Column on “Ideology” at The Times Editor

Tibor R. Machan

I need to be especially careful in using that term, “ideology,” since I
have been a frequent critic of others’ use of it. In casual talk it means
“simplistic viewpoint.” But when used in a more serious discussion,
“ideology” means “phony and psychologically devious viewpoint.”

That is to say, an ideology is a position someone holds not because it was
reached through research and reasoning but because it serves an agenda or
merely buttresses how one feels about something. In the hands of Karl
Marx, for example, the term was used to discredit the views of his
opponents. If they invented those views so as to serve some class or
personal (especially economic) interest, well then they didn’t deserve to
be taken seriously.

Today the term is deployed a lot by pundits and commentators who want to
dismiss ideas of which they disapprove but do not wish to defend their
dismissal of those ideas. Just calling in an ideology, or labeling
someone an ideologue, serves to demean the position of those who hold it.
Scientists, when they do science, would be the farthest thing from
ideologues and science from ideology. That’s because it is still widely
believed among intellectuals that observation is the sole basis for
rational judgment and that all science is based on observation.

This was, if I may be somewhat ironic, the ideology–or, put more
respectfully, the philosophical stance–of a great many educated people at
the early and middle part of the 20th century. That famous motto of the
state of Missouri, “Show me,” pretty much said it all–if you can’t, well
there is nothing to what you are claiming.

This outlook fell on hard times when it was noticed that advocating it had
itself no observational foundation. The idea that observations ought to
back up all our claims to know things turned out not to be subject to
observational support! It was an article of faith, at least by the terms
of the very people who proposed it.

But this didn’t kill the position as it ought to have. To this day many
people embrace the supposedly hardheaded doctrine of empiricism, namely,
that only knowledge based on sensory evidence counts, nothing else. And
with this idea came another very seriously wrong and harmful one, namely,
that no value judgments could be rationally defended, none could amount to

The public editor of The New York Times appears to be among those who
still cling to the discredited idea that nothing counts for knowledge that
includes value judgments. In a recent piece in which he tries hard to
distinguish between writing news or analysis and writing editorials or
opinion pieces, he approvingly quotes Bill Keller, the executive editor of
The Times, saying that “Op-Ed columnists have ‘greater license to write
from an ideological viewpoint and be prescriptive’,” than do news writers
and analysts.

So, apparently, Mr. Keller and public editor Clark Hoyt believe that
prescriptive commentary need not bother much with providing support and
evidence because these are produced “from an ideological viewpoint.” This
is what used to be labeled “being biased” and, therefore, containing mere
attitudes or feelings. That is what the early positivists argued about
all non-scientific claims, including those in ethics, politics,
aesthetics, and religion.

Now it is sad to find the public and executive editors of The New York
Times pretty much dismissing all the material on the editorial and Op Ed
pages as being written from an “ideological viewpoint.” All of it is
“prescriptive,” meaning, as they implicitly do, that such writing fails to
be well grounded, could not aspire to being true, cannot be subjected to
critical scrutiny.

When one dismisses–editorials, opinion pieces, etc.–as prescriptive or
ideological, one is of course dismissing one’s own opinions as no more
than that. And if so, then why bother taking it seriously, why even read

In fact, ideological viewpoints are every bit as subject to critical
scrutiny as are scientific positions, only not by the same criteria. Some
(few) ideologies are sound, others are not. That is also the case with
prescriptive statements, the stuff of morality and politics.

There is no sharp division between discourse about values and about
facts–values are just different kind of facts, facts about how we ought
to act, something vital to human life and not to be relegated to the class
of unfounded, emotional utterances.

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