Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Ernst Gellner on ideology

Gellner, Ernst. "Notes towards a Theory of Ideology," L'Homme, tome 18 n°3-4 (juil.-dec. 1978), pp. 69-82.

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Gellner insightfully targets a few key characteristics of religious ideologies, most notably Kierkegaard, but falls down on a general theory of the subject. His first mistake is to characterize ideology as a noun: "Ideologies are systems of ideas or beliefs." But ideologies are also relations between persons and sets of ideas or beliefs, and relations between persons and the (social world), which involve relations between the sets of ideas or beliefs and the world. Ideology is a concept with many meanings and theories behind it, but most powerfully, it designates a verb more than a noun. It is not just the ideas one holds, but one's relationship to one's own ideas and to social practice that reinforces the relationship. Hence even perfectly rational sets of idea or beliefs can still function ideologically in the bad sense, i.e. in a fashion which remains unconscious to the holders and appliers of those ideas or beliefs.

Gellner proceeds to dissect Kierkegaard, singling out the notion of "offensiveness", in Kierkegaard's case, the offensiveness of Christianity to reason. Gellner concludes that ideologies must simultaneously attract and repel, that this must be an inherent property. The inner tensions and experiences of offensiveness on the part of potential candidates for ideologization serves as a confirmation of the validity of the ideology itself. Religious existentialism plays on an anxiety about reason and attacks the very notion that people's view of the world can be rationally warranted, claiming a deeper insight into the human condition. Simultaneous menace and attraction/temptation constitute the driving force of the ideological process.

The very eccentricity of ideologies distinguish and isolate them from other ideas, including commonsense notions.

Kierkegaard, like Pascal before him, trades on despair. Either one is despairing or too lacking in consciousness to recognize one's despair. Hence exploitation of vulnerability is key to the process.

Ideologies claim to be intellectually sovereign, they monopolize validation, establishing not only the truth but the criteria for distinguishing truth from falsehood.

However, there is a hidden duality here. Ideologies, in attempting to lure prospects and produce converts, must tacitly admit the context of a broader world which they did not create and do not maintain under their control. Ideologies claim to be all-embracing, but must implicitly posit by contrast a richer empirical world and implicitly accept its conventions.

With this realization, Gellner attacks the premises of two modern theologians, Barth and Tillich, who represent opposite extremes. Barth's disregard for justifying Christian belief does not do justice to the hidden ambivalence of all ideologies, and any belief system could be posited as an unassailable absolute, this Barth neglects the very basis of the efficacy of ideological indoctrination. Tillich goes to the other extreme, eliminating all offense by equating 'God' with 'ultimate concern', by which logic every man has a God, but not necessarily the same one.

There is a footnote here about "fashionable Marxist theology", i.e. that Marxism cannot be transcended because it is the philosophy of our age (combined with a remark about the underdetermination of theory in philosophy of science), and attempts to refute it confirm the bourgeois mentality of the skeptic. I presume Gellner is alluding to Sartre here. This does not seem like much of an argument in embryo against Sartre, and there are far more apropos targets. As I will argue later on, Gellner is ill-equipped to analyze the ideological (in the bad sense) functioning of Marxism, particularly in its worst Marxist-Leninist incarnation.

Gellner's next concern is to distinguish between two oft-conflated issues:

(1) the social construction of reality
(2) the role of ideology within reality

The first concern has become a fad, a super-holism (my term, not Gellner's) according to which systems of ideas are borne not by individuals but by cultures or languages, which leads to relativism (my term, not his). Oddly, Gellner finds this fad nurtured by Chomskian linguistics, i.e. the notion of a universal generative capacity (p. 77, 79). This is nonsense, but what Gellner is really after is French structuralism, or the misapplication of structural linguistics to social phenomena which are nothing like languages. Bourdieu, who quotes, Chomsky, is criticized here (78).

However and to what degree the social construction of reality is effected, ideology has a narrower scope; it is something that happens within the world. This smaller question may be more manageable than the broader one.

Finally, Gellner aims to exclude pre-literate, tribal religions from the category of ideology: the formulation of doctrine is too weak for there to be competition between doctrines rather than magical practices.

While Gellner emphasizes at the end that he is offering notes, not a complete theory, I am nonetheless dissatisified. His greatest insight is into the coercive mechanisms to be found in Kierkegaard, and the complementary defects of Barth and Tillich. This provides an "in" to the mechanisms of faith-based ideological processes. The conversion experience and the "leap of faith" are crucial in this context. Others delimit the scope of "ideology" in different ways, if at all. Gellner cuts off preliterate religious and magical superstitions while focusing on religion and saying little about secular ideologies. Others limit the notion of "ideology" to the modern world, excluding all pre-modern religious societies. Other than the dig at Marxism, which comes down to an implied dig at Sartre, Gellner curiously fails to address a crucial social fact of our time, ideology not based in religion.

I'm guessing that his implied takeoff point is that of a bourgeois liberal out to expose the irrationality of 'extremism', i.e. the left and the right. If ideologies are totalizing though not total, then there must be mechanisms insulating them against criticism, for which Gellner offers a carrot-and-stick mechanism as to how they operate. One might assume that a conversion experience is necessary by which lured recruits take that leap of faith by which an ideology is internalized as a self-authorizing master interpreter of social phenomena. The surrender of rational individual autonomy that Kierkegaard sadomasochistically gloried in could presumably be duplicated in secular ideologies.

However, this is too crude a construct by which to understand the various shades of Marxism and how they operate or not to insulate their assertions from rational criticism. Hopefully, Gellner is not as stupid as Popper. Certainly, the history of the Communist Parties (and their Trotskyist antagonists) provides ample examples of where Marxism in practice went wrong and substituted self-authorizing dogma and manipulation for critical thought. To analyze this is detail requires another post.

For more on Gellner and links, see my entry on Gellner in the first incarnation of another of my blogs, Studies in a Dying Culture.

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