Ideology, Political Theory, and Political Philosophy

Michael Freeden. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. 2004. Sage Publication.

It has been common practice in current professional and academic circles to assign the terms ‘political thought’ or ‘political theory’ to a subdiscipline of political science in which texts, arguments and discourses obtain an existence of their own and are studied for the values and visions they contain. But in the broadest sense political thought refers to thinking about politics at any level of conceptualization and articulation. Far from being an arcane, esoteric or cocooned practice, it is the preliminary to, accompaniment of, and consequence of all political activity and processes. We should certainly not regard political thought as a separate area of political study, or as a rarefied, even luxurious, form of political self-indulgence as some hard-nosed and pragmatic detractors would have it—but should recognize it as a normal and necessary aspect of the political that requires careful analysis both for what it is and for what it does.

Political thought in the broadest sense currently exhibits six strands: (1) the meticulous construction of argument; (2) the normative prescription of standards of public conduct; (3) the imaginative production of insight; (4) the genealogical exploration of provenance and change; (5) the deconstructive unpacking of paradigms; and (6) the morphological analysis of concepts and conceptual clusters. This chapter will focus mainly on the first and the last strands, but will bring the others into its orbit. Political theorists can engage in more than one of the above, though they are unlikely to engage in all. The emphasis on one or another of the strands centrally impacts on the questions: how do we identify what political thought is; and what work do we want that identification to do for us?

For most of its existence the study of political thought was constructed and packaged as a historical narrative, a sequenced story that examined the ways in which a number of outstanding individuals such as Aristotle, Hobbes or Rousseau applied their wisdom to questions of state and of human nature. In the course of that process they provided an overlapping—if not common—field of ideas, theorems and positions from which generation after generation was supposed to draw. Those individuals, with very few exceptions—Machiavelli may have been one—were philosophers who offered conceptions of the good life combined with intricate arguments and reasons for adopting rational and moral prescriptions and proposals for implementing them, some practical, some less so. Only from the late nineteenth century onwards was the production of systematic, overarching hypotheses about the structure and functions of political institutions, processes and conduct graced with an identity of its own—through pioneers such as Max Weber, Gaetano Mosca and Roberto Michels—though it was soon to be siphoned off as political sociology. As for the more mundane thinking which inevitably accompanies any conscious account, explanation or justification of a political act, that was not acknowledged as a distinct category of political thought until the behaviourism of the mid twentieth century with its studies of attitudes and beliefs. To add to these, the specific political thinking emerging from groups or masses was identified, but as a rule pejoratively dismissed through strongly individualistic, or strongly elitist, perspectives. The interest scholars evinced in it was prompted by the aggregative opinion studies of American social science on the one hand, and—on the other hand—by the focus on popular thinking that a Marxism true to its principles should have developed far earlier, but had to await the insights of Antonio Gramsci. It was Gramsci (1971) who recognized the role of the masses as well as intellectuals in shaping political ideas at all levels of social and cultural life.

All the above varieties are, however, central aspects of thinking about politics and about the state. Their detachment from each other is significant in distinguishing among a rich panoply of political ideas, their roles and shapes, but it has frequently done harm as well as good, and exaggerated the commonalties that political thinking possesses. In particular, political thought is not just straightforwardly equivalent to what people say (and write) that they think about political issues, or even what we hear (and read) them saying. It is highly sensitive to the diverse methods it employs to determine which kinds of thinking are political, and which issues are within the remit of the scholars who study political thinking. Differences in political thought have become increasingly reflective of splits and specializations among its students, and the divergence between some philosophers and some students of ideology is the most significant, and the least understood, among these.

Political Philosophy: The Good, the Right, and the Valid

Political philosophy is situated in a highly intriguing relationship to politics. On the one hand, its focus on the normative, on forms of the good life, on what is morally proper, and on the right kind of decisions, has placed it at the centre of what most contemporary academics regard as political theory: a guide, a corrective, and a justification for enlightened and civilized forms of organized social life and political institutions. On the other hand, the disciplinary constraints that apply to producing good philosophy have all too often distanced its practitioners from the actual stuff of politics and have contributed to a general sense of the estrangement of philosophy from political life. There is unsurprisingly no complete agreement on what political philosophers do, and there are great divides between, say, Anglo-American analytical philosophers and varieties of continental philosophy, a distinction that is more substantive than geographical. Analytical philosophers are not necessarily specific students of politics; they may often be seen as applying their general insights to the realm of politics. That is to say, political philosophers are frequently philosophers prior to their examination of the political, and they apply techniques and methods typical of philosophers rather than other students of politics. For instance, one of their central concerns relates to what constitutes a good argument. Which of the following, for instance, would justify civil disobedience: the disregard of past promises, the lack of crucial social or material benefits, or the breaching of a categorical moral principle? A good argument in the view of analytical philosophers is one that is rational, that identifies conceptual distinctions and logical paths of reasoning, whether deductive or inductive, and that constructs coherent compatibilities among conceptual units. The producers of a good argument are concurrently expected to undertake particular thought processes that are reflexive and self-critical. Sometimes this approach also involves an appeal to intuitions (linked also to a philosophical interest in common sense arguments), the detection of which should serve as a guide to practices, although such intuitions—it is often counter-claimed—may themselves be culture-bound.

In addition, a good political argument may have an ethical, as well as an analytical, dimension; indeed for some scholars political philosophy ‘is a very specific subset of moral philosophy’ (Swift, 2001: 6). On this account, a worthy political argument is presented as one that enhances and promotes values that are desirable for individuals in their capacity as members of political communities. Those values delineate what is good or bad, right or wrong, for all human beings, irrespective of their distance in time (considering future or past generations) or space; the moral rights, duties and obligations (systematized as deontology) that derive from those understandings; and their political expressions. Their realization is predicated on the attainment of the reflective equilibrium proposed by John Rawls, or the free and rational communication advocated by Jürgen Habermas (1981). While in the past, issues of political obligation and authority were predominant among political philosophers, because the state was still perceived as a supreme political institution primarily providing security and stability, in recent literature political value has typically been ascribed to distributive justice, to the safeguarding of individual autonomy, to fostering a sense of community, to forms of deliberative democracy, to beneficial kinds of pluralism, and to preserving a sustainable environment. All these reflect a view of the state as enabler of human and social flourishing, though they also allow the state to be circumvented through a grand range of attempts to reaffirm the rational, contemplative individual as the source of political nous and, not infrequently, the cultural community as the locus of individual identity-cum-autonomy.

Philosophical ends are frequently characterized by the search for certainty and truth, not merely by the pursuit of methodological purity or self-critical understanding. Certainty refers to the flight from contingency and the aspiration to unshakeable knowledge (Barber, 1988: 6). That aspiration employs, sometimes unintentionally, traditional but erroneous models from the natural sciences. Here, possibly, an infelicitous coalition between philosophers and power wielders emerges, both intent upon closing debate. Indeed, it was one of the earliest and greatest of political philosophers, Plato, who prescribed the need for convergence between power and knowledge in the figure of the philosopher-king. Truth is a far more difficult issue. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, governments and politics are based on opinion, not factual truth. For her, factual truth was an essential component of the freedom of thought that political thinking required. But the truth of the philosophers was rational truth, involving axioms and theories. That truth was singular and hence apolitical (Arendt, 1968: 231, 238, 242, 246). In approaches such as these, the non-political status of truth rests on the assumption that it is knowable, and often on ostensibly unassailable foundationalist assumptions regarding human nature, whereas politics is assumed to involve fundamental contests over both the good and the right. However, for politics the rhetoric of certainty or near-certainty—as a feature of conviction rather than of knowledge—may be necessary as a preliminary to decision-making, decision-making being an ineliminable core feature of politics. A political or ideological decision is an attempt at an unequivocal choice, superimposed on an indeterminate field, a field in which no single path is unchallengeable, or one in which many paths are possible. However, not all closure of debate successfully bridges the gap between certainty and truth. Certainty is often a necessary substitute for the unattainability of truth, and it is here that the role of ideologies is both indispensable and decisive in tailoring political thinking to the requirements of the political. Alternatively, Mill’s political philosophy allowed for provisional—and in that sense, relative—truths. As he claimed,

if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being. (Mill, 1910: 83)

The Singular and the Universal

The singularity of political philosophy, when inspired by ethical frameworks, is one of its great strengths. After all, a central task of political philosophers as moral philosophers has been to provide yardsticks for public conduct, so essential in areas such as the distribution of scarce goods, or the wielding of power by political leaders and decision-makers. Societies rightly rely on political philosophers to point out ways of improving social institutions, for political ethics pertains to the instilling of virtuous public practices. At the same time, the increasing democratization of politics has shifted the emphasis of scholarship from ‘great men and women’ philosophers to the moral claims any individual and all individuals may direct at their societies and the benefits they ought to derive from social life. Just as historians now seldom tell the story of kings and queens but have developed a keen interest in popular history, so political theorists have refocused around individual self-development, participation, citizenship, and civic virtue (Young, 1996: 479, 484-5), notions close to the concerns of contemporary liberal theory, as we shall see.

One manifestation of this has been the recent fascination of philosophers with questions of justice. Although justice is a systemic property of a well-organized society, it has been reformulated, primarily by John Rawls (1971), as establishing the correct manner of attaining fairness for individuals, through devices that ensure that ordinary persons themselves decide reasonably on the rules of justice that ought to apply to them. Intriguingly, then, singularity refers both to the universality of rational philosophical truths and to the concentration on the individual as sited at the heart of political philosophy. Consequently, the deontology of rights and duties has been predominantly assigned to individuals, and Anglo-American political philosophy has been resistant to the impingement of groups and communities on its fundamental epistemology—an inclination towards atomism that is itself ideological as well as methodological. Moreover, that approach is predicated on the assumption that the rationally exercised faculties of individuals will in crucial instances converge on common ground rather than diverge in a range of acceptable, rational and good solutions radiating out from a common core, as John Stuart Mill had indicated. The unintended elision between the plural and the singular is evident in Rawls’s ambivalent observation that political philosophy cannot coerce our considered convictions, with the immediate addition: ‘If we feel coerced, it may be because, when we reflect on the matter at hand, values, principles, and standards are so formulated and arranged that they are freely recognized as ones we do, or should, accept’ (1993: 45). So while many contemporary political philosophers emphasize measured individual judgement rather than blanket subscription to philosophical systems such as idealism or utilitarianism, they leave open the possibility of the convergence of individual judgements in a reasonable reflective equilibrium, as well as the question of the objectivity or subjectivity of values.

Another feature of political philosophy is evident in the abstractness of its generality. Rawls has contended that abstraction is a way of continuing public discussion when shared understandings of lesser generalities have broken down. The deeper the conflict, he has argued, the higher the level of abstraction necessary to get an uncluttered view of the roots of the conflict (Rawls, 1993: 46). Abstraction may be conceptually more difficult to comprehend, but it is also a useful modelling device that proffers simplification, sets out issues in stark and concise form and is amenable to the universalization to which so many philosophers aspire. Such constructivist approaches resonate with political theories—especially social contract theory—in which the state is an artificial edifice, and morality, legitimacy or authority can therefore be subjected to thought experiments. Conversely, social philosophers such as Marx and Engels have criticized abstract philosophy. Contrasting their approach with that of German philosophy, they wrote:

we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived… We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-processes we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. (Marx and Engels, 1974: 47)

But their repudiation of the methods of philosophy converged on their particular understanding of ideology. For them, abstract philosophy was nothing more than ideology, because both were the inverted mental reflection of a distorted and alienated reality.

A Model of Modern Ideology: Patterned Divergences

Non-Marxist students of ideology understand their subject-matter differently. Ideologies are usefully comprehended not as defective philosophies, but rather as ubiquitous and patterned forms of thinking about politics. They are clusters of ideas, beliefs, opinions, values, and attitudes usually held by identifiable groups, that provide directives, even plans, of action for public policy-making in an endeavour to uphold, justify, change or criticize the social and political arrangements of a state or other political community. This tells us something about their functions and about the necessary services they perform for such a community. To begin with, it is unimaginable to conceive of a society that does not engage in such patterned thought, that does not have distinguishable and recurrent ways of thinking, say, about who should be rewarded in that society and for what, about the limits to the exercise of political power, about the value of national symbols, or about its expectations of government. However, that thinking may range from the articulate and sophisticated to the clumsy and banal; it may range from the conscious and specific to the unconscious and fuzzy; and it may range from the local through the national to the international, but always as the product of groups. Ideologies, let it be emphasized, are evident in the entire field of thinking about political ends and principles, and virtually all members of a society have political views and values they promote and defend. By contrast, analytical political philosophy sites itself at a particular end of each of these spectrums. The articulateness and sophistication of philosophical arguments are non-negotiable, their intentionality and deliberation are a sine qua non of recognizing them as a subject-matter for investigation and respect, and their attribution to individual inspiration is a mark and condition of their standing in the profession.

On another and parallel dimension, ideologies—in discharging the above functions—compete deliberately or unintentionally over the control of political language, by means of which they attempt to wield the political power necessary to realizing their functions. Ultimately, they aim to give precise definition to the essentially contested meanings of the major political concepts. In other words, they aim to decontest those concepts and endorse one of the multiple conceptions those concepts invariably accrue but which, importantly, the concepts cannot contain simultaneously: is equality to be understood as equality of opportunity, of need, of respect, or of outcome? What relative weight do we assign, within the notion of democracy, to self-government, political equality, an idea of community, or active participation in the public domain? When confronted with a number of those decontested concepts, arranged in a particular configuration, we perceive an ideology’s typical structure. Ideologies differ from one another in the particular meaning they allocate to every one of the main political concepts, in the priority they accord each concept, and in the particular position and interrelationship between each concept and the other political concepts contained within the given ideological field (Freeden, 1996: 47-95). The production of a high degree of certainty in these defining and ordering activities ensures that ideologies are integrally intertwined with politics; ideologies too are crucially locked into the process of choosing among alternative paths of action and of subsequent decision-making. So whereas a political philosopher such as Rawls contends that many hard decisions may seem to have no clear answer (1993: 57), the morphology of concepts suggests that, to the contrary, they may have many clear answers. Doubt is not one of the most obvious features of ideological discourse. In the eagerness of ideologists to establish an uncontestable framework for political decision-making, assertion will frequently replace demonstration and proof—those prerequisites of good philosophical analysis.

Ideologies may be seen as pooled resources from which a society draws, a bank of ideas that has accrued over time and that may be cashed in almost any permutation, subject only to constraints of logic (the universal) and of the culturally permissible (the local, even when it appears in a universalist guise). To be sure, new assets may be added and constructed, and some of the older bills and coins may be removed from circulation. Continuity is not unbroken, and entirely different sets of ideas may be extracted from the same pool and confront each other with immense hostility. But all this is the very fabric of politics, just as political philosophy contributes to supplying the very fabric of qualitative values and justifications that a society may require for its moral health. We usually come across ideologies in a more or less distinct and pre-structured form, such as liberalism, conservatism, socialism, feminism or fascism. That is because certain political movements or belief systems have generated enormous support from significant social groups who have subscribed to one of the overarching and dominant ‘grand’ ideological families. They provide their followers with a social and political identity and operate as one of the major factors in the realization of political goals. But a few notes of caution need to be sounded.

First, there is no necessary configuration of ideologies in these forms; they may well be the product of contingent historical forces that appear and vanish over time. On the other hand, some of the ideological families may reflect fundamental human understandings of the social order and its relation to human drives and hopes. Thus, traditionalism and conservatism are rooted in deep psychological motivations; whereas the desire for emancipation from the control of others has—in one of liberalism’s many manifestations—always served as an impetus for the redistribution of political power. Second, any one of these ideologies is host to loose and fluid positions. There is no obvious thing called socialism, but there certainly are socialisms: Marxist, evolutionary, or guild socialisms are examples. General morphological patterns sharing core ideas and distinct ideational paths connecting the key political concepts are evident—this is after all how we access all political thinking—but ideological micro-analysis uncovers fundamental internal differences that must be acknowledged in serious scholarly investigation. Thus socialists extol the importance of group solidarity and of interpersonal equality, but within the family of socialisms there are considerable differences over whether solidarity expresses total human interdependence, or merely empathy and altruism; and over whether equality entails differential distribution on the basis of individual needs alone or also on the basis of contribution to the public good. Third, ideologies are not mutually exclusive. They intersect and overlap with each other, creating hybrids such as libertarianism—a cross between liberalism and conservatism. Finally, a fragmentation of ideologies has accompanied the great families and has become more marked in recent decades. Alongside the full ideologies, with their total if not totalitarian solutions to social issues, there exist thin ideologies that address areas of ideological contestation, but otherwise rely on other ideologies to fill the gaps with which they do not primarily concern themselves. Nationalism is one such instance, containing no substantive theory of distributive justice.

Ideological Analysis: What Does it Explore?

If the development of qualitative normative thinking is one of the rationales of political philosophy, it is not difficult to understand why the study of ideology receives short shrift from many philosophers, and is ignored by others (witness the absence of an American Political Science Association subject section on political ideology). For it would appear that many ideologies are incapable of producing normative profundities, particularly when we follow the tendency of some scholars to identify ideologies only with the politically extreme representatives of the genre. Nonetheless, the study of ideologies is laden with sensitivity to moral standards and political values. To begin with, it explores the choices any given combination of norms and political concepts opens up or closes, which can then be appraised against whatever political arrangements are deemed desirable by the analyst. Utilitarian or deontological evaluations of political ideas benefit greatly by testing them not only against abstract logical permutations but against the concrete manifestations these ideas have already received in the world. Second, as will be argued below, the product of Anglo-American political philosophy is itself, from the perspective of ideological analysis, a specific ideological manifestation, and its normative solutions require decoding in terms of their preferences and understandings of the social world as does any ideology. Hence the role of the student of ideologies is to unpack such beliefs, account for them, and map their complexity. That analysis may well be a necessary preliminary to the endorsement by political philosophers of particular ideational permutations. Third, the study of ideology offers a different kind of assessment, one that examines the logical and cultural constraints that make a particular set of political concepts intelligible, attractive, or legitimate (and vice versa); and one that weighs up the implicit as well as explicit assumptions that render an ideology plausible for its consumers. This form of evaluation appears not as a normative pronouncement but as an interpretation that seeks to be intellectually appealing instead of absolutely valid or morally prescriptive.

Consequently, a much broader range of subject-matter is prone to ideological analysis and a gulf begins to open up between it and philosophical argument. No student of ‘empirical’ politics would wish to disregard ‘imperfect’ political institutions would want, for example, to exclude the election of the American Presidency in 2000 from study and comment. Equally, no student of ideologies would wish to exclude ‘imperfect,’ half-baked, even inconsistent or wrong political arguments and ideas from their compass, precisely because such phenomena are both typical of political thought-practices and offer insight into how societies actually work and make decisions. Nazism has little allure for philosophers, because it fails to pass muster on moral and analytical grounds. But its nature, if not its messages, attracts the curiosity of students of ideology wishing to understand the nature of dogmatism, myth-making, extremism and terror, and wanting to account for the ideational forces that propelled political action into those directions rather than others, and that might do so again. So while the disciplinary roots of political philosophy have become increasingly remote from the concerns of the social sciences, the painstaking and critical investigation of ideologies is the only area of analysis in which political ideas can receive appropriate consideration as a direct branch of the study of politics, rather than of philosophy or history. Only then can questions such as the following be addressed: what are the social and political functions of political ideas; how are meaningful clusters of political argument formed and made accessible; what assumptions have to hold in order for the producer of an argument to believe that his/her argument is a true, good, or valid one (rather than whether the argument is true, good, or valid); how does the field of political practice constrain and mould the political ideas available to a society; how does ideological change come about; how do ideologies compete over, and shape, understandings of what is and what can be in politics? All these can only be undertaken if we also consider immorality, inconsistency and bad arguments as suitable subject-matter for analysis within the sphere of political practice. Because they exist, and arguably always will, they have a substantial bearing on human understanding, conduct and institutional processes, without which our comprehension of the political will be profoundly impoverished.

It has often been argued, following Marx, that ideologies are a sinister and exploitative form of exercising power over individuals and groups through providing them with a false view of social reality, in which they are made to adopt the norms and aims of ruling social strata. On the account offered here, although power and control remain central features of ideologies, they are far less insidious. Rather, they reflect the core of the political: the necessity of ordering, deciding and regulating the combined affairs of groups of people, and through that of enabling individuals to have a say in their own fortunes. Politics is not just about physical force and the clash of economic interests, but also about the assignment of contested meaning to social phenomena. It is not just about the use of the law, of the police, or of illegitimate forms of violence, nor is it just about the maximization of economic assets through the manipulation of markets, or about the impact of personality on public life. It is also about deciding on the range of meanings attributed to concepts such as welfare (e.g. a mechanism of social parasitism or the institutional enabling of human flourishing) or freedom (e.g. the uninhibited assertion of individual powers against others or the rational expression of self-developing choices), and about selecting which of these meanings will be accorded legitimacy and supremacy in formulating public policy. Hence the control of political language, through which the understanding of such contested political concepts is mediated, is a cardinal and typical way of capturing the high ground of the social meanings and interpretations available to a given society. This is where ideologies come in, as the devices through which political language is presented and organized for the purposes of determining those dominant meanings. They offer the maps that attach, say, the qualifiers ‘democratic’ and ‘human right’—rather than lèse-majesté or ‘rebellion’—to ‘dissent’; or that clash over allocating the term ‘terrorist’ to some activities rather than others. And to make matters quite clear: without dominant meanings, however temporary, no political decisions could be made and social paralysis would ensue. In that sense, it is manifestly misleading to insist on the elimination of plural meanings, and to express concern when faced with selection processes among meanings. Domination in the hard sense of a group preventing the equal access of others to social goods is undesirable and eliminable in principle, but ‘domination’ in the gentle sense of ensuring that a particular set of values secures practical preference is ineluctable. To that extent, the muchtrumpeted neutrality of liberalism among different conceptions of the good is both chimerical and palpably undesirable in a political society where practices have to be put into effect, unless—as some political philosophers do—one believes in the possibility as well as the desirability of a fundamental social consensus on values.

Two Professional Disciplines and Their Subject-Matter

Before we examine other central differences between political philosophy and political ideologies, one vital distinction needs to be mentioned. The producers and formulators of ideology may differ substantially from the producers and formulators of philosophy. Ideologies are rarely created by professional thinkers; indeed, they are more likely to emanate from social sectors with a greater or lesser interest in political ideals and ends, but with an amateurish control over the units—the political concepts—from which ideologies are fashioned. These sectors include categories such as political parties, journalists, civil servants, or oppressed groups. The students of ideology, to the contrary like any practitioners of a discipline—are professional or expert analysts, in this case of political thinking, language, and concepts. They cannot take the utterances and texts of the ideologists they examine as role models or examples of coherent and optimal thinking about politics (though when not engaged in their professional activities they too will be ideologists). There is therefore a fundamental dissimilarity between political ideologists and the investigators of political ideology; the latter require different techniques in order to arrive at a higher level of conceptual analysis of the explanandum, not the least because they do not have to market their products as ideational solutions to pressing political issues. That distinction does not necessarily apply to political philosophy, where students of philosophy enter into similar discourses to those whom they study, in an apparently seamless conversation and convergence on techniques of good argumentation. The philosopher and the student of philosophy are often one and the same thing. Consequently, political philosophers are prone to mistake the ‘inferior thinking’ of ideologists for the analytical thinking produced in the study of political ideologies and to write both off as bad philosophy (Swift, 2001: 133), and the latter as bad scholarship as well.

One important consequence of this phenomenon is that many philosophers find it difficult to distance themselves from their own methodology (for example, privileging individual agency, rational discourse, logical cohesion, and justification of arguments in relation to ethical yardsticks), especially because what is required of them is to immerse themselves into that methodology as a given set of thought practices and to emulate its best practitioners. Hence this kind of philosophy is unusually lacking in self-criticism of its own assumptions. It does not tend to query the possible limitations that its techniques may impose on understanding and interpretation, though it is superb in its subtle critique of the distinctions and clarifications made within its paradigms of analysis. Certainly, it refrains from engaging in the metatheory beloved by analysts of ideology who explore the features of the thought products they examine. Those analysts would, for instance, be particularly alert to the constraints and biases any methodology sets up—whether through notions such as agency, logical cohesion or universal ethics, or through other notions—and the way in which these understandings shaped views of, and preferences for, particular forms of social and ideational activity. Even in its Marxist versions, the concept of ideology was employed in an ‘unmasking’ role in order to penetrate through the illusions and distortions that unreconstructed political thinking was inevitably thought to conjure up. In non-Marxist understandings of ideology the critique of ideology as masking truth has been abandoned, simply because of the uncertainty, referred to above, concerning what truth would be. But the critique of ideology as holding hidden and implicit assumptions, irrespective of their truth or falsehood status, continues to occupy centre-stage.

Clearly, a central purpose of political theory is to prescribe and to offer good solutions to problems of political organization and practices. Philosophers and ideologues agree on this end. But students of ideology do not see prescription as their aim, though their findings are intended to assist philosophers and ideologists in their prescriptions. As social scientists, they strive to offer a persuasive account of what the world of ideologies is like and how it relates to the world of politics. One consequence is that contemporary students of ideology display an even more heightened awareness of political language as a tool, wielded deliberately or unintentionally to attain a selection of values and ends, without which the entire political process would founder. This ought to engender a methodological scepticism and relativism, from which vantage-point any conclusions about the worlds of political ideas and action are tentative and subject to continuous review and change. While liberal political philosophers instruct us to revise individual life plans but remain committed to the constant values of liberty, human rights and human progress, students of ideology demand revised assessments of the frameworks and constraints that propel groups into preferring one combination of ideas to another. However, to endeavour to account for the features, sources and outcomes of political ideologies is by no means an endorsement of all their manifestations; it does not promote a relativism in which ‘anything goes.’ Indeed, local forms of thinking may share some features with each other in a kind of contingent universalism that acts as a cultural constraint on what societies may legitimately do. Political idea systems are a product of interacting, even overlapping, human minds, and also exist within differentiated geographical, historical and cultural spaces. The comparative study of ideologies has to address these problems of translation, when differences are often masked by ostensible similarities of language, while similarities are disguised by disparate ways of expression.

Is Philosophy Liberal Philosophy, or Even Liberal Ideology?

The parallel to philosophical misgivings about ideologies, and their study, is a continuous attempt by students of ideology to reduce Western political philosophy, especially in recent decades, to the one ideological dimension of liberalism. Analysts of ideology point out that the story of contemporary philosophy is tantamount to that of liberalism itself, and that political philosophy in the twenty-first century has become incapable of absorbing, and reacting to, a broader spectrum of extra-liberal political thinking. Moreover, political philosophy is accused of demonstrating considerable blindness to the liberal nature of its own premises—a critique also voiced by feminists—and ignorance about the liberal traditions that spawned such positions, in a battle of ideas that began in the eighteenth century and continues to this very day. One such example is the renewed interest among political philosophers in citizenship and participatory democracy. Employing models garnered from civic republican theories of public virtue, and augmenting them with conceptions of liberty anchored in communal self-government and tailored to eliminate the arbitrary domination of one group over another, these contemporary theories are nevertheless seeped in liberal values, no less than the theories from which they seek to differ and which they aspire to correct (Pettit, 1997; Skinner, 1998; Dagger, 1997).

The ends of Anglo-American political philosophy are those at the heart of the liberal tradition: the enhancing of a particular understanding of liberty as autonomy, coupled with a conviction in the possibility and necessity of individual self-development guaranteed through fundamental human rights, and a growing emphasis on equality. This bundle has been predominantly couched in the language of moral universalism; in Brian Barry’s phrase, ‘there is no distinctive liberal theory of political boundaries at the level of principle’ (2001: 137). These ends have not changed over time, though the preconditions for their attainment have been variously understood even with the liberal camp and promoted also by those who should go under the label of libertarians, even individualist anarchists. As a rule, though, the core of twentieth-century liberalism constituted an appeal for the release of a flow of free, vital and spontaneous activity emanating from individuals, one that would spread across the globe not through an internal rational logic but through a successful appeal to the intellects and emotions of the oppressed and underprivileged (Hobhouse, 1911; Freeden, 2001b: 21-2). That was equated with the story of the growth of civilization itself, but it was also decisively dependent on human cooperation and the mutual guarantee of standards of human welfare and well being. This communitarian aspect of modern liberalism preceded by an entire century the lately rediscovered emphasis on the participation of communities in ‘republican’ public practices, an emphasis that accentuates a greater egalitarianism than previously supplied by liberalism. However, the otherwise strong liberal origins of that argument have been obscured because recent political philosophers have erroneously modelled liberalism as highly individualistic. One consequence is the false exclusion of ‘communitarians’ from the plural camp of liberalisms, under the impact of a philosophical dichotomy between liberals and communitarians that is not borne out by the complexity of liberal ideology (Taylor, 1989; Simhony and Weinstein, 2001). That ideology has developed strong appeals to mutual support and collective well-being at the heart of twentieth-century welfare state thinking.

The texts and authors encompassed by the study of ideology are broader than those examined by political philosophers, but they always include those latter texts. From the perspective of analysing ideologies, philosophical texts are selective decontestations of political concepts like any other. Both political philosophers and students of ideology employ political concepts as their basic units or building blocks, and their theories embody conceptual configurations. However, the standards of argument brought into play by philosophers about the content of those concepts, and the justification for preferring a certain configuration over another, may be more rigorous and considered than those employed in more popular or mundane writings and utterances. Here is the basis of another asymmetry: while philosophers cannot profitably read many ideological texts, because those texts fail the complex qualitative tests philosophers expect to encounter, students of ideology argue that philosophical texts may be subject to varied kinds of reading. Marx may have offered a weighty critique of German philosophy and substituted for it an epistemology that presented a searching array of new questions, but he was concurrently the creator of specific understandings of liberty as emancipation from alienation; of the individual as intimately linked to the notion of species being; and of power as exploitation of one class by another. This fashioned a particular ideological understanding of the political world and became known as Marxism. Rawls may have offered a theory of justice that satisfied the requirements of rational individual choice as well as promoting the interests of all, including the least advantaged, subject to a free-standing reflective consensus that can accommodate various versions of the good life, but he is concurrently the articulator of a specific version of American liberalism that regards individuals as rational, moral, purposive and autonomous agents (which contextualist and communitarian theories wish at the very least to water down). This is a particular subset of liberal ideology, elevating procedural justice above welfare as the first virtue of a society and promoting a universal, individualistic and over-optimistically ‘neutralist’ view of the state (whereas state neutrality may more appositely be interpreted as an attempt at impartiality within a preferred ethical and ideological framework). Historians of political thought know that that subset has been competing with other variants of liberalism for the best part of the past century.

Six Differences in Search of Elucidation

Given the distinction, lacking among philosophers, between the language used by the producers and that used by the analysts of ideology, let us note some major differences between ideology and philosophy. First, ideologies are by their very rationale public forms of language, intended to be disseminated and consumed by large groups of people, and to create shared understandings that can direct political practices. As a means to control the use of political language an ideology needs a broad circulation, and it cannot be phrased in terms that are conceptually and argumentatively too complex. Not so with political philosophy, the primary qualitative test of which has now become its acceptance by professional philosophers. It tends, consequently, to be a semi-private or restricted language, accessible only to specialists and thus bereft of wider public impact. Its scholarly significance may be in inverse ratio to its practical import, and it often requires vulgarization—in the form of a common-language ideology—in order to acquire the communicability and influence to which a massoriented ideology aspires. As Gerald Gaus has commented on liberalism as theory, it now tends to be ‘too principled and severe a doctrine to have widespread political appeal’ (2000a: 193). The emphasis of political philosophies is on the quality of their production, while the emphasis of ideologies is on the effectiveness of their consumption. So while political philosophies share decontesting and interpretive features with ideologies, their style and ‘packaging’ vary considerably. At the other end of the spectrum new methodologies involving discourse analysis of common language aim at including ordinary utterances as indicative of highly informative and even influential ideological patterns (Van Dijk, 1998), as befits the emphasis of the social sciences on all forms of human interaction, and as befits the increased demands for the democratic accountability of politics.

Second, ideologies are not merely directed at groups, they always are group products. As in Karl Mannheim’s famous (1936) account, ideologies are Weltanschauungen or world views of people who share common understandings of the world, perhaps because of joint socio-economic roots, or because they have assimilated a particular set of cultural values. Some of these people are of course philosophers themselves, but that is yet again to note the ideological dimensions of political philosophy. The usual self-understanding of philosophers is that their own thought systems are the creation of exceptionally talented, or expertly trained, individuals. The production of theory tends therefore to have an individualistic bias, and this is once again linked to the belief that qualitatively superior thought cannot be produced en masse, but only by exceptional thinkers. The greater appeal of the study of ideologies to the social sciences is obvious. The focus of these sciences on patterns of group behaviour is mirrored in the focus of ideological analysis on the political thought-behaviour of both overlapping and competing groups. Ideologies, after all, are offered as generally sustainable solutions to group decision-making and regulation.

Third, ideologies employ a threefold use of emotion. They wrap rational discourse in varying layers of emotive idiom; they assign emotional import to their key values; and they openly recognize the centrality of emotion in socio-political interaction. This is by no means a defect, nor is it anomalous among forms of political thought. When deliberate, the emotive idiom is usually in the form of rhetoric—a linguistic device designed to appeal to the human imagination through poetic analogy, through invoking shared sentiments, and through the stirring up of passions. Philosophical rhetoric tends to the former, while many ideologies do not shy away from the latter. However, even the most rawly emotional ideology must have a minimum of logical presentation. Racist ideologies invite potential consumers into a warped and coarse sphere of myth and prejudice, but once this looking-glass world has been entered, it follows its own preposterous logic. If indeed there are subhumans who contaminate the rest of humanity (the unsubstantiated emotive postulate), they need to be removed from contact with others (a plausible logical conclusion, given the ‘truth’ value of the postulate). On the other hand, even the most rational and austere political philosophy will promote values to which the philosopher is deeply committed. Philosophers, like ideologists, subscribe to non-negotiable values, though they are rarely aware of the emotional commitment this entails, one that frequently may be read between their lines. But a non-negotiable value, in Max Weber’s terms, is a type of non-instrumental rationality (1949: 34 and passim). Instrumental rationality will engage in cost-benefit calculations concerning the values it endorses as well as the means to promote them. Substantive rationality endorses values at whatever cost to their champions, and is sustained by an attachment that transcends the quantitative and purposive features of instrumental rationality. Thus liberalism has a fundamentally rational belief in the superiority of liberty and human rights, which means that they cannot be traded in wholesale for other values under any circumstances. Concurrently the language of liberalism has always sanctioned liberty in quasi-sacred terms, and has eulogized its worth as a supreme sign of civilization. True, some ideologists are inclined to make assertions (e.g. communism is an ‘evil empire’) rather than offer the kind of reflective arguments most philosophers might find convincing. Alternatively, ideologists will submit what they regard as persuasive or appealing reasons for an argument (e.g. ‘immigration should be restricted in order to protect our indigenous culture from alien influences’), but these may fall outside the criteria moral philosophers prefer for what constitutes a good reason.

Most analytical philosophers will not contemplate the creation of an apparatus that can identify and study emotion as a feature of political language. For example, in discussions of political obligation and civil disobedience, recourse is had to rational and ethical models of promising and consent, or to utilitarian arguments. But these address the problem of obligation to a government as against obligation to a state, not obligation to a nation. Yet political obligation to a nation is a significant sentiment that helps constitute political identity. The reason that it cannot be addressed using the current terms of political philosophy lies in the difficulty in conceptualizing its breach. Civil disobedience is located at the point of tension between obedience to a government and obedience to the constitutive principles of a state, and its practices are well recognized as acts of rational and ethical challenge. But would principled disobedience to a nation be expressed in a refusal to speak its language or to recognize its holidays? Ideological analysis can identify alternative features of discourse that treat obligation as an act of emotional sustenance by focusing on its unconditionality vis-à-vis a nation, as well as on its empowering consequences for those bearing the obligation.

A fourth distinction revolves around the issues of transparency and the face value of political language. The very essence of Western philosophy lies in its cognitive and conscious nature. Whatever else philosophy is, it is an attempt to make sense of human and natural phenomena, to explain, clarify, and justify. The ultimate success of a philosophical argument is the rational persuasion of its targeted audience in its good sense. But the ultimate success of an ideology is in its mobilization of significant groups who compete ideationally in order to impact on acts of collective decision-making. It is therefore no surprise that most, if not all, ideologies delight in surrounding their arguments in the opaque and the nontransparent aura of terms such as ‘natural’ or ‘self-evident’ precisely because this captures the high ground that is immune from challenge. These are acts of conceptual decontestation devised to end the competition over which political meaning is dominant or legitimate, and ‘legitimate’ does not always carry with it the connotation of morally or rationally justifiable (Gaus, 2000b: 39). As Plato shrewdly remarked of the magnificent myth with its story of the metals from which the different classes are naturally constituted, it would ‘carry conviction to our whole community… [and] serve to increase their loyalty to the state and to each other’ (1955: 159-61). Now, of course, observations such as these have opened ideology to the accusation of manipulating people’s perceptions of the world and reinforced those who regard all ideology as a method of distorting reality. It is certainly the case that some ideologies have systematically and cynically practised such manipulation and distortion, and it is likely that all ideologies press their prejudices through some form of bias. But Marxist theorists of ideology have ignored the important distinctions between distortion and interpretation, and between manipulation and control. Whereas the first of each duo is an unsavoury option, the second is a necessary consequence of the requirement to regulate, organize and rationalize the social world. The student of ideology’s equivalent to the philosopher’s ‘unexamined life’ is an uninterpreted world. It would be a world without humanly ordered patterns and decisions, a world of chaos, entropy, and paralysis, within which no individual could function adequately.

The above feature may also be seen in a different light, leading to a fifth distinction between ideology and philosophy, which relates to intentionality and unintentionality. A key consequence of the deliberateness of analytical political philosophers is that unintentional messages, whether their own or those they examine, are of no scholarly or relevant significance. A central aim of philosophy is to control and to refine language to the point where it can carry highly accurate and complex analyses, where it can do ‘exactly’ what its users want it to do. Scholars of ideology aspire to similar standards in controlling knowledge according to their own criteria, but they are equally interested in the unintentional meanings forged by their subject-matter, the ideological producers. And the interpretation of thought practices is crucially dependent on understanding both the intentional and the unintentional forms of expression indulged in by ideologists.

To understand that, one must appreciate some of the insights of the hermeneutical tradition and of linguistic semantics, in particular their reference to the existence of multiple readings of any given text, as the readers or consumers of that text impose their interpretations on the polysemic words, phrases and chapters they encounter. Political terms, like any other, accrue and shed meanings over time and space, and they can be understood differentially within a given society at a specific point in time, as each consumer of the text seeks to decontest its potentially multifold meanings and thus to render it intelligible. Paul Ricoeur employed the phrase ‘surplus of meaning’ to account, among others, for the gap between what the author intended to say and what his or her readers understand the author to say: the ‘excess of signification.’ As he put it,

there is a problem of interpretation not so much because of the incommunicability of the psychic experience of the author, but because of the very nature of the verbal intention of the text. The surpassing of the intention by the meaning signifies precisely that understanding takes place in a nonpsychological and properly semantic space, which the text has carved out by severing itself from the mental intention of the author. (Ricoeur, 1976: 76 and passim)

That, of course, is a major function of ideology. It imposes a logically arbitrary but culturally significant set of meanings on political reality. This provides a plausible map in relation to which political preferences can be expressed and political action can be taken. But that imposed map is incomplete, not entirely the conscious product of its designers, and its contours and details are continually rediscovered and redrawn by later travellers.

From that perspective, political ideologies contain both overt and coded messages. Overt messages are intended by their ideologue producers to mobilize mass behaviour in certain ways, but perfect control over the consumption and allocation of meaning to those messages is unattainable. In addition, the student of ideologies wishes to decipher additional meanings carried by the ideological discourse inaccessible to the original producers. When liberal supporters of votes for women demanded their inclusion in the general suffrage, they typically assumed that political equality was both necessary and sufficient for ensuring that women were treated in the same way as men. They failed to realize that one form of surplus meaning they were carrying related to another tacit assumption: that most differences between men and women, whether desirable or undesirable, were irrelevant to the political sphere. Current readings of these early liberal feminists interpret their claims in ways that transcend their own understandings, but that central function of ideological analysis is immaterial to most Anglo-American philosophy.

A sixth distinction between ideology and philosophy returns us to what constitutes a good argument. We have noted above the criteria for a good argument to which analytical philosophers subscribe, one that is rational, logical, coherent, precise, reflexive and self-critical. For ideologists, a good argument may contain some of these elements, particularly some degree of internal rationality and a credible underpinning of the compatibility of its principal concepts. But it will not display them exclusively or optimally. Indeed, it would be futile to insist on all these features too rigidly in an ideology, as ideologies will frequently disintegrate under such scrutiny. Moreover, that would miss the point of ideologies entirely and cause us to forget what work ideologies are designed to perform. Rather, a good ideological argument is one whose morphology of conceptual decontestations can transform or preserve political practices, and such an argument is not always optimally couched in rational or precise terms. A good argument is therefore one that brings about a change in power relationships, through prescription or through the denying of transparency.

The protection necessary to stabilize an ideology’s internal structure is achieved through different kinds of argumentative persuasiveness—reason, morality, and emotion—and they are engaged differentially by philosophers and ideologists. These join two further protective devices: the removal of transparency, and the resort to linguistic fiat—a method beloved by totalitarian ideologies that lock concepts into superimposed configurations. But a good ideological argument requires further features. It must be influential, it must—as we have seen—be communicable, and it must be culturally and contextually creative. This last attribute is an intriguing one. Ideologies have to be appreciated as inventive and imaginative representations of ‘social reality,’ when invention and imagination are the raw, visionary, constructive, experimental—and yes, also the volatile or dangerous—aspects of that perennial blend of reason and emotion that emanates from the human mind (Freeden, 2001a: 5-12). That creativity is occasionally acquired at the expense of philosophical cogency and it will often be harmful and irresponsible, but the pay-off is in terms of an adaptive ability employed to shape the fortunes of societies undergoing change. Of course, some of the greatest political philosophers, Plato or Rousseau, as well as many utopians, have exhibited marvellous imaginations too. But these are now mainly valued by philosophers as metaphors or thought exercises through which to test the robustness of assumptions, premises and hypotheses, rather than as practicable reworkings of a social order.

Understanding Political Thinking: Contexts and Deconstructions

Having adumbrated some of the differences between philosophy and ideology, and between philosophy and the study of ideology, one issue of fundamental importance remains with respect to the latter. A number of recent philosophical approaches and recent analyses of ideology have been mutually reinforcing. Hermeneutics and the study of interpretation have coalesced with theories of the ‘essential contestability’ of concepts and with poststructuralist and feminist affirmations of the social construction of meaning. Wittgenstein, Gadamer, and others have alerted many contemporary philosophers to the language games and the contextual inputs that fashion human understanding and that conspire against a facile universalism, even if some broadly common understandings may still operate to co-ordinate human minds. Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances has helped students of ideology to construe ideological groupings such as socialism as consisting of a complex network of similarities rather than constituting a monolithic block. Following from that, ideologies are perceived as containing overlapping and shared components, and the borders between them are considered to be permeable. Hermeneutical inputs have focused on the malleability of texts, and on the limitless readings to which they are open through their recontextualization. Understanding is thus permanently associated with interpretation and with the particularity of spatial and temporal viewpoints, while allowing nonetheless for some diachronic and geographical similarities to persist.

Students of ideology have applied to those insights a further micro-structural examination of the conceptual components of such texts, and they have employed this approach to proclaim the vast potential ideational resources inherent in political utterances and the fluidity of internal relationships within each ideological family. They have noted that liberty may be attached to self-development and to democratic participation in one ideological variant of liberalism, but in another liberal variant liberty may be attached to unrestricted economic transactions and to large accumulations of property. They have noted how new readings of well-established political terms such as ‘natural rights’ have shifted alongside a transformed understanding of what (if anything!) is natural in human social conduct. While this may allow the emergence of the unpredictable, the appreciation of historical development has also alerted students of ideology to the diachronic constraints on ideologies, channelling some ideological change into recognizably stable patterns. The school of conceptual history (Koselleck, 1985; Richter, 1995) has been influential in identifying key historical periods when a struggle over the ‘correct’ political and social concepts occurs, and in reconstructing the meaning of such concepts over time. In parallel John Pocock (1972) has investigated the ways in which political languages have changed over time. Cultural anthropologists, on their part, have highlighted the symbolic and often non-verbal nature of ideologies, in addition to portraying them as mapping devices that impose integrated fields of meaning on political occurrences (Geertz, 1964). Ideologies were now regarded as contained in practices and in cultural symbols as well as in oral and written texts, thus extending the disciplinary boundaries from which analytical methodologies for their investigation could be extrapolated. Finally, poststructural philosophers have regarded ideology as a modernist expedient that offers a narrative necessary to preserving the social order, itself often considered to be a fiction or a social imaginary. These approaches demote the centrality and autonomy of the subject at the heart of analytical philosophy, as can be seen in Michel Foucault’s treatment of discourse as a repository of power. Theorists such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have emphasized the discursive nature of ideology, and the way in which it articulates a social unity in a hegemonic manner. They also point out the existence of concepts, ‘empty signifiers,’ to which no signified, no external social phenomenon, condition or object, corresponds. On that understanding, for example, the term ‘order’ is an empty concept, referring to inadequate representations of social stability because no complete order can ever exist. In contradistinction to Anglo-American political philosophy, the emphasis here is on the impossibility of making truth statements, on the illusory nature of representing reality, let alone discerning essential meanings, and on the functional rather than ethical potential of thinking about politics (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985; Laclau, 1996; Norval, 2000). Slavoj Zizek (1989; 1994), drawing on Lacanian psychoanalytical theory, similarly regards ideology as an unconscious fantasmic illusion that papers over the ‘real’ that cannot be fathomed or represented. Other philosophical schools, emerging from diverse intellectual bases, focus on dichotomies, agonisms and contradictions arising out of incommensurability as endemic to human thought as well as to social structure, approaches that have resulted in a revival of interest in Arendt or Carl Schmitt and that are central also to some varieties of feminism (Mouffe, 2000; Nicholson, 1990; Canovan, 1992; Schmitt, 1996). These deconstructivist positions challenge the holism and integration evident in many instances of philosophical thinking about politics, but they also challenge methodologies that propose to regard conceptual, linguistic and structural interrelationships as fruitful. One result is the problematization of pluralism, not because its nod in the direction of liberal diversity conflicts with the harmonized unity of thought that is the goal of some political philosophers, but because it now exudes the aura of unmanageable, yet endemic, destructiveness—pluralism as concealing a fragmented world.

Some poststructuralists abandon the search for norms too readily. But even among the contrary camp of Anglo-American philosophers the certainty that is assumed to accompany objective and neutral understandings of concepts is being challenged. Thus Michael Walzer (1985) has focused on the contextual and social meanings of social goods, while Ronald Dworkin has noted that most contemporary philosophers accept that conceptual definitions are substantive and normative. Taking democracy as an example, Dworkin contends against essentialist definitions that

we still need an account of what makes one feature of a social or political arrangement essential to its character as a democracy and another feature only contingent, and once we have rejected the idea that reflection on the meaning of ‘democracy’ will supply that distinction, nothing else will. (2001: 11)

Ethical values have no independent status but are derivative from what makes a good and successful life, i.e. one that furthers individual interests. These observations significantly reduce the gap between philosophers and students of ideology, though they still leave open the question of whether the idea of a good life is a stable one. Even given general consensus on the primacy of well-being, the small print that fills in that conceptual category may differ markedly from case to case. Divergent ideologies can offer varying yet plausibly legitimate notions of human flourishing.


To suggest that political philosophy concerns what ought to be, while ideology concerns what is, is not just an oversimplification; it is misleading. All too often political philosophy does not offer us what ought to be, if ‘ought’ implies a realizable possibility, because in its dominant current guises it is excessively utopian, a label philosophers would be loath to acknowledge. It is utopian in two senses: first, it engages in thought experiments to which no reality could correspond; second, it offers purified generalities from which conflict and inconsistencies have been surgically removed (e.g. Habermas and Rawls). The uses of political philosophy are in its sharp elucidation of issues within its broader generalities. For instance, it has cast important light on problems of equalization of treatment and of life chances by offering criteria for fair and justifiable inequalities. But it would be inappropriate to describe these as best practice, if best practice can never be achieved. Rather, these are models of what good practice could be, were we to abstract a particular set of problems from contextual constraints, and were we to smooth over the frictions which any political solution attempts to eliminate. Political philosophers achieve micro-coherence by holding most ‘externalities’ constant. That is one of their prime methods, and it discharges vital functions: it enables the critical construction of alternatives through which to assess, and often to reject, current practice; it advances our moral sensibilities; it refines the analytical skills required for the lucid understanding and prescription of social practices; and it encourages precise thinking on the causes and consequences of human conduct.

The study of ideology, to the contrary, is not—as often portrayed—a descriptive art, but an interpretive one. It responds to the question: which rigorous interpretive paradigms are the most helpful in furthering our understanding of the nature and potential of political thought? It reconstructs existing thought practices, but from a necessarily relative perspective; and in its critical mode it offers us tools for appreciating not what ought to be, but what can be, in the domain of political practice. Some ideologies are, contra Karl Mannheim, utopias, but they then are consciously and deliberately utopian. Others are concrete sets of solutions, some of which are attractive, sagacious or prudent, and some of which may be shocking and ruthless in their conceptualization and stray beyond any accepted limits of decency. Many ideologies are more modest, and less precise, approximations of what political philosophers aspire to. Ideologies are, in effect, more likely than political philosophies to abstract from logical constraints than from contextual ones. Their study tells us less than the study of political philosophies when it comes to the intricacies involved in testing political thought to its limits. But it tells us much more about the fields of political thinking available to a society, and it illuminates that thinking through exploring the constraints and options that make each ideology a distinct configuration shaped by time, space and culture. The amenability of ideologies to change and diversification also accounts for the need to decontest, to impose a particular solution logically arbitrary though culturally significant—on political practice. This recognition of the inevitable act of decontesting the essentially contestable, an act that bestows specific meaning on an unstructured multiverse of meanings, marks out the student of ideologies from the political philosopher, who performs similar decontestations but is prone to package them as general solutions to the issues at hand (as, with less elegance, does the ideologue). If political philosophers dream of drawing thinking together, students of ideology crave understanding for its fissured condition. The discipline of political theory requires both philosophical and ideological analysis, but its practitioners need to know when to employ the one and when the other, and what crucial insights each of these subdisciplines can deliver.