Research Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Thinking about Ideology

Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Thinking about Ideology

This series, Philosophy in the Contemporary World, is aimed at exploring the various ways philosophy can be used to discuss issues of relevance to our society. There are no methodological, topical, or doctrinal limitations to this series; philosophers of all persuasions are invited to submit posts regarding issues of concern to them.  Please contact us here if you would like to submit a post to this series.

By David Livingstone Smith

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about ideology. My thoughts were prompted by remarks by some of my philosopher friends, as well as comments in the mass media, to the effect that Donald Trump does not have an ideology. This claim didn’t sit well with me. I felt that there was something wrong with it, but I didn’t know what, so I decided to dig a little deeper and reconsider what’s meant by “ideology.” I’ve come to some conclusions that might be of interest to readers of this blog.

“Ideology” is an ambiguous term. The meanings of the word are all over the map.  That’s obvious from even a cursory look at the scholarly literature. As the political scientist John Gerring remarked,

Condemned time and again for its semantic excesses, for its bulbous unclarity, the concept of ideology remains, against all odds, a central term of social science discourse.

So the answer to the question of whether or not Trump has an ideology is going to depend on what you mean by “ideology.” If you think of ideology as something like a coherent, well-articulated political Weltanschauung, then it’s probably true that Trump doesn’t have an ideology.  But I don’t think that’s the most useful way to think about ideology.

If ideology is nothing but a political world-view, then why complicate matters by using the already overburdened term “ideology”?   To me, it makes more sense to reserve “ideology” for something that’s not covered by any of the other terms that are currently on the table.  That’s why I’m attracted to what’s known as the functional conception of ideology.

Stripped down to its barest bones, the functional approach states that beliefs (and related practices, institutions, representations, etc.) are ideological if they have the function of promoting oppression.[1]

There’s a problem lurking behind this seemingly clear definition. The problem is that “function” can mean a couple of different things. The function of a thing might be its causal role in a system—it’s what a thing does (for instance, the liver functions to maintain normal blood glucose levels). Call this a causal function.  Alternatively, the function of a thing might be what a thing is for (the liver is for, among other things, maintaining normal blood glucose levels). Call this a teleological function (or teleofunction, for short).

Consider the parts of a washing machine. The agitator is the part of the machine that moves dirty laundry around in the tub. The agitator has the causal function of agitating laundry, because having that effect how the agitator contributes to the capacity of the machine to wash laundry. The teleofunction of the agitator is to agitate laundry, because that’s what the agitator is for.

Don’t these two boil down to the same thing?  No, not really. If the agitator is broken, or there’s a power outage, or there’s some other reason why it can’t agitate the washing, then it no longer produces the right effect and thus loses (temporarily or permanently) its causal function. But it doesn’t lose its teleofunction. A defective agitator still has the purpose of churning the laundry around, because things retain their teleofunctions even if they can’t discharge them. Furthermore, if the causal function of a thing is just the effect that it has, then things can have causal functions accidentally—they produce the effect serendipitously. But this isn’t true of teleofunctions.  A thing can’t just happen to have a certain purpose, because purpose is always a product of design.

Now it’s clear that there are two different ways that we can understand what’s meant by the functional conception of ideology. If ideological beliefs have the causal function of promoting oppression, then it follows that there’s no such thing as a “broken” or dysfunctional ideology. Once a belief no longer promotes oppression, it stops being an ideological belief. The causal approach also allows that beliefs can be accidentally ideological—beliefs count as ideological even if they only coincidentally happen to underwrite oppression. But if ideology has the teleofunction of promoting oppression, this leads to quite a different picture. From the teleofunctional perspective, ideological beliefs have the purpose of producing oppression.  That’s their raison d’etre.  And they have this purpose whether they succeed or fail at bringing oppression about. The teleofunctional approach allows that there are “broken” or causally inefficacious ideologies and it’s incompatible with the idea that beliefs can be accidentally ideological.

I suspect that most philosophers who are attracted to the functional approach think that ideologies have the purpose of promoting oppression, and are comfortable with the idea that there are “broken” or failed ideologies.  Anyone who looks at ideology in this way implicitly prefers the teleological approach to the causal one, and I think that they’re right to do so. To my mind, the teleological interpretation of the functional makes a lot more sense than the causal one.

But the analysis can’t stop here. To develop a clear account of ideology, we need to be able to explain how ideologies get their teleofunctions and to explore what this implies about the nature of ideology. To do this, let’s return to the example of the washing machine for a moment, and consider how the agitator gets its teleofunction.  The answer is straightforward. It gets its teleofunction from the intentions of its designers. The folks who designed the washing machine did so with the intention of making a part for agitating laundry and that explains why the agitator is for agitating laundry.

This sort of explanation isn’t useful for explaining how ideological beliefs get their teleofunctions, because people who embrace ideological beliefs don’t embrace them in order to promote oppression. They don’t say to themselves, or to others, “I will believe such-and-such because it contributes to the oppression of such-and-such a group.”  Rather, they say to themselves, or to others, “I believe such-and-such because it’s true.”  People adopt ideological beliefs because they think that these beliefs are true, so it can’t be the case that ideological beliefs get their teleofunctions from the oppressive intentions of those who adopt them.

I grew up in the Deep South at the tail end of the Jim Crow era. Many of the people that I knew and interacted with were marinated in the ideology of white supremacism. These people held beliefs that promoted the oppression of African Americans, but if you were to ask any one of them why they believed that white people are superior to black people, they would sincerely answer that it is just obviously true that whites are the superior race. Something similar could be said of Nazi anti-Semites.  People like Hitler and Goebbels didn’t just pretend to believe that Jews are evil.  They really believed that it was true.  If you don’t get this point, you are missing something very important about ideology.

If we can’t explain how ideologies get their teleofunctions by citing people’s oppressive intentions, then how can we explain it?  Fortunately, philosophers of biology have already figured this out. We often talk about the purposes of parts of organisms. Eyes are for seeing, wings are for flying, hearts are for pumping blood, and livers are for regulating blood glucose. Unless you’re a certain kind of theist, you’ve got to rule out the idea that these sorts of purposes are derived from anyone’s intentions. But philosophers of biology—most notably, Ruth Millikan—have an alternative explanation at hand.  Millikan argues that to have a non-intentional purpose (or, in her jargon, a “proper function”) a thing must be a member of a reproductive lineage that proliferated because of some effect that was produced by ancestral members of that lineage. It’s this effect fixes the biological purpose of the item. Take eyes. On her analysis, the reason that eyes are for seeing is because (a) eyes are part of a lineage of eyes, and (b) that eyes enabled ancestral organisms to see explains why eyes were reproduced down the generations (this is, of course, a deliberately oversimplified version of a much more complex biological story). Millikan’s analysis can be applied very general: anything that’s part of a lineage (anything that’s a copy, or a copy of a copy) and which was copied because of some effect that it had thereby has a teleofunction. This works for cultural items such as beliefs and practices every bit as much as it works for biological items such as eyes and wings.

So, teleofunctions are fixed historically. The teleofunction of a thing is what its ancestors did to get copied. If we look at ideology through this explanatory lens, we get the following picture.  To count as ideological, beliefs must be copies of earlier beliefs, or copies of copies of earlier beliefs. These earlier beliefs were reproduced because they promoted oppression.

Let me illustrate this using the example of white supremacism.  The doctrine of white supremacism emerged in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. The belief that Africans are inferior to Europeans, and that Africans benefitted from being enslaved (a racialized version of Aristotle’s doctrine of natural slavery), was reproduced because it legitimated the oppression of black people and thereby enabled the beneficiaries of the ideology to accumulate wealth. White supremacism is an ideology because of these historical facts—historical facts that are widely accepted by scholars of racism. What the teleofunctional approach does is to explain how these historical facts make it the case that white supremacism is an ideology.

This analysis of ideology has a wealth of implications, some of which fly in the face of conventional assumptions about ideology. I’ll restrict myself here to considering only four of them. First, the ideological character of a belief can’t be understood psychologically. You can’t discover that you embrace an ideology by introspection or any other psychological means. That’s because the ideologicity of a belief is not a psychological property of it. To recognize that you embrace an ideology you have to track the social-historical pedigree of your beliefs. Second, beliefs don’t have to be false in order to be ideological. The popular idea that ideology necessarily involves “false consciousness” turns out to be misleading.  Ideological beliefs don’t have to misrepresent social reality because it’s possible for true beliefs to spread not because of their truth but rather because they promote oppression. Third, beliefs don’t have to be coherent in order to count as ideological.  It’s sufficient that a person’s beliefs, however incoherent, are products of a certain sort of historical trajectory. Finally, a person can hold oppressive beliefs without these beliefs being ideological, and can also hold ideological beliefs without these beliefs having oppressive consequences. Because a belief’s present-day causal powers can come apart from its history, a belief can have oppressive effects even if it did not proliferate because of those effects, and a belief can have proliferated because of its oppressive effects without currently giving rise to any of these effects.

It should now be evident why I reject the claim that Trump does not have an ideology. Even if Trump doesn’t operate with anything like a coherent framework of political beliefs, the fact that many of his beliefs have an oppressive historical pedigree (for example, those expressed in the slogan “Make America Great Again”) is sufficient to make it the case that they are ideological.  But perhaps it is incorrect to say that Donald Trump—or anybody else, for that matter—has an ideology. In light of the considerations that I’ve presented here, it might be more accurate to say that ideologies have us, for we are all, to some degree, vessels into which the oppressive forces of history have been poured.

[1] Although I talk about ideological beliefs in this essay, this is shorthand.  I don’t think that beliefs can be segregated from the practices that they underpin and that they are underpinned by.

Update: David Livingstone Smith was interviewed about ideology and the politics of fear on “Truth, Politics, and Power” with Neal Conan.  You can listen to the show here.

David Livingstone Smith is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England, where he specializes in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, free will and determinism, and philosophy of race, among other topics.  His most recent book is Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, which won the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf  Award for non-fiction.


  1. Two questions:

    What’s the difference that makes a difference between Millikan on teleofunctions and Dennett on the design stance? Is it just that Millikan is more forthrightly committed to realism about functions?
    I was struck by this: “Ideological beliefs don’t have to misrepresent social reality because it’s possible for true beliefs to spread not because of their truth but rather because they promote oppression.” If that’s right then there’s a systematic error that runs through Ideologiekritik from Marx through the Frankfurt School and beyond.

    But that raises the question, how does one empirically distinguish between “true beliefs spreading because of their truth” and “true beliefs spreading because they promote oppression”? In short, what happens to the Marxian contrast between science and ideology, given this theory of ideology?

  2. For 1, have a look at the Dennett-Millikan exchange in Dennett’s Philosophy: A Comprehensive Assessment. For 2, yes, I think that the whole “false consciousness” thing is a red herring. It is true that ideologies are likely to be false, but they don’t HAVE to be.

  3. Thanks, David, for sharing your insightful weblog. I particularly like this observation you make on the “character” of an ideological belief: “[T]he ideological character of a belief can’t be understood psychologically. You can’t discover that you embrace an ideology by introspection or any other psychological means. That’s because the ideologicity of a belief is not a psychological property of it. To recognize that you embrace an ideology, you have to track the social-historical pedigree of your beliefs.” When students in my Introduction to Ethics class try to deflect a challenging question by replying, “Well, that’s just what I believe,” I remind them that tyrants of all ages have said the same thing. If we don’t take the time to understand where our beliefs come from, why we hold them, or what social consequences they might entail, then our beliefs have the character of being dogmatic or ideological rather than ethically justified.

    For me, the practical meaning of “ideology” or “ideological” should be understood in relation to ethics or axiology more broadly as well as in connection with the “social-historical pedigree” of one’s beliefs. The thread that connects the study of ideology to ethics and social history is the use of institutional/governmental power or authority.

    Any political office is therefore “ideological” in a functional sense, even if the person in office is ignorant of the genealogical pedigree of his own political beliefs or views. This kind of ignorance may be a benign fault from an individual standpoint, but it is a vice and a danger for anyone who occupies a political office that can exercise power over others.


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