What is Ideology? by Mark Shiffman
Publication Date: July 6, 2023
A distinctly modern phenomenon, ideological thinking attempts to subject all reality to a narrowly consistent schema aimed at producing a redemptive social-political order and the type of human being it demands. Ideology thus tends inherently to violence, conflict with the given order of reality, and totalitarian politics. Across the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the term “ideology” underwent significant changes in meaning. By summoning a range of thinkers and artists—from John Adams to Ralph Ellison, Karl Marx to Hannah Arendt—Shiffman elucidates these historical changes and helps us to see how our casual use of the term renders our thought more susceptible to ideology. Along the way he also brings to light central characteristics of non-ideological thinking, as articulated especially in the classical and Biblical traditions. We thereby become more aware of how ideology not only increases mutual hostility and violence in public life but also seduces us to submit essential features of our own humanity—our reason, imagination, will, and conscience—to its control. While the temptation to abdicate our freedom of thought is an old one, the ideological form of this temptation takes its distinctive shape from the unprecedented scale and concentration of power over the conditions of human life brought into being by the modern state. As an inherently technocratic form of power, the state engenders a technocratic form of political thought and optimistic fantasy: ideology.
Ideological thinking is impatient with aspects of the world that resist its intellectual schemas. They must be brought into conformity with the guiding vision, or else denounced. In What is Ideology?, Mark Shiffman contrasts this with the spirit of practical reason, and a corresponding mode of conducting politics, which requires attentiveness to an order that is not of our own making. Shiffman is the rare political theorist who brings deep anthropological insight to bear on the questions of political life.
—Matthew B. Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction and Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work
Mark Shiffman is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Institute for Philosophy, Technology, and Politics at Saint Patrick’s Seminary of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. His scholarly studies span the fields of ancient philosophy, political theory, and the Catholic tradition, and his writings have appeared in Communio, Commonweal, First Things, Public Discourse, and New Polity and on Front Porch Republic.