Harold Walsby: The Ideological Field

“The life of the contemporary spirit is a cycle of stages, which on the one hand still have a synchronous co-existence, and only from another view appear as a sequence in time that has passed. The experiences which the spirit seems to have behind it, exists also in the depths of its present being.” Hegel, The Philosophy of History (quoted in Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia)

“In the development of consciousness, which at first sight appears limited to the point of form merely, there is thus at the same time included the development of the matter or of the objects discussed in the special branches of philosophy. But the latter process must, so to speak, go on behind consciousness, since those facts are the essential nucleus which is raised into consciousness.” Hegel, The Science of Logic

It is so familiar a circumstance, and it seems so natural to us, for people to differ in their opinions, that it may appear somewhat odd to ask why it is so, or to inquire what it is that determines a person’s set of beliefs, or what causes them to grow, change or persist. People, living together, working together, often leading the same kind of life – sometimes members of the same family – quite commonly display the most divergent views on many issues of religion, politics, art, morals and so forth. How often have we not heard of two such people that they cannot agree on any one subject?

Deep divergencies of opinion surround us on all sides; from the press, pulpit, radio, screen, public platform and hoarding proceeds a vast and diverse mass of conflicting ideas; minor or major controversies and differences of opinion are continually raging in the home, the street, the park, the public house, the restaurant, the meeting hall and in parliament itself. Think of the almost innumerable “pro” and “anti” societies, leagues, associations, movements, parties, federations, unions, sects, denominations and the like, each of them standing for, and organised to further, a particular set of ideas. Think, too, of the immense number of pamphlets, books and journals devoted to particular causes and crusades of one kind or another. Ideas of every sort and description are the constant environment of the inhabitants of a modern civilised community.

One might think that this veritable plethora of contrasting ideas and attitudes was a rich field and hunting ground for scientific study. Yet, so used are we to this bewildering multiciplicity of ideas, that most of us take it all for granted and never pause to question how it is that people come to be thus divided, or grouped together against each other, in the way they are. What causes people to become ardent or passionate protagonists of certain ideas? What makes them so emphatic or vehement about some ideas and not about others? What makes men die for an idea? We are so familiar with the phenomenon of vehemency that we rarely question how it arises or what sustains it. Frequently it is dismissed with such phrases as “Oh! he has a bee in his bonnet,” “he’s got a slight kink when it comes to that subject” or “he’s now on his hobby-horse.” Why are most people, particularly the older ones, so difficult to shift in their opinions? How do beliefs, opinions and understanding originate? How do people become “interested” in an idea or set of ideas? What is “interest” and the mechanisms underlying it? Are there independent laws peculiar to and governing the growth of intellect? If so what are they? Is there any close connection between ideologies and understanding? What determines a person’s ideas or his outlook on life?

Such questions are rarely asked. If we could answer them in scientific terms the answers would, we venture to suggest, have an important bearing on such practical matters as education and training, propaganda and publicity, relations between social groups, industrial and political cooperation, international cooperation and relations – and, through these, on the great problem of the self-control of human society, of man’s control of that part of his environment constituted by himself.

Of the comparative few who do give these questions any consideration, the majority come to a variety of conflicting, quickly-arrived-at and very general conclusions. Some take the realm of ideas more or less at its face value and regard a person’s beliefs as due almost entirely to chance and accident or to Divine Providence. Some think that people’s opinions are basically determined by biological factors – hereditary qualities, instincts, reflexes, glandular conditions etc. – which are said to decide the extent, or limit, of a person’s outlook and insight into the nature of things. Some assure us that beliefs are fundamentally determined by economic interests and conditions. Others tell us that all ideas are ultimately reducible to physico-chemical processes or to the motions of material particles, and are therefore ultimately governed by the laws of physics and dynamics. Some combine these explanations in various ways; still others refer us for enlightenment to other fields of study, such as that of psychology, which, though it has many branches, is still largely confined to the study of perception and feeling. But practically all come to an end of their inquiries, and rest content with these (or some such) rather simple generalisations. The one thing about which most of those who regard the problem at all appear to be agreed – implicitly at least – is the futility of seriously studying the actual sphere or field of ideas, beliefs, opinions, theories etc. itself. Rather, it never or rarely occurs to them that such a study is possible, or if possible, could lead to fruitful and useful results. Few indeed are they who even suspect that the sphere of ideologies possesses scientifically intelligible relations, properties, processes and laws of its own.

It is as though we were to dispense with the study of the interrelations of, say, economic or sociological phenomena, and endeavour to account for these phenomena in terms of a study of the biological field – in terms of biological laws and processes. Or, again, it is as if we were to disregard the internal study of the biological field and merely regard the biological phenomena in purely physico-chemical terms. Apropos of this latter, the biologist J. B. S. Haldane, has said: “… the basic principles of physics are not of such a nature as to force him (the physiologist) to the view that because an organism in its details observes physical and chemical laws, therefore it must be a machine… the organism is something more than a machine, in the sense that it has a unity of a type which the machine lacks.” Similarly with ideological phenomena, which, although they are conditioned by physical, chemical, biological and sociological laws and processes, nevertheless possess internal relations and exhibit laws of a type which is peculiar to them. No doubt the very richness of contrast and diversity, the apparent impermanence, the apparently unlimited extent and the intangibility of the ideological material, which make it seem beyond the power of science to handle, has something to do with this negative attitude towards the domain of ideologies. But that is not the whole story. For, as we shall see, there exists a definite prejudice – rarely voiced but implicit in the outlook of most people – which regards the constituents and relations of the ideological domain as intrinsically capricious and chaotic in their essential nature; and this would imply that we are incapable of successfully applying scientific or rational methods to the understanding of this particular realm.

The attitude is in many ways comparable with the attitude of the child, or that of the savage mentality, to the surrounding world of material objects. As is well known, children and primitive people project their own feelings, their own subjectivity and capriciousness, into the outer world. They people their material environment with erratic, refractory spirits and thus attempt to account for the unmanageable world of matter by referring it to the capricious world of ideas (objectivity is referred to subjectivity). As man’s knowledge grows, and scientific understanding conquers and occupies one territory after another, the whimsical spirits are gradually, stage by stage, driven back from the world of matter towards their original home and last refuge: the domain of ideas and ideologies. In the meantime, from its simple beginnings, this ancient stronghold of caprice has grown and changed nearly out of all recognition. It has become a large territory and developed a vast, unwieldy population. Throughout the domain as a whole there is apparently no recognised organisation or system of law and order, and anarchy appears to reign supreme.

Because of the lack of a recognised and understood system of law and order in this realm – and consequent absence of any technique of control – its inhabitants are getting out of hand and threaten to become still more unmanageable. In the words of McDougall, in his World Chaos:

The top-heaviness of our civilisation is due to the rapid development of Science; its lop-sidedness is due to the lop-sidedness of our Science. Our civilisation reflects the state of our knowledge; and especially it reflects it faithfully in respect of the lop-sided state of our Science… Since the time of Galileo, Physical Science, by which I mean the sciences of the inorganic or physical realm, has advanced at a constantly accelerating pace. The Sciences of life have lagged far behind… we talk of psychology, of economics and of political science, of jurisprudence, of sociology and of many other supposed sciences; but the simple truth is that all these fine names simply mark great gaps in our knowledge, or rather fields of possible sciences that as yet have hardly begun to take shape and being. The names stand for aspirations rather than achievements; they define a programme, they vaguely indicate regions of a vast wilderness hardly yet explored, and certainly not mapped, regions in which chaos still reigns, yet regions which must be reduced to order if our civilisation is to endure… lack of understanding and control of the human and social factors of our civilisation lags far behind our material development and renders negatory, and even gravely injurious, advances in physical knowledge and control which might be of the greatest benefit to all the world… we need the development of the Social Sciences, economics, politics, jurisprudence, criminology, penology, history, social anthropology, and all the rest, for our guidance in all social and political problems, in face of all of which we stumble blindly along amidst a chaos of conflicting opinions. And all of these need for their foundation some sure knowledge of the constitution of human nature and of the principles of its development…

Thus, we can discern the urgency and importance of the need to come to some understanding of the ideological nature and development of man. For man’s intellect, though it has mastered a great deal of the universe which is its environment, has not mastered itself. This is the great paradox of our time. Hence the need for systematised knowledge of the ideological field, a science of ideologies – a science which must of necessity revolve around the central problem of understanding man’s mental development, of understanding understanding.

Continue reading The Domain of Ideologies by Harold Walsby (1947)
Part I Mass Groups and Intellectual Groups
Forward | The Paradox | The Political Groups | The Left Wing and IntellectualismThe Masses and Emotional Suggestibility | Fear of the Group | Political Collectivism | Political Individualism | The “Mass Rationality” Assumption
Part II Ideological Structure and Development
The Ideological Field | Definition of Ideology | Cognitive Assumptions | The Process of Assumptions | The Absolute Assumption | Identification | Development and Repression | Conclusion | Bibliography | Index