Letters to the Editor by Jim Addison and Donald Rooum

Sir: I would like to suggest an amendment to the s.i. definition. Ideology is false consciousness. Quoting Engels: “Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process.” (Engels to Mehring, 14 July 1893).

Jim Addison, Hammersmith

This was indeed the sense in which Marx and Engels used “ideology”; for them it was a weapon with which to attack their opponents. Their usage is still common, but the word is also now used more objectively. When Roy Hattersley, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, speaks in Choose Freedom of that party’s ideology (and does so without provoking any fierce protest from its members) he clearly does not intend to suggest that its beliefs should be considered false. Noel O’Sullivan, who uses “Conservative Ideology” in two chapter-headings of his book on conservatism, and the other writers in the series published by J. M. Dent & Sons, “Modern Ideologies,” intend no disparagement. Walsby used the word in this neutral way in his Domain of Ideologies, published in 1947; he was ahead of his time, but in following his example now IC is also complying with a trend in current thinking.

In this more modern meaning the motive forces impelling the agent still remain largely unrecognised but now, and especially in s.i., the distinction does not lie between, on the one hand, some purposeful behaviour which is ideological and connected with false consciousness and, on the other, purposeful behaviour which is non-ideological and linked with true consciousness. It lies, instead, between on the one hand purposeful behaviour, which is all ideological and connected with consciousness relatively true and relatively false and, on the other, non-purposeful behaviour, which is non-ideological and performed without reference to consciousness; emotions and reflexes account for much of this.

Sir, In your courteous reply to my letter published in IC44 you hold that “nobody ever has good ground for being absolutely sure of anything.” With respect, unless I am mistaken, this extreme position is untenable. Russell, in Human Knowledge, its scope and limits, challenges Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes, he says, has insufficient grounds for inferring the existence of Descartes. Nothing is known from direct evidence, except “there are thoughts.” When I inserted “almost” in the sentence which otherwise agrees with yours, I did not intend to make exceptions of dubious propositions like “there are no hippopotami in this room,” or “I exist”; I was thinking of “there are thoughts,” a proposition which even Russell and Wittgenstein could not doubt.

The best Russell / Wittgenstein anecdote I know comes from Russell’s memoirs: When Wittgenstein was a young aircraft designer studying mathematics in Cambridge, he came into Russell’s study and said without preamble, “Will you please tell me whether I am an absolute idiot?”

Russell: “My dear fellow, I don’t know. Why do you ask?”

Wittgenstein: “Because if I am an absolute idiot I will be an aeronaut, but if I am not an absolute idiot I would like to be a philosopher.”

Russell: “Then write me something of a philosophical nature during the vacation, and I will let you know.”

Exit Wittgenstein as abruptly as he had entered.

Yours etc. Donald Rooum, London W2.

To start with, let us rule out any risk of getting into a haggle over words. Donald’s second paragraph shows him equating “absolute” with “sufficient,” or “known from direct evidence,” and here we have no argument; he has made his meaning clear, and IC claims no greater authority than anybody else to decide in what sense any word may be used.

In the phrase which provoked this letter: “nobody ever has good ground for being absolutely sure of anything,” the word was used in another sense. It meant that which is not relative or, more strictly, that which is related to nothing outside of itself; that, therefore, which is wholly independent, unconditional and unqualified (since dependency, conditionality and qualification are or entail relationships).

Donald bypasses the confusion usual in this argument and goes straight to basics by offering, as a proposition we have good grounds for being absolutely certain of: “There are thoughts.” He has set a trap, and a deadly one, for his proposition can be repudiated only by applying thoughts to it and thereby confirming it. But what, exactly, would be confirmed? The proposition does not credit the thoughts it mentions with any content; so far as it goes they are bare thoughts, thoughts about nothing, and a thought about nothing is no thought at all. The proposition cannot rationally be denied because it asserts nothing.

Just as thoughts about nothing are non-thoughts, so a proposition that affirms nothing is a non-proposition. The statement which provoked this proposition, the assertion that we cannot be absolutely sure of anything, can be reworded, with absolutely no change of meaning, as: “We can be absolutely sure of nothing,” and Donald’s proposition which we cannot deny, which we are forced to accept without reservation and admit ourselves absolutely sure of, asserts nothing. Far from controverting the assertion that provoked it, it provides an instance, being itself an example of that nothing of which we can be absolutely sure. Donald and IC are in absolute agreement.

The social importance of the conclusion is that if we can be absolutely sure of nothing or (absolutely the same meaning in other words) can never be absolutely sure of anything, we can never be absolutely sure of the falsity of any proposition and therefore have no ground for absolute disagreement with anybody about anything. Or, of course, absolute agreement about anything either.

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PURSUIT of profit drives Tesco and Sainsbury to undertake that their own-label products shall not have been tested on animals. [1] It is hard to see how the undertaking can be carried out, for if a new product has not been tested on (other) animals then its effect upon living matter will be learnt from what it does to human ones. The choice lies not between testing on animals or not, but between testing on four-legged animals or two-legged ones. If the two-legged ones want the novelty it seems reasonable that they should carry the risks, but do let us be clear about what is happening. ([1] Sunday Times 11 March 90)

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“FREE” access would in fact permit access only to what the community had decided to produce, and when multiple purposes interact, the outcome is usually something intended by none of them.

from Ideological Commentary 45, May 1990.