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Religion & Liberty: Volume 33, Number 3 & 4

Ideology as Unreason

As anyone who has spent time in the world of ideas knows, the word ideology is ubiquitous. For some people, it’s simply shorthand or a synonym for their political philosophical beliefs. When they refer to “their ideology,” they mean their conservative, liberal, socialist, traditionalist, integralist, or corporatist philosophy (or some combination of two or more of these positions) of what the political, social, and economic order should be.

Strictly speaking, however, ideology means something rather different. This becomes clearer when we recognize that the very idea of ideology is associated with some specific intellectual developments that emerged during the various Enlightenments.

Like many Enlightenment concepts, ideology is about changing the world along lines considered to be systematic and scientific. All ideas embody some proposition for how the world should be. But ideology purports to remake human society over in much the same way as a scientist transforms an existing substance into something different by applying new elements to, and extracting others, from the subject manner.

Unlike the scientist, however, the proponent of ideology is not so interested in shifting or altering his planned approach in light of new information. For any ideology is essentially a closed system of belief, and therefore more concerned with conforming reality to the ideology, rather than the other way around. When we say someone is an “ideologue,” it is a way of underscoring their rigidity in light of reality, regardless of whether that truth is economic, scientific, or metaphysical in its nature.

 

Science and Enlightenment

One common characteristic of the European Enlightenments was an intense focus on the scientific method and its powerful way of revealing new knowledge about the natural world. The modern sciences first acquired the form they have today during the medieval period, especially through the efforts of individuals like Thomas Aquinas’ teacher, Albert the Great. As the twentieth-century Jesuit historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston observed, a thirteenth-century theologian like Bonaventure who embraced the natural sciences as one dimension of knowledge explored the material world as “a shadow or remote revelation of its divine origin.”

That link was not broken during the Scientific Revolution. People like Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Francis Bacon were deeply religious men. But subtle shifts did get underway in this period. Classical and medieval scholars weren’t disinterested in transforming the world. Yet they pursued these endeavors within a context of promoting human excellence in the sense of virtuous and holy lives. With individuals like Bacon, the emphasis began gravitating toward knowing how things work in order to better humanity’s condition in the here-and-now. For Bacon, the “real and legitimate goal of the sciences is the endowment of human life with new inventions and riches.”

By this, Bacon didn’t just have in mind the world around us. His radicalism involved elevating the scientific method’s importance and using the acquired knowledge to extend humanity’s dominance not only over the natural world but over man himself as well. This amounted, Bacon wrote in his Novum Organum Scientiarum, to humans regaining “their rights over nature” as we “use all our efforts to make the course of art outstrip nature.” “Nature” goes beyond the natural world. It includes human nature and human society.

Lest one think that Bacon thought that this opened the door to humans being “Masters of the Universe,” we should note that Bacon insisted that what he called man’s rights over nature were “assigned to them by the gift of God.” These powers, he further explained, had to “be governed by right reason and true religion.” This indicates that scientific experiments and the use of scientific knowledge was subject to the ethical demands of natural law (“right reason”) and faith (“true religion”). We should thus pause before proclaiming that there was a radical rupture between the worlds of faith and reason in the thought of a man often portrayed as the scientific method’s father.

That said, it’s not an exaggeration to claim that a new canon of inquiry developed during this period. This was bolstered by the emergence of academies of science across the West, usually outside the church-dominated universities. Often modelled on Britain’s Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (founded in 1660), these academies provided settings for ideas on a given topic to be discussed dispassionately by specialists and, as time went on, separately from philosophical and theological considerations. The improvements realized through these specialized disciplines were seen in the emergence of machines such as the steam engine pioneered by the English inventor Thomas Newcomen and enhanced by the Scottish engineer James Watt. There was no greater symbol of man’s emerging ability to conquer nature than the development of the hot-air balloon by the brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier. Even gravity, it seemed, was no longer a restriction.

 

The Science of Man

In this light, it’s no wonder that people soon began to take Bacon’s hint that they should start viewing themselves as objects to be improved by science. This went beyond countering the diseases that had hitherto ensured that most people didn’t live beyond the age of 30. The new science was increasingly pressed into the service of improving human societies.

The Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume captured this trend in his Treatise on Human Nature. Now that the natural sciences were established on an experimental basis, Hume proposed that it was time to start advancing the science of man via, to use the book’s subtitle, “An Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.” Just as there were natural harmonies in the physical world to be discovered through the natural sciences, more and more people searched for similar harmonies in human society through social sciences like political economy. The goal was to use the acquired knowledge to improve the social order.

It’s in this context that figures like Hume’s friend and colleague Adam Smith started substantially rethinking subjects like politics and economics. Smith’s most famous book, The Wealth of Nations, was based on almost two decades of study of societal conditions, exploration of historical sources, reflections on human nature based on external observation of people’s habits, and the development of hypotheses concerning the underlying causes of people’s choices and actions. Of equal importance was Smith’s choice not to locate his inquiry into what leads to the sustained creation of wealth in a book about moral theory, as Aristotle might have. Smith treated his topic as a stand-alone subject, thus advancing economics as a stand-alone discipline.

Smith, however, didn’t engage these subjects simply because he wanted to better understand economic life. Smith was interested in change—and more than just the material improvements that might come from, for example, greater amounts of wealth. He was as much concerned with civilizational growth.

In summary, the social sciences pursued by scholars like Smith involved study of the conditions in which humans lived. Based on this data, they proposed hypotheses about how humans might behave in different conditions. But their general objective was to outline paths toward better societies: in Smith’s case, freer, more just, and more prosperous societies. Thus, while there was a distinction between (1) the empirical aspect of their work, and (2) their moral and political goals, the former was understood as serving the latter. That was the point of doing social science.

 

The Corruption of Reason

So far, so good. Smith’s development of economics as a distinct social science in his Wealth of Nations helped facilitated a revolution and made an indispensable contribution to improving human well-being. This is social science at its best.

But what happens when you start thinking you can “remake” human beings through influencing and changing the environment, especially if you think that through applying the scientific method to society, you have stumbled on some core ideas that contain the key to creating a perfect world? It’s at this point that you have begun to wander down the path of ideology.

The word ideology seems to have been coined by the French Enlightenment figure Antoine Destutt de Tracy. For him, it was “the “science of ideas,” meaning the discovery and articulation of a scientifically rational system of ideas that highlighted existing irrationalities in the social structures around us and which provided a way of making these structures more rational. Karl Marx and the way in which he developed his ideas exemplify this process.

Recall, for a start, that Marx insisted that his method for understanding what was really going on in society was strictly scientific. He did not claim to be doing philosophy. Having examined society in a manner he considered entirely scientific, Marx concluded that nineteenth century capitalist societies reflected the inexorable dialectics of history and the type of class structures that emerged as a result of changes in the means of production. Everything, ranging from religion to the rise of the middle class and the subsequent eclipse of aristocracy, was explainable in these terms. On the basis of these ostensibly scientific foundations, Marx worked out an entire all-embracing system that purported to explain the whole of human existence and history.

Emphases on Marxism’s scientific credentials appear everywhere in Marxist writings and rhetoric. Lenin regarded socialism as right not because it was just. It was right, in Lenin’s view, because it was the most scientifically rational way to organize society and the economy. As far as Lenin was concerned, all that he was doing when he seized power in Russia and sought to launch a world revolution was intervening scientifically in order to accelerate communism’s inevitable arrival. The Marxist theorist and revolutionary Leon Trotsky is often romanticized as a dissenter from Stalin’s policies in the 1920s. Trotsky’s Marxist orthodoxy, however, manifests itself in his insistence that communists had to reshape society along more scientific lines. In a 1924 book, he specified that “Communist life will not be formed blindly ... but it will be built consciously, it will be tested by thought, it will be directed and corrected.” Having extinguished spontaneity, Trotsky explained, “the human species, the sluggish Homo sapiens, will once again enter the state of radical reconstruction and will become in its own hands the object of the most complex methods of artificial selection and psychophysical training.” It followed that “barbarian routine” would be replaced “by scientific technique, and religion by science.”

 

Not So Scientific After all

Despite its aspirations to being scientific, Marxism turned out to be spectacularly wrong in its assumptions and conclusions. Precisely because it was an ideology, it was closed to important aspects of the full truth about reality. It could not acknowledge that free prices, for instance, were the only way to convey accurate information about the supply of and demand for thousands of goods and services. Why? Because once you accepted that, you would have to acknowledge there was no way to plan your way to communism through the state. That in turn meant there was no longer any point to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power.

The irony is that the natural and social sciences are nowhere near as definitive in their conclusion as many imagine. For the scientific method involves (1) posing questions such as “Why is grass green?”; (2) developing hypotheses to explain why grass is green; (3) making predictions about how grass becomes green based on a given hypothesis; (4) testing that hypothesis via experiments on grass; and (5) analyzing the experiment’s results to see if they fit the hypothesis. If the evidence doesn’t fit the hypothesis, we need a new hypothesis. If the evidence fits the hypothesis, we can pose further questions like “does chlorophyll’s role in making grass green help explain other plants’ colors?”

Ideology can do none of these things. For the ideologue, everything is essentially settled. The good scientist and the good philosopher, by contrast, are constantly testing everything. It’s not that they don’t believe that there is no truth. On the contrary, both the scientific endeavor and the philosophical enterprise are premised on the claim that there is truth, that we can know the truth, and that by building on truth, we come to expand our knowledge of the fullness of truth. Ideology, however, shuts down such endeavors, especially when they raise questions about the coherence of the ideologue’s system of ideas.

In that sense, ideology really does stand in opposition to reason, or at least an expansive conception of rationality. To that extent, ideology is a type of fideism, and, like all forms of fideism, it is ultimately destructive of human life, human liberty, and human happiness.

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Dr. Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He has an MA from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.

Gregg oversees Acton’s research program and team of scholars and is responsible for oversight of research international programing, including budgeting, management, personnel, publishing, and program development and