The solitude in the middle

My quarrels with ideologies.

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I’m finishing reading Hanna Arendt’s book “The origins of totalitarianism”; today I reached the final chapter. If I could I would quote the entire book, but I can’t. I’ll be quoting from the Kindle edition of the 1973 edition published by Harvest Books. Here’s the first one:

Ideologies are harmless, uncritical, and arbitrary opinions only as long as they are not believed in seriously. Once their claim to total validity is taken literally they become the nuclei of logical systems in which, as in the systems of paranoiacs, everything follows comprehensibly and even compulsorily once the first premise is accepted (p. 457).

Ideologies, according to Arendt, are then a form of Weltanschauung in which the premises are changeable but the modus cogitandi is so uncompromising that it leads to “the total denial of reality” (she of course referst to totalitarian movements, concretely the Nazis and the Bolsheviks).

A very famous (or infamous, depending on your chosen side in the “science wars”) example of the influence of ideology was given by Alan Sokal’s parody article which was accepted for publication in the journal Social Text; the nutshell of this “Sokal Affair” is that cultural-studies department would (and are, and will) be willing to accept anything for publication as long as you use the correct buzz-words, the accepted and recieved ideology of Cultural Relativism, Deconstructionism and Oppression-Structures. What these are I shall not discuss, since you can just Google those words and you’ll be directed to the chasms of language-fixated ideology.

Some may challenge my interpretation of the above systems of ideas as ideologies; they are, according to their practitioners, philosophical systems. The difference, I think, is very subtle.

A philosophical system is akin to a contextual framework from which their practitioners approach reality. For instance, Idealism is the Metaphysical position that denies the existence of an objective reality, that “everything is in our heads” (a very short, incomplete and, under a harsh light, false depiction of Idealism of course). Idealist philosophers try to make sense of the world from that perspective, which led them to conlusions such as the Cartesian Dualism: the “mind” and the “body” are two separate entities and whatever happens to the mind is independent of and irrelevant to what happens to the body. This is a very enthralling issue in the Philosophy of mind and there are many theories for it. Philosophers of mind speculate on what is the nature of Consciousness, whether or not the Human Mind is completely determined by the nervous system, and that sort of things. The Philosophy of Mind is a very attractive area of research nowadays because of the advances in neurology, neuropsychology and neurophysiology. And this is the crucial point.

Philosophers of mind (or whatever any other kind of philosophers) strive to keep track (as much as possible) of all human endeavours that are relevant to their field of study; being practitioners of the philosophical tradition inherited from the Enlightenment they try to be rational and open-minded about their system’s basic tenets; that’s the origin and the role of Philosophical Critique: reexamining assumptions, giving them new light, thinking everything anew and from the top… wir mussen denken, wir werden denken (pacem Hilbert).

Ideologues, on the other hand, regard the basic assumptions of their “system” as all-encompassing and all-explaining, as the only possible and logical way of knowing reality, for they “[claim] to possess either the key to history, or the solution to all the ‘riddles of the universe’, or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man” (p. 159). So evidence and facts nonwithstanding, ideologues will always know they are right because for them there is no other possibility. Summarising: the very logical framework of an ideology doesn’t even contemplate the possibility of it being wrong, or even incomplete.

Granted, uncompromising people make revolutions possible; voting rights for women could not have been possible in England without the staunch “stubborness” of the Suffragettes at the turn of the 20th Century; Irish independence was largely a consequence of de Valera’s unwillingness to compromise with London; Richard Stallman’s unwillingness to use any kind of proprietary software is the inspiration to the many working on Open Source projects. But revolutions are consequences of unbearable and untenable situations; being staunchly uncomprossing on anything leaves little room for discussion and thus to consensus; without consensus, without the possibility of agreeing to some middle ground between the extreme positions of any issue, little can be done to preserve a civilised society.

It’s not easy maintaining a rational possition in all aspects of life; there’s always going to be people or situations that will annoy you, or make you angry, or sad… but that doesn’t mean we must take everything to heart, as if there could be no understanding, or friendship, or love between people that hold different opinions on any conceivable topic.

Having unrestricted access to information and to forums in which to vent opinions (like this one) makes things even worse: every video, every tweet, every blog is a veritable and reliable source nowadays. The unwillingness (the uncompromising refusal, if you will) to take an extreme position on anything may result on shunning or loss of friends since everyone is a scholar and an ideologue these days. But again, let us think before judging anything that lies outside of our intellectual comfort zone; and let us not take everything so seriously (not even this post).