DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S030-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 23, 2019, from

4. Words, concepts and interpretation

In the USA political science developed its conceptions of ideology in almost complete isolation, not only from a consideration of the unconscious elements of ideology which separate political actors and their thoughts from the perception of the analyst, but also from hermeneutic arguments which were beginning to affect the concept of ideology through a denial of the very epistemological validity of such separation. Hermeneutics transformed the view of ideology by refusing to ask questions concerning how to gain access to reality, or how to avoid the illusions of human perception (see Hermeneutics). Instead, social and historical actions and utterances are seen as bereft of objective meaning, and are to be experienced through the interpretive medium of the observer. The polysemy of words necessitates an appreciation of the dual contexts of both their authors and their readers or consumers in attaching a determinate meaning to texts. In allowing for a socio-cultural decontextualization of texts ‘as wordless and authorless’ objects, and for the ‘surplus of meaning’ that words carry, theorists such as Paul Ricoeur recognize the function of ideology as effecting an inevitable closure of interpretation without which consciousness, self-representation and meaning, as well as social integration, are unattainable. Although it is possible to achieve critical distance from ideological closure, it will always - echoing Mannheim - be incomplete. The treatment of ideology is now virtually detached from the circumstances of its production, but is enriched by a sophisticated appreciation of the coexistence of intentional and unconscious import. Here, ideological unconsciousness is not necessarily distorted consciousness, the permanence of ideologies represents the infinite variety of the human imagination, yet the tentativeness of understanding is underlined by a consciousness of its own value-laden temporality.

The relationship of hermeneutics to the examination of language is crucial. The analysis of ideology was advanced by a harnessing of the insights of Ludwig Wittgenstein (§12) and Ferdinand de Saussure. Wittgenstein’s notion of language games assisted in crystallizing the view that words could shape, rather than reflect, reality, albeit within a network ineluctably reflecting grammatical rules. Saussure’s semiology - the study of signs - likewise suggested that the relationship between signs and meaning was arbitrary, but that meaning could be imposed on words by organizing them in specific patterns. In this systemic perspective, the mutual proximity of words established their meanings. The critical function of ideology was diminished by regarding it as a socially produced text in which meaning was related to usage and to form, impacting on, not merely representing, practices in the ‘real’ social and historical world. However, ideology was itself re-established as a symbolic human practice of direct interest to scholarship. Discourse analysis concentrates on these findings, but also links the study of language as a social phenomenon with the Marxist theme of ideology as domination. Successful closures of meaning in language reflect the power relationships of its users, and language is hence a medium through which political legitimacy may be accorded to groups, overtly or frequently through unconscious dissimulation. This method can be applied not only to the broad ideological families that attempt to control public policy making but to a wide range of discourse situations in which meanings are exchanged and displaced in specific, everyday, conversational contexts (see Discourse semantics).

From the perspective of political theory it is possible to combine the focus of political scientists on the overt and systemic contents of ideological debate, with an interest in language and meaning and in the decoding of unconscious ideological messages. W.B. Gallie’s notion of the essentially contested nature of political concepts presented them as indeterminate because of the impossibility of agreeing on their normative components (Gallie 1955–6). However, they are also indeterminate due to their inability to contain all their logically entailed meanings simultaneously. Hence, ideologies may be seen as clustered patterns of a wide spectrum of political concepts, such as liberty, justice or power, each of which is necessarily decontested, reflecting a specific set of historical and spatially located social meanings without which political decision making cannot be effected. A potentially unrestricted universe of meanings is also limited by logical and morphological constraints operating in all ideological systems, as political concepts are decontested by their users through deliberately or unconsciously arranging their proximity to other political concepts. Different conceptual patterns may be produced by any social group, although these still may be usefully classed according to loose family resemblances that approximate major ideological traditions such as liberalism, conservatism or socialism. Decontesting also expresses the inevitability of political power which, importantly, need not be exploitative. Ideologies hence complete over their claims to confer legitimate meanings on political concepts and words, and map and recommend thought practices which in turn affect political action. Ideology nevertheless is not coterminous with political thought, but is one of its analytical dimensions: a particular interpretive handling of political concepts which are suspended between logical indeterminacy and cultural determinacy.

Citing this article:
Freeden, Michael. Words, concepts and interpretation. Ideology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S030-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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