06 August 2016

Conservatism and Ideology

Instead of a temperament or even a predisposition in favor of tradition and in opposition to change, conservatism is best considered as an ideology.

Now the word ideology has eluded a set definition on which everyone agrees.

The lexical definition as "the study of ideas" captures the narrow, original meaning of the word as introduced by  Antoine Destutt de Tracy. For him, the term  served to explain his views on epistemology--that all knowledge is simply knowledge of ideas. 

Karl Marx later used the term in a narrow and pejorative sense to describe how the working class lives in subjection to the ideas of the ruling class. According to Marx, the ruling class controls not only the means of material production, but also  the means of mental production. The ideas of the ruling class are more or less imposed upon subject classes in order to maintain the status quo. Marx believed in the need to 
instill "class consciousness" in order to liberate them from the distorted "false consciousness" imposed upon them by the capitalist ruling class. 

Ideology in the more popular use today  refers to  any general system of beliefs. The pejorative sense of the word, however,  lingers. The word is often used to ascribe some degree of "irrationality" or "self-deception" to a persons belief system. The influence of this conception of ideology can be seen today even among non-Marxists. Instead of accepting political views at face value and analyzing them based upon their overt meaning, some analysts--especially journalists television personalities--simply disregard those views. Instead, they attempt to interpret those political views based upon some supposed "special interest" or social position in society, i. e., race, class, etc. They sometimes imply that the advocate for some political view is an ideologue--one who appears impervious to facts that conflict with his belief system. 

More recently, however, some philosophers and political scientists have refined the definition of ideology and purged it of  pejorative connotations. According to this view, ideology is best conceived as a system of beliefs about a given social/political order and the place of individuals in it.  Ideologies describe, analyze, and evaluate social/political conditions. More often than not, they also prescribe courses of action to preserve, reform, or even overthrow the existing order.

Ideologies, as systems of belief, are difficult to define concisely because they are constituted by a cluster of ideas or concepts. Some of the most obvious of these ideas or concepts include liberty, equality, order, law, and property.  For example,  liberalism is typically defined as a philosophy or ideology based upon the idea of liberty. Conservatism, on the other hand, is commonly defined as a belief in tradition. It is obvious that liberty and tradition are not contradictory. One sentence definitions such as these tend to accentuate one concept at the expense of others. Moreover, most political ideologies share core concepts. They only contest the meanings of those concepts. These may  involve involve differences of degree or differences of kind. And even where ideologies share some semblance of agreement, they may clash over prescriptive courses of action. In short, ideologies must be described rather than defined.

Ideologies are even more difficult to evaluate. There is no objective standard of truth to which they can be compared.  Perhaps individual propositions given in support of ideas or courses of action can be assessed for truth value. It seems pointless to even try to  weigh the truth of ideologies as a whole. The strongest claims that even advocates of ideologies can make is that their particular ideology best creates the social and political conditions for human thriving.

Of course, many conservatives deny that conservatism is an ideology. They see political and social institutions as expressions if ethnic and cultural preconditions that have developed naturally over centuries. They consider liberalism, socialism, communism as rationally constructed ideologies that seek to create a  utopia. Liberals, too, reject the notion that their belief system is an ideology. Liberals claim to rest their beliefs and policies on reason and science. Of course, both of these serve as examples of expressions of an ideology.

When conceived as an organized system of beliefs without  the pejorative notion of "delusion," it seems clear that everyone has an ideology.  People may differ in the comprehensiveness and coherence of their beliefs. People may differ on the best prescriptive courses of action. And people may differ in their level of commitment to actualizing their beliefs.

People who deny they possess an ideology as described above are, well,  nothing if not ideologues.

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