Ideology vs. Pragmatism

Words, whether coined by an individual or of more organic origins, begin with certain definitions, but as time progresses their meanings and connotations change.  What does ideology bring to mind?  How about pragmatism?

Ideology, according to   1) the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.  2) such a body of doctrine, myth, etc., with reference to some political and social plan, as that of fascism, along with the devices for putting it into operation.  3) the study of the nature and origin of ideas; a system that derives ideas exclusively from sensation.  4) theorizing of a visionary or impractical nature.”

A more succinct definition from Merriam-Webster: “the set of ideas and beliefs of a group or political party; a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture; a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture.”

The Encyclopedia Britannica gives us some historical background, including reasons for the word having both negative and positive connotations:

Thus ideology has been from its inception a word with a marked emotive content, though Destutt de Tracy presumably had intended it to be a dry, technical term. Such was his own passionate attachment to the science of ideas, and such was the high moral worth and purpose he assigned to it, that the word idéologie was bound to possess for him a strongly laudatory character. And equally, when Napoleon linked the name of idéologie with what he had come to regard as the most detestable elements in Revolutionary thought, he invested the same word with all of his feelings of disapprobation and mistrust. Ideology was, from this time on, to play this double role of a term both laudatory and abusive not only in French but also in German, English, Italian, and all the other languages of the world into which it was either translated or transliterated.

Pragmatism also seems marked by contradictory usage.

Pragmatism, school of philosophy, dominant in the United States in the first quarter of the 20th century, based on the principle that the usefulness, workability, and practicality of ideas, policies, and proposals are the criteria of their merit. It stresses the priority of action over doctrine, of experience over fixed principles, and it holds that ideas borrow their meanings from their consequences and their truths from their verification. Thus, ideas are essentially instruments and plans of action.

Achieving results, i.e., “getting things done” in business and public affairs, is often said to be “pragmatic.” There is a harsher and more brutal connotation of the term in which any exercise of power in the successful pursuit of practical and specific objectives is called “pragmatic.” The character of American business and politics is often so described. In these cases “pragmatic” carries the stamp of justification: a policy is justified pragmatically if it is successful.

Two definitions:

Pragmatism: “1) a practical approach to problems and affairs tried to strike a balance between principles and pragmatism; 2) an American movement in philosophy founded by C. S. Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief.”

Pragmatism: “action or policy dictated by consideration of the immediate practical consequences rather than by theory or dogma. 2) the doctrine that the content of a concept consists only in its practical applicability; the doctrine that truth consists not in correspondence with the facts but in successful coherence with experience.”

Did you catch that last definition?  Truth consists not in correspondence with the facts but in… coherence with experience?  What exactly is the difference between “facts” and “experience?”  Are we entering the realm of relativism here?  Certainly there is a flavor of “the ends justify the means.”

Often people and groups who claim to be “free from ideology” and pragmatic, practical, and action oriented, are in fact some of the most ideological, impractical, and disconnected from reality.  These folks, like the atheist who claims to be completely rational and only influenced by empirical facts, but is actually very closed minded in their faith, they routinely ignore and deny facts that don’t match their preconceived notions.


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