Introductory notes to the critique of ideology

Image: Francesco Ungaro


The contemporary debate on ideology in the digital age

The ideological genesis of ideology: the Enlightenment and the French Revolution

Although some scholars consider it an outdated concept, talking about ideology is important because it is about reinforcing not only philosophical, but also sociological, political, historical and anthropological understanding that human beings are not reduced to a set of physical or material conditions. , but above all they are beings endowed with consciousness, and this consciousness is expressed subjectively in the world through ideas that are realized objectively in the form of actions and reactions.

To better understand the issue, even at an introductory level, let's walk a little through the debate historically accumulated around this concept, which we will see is as controversial as it is polysemic. Therefore, I emphasize from the outset that I do not intend to exhaust any definitive exegesis willing to correct all the others; Quite the contrary, our journey will try to bring a little of the plurality that surrounds the plots of this concept called ideology, from its beginnings to the present.

It is worth highlighting that not only in philosophy, but in social sciences as a whole, there is a consensus among experts that there is no concept that is more grand in terms of ambiguities but also so ambiguous in its grandeur, precisely because of its history marked by divergences, paradoxes, nonsense and arbitrariness.

From the outset, we need to consider that, in its origins, it is strictly a philosophical concept formulated with scientific pretensions by intellectuals at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, but that throughout history, it became pulverized in the common sense and popular imagination of the West, and in view of this, it is normally used in everyday life to refer to one or another subjective point of view, whether from an individual or a certain social group, whether about life or what would be before or after it, or even, producing, from totalizing worldviews to more specific political positions.

This easily led the ideology to take on a pejorative connotation. Therefore, I would like to suggest that we think about ideology as a contradiction in a process immanent in the formation of the modern subject and their ways of subjectively experiencing the content of social relations in the experience of life in society. A process from which no one, not even this person speaking to you, can escape. As philosopher Terry Eagleton explains, ideology can be compared to bad breath, considering that everyone has it at some point during the day, but normally we only notice bad breath in others.

The term ideology emerged under the sign of a determining contradiction of modern society, the contradiction established between reason and freedom. In the timeline, the concept of ideology emerges in the historical context of the French Enlightenment. This already raises an important aspect: ideology, at the same time as it defines and translates the human world into ideas, is also defined by its time. This story begins in 1804, when the French philosopher Destutt De Tracy coined the term in his work called Élémens D'Idéologie [Elements of Ideology] (De Tracy, 1817), with the intention of proposing a science that, according to him, would be a scientific examination of the nature of ideas.

De Tracy tried, under the Newtonian spirit dominant at the time, to undertake a theory of ideas in opposition to metaphysics. In this sense, Tracy was inspired by the theoretical paradigm founded by the French Enlightenment Éttiene Bonnot de Condillac [1715-1780], a philosopher who, in his theory about ideas, formulated a kind of synthesis between, on the one hand, the methods of Francis Bacon and René Descartes, together with the physics of Isaac Newton and the scientific revolution caused by his work Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, from 1687 and, on the other, the empiricist philosophy of John Locke. This definition presented by De Tracy carried the claim of scientifically clarifying the material basis of thought, according to him, “free from illusions”. He called this “science of ideas” “Ideology”, giving it a uniquely positive meaning, in accordance with the scientific spirit of his time.

According to British philosopher Terry Eagleton, in his book entitled Ideology (1997), the “science of ideas” came to be considered the basis of education and morals based on the French Enlightenment ideal that proclaimed reason as the main instrument for achieving the Enlightenment dream within the political underpinning of revolutionary idealism. In this context, between 1794 and 1815, Ideology unquestionably dominated the French intellectual landscape. Paul Ricoeur, in his book Ideology and utopia (2015, p. 18), explains that “It was, so to speak, a semantic philosophy whose main thesis was that philosophy does not have to do with things, with reality, but with ideas”. After all, for Destutt De Tracy, “The most precious of human inventions is the ability to express one's ideas” (1817, p. 418).

As narrated by Chilean sociologist Jorge Larrain, in his book The Concept of Ideology [The Concept of Ideology](Larrain, 1984), it was with Napoleon Bonaparte that the term acquired the negative meaning that persists to this day. The French emperor initially had as allies the group of Destutt De Tracy, self-styled “ideologists” (from the French “ideologists” – which we can translate as “scientists of ideas”). This group obviously acted to consolidate Napoleonic political purposes in the field of education and science, under the project of building the Institute of France.

However, because the intellectuals gathered in this group did not accept the excesses of his authoritarianism, Napoleon revolted and accused his own intellectual and philosophical elite of being indoctrinators under the pejorative nickname of “ideologues” (from the French “ideologists“). At that time, any intellectual who expressed an opinion critical of the Napoleonic government was accused of carrying out “ideological indoctrination”. Thus, ideologues quickly became their enemies, and the very concept of ideology ironically entered the political field and its ideological disputes. More broadly, it meant saying that political liberalism and republicanism were in open conflict with Bonapartist authoritarianism.

In addition to the French debate, and already in the XNUMXth century, Karl Manheim, in the work Ideology and Utopia (1976), clarifies that the concept of consciousness was the path taken by German philosophy to later encourage a critique of ideology (Ideologiekritik), even if not deliberately. This path made it possible to overcome the particular conception of ideology given birth in the French debate, still strongly linked to English empiricism, towards a totalizing conception, at the noological and ontological levels. To better understand this issue, Mannheim (1976, p. 91-101) points out that “the first significant step in this direction consisted of the development of a philosophy of consciousness”, especially from Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

However, he highlights that “The word 'ideology' itself did not initially have any ontological significance; it included no decision as to the value of different spheres of reality, since it originally denoted only the theory of ideas.” (Manheim, 1976, p. 97-98). In turn, it is known that Destutt de Tracy read Kant, and that the Kantian scheme caused a lot of discomfort in the Frenchman, although some experts argue that De Tracy did not seem to have understood very well the Copernican revolution promoted by Kantian philosophy – to find out more about this question, there is an excellent text published in USP German Philosophy Notebooks, authored by Brazilian researcher Pedro Paulo Pimenta, entitled “Kant’s French antipodes (2012).

From German idealism to Karl Marx's polemic

With German idealism, especially in Kant, the critique of reality gains a formulation that gives centrality to the subject who perceives, assumed in an itinerary detached from superstition and theology. Thus, Kant's philosophical effort accomplishes, at the level of reason, what the French accomplished in politics with the guillotine. Nevertheless, German philosophy went down in history with its “philosophy of consciousness”, which became a monumental landmark in the development of Western thought, established as a critical philosophy that seeks to think philosophically about the issue of freedom as a universal value that is it justifies solely in and through reason, without resorting to theological subterfuge.

In this field, we can identify common aspirations between the French and Germans, although in the latter the issue presents itself in an entirely different way from the way in which the “ideologists” tried to establish their “science of ideas” – it is worth highlighting that we cannot reduce the French contribution to Destutt De Tracy, taking into account, for example, the studies of Francis Bacon (1521-1626), who with his theory of idols is considered a precursor of ideology as a critique of superstition.

To summarize this true Odyssey in a more didactic way and directed towards the critique of ideology in contemporary times, let us look at the three stages enumerated by Karl Manheim in Ideology and utopia (1976), in order to understand the pillars of this “philosophy of consciousness”, which represents very well the weight of the German contribution to the debate that we can identify as the protoform of the critique of ideology, which later became known in Germany as Ideologiekritik. Firstly, the journey begins, as we saw, with Kant, from a critique of noological and epistemological bases, taking as its foundation the existence of pure and apodictic principles, purified from empirical experience and based on his theory of knowledge formulated in Critique of Pure Reason.

Second comes Hegel (1770-1831), who took as his starting point the Kantian postulation that the conceptual determinations of the thinking subject cannot be known as those of the being itself. Precisely in this situation created by Kant, Hegel will act critically in order to continue the task of critical philosophy from a neuralgic point to the Kantian formulation: transcendental philosophy. Hegel will rescue Kant's understanding of “reason” as “identity of subject and object”, in a quest that was shared by both to resolve the great issue of his time: the aporia between reason and freedom.

All this with the aim of fulfilling the task promised by German idealism of creating a philosophy of the subject of an order that is both practical and critical. Both believed they had to resolve the status of reason in modern society, with the purpose of establishing rational bases for the defense of freedom. And for this, they relied on a critique of reason itself, from the perspective of the subject situated in the wake of the Enlightenment and modernity. In one of his brilliant interviews, the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Arantes (1992) brings us a synthesis of the Hegelian contribution, when he says that “In Hegel, consciousness, at the same time as it is a factory of ideologies, is the critique of these ideologies, because it corrects itself. She is her own measure. […] Therefore ideology and false consciousness are not entirely false, there is a moment of truth that is unconscious and obscured, because there is a relationship of power and domination in ideology, [even in] the impulse of self-deception, [and] of rationalization […]. So that the concept of Ideology, so to speak, relies on a substantive truth that exists, and is expressed by ideas, which in turn are eminently practical. Therefore, the idea that is embedded in ideology is the one that Kant had in mind, which is always the idea of ​​reason, and necessarily practical, as it has to do with its realization or not in the world”.

The third stage arises with Marx and his ontological conception of consciousness embodied in history, which culminated in what he called in 1844, as the “social being” (gesellschaftliche Wesen), in the sense of the existence of a socially determined and culturally conditioned human essence, a question that owes much to the Hegelian conception of social formation (Education) as a basis for, against any essentialism of a scholastic nature, affirming a social ontology embodied in the real soil of history. Later, together with Engels, they consolidated this conception in the notion of praxis, opposing the humanist anthropology of the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872).

The critique of Marx and Engels will assert against the Feuerbachian sensualism of man and his gender as a “sensitive object”, the individual as a “sensitive activity”, that is, as a historical and social being that exists only to the extent that it self-produces itself not only from conscious way, but above all as an objective conscious activity (praxis) through work and all sociability historically constructed from it, which in modernity has its totalizing form in the concept of capital. From then on, they reach a social critique that announces the division of society into antagonistic classes, in which the dominant economic class appropriates the State, making it an essentially ideological instance and, therefore, placing ideology in the field of social domination under the perspective of class struggle.

Marx and the Marxist debate

Once again, the philosopher Paulo Arantes helps us understand this process – in the same interview mentioned above (Arantes, 1992) – by explaining that “[…] the matrix of the idea of ​​criticizing ideology is German idealism, especially because it itself it is the transposition (not deliberate, of course) of the real functioning of this social process of producing illusion. The first to realize this new material scope of Criticism was Hegel. Marx's source, the idea of ​​critique of ideology, is the idea of ​​reflection as it appears in Phenomenology of Spirit. What does consciousness do, according to Hegel? She deludes herself too, she is a factory of ideologies. But it is distinguished by the following peculiarity: reflection. This reflection will reappear in Marx, but in a phantasmagoric and real way at the same time […]. It is capital that refers to itself, the fetish of the fetish. It works as if it were a conscience: it values ​​itself, refers to itself, measures its quantities, etc.”

Still in the Marxist field, especially in its contemporary academic phase, it is worth highlighting that the debate surrounding ideology is initially divided between, on the one hand, a gnosiological perspective, within which we can mention, from Hans Barth, author of the classic Wahrheit and Ideology [Truth and Ideology] (Barth, 1974), including Kurt Lenk, famous for the essay Ideologie – Ideologiekritik und Wissenssoziologie [Ideology – Criticism of ideology and sociology of knowledge] (Lenk, 1964), until Paul Ricoeur of Hermeneutics and ideologies (Ricoeur, 2013); and on the other hand, the ontological perspective affiliated with Lukacsian-inflected Marxism and its subsequent developments, which refuses to reduce the Marxian conception of ideology solely to the manuscripts ofThe German Ideology (Marx; Engels, 2007), but, on the contrary, it takes into account the global theoretical framework elaborated by Marx in his intellectual itinerary as a whole, according to the reading of the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács – for obvious reasons, it is not possible to delve deeper such a dense discussion in this brief exposition, however, the Brazilian Esther Vaisman makes a very enlightening contribution in her article, Ideology and its ontological determination (Vaisman, 2010).

However, in addition to the works mentioned above, we can also add some exquisite and very didactic works, written by the Brazilians Leandro Konder, with the title The question of ideology (1984), and Michel Löwy, with Ideologies and Social Science: elements for a Marxist analysis (2008)

Critical Theory and the contemporary debate on ideology in the digital age

To close this epitome, I would like to bring the issue of ideology into the theoretical framework of Critical Social Theory, so that it allows us to think about the current stage of development of capitalist society in the digital era of this XNUMXst century. In this sense, we can highlight, still in the last century, the general conception about ideology found in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's analysis of the Cultural Industry, with emphasis on the essays that make up the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1985). We also find some important formulations in film critic Bill Nichols, in the work ideology and the image (1981) [Ideology and image].

However, the state of the art of this debate cannot ignore the French philosopher Guy Debord, with his work society of the spectacle (1997), as well as a living exponent of the Frankfurt School, Christoph Türcke, of whom I highlight the work entitled excited society (2014). In this scope, the field of research to which I am currently dedicated, we find the importance that the issue of image and technology acquires in the ideology debate, and how this brings new elements to the historically accumulated debate, especially in times of Industry 4.0 and digitalization algorithmic approach to social life.

According to the research I have been developing, the aim is to incorporate ideology into the critical formulation of an ontology of the subject in the era of digital images, which can initially be formulated in a few words: in a digitalized image society, ideas and social practices arising from these ideas appear as a huge collection of images governed by algorithmic digitization.

This relationship between ideology and image had its main inflection point in the 1960th century, in a situation in which ideology seemed to have come to an end after the crisis of political discourses and ideological currents that dominated political disputes until the first half of the century. XX. This led sociologist Daniel Bell, in XNUMX, to hastily state in his book, right from the title, The End of Ideology (1980). However, a little before Bell, around the end of the 1950s, Adorno and Horkeimer would argue that ideology is increasingly emptied of meaning and focused on an operational language in the world of images, but this would in no way mean its end or its weakening.

Quite the contrary, while in the past ideology occurred mainly through speeches, of narratives and argumentative principles about what reality was and how it should be; Nowadays, with the arrival of increasingly sophisticated technologies for reproducing reality in sounds and images, ideology has started to have as its object the very experience of reality experienced through image forms.

According to Adorno and Horkheimer (1985), the technological capacity of the Cultural Industry vehicles to produce their version of reality, transformed this version into “The Reality”. This process, to a large extent, would have rendered argumentative logic superfluous, and thus, through the image, the real becomes “ideological” and the ideology becomes the real itself digitized under algorithmic management, as if the ideology had actually disappeared.

In this sense, I analyze this problem under the sign of a contradiction, which can be summarized as follows: the digital image has become the determining social form and the main conduit through which individuals, as social and political subjects, experience the content of social experience in an ideological manner, although apparently devoid of ideology. It is in this reading key that it makes sense to say that in an era in which the algorithmic digitalization of the ways in which individuals experience the content of social relationships predominates, ideas appear as a huge collection of images.

In turn, under the algorithmic digitization of almost the entire content of social relations into imagistic forms of this content being experienced in social experience, the fact that ideas appear as a huge collection of images poses a situation in which the classical conception of ideology based on argumentative principles that make up a “logical” and, so to speak, “ideological” discourse, becomes outdated in the face of the subjective modeling of reality through a completely immediate and light-hearted image language. In this context, analogue practices such as reading and thinking critically become painful activities, if not rarely, dispensable.

As I detailed in an article I published a short time ago (Araújo, 2021), I assume as the ontological bases of a social critique of this issue, the investigation and orderly exposure of the fundamental characters of being that experience reveals in a repeated and constant way, through contradictions established between essence and appearance, determined by the dialectical negativity situated in the constituent mediations of the process of formation of the subject as a living substance of being.

After all, as Hegel argues in Phenomenology of Spirit, “the living substance is the being, which is actually the subject” (2008, p. 35). Therefore, this substance does not concern some essentialism embedded in metaphysical assumptions detached from social reality, but, on the contrary, it is a historically determined and socially conditioned essence that manifests itself in the subject as an individual in society in their cultural formation. It is an ontology of the subject, which is largely anchored in what Hegel explains when he says that “[…] everything comes from understanding and expressing the true not as a substance, but also, precisely, as a subject.” (2008, p. 34).

Therefore, it is necessary to understand the relationship between ideology and technology as a determinant in the process of subject formation in the digital era. This subject is shaped by the characteristics that constitute his being in the experience of life in society, historically determined and culturally conditioned – which is why it is an incarnated ontology. And at this point, the digital image is the determining element in times of algorithmic digitization.

This training process (Education) has its movement established through contradictions located within this movement that forms (and deforms) the subject. Such contradictions are established between, on the one hand, the content of social relations under capitalist domination as a society of the spectacle (show) and sensation (Sensation); and on the other, some of the technological ways in which individuals produce and ideologically experience this content through digital images, under algorithmic management determined by the social logic of the commodity – read: the logic of the value form (Wertform), or even, the logic of capital accumulation.

This experience is not reduced to the isolated individual, but only occurs through the experience of life in society, in its social and political manifestations, and therefore carries essentially ideological determinations. In this sense, through the digital image, technology ideologically favors the domination of the social logic of the commodity over individuals, as it makes the pure positivity of the spectacle and the naturalization of processes that, in their contents and forms, are not natural, but , on the contrary, are socially constructed. This naturalization occurs precisely through a process of ideological “harmonization” of this contradiction established between content and form, which determines the formation of a deformed subject (Araújo, 2021) by neoliberal rationality as discursive practices contrary to the democratic logic of social citizenship. In the ways of experiencing the content of social relations, this subject only recognizes himself through his self-image digitized according to models of business subjectivity. Process that strengthens the social domination of fictitious capital.

The process of formation of individuals as subjects in and for social experience acquires a character of deformation, as technological forms of social domination are heavily subjugated, so that ideological operations occur in a more subtle, complex and mystified way. . This means that this process occurs under a new sense of substantiation and autonomization of the ideology itself consigned to the digital image under the management of algorithms at the service of the capital accumulation process, in which the individual himself, his subjectivity, his personal choices and policies and their social experience as a whole starts to incorporate a direct process of extracting surplus value through the digitalization of individuals' lives, which is transformed into profitable data for companies specialized in data extraction and commercialization.

As Shoshana Zuboff (Zuboff, 2021) analyzes, this entire process occurs under algorithmic management guided by the logic of the commodity in the historical context of neoliberalism, which gave rise to what the author (Zuboff, 2021, p. 13) recently called “capitalism of surveillance”, namely: “A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for covert commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales”, so that, from within one’s own being as a subject, social domination takes place. establishes as “destitution of the sovereignty of individuals” (Zuboff, 2021, p. 14).

Summary of the opera: in digitalized capitalist society, we are experiencing advanced stages of technological projection of the interaction between reality and consciousness, through which social experience is increasingly subjugated directly and in real time, to the logic of the commodity as sensation and imagery spectacle as new forms of ideology. In the digital era, in which social experience is conditioned by the immediate digitalization operated by the smartphone, technologies such as touch they remodel to the skin and through their fingertips the practical and daily experience of what individuals recognize as real, so that social formation acquires a character of deformation of social experience in imagetic forms that are reproduced as a sensitive and unquestionable certainty, through touch that unites the individual to the screen as one thing, making the digital image an imagistic extension of this subject and his being.

We are facing a form of sociability that is expressed in the experience of a global village of digitally connected brains, often in a way that deforms individuals into screen-subjects that become the living raw material of capital as dead labor. This global ensemble forms a virtual nervous system that globalizes capitalist social domination in and through the passivity of the individual. online through eminently imagistic links.

*Wécio P. Araújo Professor of Philosophy at the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB).

Expanded version of the entry “ideology” from the Audiovisual Encyclopedia of Philosophy of the National Association of Postgraduate Studies in Philosophy (ANPOF).


ADORNO, TW; HORKHEIMER, M. Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 1985 (

ARANTES, Paulo. Interview about the work Sentiment of Dialectic in the Brazilian intellectual experience: Dialectic and duality in Antonio Candido and Roberto Schwarz. 1992. Available here.

ARAÚJO, WP Ideology in the digital age: the image and algorithms as technological forms of social domination. Ethic@ Magazine, Florianópolis, v. 20, no. 2, Aug. 2021, p. 461-488. Available here.

ARAÚJO, WP Ideology: entry for the ANPOF Audiovisual Encyclopedia. ANPOF/YouTube Channel: Sputnik Producer, 2020. Available here.

BARTH, H. Wahrheit and Ideology. Frankfurt am Main: Edition Suhrkamp, ​​1974.

BELL, D. The end of ideology. Brasília: Editora Universidade de Brasília, 1980 (

FROM TRACY, D.C. Élémens d'Ideologie. Premiere Partie. Idéologie Proprement Dite. Troisième edition. Paris, Mme Ve Courcier, Imprimeur-Libraire, 1817 (

DEBORD, G. The Society of the Spectacle. Rio de Janeiro: Contraponto, 1997 (

EAGLETON, T. Ideology. São Paulo: Universidade Estadual Paulista: Boitempo, 1997 (

HEINLEIN, RA Rocket Ship Galileo. New York: Ace Books, 2005 (

KONDER, L. The question of ideology. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2002 (

LARRAIN, J. The concept of ideology. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1984 (

LÖWY, M. Ideologies and social sciences: elements for a Marxist analysis. São Paulo: Cortez, 2008 (

LENK, K. Ideologie – Ideologiekritik und Wissenssoziologie. Soziologische Texte, Bd. 4, Berlin: Luchterhand, 1964.

MANNHEIM, K. Ideology and utopia. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar Editores, 1976.

MARX, K.; ENGELS, F. German ideology: critique of the most recent German philosophy in its representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German socialism in its different prophets (1845-1846). São Paulo, Boitempo, 2007 (

NICHOLS, b. Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and Other Media. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981 (

PIMENTA, PP Kant's French antipodes. Review: Destutt De Tracy. Complete oeuvres. Ed. Claude Jolly. Volume I: Premiers écrits; Sur I´éducation publique. Paris: Vrin, 2011; volume III: Élements d´ideologie, 1. L´ideologie proprement dite. Paris: Vrin, 2012. German Philosophy Notebooks: Criticism and Modernity, Volume XIX, São Paulo: SP, Jan/Jun. 2012, p. 161-174.

RICOEUR, P. Ideology and utopia. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2015 (

TÜRCKE, C. Excited society: philosophy of sensation. São Paulo: Editora UNICAMP, 2014 (

VAISMAN, Ester. Ideology and its ontological determination. Verinotio Online Magazine, n. 12, Year VI, Oct., 2010, p. 40-63. Available here.

ZUBOFF, S. The age of surveillance capitalism: the struggle for a human future on the new frontier of power. Rio de Janeiro: Intrínseca, 2021 (

the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.

See this link for all articles