The Attitude of Ideology

Why is it that so many people believe that the world works the way that they want it to work, rather than the way it actually works? The philosopher Robert Nozick taught me the answer to this question. He also taught me that leftists are not the only people in America who cannot escape from the "attitude of ideology."

Robert Nozick's office was a bastion of intellectual refuge for me when I was a college student at Harvard. I spent hours in his office complaining about my Harvard education --an education that seemed to me to be mostly indoctrination into the wonders of socialism.

One day, in 1975 as I recall, I was sitting in his office discussing things philosophic (and probably complaining about one of my classes) when the telephone rang. "This could be important," he said to me. "Would you mind waiting outside for a few minutes?" I left and stood in the hall.

"Okay Larrey, come back in," he hollered about fifteen minutes later. He looked at me with a puzzled expression. (Nozick never looked puzzled.)

"Something wrong?" I asked.

"I've just won the National Book Award for Anarchy State and Utopia," he replied, still not grasping the moment. He looked at my sloppy attire and then down at his own. (I usually wore blue jeans, cowboy boots, and flannel shirts to school. Nozick wore the same -- except he preferred jogging shoes to cowboy boots.) He looked me right in the eyes and said, very seriously, "I've got to get a tuxedo."

One day I was really blistered. In a discussion in an economics class I had presented a rather detailed criticism of the liberal John Kenneth Galbraith's work using, essentially, the arguments of the libertarian Friedrich von Hayek. The class instructor offered a one-sentence "refutation" of my argument. "Friedrich von Hayek is full of sh*t!" I was so mad.

I stormed over to Nozick's office and began my usual rant. Nozick, with his omnipresent wide smile, raised a hand to slow me down. "How do you know that the world works the way you think it works?" he asked me.

I was flabbergasted. "Why are you asking me about how the world works? That guy was a jerk. It is clearly an ad hominem attack. It was an insult," I steamed.

"How do you know your argument didn't scare your instructor? That he had no answer? I ask you again, ‘How do you know that the world works the way you think it works?'"

"Professor Nozick," I pleaded with him, "that sounds like something one of those idiots would say. I didn't come to Harvard to hear what I thought were the smartest people in the world talk about whether or not their desks are really made of ice, or if their hands are really real. If they are dumb enough not to know the answer to those questions ... why are they teaching at Harvard?" I babbled, almost in tears.

"I didn't make a statement. I asked you question. Go think about the question and come back when you have an answer," he patiently replied. He dismissed me from the room.[i]

So I thought about his question to me. How do I know the world works the way I think it works? I thought about it a lot. I am still thinking about it.

A couple of days later I waited in the hallway, in front of his office, to speak with him. He grinned when he saw me sitting there. "Have you figured it out already?"

"I don't know. I think so," I answered, looking down at the floor.

"Let's talk about it," he said as he unlocked his door. "I've got about an hour."[ii]

"It seems to me," I began, "that I start from little things, objects and events in my life --from the immediate things in front of me -- and I make abstractions from those little things to a principle about how the world works. Then when I have enough faith in the principle I start working backwards. I check to see if the principle matches up with the real things and then I redo the principle if it doesn't fit. Like round pegs go in round holes and square pegs go in square holes."

"Good," he answered. "Except you do not have ‘faith,' you have experience. So you have a possible principle based on experience."

"I meant ‘experience.'"

"Of course you did.  Go on."

"Well, that's about it," I stated.

"And that is where you are wrong."

"What do you mean?" I asked him.

"That is not ‘about it' -- that is just the beginning. That process of checking your principles against reality never stops. That's why I have a job. That's what philosophers do. We check our principles against reality."

"So, a socialist, say, stops thinking through their principles? They refuse to keep checking them against reality?" I asked him.

"Exactly. Give me an example."

"Socialized medicine. I look around and I see that some people aren't getting proper medical care and I assume that if the government ran the health services that they would receive that care," I responded.

"Yes. If you think that way then you are sticking to a principle that has been proven not to work. It has been proven not once -- but many times. You are trying to stick a round peg in a square hole."

"So the principle must be readjusted to fit reality?" I asked.

"If it shows signs of not working or if it does not explain all of the evidence. That is why we moved from Newton's physics to Einstein's.

"And it is not just socialists, he continued. "I had a student once tell me, ‘All of the truth is in the Bible.' That cannot possibly be true. There may be a lot of moral truths in the Bible, but not all truth is in the Bible. All truth is not within our grasp as human beings. Not yet -- maybe not ever. The moment a person refuses to examine his or her beliefs is the moment that person becomes an ideologue."

"So thinking stops being thinking and becomes an attitude ... an attitude of ideology?"

"An ‘attitude of ideology?'" he asked me. "That's not a bad phrase. You might, one day, be a philosopher. Now get out of my office I have work to do."

Larrey Anderson is a writer, a philosopher, and submissions editor for American Thinker. His  award-winning novel is The Order of the Beloved. His latest book is the memoir, Underground : Life and Survival in the Russian Black Market.

[i] Reflecting back on the moment, I think Professor Nozick had better things to do with his afternoon than to console a young punk from Idaho.

[ii] For the sake of brevity, in the reconstruction that follows I have given myself far more credit than I deserve. Nozick took much more time to walk me through these arguments. He was, always with me, a kind teacher ... and that is not reflected properly here. For more on why leftists think the way that they do, see my article in American Thinker, "Liberals and Control."