While they can be used interchangeably under certain circumstances, there is generally an important distinction between the meaning of the terms philosophy and ideology. One is based on actual observation of the world around us and the application of logic to those observations to derive a system or method of thinking which is then applied to one’s daily life. In a very real sense, a philosophy is a way of life which may incorporate but does not embody a political agenda. On the other hand, ideology is usually based in theory, the precepts of which often have little or no connection to actual observations in the real world. And, unlike philosophy, ideology generally defines a group identity or political agenda. It is important that we understand the differences between philosophy and ideology so that we can recognize them when we encounter them in the real world.
A working or practical definition of philosophy would be:
: the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.
: a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.
: a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live
But the fuller definition is:
1a (1) : all learning exclusive of technical precepts and practical arts (2) : the sciences and liberal arts exclusive of medicine, law, and theology <a doctor of philosophy> (3) : the 4-year college course of a major seminary
2a : pursuit of wisdom
b : a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means
c : an analysis of the grounds of and concepts expressing fundamental beliefs
3a : a system of philosophical concepts
b : a theory underlying or regarding a sphere of activity or thought <the philosophy of war>
4a : the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group
b : calmness of temper and judgment befitting a philosopher
[Note: while this is partially true, the assertion that philosophy is based in logic negates the notion that physical observation and experimentation have nothing to do with philosophy. The modern concept of science is based on the work of philosophers.]
What we understand as “conservatism” is an excellent example of a philosophy. By “conservatism,” I mean the philosophy established by and most often credited to Sir Edmund Burke. I state this because there is a difference between Burke’s philosophy of conservatism and the political notion of conservatism as expressed in contemporary American politics – but that is a subject for another post. What matters here is that Burke worked out a thorough system of thinking and dealing with the matters of social, economic, religious and political life. In a nut shell, Burke accepted change, but he stressed the need to change slowly, deliberately and with due consideration to the effects of change on heritage, tradition and culture. In essence, Burke sought to preserve those things which identify a people, their culture: hence the name, “Conservative.”
But note: Burke’s philosophy allowed for change. So, if advancements in technology necessitated change, or if actual observation revealed a flaw in a law or social norm, Burke’s philosophy made allowances to change, to adapt to the times. In addition, Burke’s philosophy not only allowed for individual rights and liberty, it advocated their protection through the rule of law. The same cannot be said about an ideology.
Again, the working or practical definition:
: the set of ideas and beliefs of a group or political party
And the full definition:
1: visionary theorizing
2a : a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture
b : a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture
c : the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program
What we generally refer to as “Collectivism” is the perfect example of ideology, but there are many forms of collectivism. For the matter at hand, I will focus on Marxism. Marx did not develop a philosophy; he developed an ideology. We know this because his ideas were based entirely on theory and supposition and not on actual observation. As a result, the thinking of those who follow Marx is fixed. It has not evolved with time, nor has it acknowledged real world evidence that contradicts Marx’s theories. As a result, those who follow Marx have not evolved or adapted their thinking. They are confined by – defined by — their ideology. For them, it is their only reality. This leads to the creation of ideologues:
1: an impractical idealist : theorist
2: an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology
An ideologue will seldom admit mistake. Because their identity cannot be separated from their ideology, to admit mistake is to admit that they and their ideas are wrong, which means their understanding of reality is also wrong. Quite understandably, when they fail, this inability to separate themselves from their ideology leads the ideologue to “double-down” on their ideology. They will assert that their ideas are not wrong and they didn’t fail, they just were not executed properly, or by the right people, or any number of excuses. The ideologue can never accept responsibility as that is an admission of failure, which is an admission of being wrong. So, “naturally,” the solution (in the ideologue’s mind) is to assert their ideas on others through the use of force: so that their ideas cannot fail and they are ultimately proven correct. Unfortunately, if they encounter too much resistance to their use of force, the ideologue tends to exhibit a rather nasty tendency to seek the elimination of his/her opposition. A classic example of what I am trying to explain can be found in the words of Karl Marx, himself:
The meaning of peace is the absence of opposition to Socialism.
However, before we leave this subject and I close this post, there is an important point we need to be aware of that could be used to deceive you into believing my argument is incorrect. I stated that the ideologue does not adapt to changing times, and I will defend this assertion. But an ideologue may well point to changes in their method of pursuing their goal as “proof” that they adapt and, therefore, cannot be an ideologue – at least, not by my definition. Sadly, if you encounter such an assertion, you have actually encountered evidence in my favor, as this is fallacious reasoning. I did not say that the ideologue’s methods do not change; I said their ideology does not change. These are not the same thing.
If my ideology is my destination (in Marx’s case, Communism), but I change the route I am trying to take to get there (say, from violent revolution to gradual, progressive changes through legislation and cultural engineering), then have I changed my destination? And what if I not only change the road, but also the means of transportation I use to travel it (rather than stressing direct democracy, maybe the student of Marx might try regulation to achieve the changes they desire)? So, if I change the path and the vehicle, have I proven that my thinking can adapt? No. All I changed is the road I am traveling and the vehicle I am using to get to where I am going, but my destination remains the same. So, be careful and watch for these sort of rhetorical traps. In all probability, the ideologue most likely doesn’t even understand that they are traps. To them, it is just a reasonable sounding rationalization of their ideology made necessary by the fact that “they can’t possibly be wrong.”