January 22nd, 2011

Dialogue Game:
IDEOLOGY

Some fun from the Summer 1992 issue of The New Combat:

The Dialogue is a somewhat serious game that readers and editors play, taking letters from the former as a starting point. Each reply must be a certain shorter length, prescribed by a rule intended to encourage players to think all the more carefully about the words they choose, and that, at a certain point, makes for livelier reading.

M

Dear Editors,

I was most impressed with your recognition that an ideology is necessary to combat the world’s evils. But I see certain elements in The New Combat that question and implicitly contradict this premise. For instance, Albert Camus writes (and you quote):

“We have seen men lie, degrade, kill, deport, torture — and each time it was not possible to persuade them not to do these things, because they were so sure of themselves, and because one cannot appeal to an abstraction, i.e., the representative of an ideology.”

Later he writes disparagingly of a “world of abstractions” and “absolute ideas.” At the end of the essay he states a credo: “Words are more powerful than munitions.”

The question is: Just what do words represent? Aren’t you writing of words that represent ideas? ideas which you are sure are needed to mininish murder and torture? Ideas, i.e., abstractions, of which you are a representative?

Camus’ ambiguity is right in line with existentialism, which, as I understand it, rejects the notion of any absolutes in moralitiy and instead refers man to his deepest emotions.

On the back cover [of the previous issue of TNC] Betrand Russell is quoted: “There is nothing for the politician to consider outside or above the various men, women and children who compose the world.”

This could be interpreted many ways, but, without knowing the context, it seems he is going beyond Camus and asking one to look at the misery and horror of peoples’ lives and then act — without noting the importance of the ideas that need to be accepted to protect and nurture those people.

Enclosed is an advertisement of a book on Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I think you should give it a shot.

Bruce Marr, New York City

M

M

William Ney replies:

Many words in the last issue were used oddly, to jar ideologues Right and Left. We should have placed “ideology” in scare quotes the first time it appeared: In Praise of ‘Ideology’

Camus loved ideas and words, as the very stuff we’re made of, and loved people: He was happiest as a playwright-director. His postwar complaint was that philosophically rigorous collections of ideas — ideologies — were being used (by Sartre et al.) to justify Stalin’s techniques, and that the Enlightened ideas correlate to capitalism were being used to justify violent market-making and a spiritless way of life.

I see simple-mindedness here, and emotion, but not “ambiguity.” Do you mean contradiction? (By the way, Camus was not an Existentialist, although for a time he drank with them.)

The Russell comes from Political Ideals, an essay he wrote while imprisoned for inciting resistance to World War I. His thesis (like Camus’) was that that the only politically correct ideologies are those that value the bodies and idea-laden minds of individuals above all else — event he Market, the Revolution, Progress and the State.

So I see no contradiction in complaining about particular ideologies while making love with ideas and words.

I’ve tasted Ayn Rand, and found her ideas, after an initial thrill, repulsive. What do you see in them?

M

M

Bruce Marr replies:

The main question implicit in my letter was: Is some ideology (“philosophically rigorous collection of ideas”), implying a definite system of ethics and politics, necessary for man to act to create a better life for himself and others?

You’re right: I did mean Camus is contradictory, but I used the word “ambiguous” because some of his statements are not unequivocally anti-ideology. Assuming they are, either intentionally or by default, I take issue with his disparagement of ideas and ideologies-in-general, not his criticism of particular ideologies.

When you write that perhaps “ideology” should have been placed in scare quotes, does this indicate a reluctance, though particular ideologies have been evil and disastrously wrong, to state that a correct ideology is possible and necessary?

M

M

William Ney replies:

Modern attempts to systematize ethical wisdom have failed. (See MacIntyre’s After Virtue.) Politics are nearly as resistant. The best formulae available are things like “Wealth is the product of labor” and “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”

Determining and applying what these mean is an ongoing idea-full enterprise — but unscientific. “Ideology” suggests rigid, hyperrational otherworldliness that perverts or predetermines investigation. Thus, our half-ironic use of the word.

Your assertion of necessity troubles me. I doubt that ideas need or should “be accepted to protect and nurture … people.” Ideas aren’t idols.

M

M

Bruce Marr replies:

Ideas aren’t idols, but they are tools to deal with reality: If ideas in phyics can be correct, why not ethical ideas? They concern what should be, but so does medicine. Medicine applies biology; ethics applies philosophy.

Not systematizing ethics rests on the premise that ethics can’t result in knowledge. But what man should do isn’t a subjective concern (any more than what doctors should do). Thus, the necessity of accepting correct ethical ideas.

M

M

William Ney replies:

Knowledge, said Plato, is not of this world. The demonstrable virtue of physics is usefulness, rather than “correctness.” And politics and ethics are even more difficult. (Consider our Gulf War achievements.)

A fortiori: good results before correctness.

Perhaps we are the tools, ideas the masters, history their realist masterpiece.

A fortiori: the virtue of humility.

M

M

Bruce Marr replies:

Knowledge, replied Aristotle, must be of this world — for there is no other. And if usefulness is set in opposition to correctness, i.e., what works in opposition to what we know, then how do we know what is useful?

M

M

William Ney replies:

We feel things out, eventually trust experience, and know blood when we see it.

(The same evidence would allow your Aristotle to conclude we have no knowledge.)

M

M

Bruce Marr replies:

He couldn’t. That conclusion implicitly claims as knowledge the assertion “We have no knowledge.” Sorry. “A is A.”

M

M

William Ney replies:

Ooops! “What do I know?” (Montaigne)

M

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Bruce Marr replies:

“The rest is silence.”

M

M

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