Tracy (1784-1836) coined the word idéologie, meaning “the science of ideas. ... these famous words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, …” written by ...
Artist: Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926); Knight at the Crossroads, 1878
Ideology. In 1796, in France, an erstwhile cavalry officer turned philosopher named Destutt de Tracy (1784-1836) coined the word idéologie, meaning “the science of ideas.” A concise and accurate definition for ideology today is “a powerful system of ideas.” Ideologies and their impacts, both salient and subtle, manifest everywhere, at all scales. Powerful ideas are invariably political ideologies. This is because all ideology, whatever its provenance or manifestation, is involved to varying degrees in the political organization of social and spatial relationships involving authority. Ideology, Authority and Critical Thinking An “idea” is whatever comes to mind. Any idea is potentially a component of ideology. Both animals and humans experience the world as sensations, but only humans can nurture their sensations as ideas through reflection and signification and, in combination with other ideas, “empower” them as ideology. Ideology is a social tool capable of changing what is into what can
be. Ideologies proliferate in many guises but are often (but not always) identifiable as words that have the suffix –ism. Large-scale spatial expressions of ideology are likely to occur when an ideology becomes invested with authority. Authority is a legal or rightful power to command and act. Authority invests in ideology as a tool to justify its inalienable right to exercise power. Justification resides in doctrines and theories that claim confidence in their certainty of knowledge; as for example, in these famous words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, …” written by Thomas Jefferson, founder of an ideology called Jeffersonian Liberalism. The Declaration of Independence is a doctrine that provides a detailed justification for his radical social revolution. Ideology on close examination is just rhetoric making truth claims. Thus, ideology and critical thinking--as critique--have a close, but adversarial, relationship. Critical thinking from the time of Socrates has been a “critique of domination” by an authority. Critical thinkers are able to advance arguments that successfully undermine ideological knowledge claims that authority makes in order to justify its right to rule. Origin of “Ideology” and Transformations of its Meaning: Ideas are as ancient as humankind is, but Tracy’s invention of ideology did not occur until John Locke (1632-1704) had reformulated the concept of an “idea” in the context of a Cartesian universe, as “the mind’s immediate object of perception, thought, or understanding.” Locke’s intellectual precursors had already launched investigations into provocative topics like human nature, freedom, religion, society, law and art. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in his Advancement of Learning (1605), argued specifically that the mind must be educated and disciplined in defense against bad habits of thought, or else people would become led to believe what is false or misleading and thereby become complacent and to easily accepting of authority. Following Bacon, the French philosopher Rene Descarte (1596-1650) wrote cogito ergo sum (“I am thinking therefore I exist”), which inspired Locke to propose that sensation and reflection were the source of ideas. Locke’s proposition diffused to France with Voltaire (16941778), where Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (1750-1780) argued that sensation was the only source of ideas. It was at this point that Tracy, who had spent prison time during the Reign of Terror (1793-4) reading Locke and Condillac, invented the term “ideology.” He subsequently elaborated on his “science of ideas” in Elements of Ideology (multiple volumes, 1801-1815). Thomas Jefferson translated and published those parts that dealt with political economy. Tracy’s
contributions inspired proponents of social revolution throughout Europe and the Americas, and influenced the founders of Socialism and Commumism. Tracy considered his “ideology” to be a natural science, but he was also a social activist interested in educational reform, and promoted the doctrines of liberalism and free trade against centralization of authority. Tracy criticized Napoleonic autocracy, but Napoleon deliberately misused Tracy’s “ideology” to refer instead to those ideas fixed in the doctrines of his own enemies. It is with this negative connotation that ideology reemerges in the writings of the Frederick Engels (1820-1895) as part of his theoretical collaboration with fellow socialist Karl Marx (1820-1895). It is primarily through this intellectual doorway that ideology as term and concept emerge within human geography as part of a critique-of-dominance discourse among Marxist geographers. Ideology and Human Geography:
Critical thinking as critique of dominance in human geography is inherently ideological. There have been two major currents of this sort of critique in North American human geography during the past 40 years. One is the scientific Marxist critique of Capitalism, within which ideology has the narrow technical definition as “false consciousness.” The other is a more general critique of empiricist-positivist ideological dominance of Geography by humanistic (hermeunetical) geographers and structuralist (radical) geographers. The basis of the humanistic critique of empiricism-positivism is epistemological and irresolvable, involving different knowledges. The structuralist critique (apart from the “false consciousness” issue) contrasts Marxism’s commitment to social relevance to empiricist-positivist commitment to value-neutrality. The heyday of the structural Marxist movement in human geography began in the early 1960’s, yet for several reasons its momentum had peaked by the end of the decade. The sociologist Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) argued in Ideology and Utopia (1936) that knowledge was disguised ideology, and that Marxist knowledge was systems-maintaining idea and therefore Marxism was itself an ideology; its authority subject to critique. Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge influenced Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), who wrote of the structure of scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts. A contemporary of Kuhn, the philosopher-scientist Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994), in defense of the liberty of thought and critical thinking, castigated positivist science as the tyrannical
ideology of “scientism” and thus just another ideology full of rhetoric but no truth, and thus no different from Marxism. Whither Ideology? By the 21st-century the revolutionary fervor of radical Marxism in human geography had dissipated into a plurality of less-radical marxian intellectual initiatives: feminism, critical realism, bioregionalism, deconstructionism, and various other forms of post-structuralism, each with its own specialized theories and doctrines and interdisciplinary connections. Industrial economies were being rapidly replaced by knowledge economies that spawned appropriate new systems of powerful ideas that Marx and Engels had never anticipated. Critical social theory and ideology along with it took a “cultural turn”. Once-radical social(ist) geographers rapidly repositioned themselves within a “new” cultural geography, amidst trendy yet oddly juxtaposed intellectual movements that included critical literary theory, pragmatism, postmodernism and technophilia. Meanwhile, ideology slipped its moorings from within the rhetoric of critical social theory and drifted into the hitherto unexplored epistemological relativism of popular culture. Today Presidents, rap stars, talk show hosts, cartoon characters, vegetarian chefs, human geographers and a multitude of others use the term “ideology” both critically and uncritically, and by doing so invest it with their own meanings. Human geographers as students, teachers and researchers should find in these postmodern trends increased opportunities and enriching experiences. Indeed, updating Tracy’s definition gives some direction to these efforts: “ideology is the art and science of the spatial expression of ideas.” Even though some marxian human geographers are alarmed that ideology and politics may appear to be diverging in some ways, this is an illusion. Critical thinkers and critical human geographers will kept busy far into the future because as long as there are ideas and authority, there will be ideology.
Nemeth, David. 2006. In Barney Warf (ed.), Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Pp. 241-243. Sage Publications. Ideology