The political and historical struggle for meaning is often lost in the modern use of language and the signs composing it. Signs however, have a material origin from which they arise and to which they return. As Stuart Hall (1980) instructs, the meaning of signs can only be found in contemplation of their historic moment of production—the political and material conditions under which signs are born. An example of this insight, that may have some contemporary value to critical academics, is the origin of the too often abused term “ideology” and its derivatives. Contemporary and popular use of the word ideology carries with it a vague, if not, negative connotation. Ideologues are thought to speak not from a factual basis but from a preferred system of values and beliefs; they are zealous believers who uncompromisingly adhere to a particular set of beliefs regardless of refuting evidence. There is a tendency to attach the sign onto anything one disagrees with or to use it to disparage radical methods or theories. This use of the term, however, is a distortion of its original meaning and its emergent political conditions.
The term ideology originally had an oppositional rather than negative meaning. The term stood in opposition to both classical political and philosophical thought. Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836) first used the term in post revolutionary France to mean a “science of ideas” (de Tracy, 1817; Kennedy, 1978; Thompson, 1990). This somewhat positivistic, but radical for the time, intellectual endeavor sought to integrate the fields of ethics, politics, economics and science with an enlightened and liberal approach in opposition to prevailing philosophies. The Ideologues believed that they could extend the scientific and deductive methods to the realm of human ideas and that knowledge and understanding could be verified using sensory data. This position stood in sharp contrast to the rationalism and reemerging political thought of the eighteenth century. So the original Ideologues were a group of influential academics who sought to study ideas in a systemic fashion in much the same way as one would study nature. In fact, in his writings de Tracy used the term “zoology” to describe the emerging science of ideas.
Perhaps without knowledge of de Tracy’s use of the term, the reactionary French philosopher L. G. A. de Bonald (1754-1840) used the terms idéologie and ideologique in his writings (de Bonald, 1796; Naess, et al., 1956). As a proponent of the church and an opponent of the French Revolution, de Bonald stood in opposition to the philosophical and epistemological positions that drove de Tracy and his followers. Following the French Revolution far too many saw the need to reconstitute social institutions, to restore political authority and to revitalize the institutional legitimacy lost during the revolution. De Bonald saw the individualism and liberty unleashed by the reason of enlightenment and the French Revolution as the source of social disorder. This situation could only be resolved by advancing an authoritarian intellectualism. Since Enlightenment thought had destroyed the ancient intellectual order, a replacement philosophy was needed to insulate French society from further revolution. In his estimation this could be accomplished by rebuilding tradition. This restoration was to be founded on the metaphysics of theism, establishing a consensus based on aristocratic authority that would prevent the development of factions and another Enlightenment. This tradition grounded in sovereign power, the restoration of tradition and the reestablishment of social hierarchy, sprang from an emphasis on natural laws to the exclusion of rights—a monarchy deriving its power from theology as expressed by the infallibility of the Catholic church.
The term ideology reached its political and oppositional zenith in French society with the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Initially he embraced the term as constructed by de Tracy to devise his new constitution and rewarded adherents of the idea with academic and political position. The very notion of the scientific study of ideas, even if it occurred in rather positivistic fashion, tended to attract and be advanced by those who embraced republicanism, which later threatened Napoleon’s authoritarian and autocratic tendencies. As Thompson (1990:30-31) writes:
As public opinion began to turn against the Revolution, – Napoleon who later claimed to have coined the term ‘ideologues’ – exploited this shift in order to disarm the representatives of republicanism…
Napoleon’s opposition to the ideologues intensified during the following decade and reached a climax as the empire which he sought to establish began to collapse. The ideologues became the scapegoat for the failures of the Napoleonic regime…
As Napoleon’s position weakened both at home and abroad, his attacks on ideology became more sweeping and vehement. Nearly all kinds of religious and philosophical thought were condemned as ideology. The term itself had become a weapon in the hands of an emperor struggling desperately to silence his opponents and to sustain a crumbling regime.
What emerges from this early picture of the use of the term ideology and its struggle to come into being is an oppositional discourse in a philosophical debate. The idea, however, also carried with it political possibilities and consequences for a society undergoing extraordinary struggle. Ideology became a signifier in political debate over the very nature of political power, the appropriate methods of knowledge acquisition and the ordering of society. Absent this political history it is doubtful that the term would have come into some much contemporary use and it most certainly would not have garnered its negative connotation.
Victor E. Kappeler, PhD
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University
de Bonald, L. G. A. (1796). Theory of Political and Religious Power in Civil Society, As Demonstrated by the Reasoning and History. Paris, General Union of Publishing.
de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude Destutt (1817). A Treatise on Political Economy. (trans. edited by Thomas Jefferson) Georgetown: Joseph Milligan.
Hall, S. (1980). ‘Encoding/decoding” In Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Ed.): Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79. London: Hutchinson, pp. 128-38.
Kennedy, E. (1978). A ‘Philosope’ in the Age of Revolution: Destutt de Tracy and the Origin of Ideology. Philadelphia, PA: The American Philosophy Society.
Næss, A., Christophersen, J.A., & Kvalo, K. (1956). Democracy, Ideology, and Objectivity: Studies in the Semantics and Cognitive Analysis of Ideological Controversy. Oslo: Published for the Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities University Press.
Thompson, J.B. (1990). Ideology and Modern Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.