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The Revolution Will Be Kuhnian.

Does "Ideology" Have A Consistent Meaning?


...the meaning of a word is its use in the language.  

Ludwig Wittgenstein,   Philosophical Investigations 43.

All of us, when we enter the world, step into a language already in progress. This is rarely an issue because the vast majority of human lives take place in the present, where the meaning of a word is limited to its current use in the language. For example, "fortuitously" is a fancy way to say "luckily" for the millions of English speakers born in the 21st Century. These people's lives would not be improved by knowing that the word originally applied to the both good and bad occurrences that were controlled by Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fate.

There are two reasons, though, why knowledge of the current use of a word is not always sufficient. First, in some specialized fields, the current use of a word may be limited in a way that reveals an incomplete meaning. Older engineers with historical training might understand the word "automobile" to include the "Stanley Steamer", a machine that did not have an internal combustion engine. But if renewable energy concerns, say, all of the sudden made steam powered automobiles important, the new speaker of the language, for whom "automobile" means "internal combustion" will be lost, even though the other engineers were referring to the steam powered car all along. Thus, the historical meaning of a word can be of practical use to ordinary people living in the present tense.

The second instance is less pragmatic and more intellectual. History, especially the history of ideas, is recorded in the meaning of words. For those inclined to layer present experience with a rich context, or for those, like me, who are easily bored, paying attention to both past and present meanings is an activity that is often rewarded with glimpses into the bigger forces that shape our lives. Education, done right, aims to supply enough of "the Previously" ("last week on 'Revenge'...") to allow newly minted adults to understand what everyone is talking about in the first case, and to open up a world of color for those of us interested in the second.

This is an idealized vision of human communication that, in reality, is limited by our finite capacities. Natural selection has given us brains inclined to take "good-enough" short-cuts, including the default faith that words mean exactly what we think they mean. The genes of folks inclined to endless speculation on whether the grunt "ugh" had always meant "yes" did not make it to the next generation thanks to hungry cave bears.

In the modern world, this particular short-cut leads to errors all too frequently. As the language changes, speakers are constantly but unconsciously modifying terms in a way that defies their historical meaning. To be "sanctioned" is now simultaneously a very good and very bad thing. The problem comes when speakers shift back and forth between logically incompatible old and new meanings in the same logical argument.

Using the automobile example, a speaker of the old language could claim, truthfully, that some "automobiles" are powered by steam engines. A speaker of the new language could claim, also truthfully, that all "automobiles" have internal combustion engines. But if the two speakers are, in fact, the same person, we reach the, quite false, conclusion that the steam engine is a variety of internal combustion engine.

So what did "ideology" originally mean?

I previously posted two definitions. This time, let's try examples.

Things that are ideologies: *Nationalism *Communism *Confucianism 

Let's go back to the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

nationalism, ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests.

communism, the political and economic doctrine that aims to replace private property and a profit-based economy with public ownership and communal control of at least the major means of production (e.g., mines, mills, and factories) and the natural resources of a society.

Confucianism, a Western term that has no counterpart in Chinese, is a worldview, a social ethic, a political ideology, a scholarly tradition, and a way of life. Sometimes viewed as a philosophy and sometimes as a religion, Confucianism may be understood as an all-encompassing way of thinking and living that entails ancestor reverence and a profound human-centred religiousness.

Now, how is "ideology" currently used in the language?

Paul Waldman in The American Prospect on April 15, Strike A Pose writes about ideological sorting:

One of the central dynamics of American politics in the last few decades has been the sorting of the parties, the way that the Republican and Democratic coalitions have become ideologically clearer and more narrow. There are some ways in which this has been a salutary development; for instance, if like many Americans you're a low-information voter, its easier to figure out which party to vote for than it once was. But while the GOP has become particularly unified—the northeastern liberal Republicans who once constituted a substantial faction within the party are all gone—there are still some moderate Democrats around, even in the South. (Emphasis mine)

Another discussion comes from Ed Kilgore writing on TPM about divisions within the GOP, What's Really Going On With The Republican 'Civil War'. He asks, why is it the case that potential Republican presidential candidates have limited room to position themselves on issues:

Why is that the case? There are a lot of contributing factors, including the GOP’s shrinking but homogeneous “base,” the supremacy of conservative ideological media, and the rise of heavily funded political players determined to root out heresy. But the most important source of rigidity is conservative ideology itself, which does not aim (as do most European conservatives) at “moderating” or countering the bipartisan policies of the past or the Democratic policies of the present, but aspires to a counterrevolution that “restores” what conservatives regard as immutable principles of good government and even culture.

It its most explicit form, that of the “constitutional conservatives” who really dominate discussion within the GOP and who are likely to produce their next presidential nominee, the only genuinely “American” policies, designed by the Founders according to both natural and divine law, involve a free-market economy with extremely limited government and a traditionalist, largely patriarchal culture. These policies, buttressed by an increasingly chiliastic view of the status quo (e.g., the “Holocaust” of legalized abortion, and the social policy “tipping point” at which an elite-underclass alliance will destroy private property and liberty entirely), simply are not negotiable.

(Emphasis mine.)

Kilgore also uses the word "agenda" to describe the policy preferences of the GOP, an alternate word that may point the way out of this confusion.

More to come...

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