George Walford: Introducing Ideological Commentary (41)

Revision of May 1989

IDEOLOGICAL COMMENTARY is devoted to the development and exposition of systematic ideology, a theory originated and largely developed by the late Harold Walsby. We do not claim final or exhaustive understanding of it; the formulation that looked like the ultimate last month needs alteration now, and the partial account given here will be subject to continuous revision.

The usual way into the theory goes by way of politics, but enquirers quickly find themselves being led to regard politics as one form of purposeful behaviour among others, all of them brought within the scope of systematic ideology (s.i.) by the fact that they entail assumptions.

Every purposeful act is adapted to circumstances of place and time, and these can never be known with complete certainty and exactitude. They commonly include both people and material objects; people are constantly doing unexpected things, and the more physical science gets to know about the fundamental constituents of which all matter is composed the less it undertakes to predict exactly how they will behave. To wait for exact and certain knowledge would be to forego action; in order to act assumptions have to be made. Purposeful action is adapted to circumstances as they are assumed to be.

Different people respond differently to similar stimuli because they are making different assumptions, and s.i. sets out to study these. With over five thousand million people in the world, to study the assumptions of each of them individually would be an impossible undertaking; it would also be largely pointless, since much personal behaviour is not purposeful but the outcome of internal factors largely unperceived by the agents and not under their controL But when a number of people all pursue a common object then these internal, personal influences can be disregarded. Each individual student of physical science may be influenced by a unique combination of infantile experiences, but in order to understand the work that has already been done, and to have any hope of developing it farther, each of them has to acquire a set of assumptions substantially the same as those possessed by other workers in the field. The same holds for any other group of people united in a common enterprise; they are united by their common attachment to a certain set of assumptions, which is to say an ideology, and this can be studied independently of the personal idiosyncracies of the individual people holding it.

Some ideologies turn out to be trivial and transient, for example the one uniting the passengers on a bus. Others, such as those uniting the members of an occupational group, last longer and produce wider effects, and there is a small number of them, known in s.i as the “major” ideologies, each of which unites a very large group of people holding the same general attitude towards society and the world. These form a system which has evolved since human beings first formed communities, the earliest major ideologies to appear persisting as the later ones developed. As we come to understand this system, the relationships between the major ideologies which constitute it and the groups attached to them, so the behaviour of our society becomes comprehensible.

from Ideological Commentary 41, September 1989.