George Walford: Ideology of Everyday Life

Most people – at least, most of those willing to consider such questions – now accept that ideology affects political life; they recognise its influence in the behaviour of their opponents if not in their own actions. Many will also agree that ideology influences some of the more intellectual activities outside politics in the narrow sense; education and philosophy for example, and the criticism of art and literature. But systematic ideology claims more than this. It asserts that ideology affects all our volitional behaviour; every time I lift a cup of tea, sit in a chair, or avoid walking in front of a car, my ideology comes into action. This does not meet with general acceptance. Even those willing to allow ideology a wide range of activity in social affair would often exclude it from everyday life. Here, they will maintain, we act by simple common sense; here the subtleties of ideological theory find no place. But investigation shows otherwise.

We treat the objects handled in daily life differently according to our various purposes but, in a general sense, we all behave in the same way towards them. We all treat a substantial-looking chair as something which will support our weight. Whether bending down to a cup of tea or raising it to our lips we all treat it as a stationary object, not as something we need to chase and catch. If we see a brick flying towards us we may dodge, or try to catch it, or knock it aside; if we feel suicidal, or wish to heap coals of fire on the head of the thrower, we may stand and receive the blow. But all of us, in one way or another, treat the brick as a solid object. None of us behave as if it would let our heads pass through it unharmed.

“Well,” the reply may come. “Of course. Obviously. Naturally. How else should we behave? Mistakes and deception tion apart, the chair will support our weight, the tea will stay where it is unless somebody moves it; the brick is a solid object.”

For the purposes of daily life we can accept all this. I am not trying to scare readers out of their chairs, persuade them to recite spells when they feel thirsty, or shrug their shoulders when somebody yells: “LOOK OUT!” But although we can accept these things for the purposes of daily life we cannot do so always and everywhere and under all circumstances. I do not know how an astronaut in flight would go about drinking tea out of a cup – I don’t know how he would get it into the cup in the first place – but he would not succeed in doing so either by raising the cup to his lips or by bending down to it; he could not rely upon the tea remaining stationary unless he moved it.

The accounts of the ultimate structure of matter given by Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrodinger, let alone by more recent investigators, present it as consisting largely of empty space and, for the rest, only doubtfully material, made up of electrical charges, fogs of probability, holes in space and the like. After studying the ultimate constituents of a brick we might well feel tempted to regard the threat of a blow from one as nothing to worry about.

In everyday life we all accept what our unaided senses report of material objects, but only in everyday life. In other spheres of activity some of us, at least when living under unusual conditions, or following specialised lines of study, take another approach. We scrutinise familiar objects, analyse them (physically or conceptually), enquire closely into their nature and constitution and in doing so find good reason for changing our ordinary treatment of them. At sea, or in a space module in flight, we cannot rely upon tea to stay in the cup unless somebody moves it, the chemist shows the “solid” chair to consists partly of gases, and the philosopher can show good reason to question the simple materiality of the brick. And if the nuclear physicist joins in then our familiar belongings become unrecognisable.

Our customary behaviour towards objects now begins to appear less a matter of course. So long as we confined our enquiries to daily life things seemed simple enough. It appeared that we behaved as we did towards familiar objects because that was the only way we could behave towards them, but we have now encountered circumstances which call for other responses and discovered that we have a choice.

We usually think and speak of “knowing” how object do and will behave, but when we come to think at all closely this usage will not do; we cannot always predict, accurately and completely, the behaviour of articles handled. Given the right conditions even chairs, bricks and cups of tea can spring surprises, and this shows that we do not, with the certainty implied by the term, “know” what they will do in future. We assume that they will do thus and thus, and our assumptions usually find good support; but not always and everywhere.

“Assumption” does not carry the same claim to validity as “knowledge” and consequently displays less vulnerability. Knowledge, proven false, ceases to rank as knowledge at all, but an assumption proven false remains none the less an assumption. We behave as we do towards material objects because we make certain assumptions about their nature, or their behaviour, or their constitution, and if our assumptions change our behaviour changes with them. We have already seen instances of this; the behaviour of scientists and philosophers when engaged in their professions differs from their everyday behaviour not because they handle different objects but because they operate on a different set of assumptions.

from Ideological Commentary 54, Winter 1991.