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Research: The Origins of Ideology

Philosophy : Modern Ideologies

Summary: The concept and term "ideology" arose during the Enlightenment, as political thinkers turned to reason to create systems of thought that would address every individual. The definition of the word is disputed, so it is difficult to say how an ideology differs from, say, Plato's Republic.

In Medieval times, society was based upon a functional heirachy. There was no place for individuals in political thought in the sense that they should be considered as political entities. Rather, as with Plato even, they were simply functional entities that, when part of the whole, benefit the whole, including themselves.

Ideas were goverened by the church and the monarchy. Despite even the printing press, the state and church could use copyright, royal decrees and the Pope's stamp of approval, in combination with widespread illiteracy and poverty, to keep ideas stricly censored and in the domain of the powerful.

With the Enlightenment came rationalism, empiricism and natural philosophy. These developments suggested that society could be studied in a science in a similar way to other rational disciplines, rather than by appeal to tradition and mysticism. To overthrow the old intellectual order, advocates of the Enlightenment realised that individuals must be empowered, both intellectually and politically. So emerged the idea of a political science that study society based upon observation and reason.

Parallel to this intellectual development was a series of economic and social changes. Notably, merchants, guilds and other professionals began to emerge as a political class, as money and trade took on a bigger role. The new landowning bourgeoise recognised the need to change the political order to give them legal rights to property, which requiring taking the exclusive right of property from the monarchy. And as the bourgeoise began to assert themselves through thinkers like Locke, so socialist thinkers, notably in France, began to advocate universal franchise.

One could say that ideology emerged when philosophers began to develop systems of thought that touched upon philosophy, politics, economics, sociology and all other areas of thought. Of course most of the disciplines didn't yet exist, but philosophers nonetheless considered their subject matter. These systems were justified insofar as they were based on observation and reason, and insofar as they could improve society. If we accept this, then the 18th and 19th century revolutionary wars reinforced the impact of ideology both on political science as an academic discipline and on society. That the term "ideology" was first coined by an imprisoned French revolutionary seems to support this historical definition of the term.

However the ideas that we commonly associate with ideologies - liberal, communal or environmental, for example - often pre-existed ideology. So how did the use of ideas change with the advent of the term in the 1790s? According to the historical definition given above, it was that the systems of thought transcended academic disciplines. But Plato and Aristotle both did that. One alternative definition lies not in the ideologies themselves, but in their intentionality.

Pre-ideology, thinkers like Plato, Machievelli and even Locke wrote their works to influence a powerful subsection of society. Even if the aimed to benefit the whole of society, they nonetheless intended to influence those who could implement the changes. Plato courted influential Athenian politicians, whilst Locke tried to persuade the monarchy to admit God-given rights to landowners. But ideologies aimed to address the whole of society, both in the effects of their system of thought and in the way they delivered it to make changes.

But is this true? Did Marx seek to influence the upper class, and even the bourgeoise? Did Burke want to influence the working class? Or more crucially, did they need to influence these sectors of society for their ideology to have its impact? It would seem that throughout history, different political philosophies have transcended various academic disciplines, have addressed various sections of society, have sought to influence different sections of society. There is no sudden change here with the emergence of ideology.

An alternative definition that is more essentialist than those historical definitions would relate closely to what we today called framing. According to this definition ideologies seek to create an intellectual basis from which we analyse observations and arguments. In other words, ideologies frame our worldview. Depending on your disposition, this either makes ideologies a useful intellectual tool that makes us more discerning, or it makes them an irrational smokescreen.