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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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2. Noncylical Theories. As they lost the Christian
hope of a glorious resurrection, many thinkers of the
eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and of the Ameri-
can and French revolutionary movements that grew
out of it, came to believe not only that man was per-
fectible, but that in history he was being perfected.
Hence, when Michelet's translations, Oeuvres choisies
de Vico
(2 vols., 1835), made Vico's work known out-
side Italy, thinkers in the Enlightenment and revolu-
tionary traditions, while hailing him for treating his-
torical events as subject to fixed laws, substituted
continuous progress for Vico's cycles as their model
of historical development.

In his Cours de philosophie positive (6 vols.,
1830-42), Auguste Comte sought an explanation of this
progressive development; and, conceiving the level of
civilization at any given time to be a function of the
level reached at that time in the various branches of
knowledge, he thought he had found the explanation
in his Law of the Three Stages: that each branch of


knowledge passes successively through three different
theoretical conditions: the theological, or fictitious; the
metaphysical, or abstract; and the scientific, or positive.
Human civilization must pass through the same three
stages. The theological stage, which he subdivided into
fetishist, polytheist, and monotheist phases, Comte
considered to have ended about A.D. 1400; and he was
in hopes that, when he wrote, the succeeding meta-
physical stage was in its last throes. Since he believed
positive knowledge to be cumulative, he therefore
concluded that, in the future as in the past, the move-
ment of history would necessarily be progressive. In
drawing this conclusion, he assumed that the develop-
ment of thought according to the Law of the Three
Stages cannot be thwarted by other historical processes,
i.e., that it is an independent variable.

Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) tempted some of
those who believed that history is progressive to look
to biology for an alternative to the Comtist foundation
for their faith. Among those who succumbed was
Herbert Spencer, who had earlier, in Social Statics
(1851), asserted on teleological grounds that the ulti-
mate emergence of the ideal man is “logically certain.”
In First Principles (1861) and subsequent books, how-
ever, he inferred the progress of humanity as a neces-
sary consequence of a universal evolutionary move-
ment from homogeneity to heterogeneity: an idea he
obtained by generalizing a law of the pioneer embry-
ologist von Baer. Such a movement cannot be inferred
from the Darwinian theory of natural selection; but
Spencer got over that difficulty by retaining Lamarck's
doctrine, now exploded, that acquired characters can
be genetically transmitted.

Both the Comtist and evolutionist theories of pro-
gress are philosophically vulnerable. Even if the Law
of the Three Stages were true, it would not follow that
theology and metaphysics are misguided: the Law
might be a law of degeneration. And even if Darwinian
natural selection ensures evolution by “the survival of
the fittest” (a phrase coined by Spencer), acute biolo-
gists like T. H. Huxley saw that what is biologically
fittest may not be so by other standards of value.

In A Letter to Teachers of American History (1910),
the deeply skeptical Henry Adams, writing as a former
president of the American Historical Association,
maintained that, according to the second Law of Ther-
modynamics, biological evolution is only an aspect of
a more fundamental process of dissipation of energy.
It is evident that human knowledge has increased, but
may not that gain have been bought by a loss in vital-

Within his “degradationist” hypothesis, Adams con-
structed an ingenious special determinist theory of
history in terms of a conception of human development
the germ of which he professed to find in the Phase
Rule of Willard Gibbs. Gibbs's Rule has to do with
conditions of equilibrium in systems consisting of sub-
stances which may pass through a specified number
of three phases: solid, liquid, and gaseous. In The Rule
of Phase Applied to History
(1909), Adams declared
that recent science had disclosed phases besides Gibbs's
three: in one passage he listed electricity, ether, space,
and hyper-space; but in his theory itself he treated the
last three as one, the Ethereal, and identified it with
pure consciousness. He proceeded to assume that the
history of human thought is the history of its phases,
and, by a quite unfounded analogy, that in its succes-
sive phases, the movement of thought accelerates ac-
cording to a law of squares. The phase about which
we are best informed began with the Scientific Revolu-
tion, and was ending, if it had not already ended, in
the twentieth century. Describing it as the “Mechani-
cal phase,” Adams dated it from A.D. 1600 to 1900,
and calculated by his law of squares that its predecessor
should have endured for 90,000 years. The findings of
history and archaeology, he claimed, confirm this: they
make it probable that the thought-life of man in the
100,000 years preceding the Scientific Revolution was
a single Religious phase, which was not transcended
even in classical Greece. In the twentieth century, the
Mechanical phase passed, or would soon pass, into an
Electrical phase, which would be succeeded by an
Ethereal phase. If his dates for the Mechanical phase
are correct, and he thought that the margin of error
could not be greater than a century, the Electrical
phase will last only √300, or 17.5 years, and the
Ethereal only √17.5, or about four years. Even allow-
ing for error, this would “bring thought to the limit
of its possibilities” between 1921 and 2025.

It cannot be denied that Adams correctly prophesied
that in the twentieth century there would be a series
of scientific revolutions. Yet, shorn of its fanciful cata-
logue of phases, and its even more fanciful law of
squares, his theory plainly is, as indeed he acknowl-
edged, a sophisticated version of Comte's. Like
Comte's, it rests on the intrinsically dubious assumption
that the development of thought is historically an
independent variable.

The final noncyclical theory that merits consid-
eration arose within the Marxist movement. At Marx's
graveside in 1883, Engels declared that “Just as Darwin
discovered the law of development of organic nature,
so Marx discovered the law of development of human
history.” Yet Marx's original position was not deter-
minist: it was avowedly a radical version of Hegelian-
ism, in which the self-alienated God of Hegel's Phe-
became self-alienated productive man.

In all societies except the most primitive, Marx held


that down to his own time production had involved
the division of labor and private property. Hence labor
had been alienated from the worker: its products do
not belong to him, and he does not labor for labor's
sake. The prevailing mode of production determines
the social system—the classes of society and the rela-
tions between them. Every social system that arises
from the alienation of labor is divided into two antago-
nistic classes: those who alienate their labor, and those
who control the labor alienated. Slavery, feudal serf-
dom, and working for wages are different forms of
alienation, each of which determines a different form
of class-division: master and slave, feudal lord and serf,
bourgeois and proletarian.

Although in the Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx
and Engels declared it to be inevitable that the prole-
tariat would soon overthrow bourgeois society, they
did not describe it as a stage in a deterministic process.
Like Hegel, they treated history as the history of man,
and man as essentially rational: when he perceives that
he, or his society, is pursuing contradictory ends, he
strives to overcome the contradiction. Every change
from one form of class division to another has come
about because the superseded system was breaking
down under the burden of its contradictions, and a class
identified with a mode of production in which those
contradictions could be overcome seized its opportu-
nity. In the Theses on Feuerbach (1845) Marx wrote
that the point is not to understand the world, but to
change it: theory is a tool of action. The Manifesto
showed the proletariat what it could do, and what,
being human, it inevitably would do: the contradictions
of bourgeois society were reaching a crisis; and the
nature of capitalist production is such that the destruc-
tion of bourgeois society by the proletariat will end
man's alienation from himself, i.e., from his own labor.
For the first time in history, man will be both highly
productive and free.

The conversion of Marx's union of theory and prac-
tice into a determinist theory was begun by Engels
in Anti-Dühring (1877), and completed by Kautsky and
the German Marxists. They conceived human societies
as deterministic systems, in which change can be ex-
plained according to two fundamental laws: that less
advanced modes of production generate higher modes
(the hand-mill leads to the water-mill, the water-mill
to the steam-mill); and that, when a social system is
in conflict with the mode of production that prevails
in it, it is overthrown, and replaced by a social system
that is not. This deterministic theory, which its authors
styled “scientific socialism,” has for half a century hung
like an albatross from the neck of the Marxist move-

The principal objections to noncyclical determinist
theories of history, like those to cyclical ones, are
historical. Historical investigation has shown all of
them to be radically irreconcilable with what has actu-
ally happened. In each, it is usually possible to identify
a major thesis that is the source of error: for example,
in both Comte's and Engels' theories, it is that some
historical variable is independent of the others, namely,
the development either of knowledge or of production.
That all special determinist theories hitherto advanced
in history have turned out false does not show that
all those yet to be advanced will do likewise; but it
is a reason for skepticism.