On Ideology [Long]

This is one of my essays from the 2008 period. It has a raconteurish sort of style which I try to avoid now. I’ll post it here because it’s fun and somewhat informative, and was generally well received by interested readers. It does not represent my current views. — BLSN 2012

During the latter decades of the last century, debates in analytic philosophy over the limits of translation faded into twilight. At the same time that the political climate was in the midst of a drastic change, the mainstream consensus in favor of liberal-democratic ideologies became increasingly taken for granted in debates over the public sphere and domestic policy. This was a time that was noteworthy for epoch-ending triumphalisms: arguably, starting with Daniel Bell’s “End of Ideology” thesis, reaching an (anti-)climax with Fukuyama’s “End of History”. Yet today, there are signs of a revival of interest in the areas of overlap between translation in philosophy and ideology in politics. The time seems right to revisit the most aggressive stance in this wide-ranging and supple debate: the contributions of the Frankfurt School.

For an analytic philosopher, the task of approaching the primary texts of the Frankfurt School (during any of its phases) runs immediately into the practical problem of interpreting the texts themselves. The School offers many challenges to the contemporary reader. Adorno’s penchant for the use of a Spinozan vernacular instead of the speech of his contemporaries, and Marcuse’s ease of facility with Freudian concepts that today’s analytic philosophers generally regard with suspicion, are two token hurdles that must be overcome when attempting to put the texts to use. It is helpful, then, to have Raymond Geuss’s synopsis of Habermas’s interpretation of the Frankfurt School at hand in order to guide us through the works in the tradition. Appropriately enough, in the following missive I will examine the first chapter of Raymond Geuss’s “The Idea of a Critical Theory” and apply it to key readings in the Frankfurt School. I will draw attention to the notion of ideology as it is used in critical theory, and describe the manner that Geuss believes the concept is most usefully deployed in relation to other conceptions of ideology. I will anchor Geuss’s explanations by reference to some of the core texts of the Frankfurt School, and in contemporary analytic philosophy, wherever such may be relevant.

I don’t think that much needs to be said in apology for the essay that is to come, but I should make some remarks as to why the subject matters, at least to this author.

The role that ideology plays into understanding and misunderstanding was a live interest during the middle years of twentieth century philosophy. Rudolf Carnap is a helpful example, both in the content of his theories and the degree of his influence; central to his formulation of logical positivism was the use of pragmatic criteria to determine one’s choice between distinct languages. While two languages can present radically different worldviews, so to speak – arranging the materials of experience in relatively different ways – we are entreated to adopt a principle of tolerance, so that the possibility of adopting one language or another is still open to us. As it happens, Carnap was also a German of liberal –socialist sensibilities who fled the Third Reich to America. Yet in escaping the onslaught against liberalism on the continent, he ran straight into an onslaught against positivist doctrines concerning translation in the Americas. W.V.O. Quine’s rejection of the apriori and advocacy of epistemological holism posed direct challenges to Carnap’s formulation of logical positivism, allowing for his own distinct behaviorist approach to translation. (Friedman 2001) But for all this, Quine leaves open the possibility that misunderstanding between persons might arise out of the fact that different individuals may adopt different conceptual schemes, which is to say, may regard certain statements (or sets of them) as being relatively more important than others.

Elsewhere in philosophy, Frankfurt School member Herbert Marcuse, would take an aggressive stance on issues of translation. For Marcuse, we ought to declare moratorium on our attempts to translate speech into the dominant form of discourse (say, in terms of empirical instrumentalism, characterized by operationalism and behaviorism). We are obliged as critical theorists to burn our translation manuals until they may be written in critical terms (Marcuse 86-87). (If we were to compare Marcuse to Carnap, we might call it Marcuse’s principle of intolerance.) The centrality of translation is taken for granted, and in each case, applications of the study of translation to the study of ideology may either be explicitly found or tacitly inferred.

Historical gloss aside, and moving on to biography. For better or worse – probably worse – during my first years as a philosopher I paid a great deal of attention to the novels of Ayn Rand. Say what you will about her, but every Rand novel has a point, her writing didactic to the nth degree. At the time when I read it, a little didacticism was just what the doctor ordered. When the tenor of domestic liberal politics in the post-Cold War environment is best defined by varying degrees of witless compromise, her shrill certitude makes for a wonderful change of scenery. It was somewhere between the covers of Atlas Shrugged that I made a conscious choice to investigate what exactly had gone wrong with her brain. A consequence of that effort involved figuring out just what had gone wrong with my own, since I spent some considerable time trying to find common ground which I could have wasted in other, less frustrating pursuits. But I do find myself richer for knowing that my beliefs are of a kind that are not quite hers. I wish it were a platitude to say that we gain a great deal by understanding where we disagree with one another, and ought to be outraged when opportunities for these comparisons are thwarted by customs of habit and cognition that inevitably lead to pathological cases of misunderstanding.



We occasionally gain a great deal when we attempt to understand each other, and find exactly that common ground across ideologies. The attempt to build bridges between brains is, of course, the keystone to Habermas’s universal pragmatics. For Habermas, when one engages in a communicative act, they tacitly postulate that the act can be vindicated by virtue of its attempt to reach mutual understanding. This is a theme to which we will return in our investigations into critical theory. For critical theory, ideology is a mechanism by which, not only mutual understanding is thwarted, but also (in some cases) the understanding itself is subverted. In just what sense this is true, is something we shall presently examine.

Geuss’s presentation of Habermas’s reconstruction of the Frankfurt School begins with a lucid formulation of some of its primary aims. Frankfurtians, first and foremost, wish to clarify and make sense of the Marxist and Freudian epistemologies when properly understood. It is characterized by three negative theses. First, Marxist epistemology is neither a purely formal science, nor is it a set of abilities. Rather, a Marxist epistemology is aimed at producing emancipation and enlightenment. Second, it is neither just a speculative worldview, nor is it strictly empirical; it is essentially a self-reflective enterprise which resists attempts at objectification of things. Third, it is not a mish-mash of cognitive and non-cognitive statements. Rather, it is thoroughly cognitive, as it aims to substantiate the critique of false consciousness in the most full-blooded sense of the term: the accent lies on “false”, and when they speak of falsity, they use the term in more than just a metaphorical sense, i.e., to designate the sorts of things that the author wishes to reject.

In order to properly understand the meaning and import of Marx’s epistemology, though, we first have to understand what forms of epistemology that it differs from. Geuss identifies three mainstream conceptions of the term “ideology”: the descriptive sense, and two normative senses (positive and pejorative). We will examine each in turn, and then re-consider the prospects of critical theory.

A. The descriptive conception.

Ideology in the descriptive sense is a project in empirical sociology and anthropology. The purpose of such investigations is to make sense of the ways in which persons hold different beliefs in certain areas of their lives, and inquire to what degree these beliefs may be systematically linked. Both the system of beliefs itself (discursive), and the relation between a system of beliefs to its consequences upon behavior (non-discursive), are fair game in a study of ideology, though for Habermas refers “in the first instance” to the discursive elements. The important point here is that a study of ideology in the descriptive vein must begin with a study of a certain area of life (I will use this phrase interchangeably with Geuss-Habermas refer to a “domain of action”). So we can fruitfully study, for example, the economic ideology of the former Soviet Union, and we can compare it to the economic ideology of the United States, of hunter-gatherer societies, and so on.

Ideologies can be subdivided, if it seems useful to do so. For example, I might regard my liberal ideology as distinct from my epistemic ideology, they seeming to be entirely disconnected projects. Explicit in Guess is the idea that subdivisions can, at least in principle, be classified according to the degree of relevance that the ideology has upon areas of life: we might talk of economic ideologies, or we might talk about “’the’ ideology of the group simpliciter” (9). But Guess-Habermas advise us that these divisions cannot be made cheaply. When performing this sort of investigation, one runs into some significant troubles in classification.

Ideologies may be characterized by both their content and their functional role in relation to the social order. (Presumably these distinctions map, respectively, onto the discursive and a subsection of non-discursive elements of the ideology.) Geuss stresses that these elements are both distinct and continuous. So, for instance, I might, with Chomsky, regard one of the functional roles of football to be to distract popular attention away from the fact that they are powerless with respect to political affairs. (Chomsky 33) Those that take a kind of critical behaviorist approach to social science may see an opportunity, here, to dispense with unnecessary illusions from the get-go. If the functional role is what we are interested in, then shouldn’t we, as social scientists, best divorce the things people avow and affirm, and instead examine their behaviors? The problem with this view is that, if we were to pretend that we could make all of social science a discussion of the functional role of behaviors without reference to the manifest endorsements of ideas, it would be difficult to classify behaviors in the first place. For there is no such thing as a “purely economic” form of behavior, any more than there is a “purely athletic” form of behavior; any given behavior is open to interpretation. The functional role and the manifest content, therefore, are deeply linked.

But the functional role and manifest content are also distinct, and must be distinguished, even if the distinction is ultimately shallow. For one of the most interesting things about inquiry into social systems is that we often want to make sense of the difference between the functional role and the avowed beliefs of an ideology; for example, according to Mark Twain and scores after him, the functional role of the popular press is to manufacture consent, even if its manifest (secondary) purpose is to inform the public of world happenings. (Twain 2009) Moreover, as Geuss points out, the avowed distinctions that each society makes about its own order is one of the most interesting things about it. There are people who know, and care about, the difference between (say) the ideological differences between Presbyterianism and Protestantism proper, and the very fact that they make such distinctions is instructive evidence with which we can understand their ways of thinking, even if a Martian visiting our planet would probably not be able to tell the difference on the basis of any key behaviors.

It is with all this in mind that we start to see how classification is vital to social inquiry. But how far along can we continue to classify and sub-classify ideologies in the descriptive vein? Geuss remarks that as soon as we talk about ideologies that do not examine all societies, say fiscal ideology, we move away from a purely descriptive sense. For while a “descriptive ideology” is supposed to make sense of some area of life that every society has, these ideologies may be formulated so narrowly that they are idiosyncratic to some particular culture or other. (It is not clear to me why either Geuss or Habermas think that a description of an idiosyncratic ideology is not descriptive in any interesting sense – say, in merely sociological, and not anthropological, studies – but this is a complaint we shall otherwise pass over in silence.)

So much for ideology in the abstract. But we are left with some other questions. How is it that we are able to examine ideologies in a fruitful way? What counts as evidence of an ideology, and what does not? There have, in the literature, been competing formulations on how to investigate ideology in order to answer such questions. Some senses of ideology are construed narrowly, and restrict attention to, say, the beliefs that are superfluous in a culture (i.e., do not contribute to production), or which compose a set of all moral and normative beliefs, or set of beliefs that agents have about themselves as moral agents. (9) Though Geuss does not reject such formulations, it seems as though they can only serve limited purposes, at best. So ideology can also be formulated in a wider sense, closer to the meaning of a worldview of a group simpliciter; and this, as it happens, is (for Geuss) the best example of ideology in the descriptive sense. A wide sense of ideology investigates discursive and non-discursive elements that are widely shared in the population, are in some sense systematically interconnected, are central to an agent’s conceptual scheme (in Quine’s sense, i.e., that people won’t readily give them up), have a wide and deep influence on behavior on some central sphere of action or area of life, and finally which deal with central issues of human life.

While some progress would seem to have been made in the wide formulation, we have not yet eliminated all vagueness from the criteria. If we are to achieve the kinds of empirical results that we are looking for, it will depend on how strictly we operationalize the above criteria. More specifically, it will depend on how we decide to pick out human groups: our working formulation of what constitutes “a society”. Without some non-arbitrary way of identifying our main subject matter, we are at a loss to even begin our social inquiry. It is at this tenuous place in the narrative that, unceremoniously, Geuss takes leave of the descriptive conception of ideology.



B. The normative conceptions (pejorative and positive).

I just lied to you. Actually, under the head of “descriptive ideology”, Geuss also discusses a conception of ideology in a “programmatic sense”, introduced by Daniel Bell to support his “end of ideology” thesis. For Bell, a total ideology is a way of translating ideas into action, includes a theory of how the social environment works, aims at radical transformation of the society, and is held with an excess of passion than is warranted. (11) For Bell, ideology in this sense has come to an end in developed Western industrial societies, since intellectuals have broadly lost faith in revolutionary activity, and agree upon the welfare state model. Any progress is to happen piecemeal, through the tinkering of this or that policy by technical experts. But we have some motivating reasons to think that these last two criteria are only useful when in service to Bell’s desired conclusions. It is unclear how his thesis as stated is meant to convince the reader, unless they are motivated to view the liberal consensus as a non-ideological feat. It seems unlikely that the residual consensus can make use of technical means alone if it attempts to solve canonical problems of industrial society: labor commodification and alienation, for example. (Chomsky 73) But if we ignore the final two criteria in this conception, as Geuss suggests, then we are left with little more than the wide conception of ideology. Insofar as Bell’s contributions are distinct from other senses of ideology, it is surely more appropriate to call his unique formulation a pejorative sense of ideology, where the term is reserved as a term of contempt or critique.

Bell’s formulation of a pejorative conception is not unique. The pejorative sense of ideology has long been in operation, even (to some extent) in some sections of the Marxist left. An ideology is a form of “false consciousness” or ideologically false, and under such views, to be dismissed out of hand.

The doctrine of “false consciousness” has been a major point of contention amongst political philosophers. What sense can we make of the claim that some form of “consciousness” is “false”? Critics (summarized, for example, in Heath 2005) have worried that the standards by which a form of consciousness is regarded as false are controversial or arbitrary. In just what sense, then, could we defend that thesis, in a motivated and non-arbitrary way?

Geuss identifies three senses in which the idea of a “false consciousness” can be made sense of: it may be false due to epistemic fault, due to some functional role in maintaining the social order, or due to its dubious origins.

False consciousness may be epistemic in several senses. First, we may mistake the epistemic status of a moral belief for one that is truth-assessable; in other words, mistaking a non-cognitive belief for a cognitive one. This view presupposes a rigid distinction between the cognitive and non-cognitive, and is most often formulated in the terms of emotivism, or the doctrine within logical positivism that regards non-verifiable statements as being drained of cognitive meaning. (Such statements are more akin to bursts of wanton expression, like “boo” or “hooray”.) As Geuss avers, these aspects of the doctrine are in effect a kind of positivist criticism of ideology. Second, we may make an objectification mistake, by supposing that social phenomena are natural and inevitable instead of historically contingent. In the Frankfurt School this is often derided as the hypostatization of a concept. Third, we might make a composition error, mistaking some particular interests for more general interests. Fourth, we might make errors by laying claim that some statement is true, while it is in fact a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The falseness of consciousness might also be the result of its functional role in the social order. That is to say, the ideology may support institutions of repression, either in the practical sense (it just so happens to stabilize the social order) or the normative one (it actively legitimizes it), and be false thereby. In such a case, with the critique of hypostatized concepts in mind, we may regard the ideology to be a sufficient, but not (historically) necessary, condition for the operations of the society. For Geuss, the sense in which we might say that some ideology may “support” institutions of repression is unclear, until we encounter Habermas’s formulation of surplus repression as frustration of the preferences of a subclass of the population that makes a claim to being legitimate domination, but which is not actually necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of the society. (18) If this formulation seems unsatisfying, lacking the critical bite that is necessary for a pejorative sense of ideology to be successful, we might add that the functional conditions that the ideology hinders the maximum development of the forces of production (as articulated, for instance, in Marcuse), and obfuscates the conditions of repression and “social contradictions” in social life, so that they are not well noted or articulated in the population. These forms of consciousness are meant to be regarded as “false” in the sense that, if I were to know the truth about the consequences of my beliefs on the wider society, then I would no longer wish to retain these beliefs.

The third manner in which we might make sense of the pejorative conception of ideology is through its connection to the genetic properties of how an ideology comes about. Of course, we have no good reason to reject a belief (or set of them) just because they arise from the testimonies of this or that class of persons. But in the most mature sense, the genetic account might insist that a form of consciousness arises from false beliefs about one’s causal/motivational history, and moreover, these false beliefs about the causal history are necessary to hold it. So long as the person cannot see the origins of the form of consciousness or ideology, they cannot leave it behind. And surely, if delusion regarding the manner of acquisition is the sine qua non of the ideology, we might feel justified in saying that it is in an important sense “false”, because it depends upon falsity to survive.

Geuss stresses that, while some ideologies may be false, it follows sensibly that we might regard some ideologies as both “true” and laudable: namely, those ideologies that we would retain after knowing their causal history. Branching out from there, we can also talk about the most appropriate ideology for some group, given their interests and wants: in other words, we might construct ideologies in a third, “positive” sense. Naturally, such an ideology would fall within some suitably restrained scope of desires and limits to the means used to achieve them. It would be required, for instance, that we be ultimately disinterested in the desire-satisfaction of scoundrels, murderers, etc. In such a case, we would be engaged in efforts that more closely resemble the idealized political philosophies, for instance, of John Rawls.

When looking at the distance we’ve traveled in Geuss’s essay, a striking point must be made about the caliber of our answers. In the most plausible formulation of the pejorative sense of ideology, we have begun to do work that seems awfully descriptive, in some watered down sense: for here we are, trying to investigate the psychological states of persons regarding causal chains, checking them against a background in which we presumably know the actual states of affairs and their antecedents, and all that stuff. We are not doing work in the “descriptive” sense, that sense having rejected all but the most universalizing conclusions; yet it isn’t obvious we are doing purely normative work, either. Though Geuss does not emphasize this aspect, it seems appropriate to read him suggesting the first announcements of the Frankfurt program have led us to this point: the most fruitful work in social theory must be done without pretending the normative/descriptive divide cuts very deep, at least as it has been stated so far.

Goth Habermas.

Goth Habermas.

C. Critical conception of ideology.

So far the investigations into ideology have been framed in a way that is assessable in terms of classic category distinctions, i.e., in terms of different conceptions of ideology titled the “descriptive” and “normative” conceptions. For their critical project, the positivist wanted us to carefully review and categorize our statements into two kinds: cognitive beliefs that are open to rational debate and can be examined as true or false (i.e., assessable through those conditions in which they might be verified or their meaning stated), and non-cognitive endorsements that are not susceptible to rational debate and not possible to examine in terms of truth or falsity (ultimately, more or less exotic ways of saying “boo” and “yay”). We have obliged the positivist so far by looking at the extent to which something like social criticism might happen within the confines of that divide. But we have seen already that the critical theorists are not impressed with this divide, as the positivists framed it. The critical conception enters into the debate, formulated as it has been so far, by criticizing this notion of rationality.

There are good and bad reasons why positivism is the favorite punching bag of political theorists. A good reason for attracting attention is that it was a credible, and relevant, alternative to critical theories in the Frankfurt sense. The positivist project was a critical project (in a sense), which attempted in earnest to situate the political realities around them in an epistemology that was considered enough to deal with such matters. If they had not given any resources for social criticism, they would never have even been noted by anyone interested in that subject. And indeed, as Geuss remarks (following Habermas), it is not as though the positivist has not demonstrated that they lack the resources to deal in criticism. As we saw above, the main follies that afflict the epistemologies of ideologists are the fallacies of self-fulfilling prophecies, errors in objectification, errors of composition (i.e., mistaking particular interests for general ones), and confusions of epistemic standing. The canons of positivist thought can readily tell us how self-fulfilling prophecies, errors of objectification, and confusions of epistemic standing are errors of rationality: they are scientifically unsound, or are the result of a confused sense of the positive conception of rational debate.

However, under Geuss’s reconstruction, it is not at all clear how the composition error under discussion can be criticized by logical positivism. And, to be more specific, it isn’t clear how the positivist can respond to what we’ve called instances of “false consciousness”: i.e., those beliefs that require a composition error in order to be held. Recall that a “composition error” deals in confusing the interests of persons. Presumably for the positivist, interests are not cognitive. But it seems natural enough to say that when we abandon beliefs that suffer under a composition error, we have moved onto a more rational set of beliefs.

Geuss brings up an example from Neitzsche in order to make his point. Suppose that I believe in the Christian God, and that I am my brother’s keeper; but also suppose that, as a matter of psychological fact, belief in the Christian God may be a result of envy and spite. As Geuss says, “it is sufficient for the critical enterprise that the Christian cannot acknowledge hatred is in general, or always, or even ever an acceptable motive for beliefs, preferences, and attitudes.” (44) On first blush, the positivist does not seem to have the tools to claim that the abandonment of normative beliefs is a move towards greater rationality — we have, at best, replaced one personal preference for another, and at worst, made an arbitrary decision.

Plausibly, the positivist might counter that cognitive beliefs about the person’s own motivational history are false (i.e., delusional), and that it is the correction of this error that makes the wide body of beliefs more rational upon revision. The problem is that it is unclear as to what would constitute adequate evidence that Christians are motivated by spite: we can’t imagine any sufficient verification conditions for such a thing (even if there may be some suggestive evidence). Instead of verification conditions, there are different kinds of warrants that lend us different degrees of conviction. If, as it happens, Christians were motivated by spite, and the Christian’s belief that they are motivated by compassion arose only out of wishful thinking (flying in the face of the evidence), then we would have run out of words that we can use to describe the problem in positivist language. The genesis of belief is not truth-assessable; the motivations are non-cognitive; yet the tensions that hold between these commitments are too powerful for us to dismiss as being cognitively insignificant. For Geuss, we profit more from recognizing and taking seriously the Christian’s avowed belief that some motives are more appropriate than others (i.e., love is more appropriate than hate), and acknowledging that, when faced with substantial yet indecisive evidence, the abandonment of the belief-system is more rational than letting things lie.

And so we are left to reconsider what is meant by the rational limits of debate. For Habermas, the domain of the cognitive must be extended to cover the normative; there exists such a thing as the normatively true. (31) Geuss seems to part ways with Habermas at this point, suggesting instead that the normative must be evaluated in terms of degrees (i.e., not strictly true or false), yet can still be considered to be cognitive in the sense that it can be subject to rational evaluation. But whatever happens to truth, both have had enough with the cognitive-noncognitive debate.


We have arrived at the heroic part of the essay, where I make my groundbreaking contribution to the conversation.

My first complaint is one I have nurtured for some length of time: when Habermas, Geuss, and the rest of the world speak of our “society”, I do not know to what thing they are referring. For example, when Habermas formulates surplus repression as a case of domination that is not necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of the society, I do not know what society is supposed to be saved, or what it would take to save it. Which society — the state? — the civilization? — the community? — any society whatsoever?

To put my point another way, when I read that Margaret Thatcher once announced “There is no such thing as society”, I was sympathetic. But then she went and spoiled it all by saying, “…there are families”. If such things as families were to exist, then they would surely be kinds of society. But we were just lately informed that there is no such thing as a society. So how are we supposed to individuate these social groupings to achieve some kind of critical result? To borrow a line from Jerry Fodor, are we really just conducting a science of Tuesdays? If so, then we would largely be concerned with a problem in translation and interpretation.

When Geuss-Habermas began the discussion, they developed two modes of analysis for societies: the “domain of action” (including discursive and non-discursive elements), and the “functional role”. At least in their prototypical form, families and groups do not seem to need either of these notions for us to talk about them. When we talk about families and groups, we are given to speak in patently empirical terms: they share some common causal history, or they share a common space. These empirical terms (albeit not themselves innocent of interpretation) can be further warped when they are examined in terms of their purported spheres of life and their functional role by the above two factors, naturally; we speak of “social space” that unites one stranger with another, or a “common history” of peoples along lines that are open to gerrymandering.

So it seems obvious that when doing the philosophy of sociology we need to accept that we are investigating the social world with the help of handy conceptual tools. The importance of the interplay between the society and ideology cannot be understated; there are no natural kinds under investigation, and no illusions that we might be carving nature at its joints. So when proceeding with some social investigation, we might begin intensionally by using an ideology in order to pick out some aggregate; or we might proceed extensionally, first by finding an aggregate, and then singling out whatever we take to be its ideology. The central task is to engage in some kind of self-reflective research, so that when we have picked out the relevant society, we might want to investigate more deeply into what ideology we think some subset of the population might have. But suppose that you and I are both social critics, and both of us are about to conduct a social investigation of some kind into a society we hold in common. We have similar aims, in the sense that we are both interested in looking at roughly the same people. Unless we use identical criteria for identifying both ideologies and aggregates, our results will diverge sharply, and engender different ways of speaking. It is only through the re-examination of common ground after the analysis has been concluded that we gain can something for the trouble. When we are done comparing notes, there is no guarantee that we might end up with a science of Tuesdays in principle; but in practice, our interests will hopefully focus upon features of the social order that are interesting.

As we have seen, we are not left to advocate a laissez-faire procedure that allows all manner of speculation into the discussion, since not all analyses will be equally rational. If we accept Geuss-Habermas’s lesson, it would seem that we have a relatively more robust sense of what the discursive mode of analysis looks like than the positivist does. The cost is that we can no longer pretend to advocate a deep boundary between the normative and the descriptive. As far as we can tell, there is no deep and discernable distinction between belief that a person’s belief is true and a belief that a person’s motives for believing are appropriate. Unless we come to know in rich detail the body of theory (or something theory-like) that a person has about their own beliefs, their intended ontologies become inscrutable to the outside observer, if not to themselves.

So it is not a coincidence that, when we conduct a close reading of Geuss, we find that some of the relevant Freudian distinctions do not survive the discussion unmolested. For the Freudian, illusions and delusions share in common that they both are beliefs in some matter of fact due to wishful thinking. The ostensible difference is that while a delusions are formed in spite of overwhelming evidence that is available to contradict the belief, an illusion is when evidence could be available if it were sought out, but isn’t. But this difference is paper-thin once we realize that the term “available” does not help us to distinguish cases in any useful way. If a smoker fails to notice a No Smoking sign that others could not help but notice, can we say that the sign was unavailable to him? Well, it depends on how we’d like to interpret the word: perhaps we might stress that he could have seen it (in some sense of “could”), and therefore it was illusion; or we suspect that he suppressed sight of it out of wishful thinking that he could smoke, in which case it was delusion. Since the true and the appropriate walk the aisle together, we cannot determine which is the case. The admission of this, however, does not seem to challenge much of Freud’s central theses, which is a relief for members of the Frankfurt School; it turns out that they can still make use of the distinctions between delusion and that form of illusion, so long as those distinctions prove to be shallow.


  • Chomsky, Noam. The Chomsky Reader. Toronto: Random House, 1987.
  • Friedman, Michael. Dynamics of Reason. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 2001.
  • Geuss, Raymond. The Idea of a Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • Heath, Joseph. “Liberal autonomy and consumer sovereignty.” (2005) Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism: New Essays. Christman, John (ed). Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Pr. pp. 204-225
  • Marcuse, Herbert. The One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.
  • Twain, Mark. Who is Mark Twain? New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

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