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Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology … because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. ~ James Baldwin
Ideologies involve a mistake about their origin: agents think that the ideology arose because of its responsiveness to epistemically relevant considerations (e.g., evidence, reasons, etc.), when, in fact, it arose only because it was responsive to the interests of the dominant economic class in the existing economic system. ~ Brian Leiter

Ideology is a term referring to comprehensive sets or expressions of the ideas of individuals, groups or societies.

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  • The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the law of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If "Thou shall not covet," and "Thou shall not steal," are not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.
    • John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government (1787), The Works of John Adams (1851), vol. 6, p. 9
  • For you and for me, the category of the subject is a primary ‘obviousness’ (obviousnesses are always primary): it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc.). Like all obviousnesses, including those that make a word ‘name a thing’ or ‘have a meaning’ (therefore including the obviousness of the ‘transparency’ of language), the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects – and that that does not cause any problems – is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect. It is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are ‘obviousnesses’) obviousnesses as obviousnesses.
  • Those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology. As is well known, the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself.


  • Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology … because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is.
    • James Baldwin, in interview with Julius Lester, "James Baldwin: Reflections of a Maverick" in The New York Times (27 May 1984)
  • At its core, the battle unfolding in the Middle East is more than a clash of arms. It is an ideological struggle. On one side are the forces of terror and death. On the other are tens of millions of ordinary people who want a free and peaceful life for their children. The future of the Middle East depends on the outcome of this struggle, and so does the security of the United States.


  • Capitalism is an exploitative system, as Marx has argued so cogently, and as anyone who studies the inequalities within and between the countries of the world today must see. It is therefore a priori likely that its ideology conceals realities that if known would make the exploited militant.
    • Andrew Collier in Transcendence: Critical Realism and God (2013), p. 85


  • Ideology consist of a specific objective level, of a relatively coherent ensemble of representations, values and beliefs: just as 'men', the agents within a formation, participate in an economic and political activity, they also participate in religious, moral, aesthetic and philosophical activities. Ideology concerns the world in which men live, their relations to nature, to society, to other men and to their own activity including their own economic and political activity. The status of the ideological derives from the fact that it reflects the manner in which the agents of a formation, the bearers of its structures, live their conditions of existence; i.e. it reflects their relation to these conditions as it is 'lived' by them. Ideology is present to such an extent in all the agents' activities that it becomes indistinguishable from their lived experience. To this extent ideologies fix in a relatively coherent universe not only a real but also and imaginary relation: i.e. men's real relation to their conditions of existence in the form of an imaginary relation. This means that in the last analysis ideologies are related to human experience without being thereby reduced to a problematic of the subject—consciousness. This social-imaginary relation, which performs a real practical—social function, cannot be reduced to the problematic of alienation and false consciousness.
  • It follows that through its constitution ideology is involved in the functioning of this social-imaginary relation, and is therefore necessarily false; its social function is not to give agents a true knowledge of the social structure but simply to insert them as it were into their practical activities supporting this structure. Precisely because it is determined by its structure, at the level of experience the social whole remains opaque to the agents. In class-divided societies this opacity is over-determined by class exploitation and by the forms which this exploitation takes in order to be able to function in the social whole. Hence, even if it includes elements of knowledge, ideology necessarily manifests an adequation / inadequation vis-à-vis the real.




  • The problem of ideology ... has especially to do with the concepts and the languages of practical thought which stabilize a particular form of power and domination; or which reconcile and accommodate the mass of the people to their subordinate place in the social formation.
    • Stuart Hall, The Problem of Ideology-Marxism without Guarantees, in Marx:100 Years On (London: 1983), p. 59
  • The average, vague understanding of being can be permeated by traditional theories and opinions about being in such a way that these theories, as the sources of the prevailing understanding, remain hidden.
  • Every human way of acting which hides the true nature of society ... is ideological.
    • Max Horkheimer, "Notes on Science and the Crisis," Critical Theory: Selected Essays (1995), p. 7


  • In the sense used by Marx and Engels, the concept of ideology was intended to mean forms of social consciousness which prevent people from realising that their thinking about the world is determined by some conditions which do not depend on them and which are not themselves ingredients of consciousness. In ideological thinking, people imagine that the logic of thinking itself rules their consciousness and they are organically incapable of being aware of the social situations and of the interests which mould their mental work.


  • Ideologies involve a mistake about their origin: agents think that the ideology arose because of its responsiveness to epistemically relevant considerations (e.g., evidence, reasons, etc.), when, in fact, it arose only because it was responsive to the interests of the dominant economic class in the existing economic system.
    • Brian Leiter, “Morality Critics,” The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy (2007), p. 737
  • Science may be in the interest of the ruling class, after all, but it is still responsive to epistemic norms, and so anyone with epistemic interests has reason to accept science. Ideologies, by contrast, have their genesis explained solely by their capacity to further the interests of the ruling class.
    • Brian Leiter, “Morality Critics,” The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy (2007)
  • Only the dialectical conception of ... reality as a social process ... dissolves the fetishistic forms necessarily produced by the capitalist mode of production and enables us to see them as mere illusions which are not less illusory for being seen to be necessary.


  • Ideologies call on history as well, but in their hands the past becomes a prophecy. The faithful may have suffered, and may be suffering still, but history is moving toward a preordained end. Whether secular like Marxism or Fascism, or religious like the fundamentalisms of various faiths, the story they tell is at once breathtakingly simple and all-encompassing. Every event is fitted into the grand account and all is explained. The writer Arthur Koestler remembered the great relief and delight he felt when he discovered Marxism in the troubled years when the Weimar Republic was failing and the Nazis were reaching out for power. Past, present, and future all became comprehensible: “The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull; the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembled at one stroke.”
  • Wars of ideology, whether religious or political, are often the cruellest of all because the kingdom of heaven or some form of earthly paradise justifies all that is done in its name, including removing human obstacles. Those who hold the wrong ideas or beliefs deserve to die much as diseases ought to be stamped out, or they are simply the necessary sacrifices on the way to achieving a dream which will benefit all of humanity. As Martin Luther, whose influence on Protestant thinking was enormous, once said, ‘The hand that wields the sword and kills with it is not man’s hand but God’s.’ Such attitudes fuelled the internecine religious wars of his own century and contributed to the Thirty Years War in the following, as, in the twentieth century, did wars for revolutionary socialism, which saw itself as doing history’s work rather than God’s. Today of course we have religious wars again and the targets are again without limit until the final goal is achieved. Sadly even wars which are meant to be about ending war itself take on that limitless character. If the purpose is to remove for ever the scourge of war, then whatever atrocities and cruelties are committed in its name will be justified because the sacrifice is surely worth it. In the lead-up to the Thirty Years War radical Calvinists, espousing an extreme form of Protestantism, came to believe that the Habsburg monarchy was the force of darkness which must be eradicated before the righteous could be saved. When the radicals in the French Revolution prepared to wage war on Europe it was for earthly salvation. As one revolutionary said in 1791, ‘It is because I want peace that I am asking for war.’ The enemy, as in religious wars, becomes the enemy of humanity itself and must be utterly destroyed not merely defeated.
  • Whereas the particular conception of ideology designates only a part of the opponent's assertions as ideologies — and this only with reference to their content, the total conception calls into question the opponent's total Weltanschauung (including his conceptual apparatus), and attempts to understand these concepts as an outgrowth of the collective life of which he partakes.
  • The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production.
  • The demand for explicit ideological justifications has been greatly enlarged, if only because new institutions of enormous power have arisen but have not been legitimated, and because older powers have outrun their old sanctions.
  • Every interest and power, every passion and bias, every hatred and hope tends to acquire an ideological apparatus with which to compete with the slogans and symbols, the doctrines and appeals of other interests.
  • As public communications are expanded and speeded up, their effectiveness is worn out by repetition; so there is a continuous demand for new slogans and beliefs and ideologies.


  • The rulers wanted to fool people, since they saw that people have a kinship with what is truly good. They took the names of the good and assigned them to what is not good, to fool people with names and link the names to what is not good. So, as if they were doing people a favor, they took names from what is not good and transferred them to the good, in their own way of thinking. For they wished to take free people and enslave them forever.
  • Ideologues are the intellectual equivalent of fundamentalists, unyielding and rigid. Their self-righteousness and moral claim to social engineering is every bit as deep and dangerous. It might even be worse: ideologues lay claim to rationality itself. So, they try to justify their claims as logical and thoughtful. At least the fundamentalists admit devotion to something they just believe arbitrarily. They are a lot more honest. Furthermore, fundamentalists are bound by a relationship with the transcendent. What this means is that God, the center of their moral universe, remains outside and above complete understanding, according to the fundamentalist’s own creed. Right-wing Jews, Islamic hard-liners, and ultra-conservative Christians must admit, if pushed, that God is essentially mysterious. This concession provides at least some boundary for their claims, as individuals, to righteousness and power (as the genuine fundamentalist at least remains subordinate to Something he cannot claim to totally understand, let alone master). For the ideologue, however, nothing remains outside understanding or mastery.


  • People do things, and then they imagine what they are doing in a kind of cloudy realm. Thus we say first there is a social reality in which people fight to earn their living, and so on, and this is real reality, as praxis. This reality is then represented in the heaven of ideas, but it is falsely represented as having a meaning autonomous to this realm, as making sense on the basis of things which can be thought and not done or lived.


  • Ideologies also tempt those who reject them. Ideology, when stripped by time or partisanship of its political and economic connections, becomes a moralizing form of explanation for mass killing, one that comfortably separates the people who explain from the people who kill. It is convenient to see the perpetrator just as someone who holds the wrong idea and is therefore different for that reason. It is reassuring to ignore the importance of economics and the complications of politics, factors that might in fact be common to historical perpetrators and those who later contemplate their actions. It is far more inviting, at least today in the West, to identify with the victims than to understand the historical setting that they shared with perpetrators and bystanders in the bloodlands. The identification with the victim affirms a radical separation from the perpetrator. The Treblinka guard who starts the engine or the NKVD officer who pulls the trigger is not me, he is the person who kills someone like myself. Yet it is unclear whether this identification with victims brings much knowledge, or whether this kind of alienation from the murderer is an ethical stance. It is not at all obvious that reducing history to morality plays makes anyone moral. Unfortunately, claiming victim status does not itself bring sound ethical choices. Stalin and Hitler both claimed throughout their political careers to be victims. They persuaded millions of other people that they, too, were victims: of an international capitalist or Jewish conspiracy. During the German invasion of Poland, a German soldier believed that the death grimace of a Pole proved that Poles irrationally hated Germans. During the famine, a Ukrainian communist found himself beleaguered by the corpses of the starved at his doorstep. They both portrayed themselves as victims. No major war or act of mass killing in the twentieth century began without the aggressors or perpetrators first claiming innocence and victimhood. In the twenty-first century, we see a second wave of aggressive wars with victim claims, in which leaders not only present their peoples as victims but make explicit reference to the mass murders of the twentieth century. The human capacity for subjective victimhood is apparently limitless, and people who believe that they are victims can be motivated to perform acts of great violence. The Austrian policeman shooting babies at Mahileu imagined what the Soviets would do to his children.
  • Elites in civil society invariably acquire a flawed ideology to explain their possession of an unjust amount of the goods of society. The purpose of the flawed ideology is to provide an apparently factual (in the best case, apparently scientific) justification for the otherwise manifestly unjust distribution of society’s goods. ... As a mechanism of social control, the elite seek to instill the ideology in the negatively privileged groups. By this route, the negatively privileged groups acquire the beliefs that justify the very structural features of their society that cause their oppression.
    • Jason Stanley, How Propaganda Works (Princeton University Press: 2015), p. 269


  • Those who say that all historical accounts are ideological constructs (which is one version of the idea that there is really no historical truth) rely on some story which must itself claim historical truth. They show that supposedly "objective" historians have tendentiously told their stories from some particular perspective; they describe, for example, the biasses that have gone into constructing various histories of the United States. Such an account, as a particular piece of history, may very well be true, but truth is a virtue that is embarrassingly unhelpful to a critic who wants not just to unmask past historians of America but to tell us that at the end of the line there is no historical truth. It is remarkable how complacent some "deconstructive" histories are about the status of the history that they deploy themselves.

See also

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