DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S030-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 18, 2019, from

2. Generalizing ideology and the problem of knowledge

The limitations of the Marxist family of theories in respect of ideology lay in restricting it to a highly specific mode of thinking about politics and society. The concept of ideology thus became attached to a number of perspectives: to a reflection in thought of historically situated classes; to an inverted or misperceived form of consciousness, detached from social and material reality; and to the pejorative converse of social truth, which would either replace ideology or existed, as scientific knowledge, in parallel to it. Although none of these perspectives was unequivocally held by any one thinker in the Marxist tradition, all were used to some effect within more ‘vulgar’ marxisant discourses about ideology. Outside the Marxist tradition, although in partial reaction to it, these themes were picked up or discarded in different measures. Althusser importantly recognized the relative detachment of ideology from a material base, a move which has both been welcomed and deplored. His views thus coalesced with those who were analysing ideology as a phenomenon worthy of study in its own rights rather than merely as an epiphenomenon.

Karl Mannheim had already been taking a similar direction, although for him it grew out of dissatisfaction with some of the problems incumbent in Marxism. In his seminal Ideology and Utopia (1929) he retained the Marxist insight into the social and historical origins of thought, linking the meaning of an idea not to the laws of logic but to its genesis. However, rather than subscribing to the view that ideology was a reflection of a particular historical distortion, Mannheim suggested that it was a pluralistic product of diverse social groups undergoing common experiences. Knowledge was a cooperative process, but political discussion was further characterized by an unmasking of rationalized situational motivations which were attributes of a collective unconscious. These could adopt two forms: ideology and utopia. Ideology referred to the interest-bound thought of ruling groups and had conservative, stabilizing consequences. It was divided into two conceptions: a particular conception, primarily on the psychological level, in which ideology is consciously recognized as a lie or an error; and a total conception, on a socio-historical level, in which the entire Weltanschauung of a group is involved. Utopia referred to an emphasis on the transformation of a society and, unwittingly, on misdiagnosing it by identifying only its negative features (see Utopianism §1). Mannheim’s distinction is itself debatable, as both ideology and utopia could be complementary forms of an unconscious, action-oriented interpretation of a historical reality.

Mannheim raised the problem of analysing ideology as a fundamental methodological issue of the social sciences. Having abandoned the Marxist ontology of a true consciousness which would emerge once social contradictions were negated, and having unmasked Marxism itself as ideological in the total sense, Mannheim’s general theory of ideology paved the way for a new epistemology expressing the notion that ‘all historical knowledge is relational knowledge, and can only be formulated with reference to the position of the observer’ (1929: 71). The problem became how to overcome the relativism implicit in the recognition that all social points of view were ideological, while eschewing any adherence to ultimate values (see Relativism). That was made especially difficult because an older epistemology was still attached to relativism, an epistemology which assessed each assertion from the intrinsic perspective of the logical and universal truths it contained. By replacing relativism with relationism - an appreciation, influenced by the holism of psychological Gestalt theory, of the systemically reciprocal interconnections among all historically and spatially located thinking - an evaluative procedure could emerge which surmounted the limitations of ideology. Intellectuals, those who were able to cut loose from their historical and social situatedness, could incorporate conflicting viewpoints in a flexible and dynamic relationism, assessing their scope and validity. An initially non-evaluative relativism, incapable of discriminating among various static and eternal views, would make way for an inescapably evaluative sociology of knowledge. The latter would embrace a more modest conception of truth, critically held and approximate, based on the multiple perspectives in a given society and seeking comprehensiveness and fruitfulness of understanding (see Sociology of knowledge).

Citing this article:
Freeden, Michael. Generalizing ideology and the problem of knowledge. Ideology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S030-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.