George Walford: Assumption and Identification

The twin foundation stones of ideological theory are the associated concepts of assumption and identification.

Assumption: Ideology is one of the studies concerned with thought, and it is general practice, among those who study thinking, to distinguish between the true and the false. It is, indeed, often taken for granted that the establishment of this distinction is the object and end of all such studies. The first hurdle which the ideologist has to surmount is that this distinction, if taken as an absolute one, is itself false. It is only relatively true. Nothing is absolutely true and nothing is absolutely false. All our knowledge, taking that term in its widest sense, to include not only facts but also theories, principles, opinions and so on, is relatively true, and all of it is relatively false. We do not know anything with unqualified, absolute certainty; there is no alleged fact which cannot be challenged, there is no proof which cannot be questioned. However strong the evidence there is always something pointing in the contrary direction, even if it be only the possibility of conceiving that things might be otherwise. The distinction between false and true, and also the distinction between what we know and what we “merely” assume, is a distinction only of degree. All our knowledge consists of assumptions, some of them more true than others, some of them better supported than others, but none absolutely true and none established with final and absolute certainty.

By accepting this the ideologist is relieved of the intolerable burden of deciding, for every proposition he encounters, whether it is true or false.

He knows in advance that it is an assumption, relatively true and relatively false, with some evidence in its favour and some against it. Knowing this, he can move on to examine its relationships with other assumptions and – his particular concern – its effects upon behaviour. When one is concerned to understand how assumptions influence behaviour then their truth or falsity is commonly irrelevant; men can be moved quite as powerfully by false assumptions as by true ones. Sometimes the degree of truth or falsity possessed by an assumption may be relevant, and then the ideologist is free to determine it, by the well-tried method of assembling and balancing the evidence on each side. But he is not bound to carry out this procedure-it is often a lengthy and difficult one-in every case before he can perform any other operations upon the assumption in question.

Ideology is concerned with our volitional behaviour, the actions we perform with purpose, and every action of this type implies the presence of assumptions. By acting in a certain way we show that we assume the situation in which we find ourselves to possess certain features.

As I sit here typing my behaviour implies that I assume the chair is strong enough to support me, the floor strong enough to support the chair, the joists the floor, and so on; a series of assumptions leading, eventually, to assumptions concerning the nature of matter and of the universe. All these assumptions are implied by my behaviour in sitting in the chair; if I did not make them I would not behave as I do, I would not sit in a chair if I did not assume it to be adequately supported.

At any time some assumptions are present to awareness and others are not, and rarely, if ever, can an action be fully explained by reference to assumptions of which the actor is aware. Assumptions not present to awareness are nearly always involved. Every time I speak to a person my behaviour implies the assumptions on my part that his hearing is good (which itself implies long chains of assumptions concerning his anatomy and physiology), that he understands the language I use (another long chain of assumptions concerning his education), that his attention is not concentrated elsewhere, that there is air between us to carry the vibrations produced by my vocal cords, that there is no louder noise to drown my voice, and so on – and on and on. This one common act implies assumptions almost without end [1]. All these assumptions are implied by my behaviour, but most of them are not present to my awareness. They cannot be; my capacity for awareness is limited, it cannot contain them all; it cannot even contain many of them without excluding that which I wish to speak about. Many, probably by far the greater part of the assumptions which are implied by, and which influence, our behaviour are necessarily not present to our awareness.

Identification: We do not treat our assumptions as matters purely of logic, reason and evidence. We do not necessarily abandon an assumption because we have been compelled to admit that it runs against the balance of evidence, or is in contradiction either with itself or some other of our assumptions. We are not indifferent about our assumptions, we are attached to them.

A person is a whole comprising (among other features) a body and an ideology. Bodily experience affects the ideology – my experiences when I try to walk through a brick wall affect my assumptions concerning the nature of matter. Also, ideological structure affects physical behaviour – because my political assumptions have been changed I read different books and attend different meetings.

This interaction between body and ideology shows that, although distinct, they form parts of a whole, a whole we term a person, or a self. When our bodies are injured we say: “I was hurt,” and similarly when our assumptions are attacked, we say: “He said I was wrong.” Our behaviour implies that we regard our assumptions as parts of our selves, that we identify them with our selves, and our selves with them.

Identifications may be strong or weak. I have an assumption concerning the time of day, but my identification with it is weak; only a small amount of evidence – a glance at the clock – is required for me to abandon it and adopt another in its place. There are other assumptions to which I am strongly attached. It would take a great deal of evidence to induce me to abandon the assumption that I have, up till now at least, had two hands. In one case the attachment is weak, in the other it is strong, but both are, in ideological terminology, identifications.

“Assumption” and “identification” are used in systematic ideology as technical terms, and they are as neutral as any term in physical science. They state the presence of that to which they refer, and nothing more. With one exception, anything we may wish to convey about the strength, validity or other features of the assumption or identification in question must be explicitly added. The exception is that unless otherwise stated “identification” refers to a positive identification; if the one being referred to is negative it is necessary to say so. Some assumptions we favour, or support, or accept; others we disfavour, or oppose, or repudiate. In each case our behaviour is affected by the assumption; in each case we are attached to it, identified with it. But in one case the identification is positive, in the other it is negative.

There is one aspect of the behaviour connected with identification which can be misleading if one is not prepared for it. Completely positive identification with an assumption does not appear as enthusiastic support for it, and completely negative identification with an assumption does not appear as determined opposition to it. Support implies a distinction between supporter and supported, and hence something short of complete positive identification. Equally, opposition implies a connection between opposer and opposed, and hence something short of complete negative identification. Completely positive identification appears as unquestioning taking-for-granted, and completely negative identification appears as complete detachment from the assumption in question.

Most identifications are not completely positive or completely negative but only relatively one or the other. When the ideologist speaks of a positive or negative identilication he means one which is relatively so; if the identification is completely negative or completely positive it is necessary to specify this.

When we support an assumption we imply that we are positively identified with it, and when we oppose one we imply that we are negatively identified with it. All identifications are either positive or negative, but many are not strongly one or the other, and for these the terms “support” and “opposition” may be too definite. There are a number of terms which can be used to describe the behaviour implying one or another degree of positivity or negativity, two of the most useful being “acceptance” and “concern.” Acceptance of something implies positive identification with it, and a concern with something implies negative identification with it.

Thus the scientist is concerned with phenomena which are not understood, or not fully so, and this is a negative identification. His concern diminishes as understanding increases, and with the phenomena which are (or are believed to be) fully understood, so that he can accept them, his identification is positive.

When we say that concern indicates negative identification we are implying that a supporter of a movement, one whose identification with it is positive, is not concerned with it. This may contradict the usual view of the situation, but when we look more closely we see it is justified. The supporter does not wish to change the movement – if he did, he would not be an unqualified supporter. He accepts the movement as it is, is not concerned about it. What he wishes to change is the resistance the movement meets. He is opposed to this resistance, negatively identified with it, and it is with this resistance that he is concerned.

[1] The Domain of Ideologies pp. 155-6.

continue reading An Outline Sketch of Systematic Ideology (1977):
The Walsby Society | Introduction | Ideology and the Left | The Field of Ideology | Assumption and Identification | Definition of an Ideology | Ideological Groups | The Major Ideologies | Ideological Development | Intellect | The Group Situation | The Cosmic Situation | Political Individualism and Collectivism | Economic Individualism and Collectivism | Personal Ideological Structure | Social Ideological Structure | Conclusion | Papers on Systematic Ideology