. Thus Lukács argues in Geschichte und Klassenbewußtsein that the beliefs which would enable the members of the proletariat of a capitalist society to further their own interests most effectively are precisely those beliefs which would comprise a ‘scientifically correct’ account of capitalist society.52 Furthermore, the ‘correct’ beliefs are not merely ‘useful’ to the proletariat in a general way, they are indispensable — a ‘vital necessity’ — if the proletariat is to reorganize the whole of society in its own interest. The first part of this claim might seem to be a triviality — what could be more obvious than that agents will generally be more effective in realizing their interests if they have true beliefs — but for Lukács it is by no means a triviality. He holds that, in contrast to the proletariat, the bourgeoisie could and can act to further its interests ‘unconsciously’ or under the influence of one or another form of false consciousness. Thus, a political order suitable for the maximal development of the capitalist mode of production was created in the English Civil Wars by members of the incipient bourgeoisie in the course of pursuing various religious fantasies. The more the members of the bourgeoisie know about the true nature of capitalist society, the less effective they will be in the class struggle, because the more hopeless they will realize their situation to be in the long run.53 So the bourgeoisie, paradoxically enough, has an interest in being self-deceived.

If, then, the distinction between ideology in the positive sense and

52 Lukács, pp. 87, 151f, 357f.

53 Lukács, pp. 87, 141, 148ff, 357f. Vide infra pp. 85f.


ideology in the pejorative sense is not as sharp as one might have hoped, this is partly a reflection of the fact that historically satisfaction of one’s interests and oppression, pursuit of a sense of identity and false consciousness have been all but inextricably linked. Thus, the major way in which ideologies (in the pejorative sense) have traditionally maintained themselves is by harnessing what are in themselves perfectly legitimate human aspirations, such as the desire for a sense of collective identity, so as to create a situation in which the agents can satisfy legitimate existential needs only on condition of accepting the repression the ideological world—view imposes.54

The preceding discussion has been artificially simplified by the tacit assumption that the agents’ wants, needs, desires, and interests are relatively fixed, as if we could isolate them and hold them constant while asking which of one or another proposed ‘ideology’ would satisfy a larger number of them to a greater extent. Perhaps the ‘existential’ needs mentioned above are needs all humans have, but they are quite abstract and even the concrete forms those needs will take in different human societies will vary considerably. Certainly most other human desires, wants, and needs are notoriously variable. A proposed ideology may generate new wants and interests. Some of these may be an acknowledged part of the ideology; others may arise as indirect and perhaps even unintended consequences of adopting the ideology. But a proposed ideology may also deny standing to certain wants, desires, and needs the agents to whom it is addressed in fact have; it may enjoin those who adopt it to stop attempting to gratify these desires or even to try to suppress or eliminate them in themselves. Thus, Christianity breaking into the ancient world doesn’t only present itself as a set of beliefs and practices which will satisfy certain human needs and longings; it also articulates and fosters the development of a whole new set of desires, wants, and needs, and anathematizes the satisfaction and further cultivation of various recognized and highly regarded needs and desires, e.g. desire for self-assertion, honor, fame, reputation. It is merely naive to assume that one can construct a ‘typical’ agent in the Roman Empire in the time of Augustine, determine that agent’s wants, needs, and interests, and then comparatively evaluate the extent to which civic humanism, Manicheanism, Platonism, various mystery religions, and Christianity respectively would ‘satisfy’ these given needs and desires. The course of individual development the Confessions describes is quite complex and we have no reason to believe that the process of determining what would be a ‘suitable’ ideology for some human

54 Habermas’ most detailed discussion of this is TG 239-267.


group would be any less complex. We will have to return to this question at the end of the third chapter.

SOURCE: Geuss, Raymond. The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 22-26. (Modern European Philosophy)

1. Ideology in the Descriptive Sense

2. Ideology in the Pejorative Sense

Ideology Study Guide

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