Any criticism, comments or suggestions with regard to the prose or content are welcome. Putting out these sorts of content can be a little scary. How do you discuss complex ideas without sounding pedantic? How do you cover all of your bases without sounding facile? I’ve seen many writers put themselves out there here on TL, with varying degrees of success. Reading them has given me a little bit of courage. I have a pretty sparse writing style, so if you think I am making assumptions or have an odd view on something, it might just be that I failed to unpack it enough. Please also do not be too concerned with the few definitions I try to make, although if you have a better name for them, suggest away!
The lowest way of obtaining knowledge is by prejudice. By prejudice I mean attitudes acquired by some authority or personal experience. These are usually pretty simplistic propositions. “Do this, don’t do this.” Something is good, something is bad. I do not mean prejudice in a pejorative way; prejudice can be very useful. Especially in our early years, prejudice keeps us safe before we can use our rational faculties. “Don’t cross the road without an adult. Don’t touch the stove or a strange animal.” Prejudice also allows for early habits to be imprinted before we really understand their significance. There would be no child math, chess, piano or gymnastic prodigies if the children were left to their own devices. Rather an adult supplied the direction and the dedication for the child until the child becomes engrossed in the activity. I have to imagine that I, for one, would have read a lot less if I had not been given read to, given books and continually dragged to libraries during my early years. You could argue that a child’s whole formation is driven by prejudice. Whether a child grows up to be a polite, moral, productive citizen is largely dependent on these early prejudices and, lacking them, rationality is often useless. It is a strange fact that your habits in your formative years are largely affected by doing things you do not fully understand the significance of. You’re told to eat your vegetables and do your homework, even though you don’t really understand why.
As you might expect, informing our views through prejudice has some downsides. Of course there could be correct prejudices and and incorrect prejudices. Surely it’s fine to have prejudices as long as they are the correct ones. It is only the incorrect prejudices we need to worry about. The problem with prejudice is that it has a strange resistance to reason. If you develop an aversion to broccoli or genetically modified food or a particular skin color early in life, it might stick permanently, no matter what arguments they come across. Prejudice often precludes the thought of thinking rationally on the subject at all. Sometimes that is the case and usually in all the wrong cases. Sometimes, though, prejudice is a thin defense against real dangers. Children are often rigorously admonished to avoid dangerous and immoral activities. What happens, though, when they encounter an equally strong social pressure or a plausible argument against those lessons? We have all known that person who had a fairly strong upbringing but fell off the wagon as soon as they were given freedom. What happens to the young adult, encountering vice for the first time, whose parents imparted a strict moral code but failed to encourage any reflection on those morals? What happens to a public virtue, long taken for granted, when it is subjected to powerful social pressures and rhetorical campaigns? Prejudice may be a strong first line of defense, but reason should always be behind it. Prejudice is dangerous because the well-intentioned can be harmed by it as much as the callous.
Moving up the food chain a bit in terms of sophistication is ideology. While prejudice often takes the form of isolated judgements or opinions (“I don’t like chocolate ice cream.” “Doing your homework is important.”), ideology offers explanations and solutions on a much larger scale. Ideology informs positions, but it also engenders action. As one of my university teachers described it, ideology is an idea with an action plan.
Communism/socialism is one of the more fleshed-out and certainly one of the more commonplace ideologies, so it will be a helpful example. Socialism begins with a few core beliefs: that the rich and powerful unfairly and unjustly hoard resources and that the poor and powerless needlessly suffer because of this. This belief begins as explanatory and descriptive as a theory for phenomena, the way things are in the world, but it quickly becomes an imperative, a call to action. The lower classes are oppressed? We must liberate them. The upper classes hoard wealth and power? We must humble them. This is not just an account, it is a roadmap.
Ideology is an essential part of politics because it is really where the rubber meets the road. Political theory is well and good, but you need an ideology in order to implement that theory in the world. Marx may have studied the history of philosophy and he may have some ideas as to where it’s going in the next thousand years, but his followers don’t need to know about that. What they need to do is pinch the sausage at both ends so they can sell it. In this way, ideology acts as a flashpoint in the stream of ideas. The downside to this is that myopia is quite common among the less intellectual ideologues. They are not aware of the trains of thought that led to their cause. Ask your average coffee house socialist about Hegel and history and they will likely give you a blank look. Yet Hegel’s theories of history are integral to understanding the spirit of socialism. This leads to unexamined assumptions. Do you believe that history flows in a single direction and we are marching towards an inevitable goal? Because that idea is informing your viewpoint if you are a socialist. Likewise, if you are unaware of this stream of thought, you do not really know where you are going.
As you can see, ideology may be effective at explaining certain phenomena but has a pretty narrow field of view. Probably the chief defect of this narrowness is, as explained in one of my favorite expressions, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When people use the term “ideologue” pejoratively, they are not describing the expression of a philosophical or sociological idea. They are talking about a particularly annoying person who seems to have an opinion on everything and seems to have the same response for everything:- a person whose response to an event or response you can predict before you even ask them. Seriously, though, Ideology-tinted glasses can determine your judgements before you see the evidence, or even regardless of the evidence. Remember our pal socialism? Well, according to socialism, the powerful are the oppressors and the less powerful are the oppressed. That means that, if there is a conflict, the more powerful party is in the wrong. Pretty much by default. Is there a dispute between the owner of a factory and his workers? The owner is wrong. No need for an appraisal of the facts. This can lead to some pretty absurd situations where a person considered the oppressor in one scenario is viewed as the oppressed in another. “Professional athletes are treated above the law!” “Those poor multimillionaire athletes are being oppressed by those billionaires!” What a reasonable person should do is consider the circumstances in every individual case, but when your whole worldview points in one direction, more often than not you will come to that conclusion. Worse, your ideology creates its own sort of prejudice (see how this works?) and you won’t even realize that you are leaping to these conclusions. You will simply filter out the evidence that does not support your forgone judgement.
According to our investigation, prejudice and ideology both have important roles to fill,but the drawback is that they are limited. If you could zoom in on one factor that makes these types of knowledge deficient, it is that they are too narrow in scope. They fail to see the big picture. A prohibition on eating molluscs makes a lot of sense if you live on the Red Sea. It makes less sense if you live on the coast of Maine. Likewise, a paradigm about worker’s rights might be swell when applied to occupational matters, but less swell when it’s applied to your entire life. So how can we avoid this pitfall? How can we achieve any real knowledge? I think you have probably already guessed the answer, which is that you have to consider everything. This may seem simultaneously impossible and vague, but our discussion should provide us some guidance.
First, we should not be content with merely accepting a premise, even if we know it is right. We should seek to understand why it is right. We should remember that our one question is not the entirety of the universe and we should not treat our one slice of pie as if it were the whole pie. We should be mindful that when we accept some notions temporarily, or because of their utility, that does not grant them validity. Otherwise, we will move further and further away from the truth, confusing our stepping stones for dry land. Finally, we should appreciate that the universe is wide and our eyes can only see so much at a time. We can take inspiration and knowledge from the various disciplines, but we should always be on the lookout to see how they connect and interlock and what greater truth unites them.