Liberal Languages: Ideological Imaginations and Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

INTERMEZZO

IDEOLOGY REDIVIVUS

Ideologies are ubiquitous forms of political thinking. Let's put this more forcefully: the access we have to the actual political thought of a society is always through its ideologies, that is, through the configurations and clusters of interdependent political concepts and ideas that circulate in that society at different levels of articulation. It is not attained through individual concepts or through individual thinkers, because neither language nor societies host these elements in isolation. The raw material of political thought at the disposal of any society is immense, and the meanings and semantic structures of political language are necessarily indeterminate. That indeterminism entails a fundamental pluralism of meaning that is partly captured by Gallie's notion of essential contestability.1 Political concepts are contestable both because of the value judgments they express, concerning which no preferred position can be allocated indisputable and incontestable status, as Gallie claimed, but also because the intension of any political concept contains more components than any particular instance can hold at a given time.2 Ideologies act as constraints on the infinite range of political meanings that a society produces, constraints that are not only logical but cultural (for logic is still an arbitrary carrier of meaning). Ideologies thus inject an aura of determinacy into political language through decontesting the essentially contestable—in other words, through linking together particular interpretations of each constituent concept that have been selected and prioritised out of an indeterminate range of meanings they may signify. The outcome is a distinct conceptual morphology that is absolutely vital to the making of decisions, and decisions are, after all, the prime political act.

Conceptual decontestation occurs at different levels of political discourse and can create holistic groupings of ideas within a large spectrum. For example, a particular combination of conceptions of time, of the priority of groups, of the value and fact of human equality will form a

1 W. G. Gallie, “Essentially Contested Concepts,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society,
56 (1955–56): 167–98.

2 For a more detailed exposition of this argument see M. Freeden, Ideologies and Political
Theory: A Conceptual Approach (Oxford, 1996), chap. 2. On the polysemy of words see
P. Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth, 1976).

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