Harold Walsby: Cognitive Assumptions

It will be obvious that the clarity of our conception of an ideology will largely depend upon the clarity of our conception of the leading terms we employ in its definition and description. We have said that cognitive assumptions and affective identifications are, respectively, the bricks and mortar of which an ideology is composed. Let us examine these materials more closely. Firstly, what do we mean by “cognitive assumptions”?

The word “assume,” according to the dictionary, means to “take upon oneself” or to “take for granted.” “To grant” is to bestow, to allow, to concede, to admit, to accept as right, valid, correct, legitimate or true; “to accept” is to consent to receive. A little consideration of these terms will show that there are involved in them two intimately related and fundamental ideas: (1) the idea of “taking” – of separation or distinguishing – and (2) the idea of “giving” – of associating or identification. These two fundamental ideas necessarily involve and mutually interpenetrate each other. Every act of “taking” or separation is also, at the same time, an act of “giving” or association. For example, the act of giving consent is at once the same thing as taking or accepting a request; my taking possession of an article is precisely the act of my giving it an owner; if I give something away then I take leave of it; taking a person indoors is the same as giving him entrance. Similarly, every act of separation is, at one and the same time, the act of uniting or joining: for a thing which is being separated from another is also that which is joining the group or class of separated things – which group, or class, also includes (precisely to the extent to which the process of separation is carried through) just that from which the thing is being separated; the two joined things both become two separated things.

Again, every act of distinguishing is precisely the act of associating or identifying: for when we distinguish something from something else we can only do so in so far as we associate it with distinguished things – including, of course, that from which the thing has become distinguished; conversely, when we associate something with some other thing we can only do so in so far as we distinguish it from distinguished things including, of course, that other thing with which it is being associated: for the more a thing becomes identified with another the less it is being an “other” itself – it is therefore becoming more distinguished from the other. The dialectic principle involved here is of the highest importance for the more adequate comprehension of ideological states and processes – for it applies to all antithetical, opposing and conflicting conditions – but we cannot now enter further into the matter and must leave it for fuller treatment elsewhere.

An assumption, then, is something which is “taken upon oneself,” or “taken for granted,” or “taken as conceded,” or “taken as accepted,” or “taken as admitted,” or “taken as given.” Evidently, whatever it may be which is assumed – whether it be a role, an office, a disguise, an aspect, a function, a posture, a right, a principle, a truth or a fact – it is something which is taken. But equally, according to the principle we have just discussed, it should be something which is just as much given – and we shall find it is so. That is to say; an assumption is something in one’s experience which is given the character or status of “reality” – of being a self, like one’s own self; of having, in other words, a separate or independent identity of its own, like one’s own identity. Thus, the act of assuming is the act of associating, or identifying, with oneself, something which is, at the same time, distinguished from oneself. To put it another way, that which is assumed is given the character of independent or real existence. When we realise that all our beliefs, knowledge, understanding etc. are concerned with what is independently real or true and what is not independently real or true, then we shall clearly see how intimately the process of assumption is involved in them.

It may be objected that the act of assumption involves the acceptance of something as real or true, but without warrant or proof. While the word is commonly used in this sense we cannot wholly admit this objection, since particular proofs are a relative matter. There is no particular proof which is absolute for all; and, whatever proof there may be forthcoming for the truth or reality of something, it may convince one but not another. We are all prepared to accept some things on the slightest of evidence; on other matters we require more pressure of evidence. Every act of assumption takes place as the result of a certain amount of compulsion or force, however little; so that, whatever the stage at which we may succumb to the pressure of evidence for something, whether it be when the weight of evidence is of the slightest amount, or when it is massive and of the greatest amount, in every case we are forced to make the assumption. Therefore whenever, in common parlance, we use the word assumption to mean “acceptance without proof,” what we really mean is “acceptance with relatively little proof.” Even the mere conceivability of something constitutes some evidence of its independent existence, if only as an independent or distinct idea within the mind.

We repeat, then, that an assumption is something in one’s experience which, under some sort of compulsion or force, however great or small, is given the character of independent or real existence, is given the status of reality, or an identity of its own similar to one’s own identity. The process involves, at one and the same time something taken and something given. We can now more easily see that what is taken, accepted or received is really the compulsion, the limiting pressure or force exercised by that which is being assumed; in other words, when one makes an assumption one takes or accepts a limitation upon oneself. And we can now see that what is given, given up, or handed over, as it were, is one’s own independence of the limitation: the limitation is itself given a measure of independence, i.e. is “given” real existence. A kind of exchange takes place, and we propose to borrow two convenient terms from psychoanalysis to describe the two mutually interpenetrating aspects of this exchange; they are “introjection” and “projection,” and we shall regard them as antithetical aspects of one and the same process – a process which, in its more complex forms at least, constitutes a special kind of reaction of the individual organism with its environment. With these terms we can now describe the act or process of assumption as involving (a) the introjection of a limitation or determining influence of some kind, and (b) the projection of independence or, what amounts to the same thing, the projection of self-dependence or self-determinism.

It is of interest, in this connection, to reproduce the following remarks from McDougall’s Frontiers of Psychology. He says (pp. 108-9):

… Ultimately, belief in reality of any and every kind rests upon and, directly or indirectly, is induced only by, resistance to our effort, to our own striving. That which can resist us physically or otherwise, can act upon us compulsively, is the real, is believed in. Such experiences are the common root or ground of our belief in the reality of things; and not only of physical things, but of all that we regard as real… All belief in real things has, then, this two-fold root; first, one’s experience of one’s self as enduringly the same being, powerful in the sense that, though not always active, it is always capable of activity, of putting forth power. Secondly, one’s experience of things (primarily persons and animals) which similarly endure and manifest to us their power by acting upon us, resisting or compelling us. In this foundation of all belief in real things we see the deepest root of primitive animism. For to primitive man, as to the child, persons are the most compelling and therefore the most real as well as the most interesting of objects; animals come near them and are conceived after the model of the person; while the inanimate thing is similarly patterned after the person, the model of all reality, and is only gradually deprived of all attributes of persons, except in space and time, and power.

Now, we shall find that the process of assumption is a necessary condition for the existence of intentional or voluntary behaviour. As we pass in review the whole evolutionary scale of organic life we find that living things behave, not merely according to the laws which govern inanimate matter, but also spontaneously, partly of themselves, according to other laws; and the higher we ascend in this scale the more do we find that living things seem to behave with purpose and design, to anticipate and expect events, until, when we arrive at the culminating point of man himself, we find him acting more with deliberation, intent and foresight than any other animal. Of all living creatures the human being is the most capable of spontaneous adjustment of his behaviour to the reality of environmental conditions. This adjustment of behaviour involves a high degree of understanding and knowledge, and these in turn involve the process of assumption. For, to act with intent and purpose, it is necessary to base such action on something in one’s experience which is “given” the character of independent reality or existence; it is necessary to assume something or other – something must be taken for granted. Without assumption there is, and can be, no purpose, no intention, no design, no foresight, no intelligence or intellect, no knowledge or understanding.

Assumptions, therefore, because they are the necessary conditions of all intentional behaviour, are implicit in all expressions of meaning, purpose, design and intelligent action; they underlie, as implications, all statements of fact, expressions of opinion, belief and understanding. And, as it is the occupation of science to discover the particular conditions necessary for the existence of particular phenomena, it is therefore the business of science to study the process of assumption and to systematise the relations between different kinds or structures of assumption and different kinds of behaviour.

If I say to a friend “Lend me five pounds!” then that is an action, a piece of behaviour. We can explain the action in its details in terms of mechanical, physical, chemical, biological processes and laws, and no doubt show other instances of these latter operating in other fields and classes of phenomena; yet, but for the process of assumption and the whole complicated structure of assumptions upon which that statement is made, the action with all its details could never occur at all. Apart from the intent or meaning of the particular words I use, the mere action of speaking to my friend involves a large number of assumptions; it implies, for example, that he is a conscious being, that he understands the English language, that he is not deaf, that he is paying attention to what I am saying and so on. But for these assumptions, made on my part, I should not speak at all. The particular request itself contains and exhibits a whole host of assumptions: it implies that my friend has five pounds to lend; it takes for granted that he is the kind of person who would lend that sum; it presupposes that I need five pounds; it assumes that the terse form of my demand will not cause him to be offended so that he will be likely to refuse; it takes for granted that I am a sane and rational individual; and so on and so on. But for these assumptions I should never make my request; and but for certain assumptions and the process of assumption itself, I could not do so.

Some of these assumptions will be found to underlie other actions and statements of mine. Some of them, indeed, will be implied by all or nearly all my intentional activity, and these will obviously be the most important from the point of view of ideological study; for they will constitute the more permanent and fundamental parts of an individual’s ideological structure. Again, some of these assumptions will be found only from time to time in the behaviour of other people, but some of the more enduring and fundamental of them will be found to correspond with the more permanent and fundamental structures of others. It will thus be possible, on this basis, to group people together as belonging to one ideological class or another.

When we come to examine some of the different assumptions involved in some statement or action, we shall find that some are more “immediate” and explicit – e.g. in the above case: that I need five pounds – while others appear more “remote” and more deeply implicit – e.g. that I am a rational being. On the whole, the difference corresponds broadly with the distinction we have just made between the less permanent and the more permanent parts of ideological structure: for when we change our intentions or the meaning of our utterances – as we are constantly doing – what we really change are the more immediate and explicit of our assumptions; the more remote and implicit assumptions remain. Thus, throughout the continual changes of our meaning or intentions the more basic and underlying parts of them remain unchanged. We do not, therefore, ever alter entirely and absolutely our intentions; our meaning is never wholly and completely changed; it is merely modified and is continually undergoing modification. Apart from these continual and most superficial of modifications in our intentions as we go about our many and various daily tasks – changes which correspond with the continual changes in our movements, our behaviour and attitude – there do occur, of course, from time to time, deeper modifications in our ideological structures. These modifications, however, of the more permanent assumptions are much slower and – although they affect a wider range of our behaviour than do the changes of our more immediate assumptions – manifest themselves only after comparatively long intervals of time. Such deeper changes, as might be expected, are themselves more enduring and permanent than those superficial changes which are continually occurring. Yet, profound as these slower modifications may be, the fact still remains that there are even more fundamental assumptions which are left relatively unchanged. As we shall later see, the most fundamental of all assumptions remains throughout life.

We have provisionally and tentatively defined an assumption as an aspect or part of one’s experience which, under some kind of compulsion or force, is given the character of independent existence or “reality.” But this, of course, does not mean that all assumptions are necessarily true. In the case, given above, of my request for five pounds, I may not have noticed that my friend was asleep. Yet my action in asking for five pounds assumes that he is awake. Successful action would seem, then, to depend upon having the right assumptions – i.e. true assumptions. And, equally, the truth of an assumption will depend upon whether the action which is based on it, or in which it is implicated, is successful or not. This criterion of the truth of assumptions, however, is not quite so simple as it appears at first sight; for as we have seen, every definite aim or intention which issues in action, every definite meaning which finds utterance is really a whole complex of aims or meanings, more or less definite according to the nature of the assumptions upon which they are based. In short, aims, objects, intentions, meanings etc. are relative to the assumptions upon which they are founded, i.e. some are more immediate, superficial and changing, and others are more remote, permanent and fundamental. Not all successful action or behaviour, then, can be seen in a glance, or at once; the truth of some assumptions – the less immediate or more permanent and fundamental assumptions – can thus only be “tested” over a period of time, and this probably accounts, in part at least, for the comparative slowness in their modification.

This brings us to the question of how assumptions come to change and to undergo modification. As we have seen, our more immediate aims and intentions, objects and meanings, are continually changing through-out our everyday waking lives. What causes them so to change? We have also noted the slower and more ponderous changes of our more ultimate aims and intentions. One cause of change, of both the more immediate and the more fundamental assumptions, we have just been discussing: unsuccessful action. The lack of success in achieving one’s aims – frustration – is a common experience of all; and it is this frustration – experience which forces us to modify our assumptions. How this occurs in detail is a matter for further treatment and fuller examination.

There is, however, another cause of change in our aims and purposes which we must clearly observe. It is that formed by the constantly changing nature of our environment, the changes of stimuli to which all organisms are continually subject. Some of these changes are brought about by one’s own intentional activity, and some by the intentional activity of others. But this introduces us to a complication; here, again, things are no quite so, simple as they at first appear. For, not only are we subject to changes of stimuli caused by mechanical, physical, chemical and biological changes, in our external environment and in our own bodies – our “internal” environment – but in addition, we are subject to changes of stimuli caused by our own intentional behavior and the aims intentions and meanings of others. In other words besides that part of our environment which we can see hear, touch, smell etc., there is another part which is psychological and ideological; it is a part of our environment which, though unseen and manifested to us through the medium of mechanical, physical, chemical and biological processes – we are nevertheless forced to recognise as just as real.

We have already drawn attention, in the last chapter but one, to this particular aspect of our environment. But the matter is more complicated. Just as there are mechanical, physical, chemical and biological processes going on internally as well as externally, so, similarly, with psychological and ideological processes. And this internal psycho-ideological environment constitutes the most immediate part of our whole universal environment. Moreover, sensations of stimuli from the world outside our bodies and from our bodies themselves – stimuli that have their origin in mechanical, physical, chemical, ideological, psychological and ideological processes – of which we become aware, are all given meanings of some kind or another; that is to say, they become associated with or assimilated into, the whole system or structure of our cognitive assumptions, and by thus giving them meaning and reality they become transformed into assumptions themselves. As I pause from writing, for instance, I hear noises of what I assume to be the footsteps of people walking in the street below, the barking of a dog in the distance, the ringing of a telephone bell in the house next-door, the dustman dropping an empty dustbin on the hard pavement outside, and so on. Unless I make these, or some similar, assumptions the world outside remains a mere meaningless jumble of noises.

Again, I hear sounds which I assume to be those of two people approaching and engaging in loud conversation. At first, I cannot hear distinctly the actual words of their discussion, though I assume from their manner that they are both rather angry. As they pass under my window – or more accurately, as I assume them to be passing under my window – I catch some of the words I assume they are uttering. A new element now enters the situation: I not only regard myself as perceiving that two people are passing under my window engaged in loud and angry conversation, but I also regard myself as perceiving the meaning of some of the words they utter. The new element consists, in short, in the fact – or, what amounts to the same, in the assumption – that I “know” what they are saying in addition to “knowing” that they are saying something. To put it another way: that which they are saying, or expressing, is their meaning or intention – that is to say, they are expressing the ever-changing structures of their cognitive assumptions – and in the same way that I give reality (or independent existence) and meaning to the sounds of footsteps, voices, etc. (by making assumptions and assimilating them into my own ideological structure of cognitive assumptions) so similarly do I give reality and meaning to that which they are saying. I come to “know” something of “what is passing in their minds,” to know some of their “passing thoughts ” – i.e. I come to know some of their more immediate and temporary assumptions.

This leads us to touch briefly upon the problem of agreement and disagreement. In the case of the two people referred to above, it was assumed that they were “in disagreement with each other.” It is often said of two such persons that they cannot “see each other’s point of view.” A statement of this kind is an approximation to our newer conception that – whether the disagreement revolves around questions of fact or principle, or whether it involves questions of “ought” or “ought not ” – such people differ largely because neither can assimilate the other’s immediate or explicit assumptions into his own ideological structure in the same way as does the other. (We say “largely” because we have yet to deal with the very important affective or emotional aspect which although not exclusive of the cognitive aspect, is expressed more in the manner of utterance and behaviour.) Differences of opinion may be superficial, involving more or less broad differences between the more immediate and temporary assumptions of people; or they may be more deep-seated, involving differences between the more permanent assumptions – as in disputes between two people of different ideological groups. We have already observed in the last chapter that in the same way no two persons possess exactly the same physiological structure, though alike both broadly and in many details, no two persons will have exactly the same ideological structure; any two people, therefore, will always be able to find something about which they disagree, even though they may find agreement upon what are frequently called “broader issues,” i.e. the more permanent assumptions. However, we cannot properly and adequately treat this topic of agreement and disagreement among people without first coming to some understanding of emotional identification, which we must leave for subsequent pages.

Before passing on to the next chapter, there is another point that is worth mentioning here, which is closely allied to the problem of conflicting assumptions and disagreement between different people. It is: that we shall find the phenomenon of conflicting assumptions and disagreement in the ideology of one and the same person to be a normal and universal characteristic of ideologies. We shall learn, moreover, (a) that these internal conflicts within an ideology are concerned, not only with the more temporary assumptions, but also with the more permanent and fundamental parts of the ideological structure; (b) that in order to prevent these internal conflicts from interfering with the intentional behaviour and utterances of the individual, whole groups or layers of assumptions are kept from expressing themselves in the normal way – viz. through the conscious aims, intentions and meanings of a person – by a process of repression or inhibition; and (c) that these internal conflicts are intimately bound up with and partly determine the external conflicts between different persons and different ideological groups of people.

Though we have hardly skimmed the surface of the whole subject of cognitive assumptions, enough has been said, I feel, to show that any attempt to explain the whole of human behaviour solely in mechanical, physical, chemical, biological and psychological terms still leaves a good deal of human behaviour unexplained and not understood – as witness, e.g., the universal bewilderment and impotence in face of the increasing problems of ideological conflict within society. This important lacuna in our understanding, the present writer suggests, can largely be filled in only by the development of an independent science and study of ideology; a science which must first begin, at least, with the study of the ideology of the individual, the unit of the group; a science which is as distinct from psychology as psychology is from biology, and biology from chemistry, and chemistry from physics – and, of course, just as much connected with these sciences as these are with each other. For we shall hold that, just as we find biological processes, when analysed and broken up into their detailed constituent processes, become merely a group of separate, isolated chemical, physical and mechanical processes; and, just as we find that when we do the same with chemical processes, their isolated constituents become merely physical and mechanical; and similarly when we break up physical processes into the mechanics or dynamics of material particles or wave systems; so in the same fashion, when we come to analyse ideological processes into their structural constituents, we shall find them in proportion as the breaking-up procedure of analysis is carried far – to be psychological, biological, chemical, physical, and mechanical.

This procedure of breaking up the directly unobservable into the directly observable – that is, into more and more isolated units of a more directly observable nature – has its limits. For, when the analytic procedure is continued beyond these limits, the directly observable merges once more into the directly unobservable. But it must not be taken, that, because a thing is not directly observable – i.e. is observable only indirectly – it therefore has no independent being. Though the indirectly observable may have a different mode of existence from the more familiar and observable, that it has, indeed, an independent being – with laws, processes, and a structure of its own – is attested by the time-honoured criterion of truth, including scientific truth itself, namely: that action based on ignorance of its nature, or indifference to its laws, leads eventually and inevitably, sooner or later, to frustration. Even those who may verbally deny the independent reality of the ideological realm are forced to act in other ways as if they conceded, at least, just that; while denying its de jure existence, they must perforce accept it de facto.

Although external stimuli play a great part in the determination of human behaviour, man’s actions cannot be wholly explained in mere terms of mechanical, physical, chemical, biological or psychological reactions to external stimuli, for these reactions are also modified, conditioned and determined by a complex ideological system of cognitive assumptions. By chopping up (an intentional procedure which is itself largely determined by an ideological structure of assumptions), by breaking up human behaviour into sufficiently detailed, isolated, and observable component actions, we find we can explain each of them in biological, chemical, physical, or mechanical terms – according to the extent to which the breaking-up procedure is carried – without ever being compelled to assume the objectivity (or independent reality) of ideological processes; as external, objectively real processes, they simply do not enter the matter, for they have been effectively excluded by the analytical procedure of breaking up and destroying the connected nature of the actions – and it is with the connection, the correlation and integration of such mechanical, chemical, physical, biological and psychological activities, that ideological processes are concerned.

Without this connected nature, without the correlation and integration (without, in word, the modification or control) of multitudinous separate activities and reactions to stimuli involved in doing something, saying something, thinking something, or going somewhere, without this connected nature, there could be no intentional behaviour of any kind – including, of course, the procedure of analysis, of breaking up this connected nature, and of explaining the separate actions in terms which entirely ignore their ideological context. Providing the breaking-up procedure is carried far enough, we could, in the same way, by a series of successive stages, firstly exclude or eliminate the psychological connections and interrelations of the separate activities, then, as the activities became more and more chopped up, sever them from their biological connections and interrelations, their chemical connections, then the physical, until we are left with the dynamics or movements – the activities – of infinitesimally minute and relatively unknown entities which turn out to be structures or systems of “waves.”

Further steps in the breaking-up procedure lead us more and more to the point where it becomes obvious: (1) that the analytic process cannot go on ad infinitum, it comes to an end; (2) that the more we break up our activity into simpler and simpler elements, the less distinction we are able to make between the activities themselves and that which acts, until – as is practically the case with the “wave” – the distinction is entirely lost; (3) that the end-product of the analytic process must necessarily be a simple, structureless activity, incapable of further breaking up, and which, because of the fact that it has been severed from all its connections and interrelations, is therefore an entirely unmodified, unconditioned, and completely indetermined and indetermining activity – a mere featureless being that, because of its absolute isolation, is quite unobservable, directly or indirectly, and which, therefore, is just as much a non-activity, a non-existence: in fact, it must be nothing at all. [footnote] By separating the activities from all their particular connections, their special interrelations with each other, by isolating them absolutely – i.e. by annihilating all their separate and distinguishable connections – we destroy also their separation and isolation from one another, for we destroy all the special ways in which they are distinguished from each other as distinct and particular entities. Without definite positions or locations, without particular attributes or qualities, without definite size or magnitude these finite activities at last become an infinity of indistinguishables; they become an indefinite mass, a completely undifferentiated homogeneity. They thus lose their separate identities and merge into a completely and purely general connection with each other: that of merely being – unconditioned, unrelated, unqualified, indetermined and entirely independent – no longer being things or activities but just nothing, or space.

We see, then, that we cannot adequately explain human behaviour simply and solely by separating it up into independent, observable and isolated reactions to external stimuli. For, by tearing these reactions out of their ideological context, by sundering the connections between them, through which alone they are integrated into sequences of purposive and intentional behaviour, we destroy the very conditions under which ideological phenomena become possible; we abolish the very interrelations through which the ideological processes manifest themselves, and through which the various reactions are modified, conditioned, and determined by the ideological system of cognitive assumptions. The analytic procedure is indeed necessary and essential; we cannot get along without it. But it must be realised that the end-products of analysis are but a part of the whole analytic process, and derive what significance they have only from their relations to all the preceding stages of the material being analysed, including the original unanalysed condition of the initial raw material with which the analysis started. This integration and relation of the products of the analysis throughout all its stages – the raw material, the intermediate products and the end-products – this process of correlation and connecting up of all the threads undone by analysis, is the process of synthesis, and must be realised as a necessary and integral part of the complete analytic procedure. As we have mentioned above, the whole procedure of analysis is itself an intentional activity, and any part of the process can, therefore, only have any meaning or significance in its connections and relations to every other part of the process.

[footnote: See Eddington’s The Philosophy of Science.]

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 FieldDefinition of Ideology | Cognitive Assumptions | The Process of Assumptions | The Absolute Assumption | Identification | Development and Repression | Conclusion | Bibliography | Index