Analytic Philosophy, Bourgeois Ideology

Alexander Douglas
Genus Specious
Published in
8 min readFeb 14, 2023

My friend Christoph Schuringa touched a real nerve with his Jacobin piece on analytic philosophy. What I took from his piece is, roughly, that analytic philosophy is bourgeois ideology. That’s to say, it is a research programme that ultimately serves the interest of the ruling classes, the bourgeoisie. If that’s what he means, I think he’s probably right, and much of the criticism I’ve seen seems to misunderstand the point.

What is Bourgeois Ideology?

Bourgeois ideology is ideology that supports, whether intentionally or not, the interests of the bourgeoisie. “The bourgeoisie” here can just stand for those who wield the most social power and influence under current arrangements. I would class myself and other securely-employed academics among these, alongside the professional managerial classes more generally. You might argue that to be a member of the bourgeoisie you have to own the means of production and benefit from the exploitation of labour. That will still include me and many other UK academics who are, via the USS pension fund, shareholders in corporations such as Walmart. But if you are an academic who wants to define yourself as proletarian, go for it; nothing I will say here hangs on who goes into which category.

An ideology is a set of propositions that appears to state facts of relevance to policymaking but has no real scientific content. The theory of the Laffer Curve is a textbook example of bourgeois ideology.

Why ideology? It isn’t scientific, since there is no clear way to calculate the Laffer Curve on the basis of existing data, nor to test its powers of prediction. Here is a diagram of it from Investopedia:

Notice that the left half of the diagram predicts that increasing the tax rate will increase revenue, while the right half predicts that it will decrease revenue. Whatever happens to revenue when we increase the tax rate will therefore confirm some part of the Laffer Curve. Notice, also, that there are no numbers on the diagram. So we can’t test the model by seeing where the direction of revenue changes.

Thus the Laffer Curve is ideology. It is consistent with any result and therefore can support any prediction. It has no real scientific content.

Why bourgeois ideology? Couldn’t a defender of higher taxes use the Laffer Curve as support, stating that we’re way over towards the left, “sub-optimal” region of the curve?

The answer is yes, just as a supporter of lower taxes will state that we’re over on the right half. The weapon works for everyone, and since it works for everyone it does nothing to change existing arrangements of power and influence. The Laffer Curve puts “science” on everyone’s side, and since this does nothing to change the existing balance, victory will go to the side that already has the most power and influence in society. This is, of course, the bourgeoisie, who (on my definition) run the news channels, write the academic articles, serve in the government and the courts, etc.

Not every member of the bourgeoisie supports bourgeois ideology, of course; some are willing to put the interests of others above their own. All the same, there is a strong temptation to support ideas that won’t motivate anyone to reduce your standard of living — even better if the ideas can nevertheless be branded as radical or egalitarian.

Why is Analytic Philosophy Bourgeois Ideology?

Schuringa’s article shows how analytic philosophy grew up rooted in a broader research programme, or paradigm, which, says Schuringa:

consisted of methodologies developed for the purposes of Cold War research and development such as rational choice theory, operations research, and game theory, [and] functioned to reinforce a vision of society, and of inquiry, reliant on the classical liberal idea of the autonomous rational individual as the fundamental unit of society.

This research programme is pure ideology, and analytic philosophy is up to the eyeballs in it. It’s all about modelling what a reasonable or just or otherwise idealised agent will judge or do in such-and-such a situation. Homo economicus serves a descriptive function, homo philosophicus analyticus a prescriptive one, but in both cases you have a social question reduced to a formal optimisation problem with individual agents as the units of analysis. Before you have time to consider the philosophical meaning of this, a flood of calculus is poured onto the page, and the initial ideological move vanishes, as Joan Robinson would say, into a thicket of algebra.

Critics like Nick French and Ben Burgis have taken issue with Schuringa, but it is very informative to note where they take issue. They don’t deny that analytic philosophy is rooted in the paradigm he describes. They object, rather, to his implicit characterisation of it as bourgeois ideology. French denies that critiquing capitalist society should require dismissing “the theoretical tools that this society has produced”. In calling this paradigm a set of “theoretical tools”, French nails his colours to the mast. In the end the main upshot of these critiques of Schuringa is a demonstration of his central claim. Analytic philosophers, even those with left-wing preferences, are in the paradigm with neoclassical economics.

The question is only whether Schuringa is right to think of this paradigm as bourgeois ideology. Having studied both analytic philosophy and neoclassical economics, I think that it is. Setting that aside, the argument to the contrary made by French and Burgis is invalid.

The argument consists primarily of listing ways in which these “tools” can be used to justify left-wing policies — for instance showing that socialism would generate a game-theoretic equilibrium that scores higher on some social welfare function than capitalism. It is invalid because, as I tried to show with the Laffer Curve, what makes an ideology bourgeois isn’t that it inherently tends towards promoting policies in line with the vested interests of a selfish bourgeoisie. Instead, an ideology is bourgeois when it is infinitely slippery — when it is so devoid of scientific content that it can be finessed to support anyone’s preferred conclusions, and therefore just re-entrenches the existing balance of authority.

A paradigm whose fundamental concepts include utility functions that can only be measured when the truth of certain theories are presupposed, and social welfare functions that can’t be operationally specified, is the ideal type of a slippery theory. The fact that French and Burgis can use such “tools” to justify their socialist recommendations, even while central bankers use them to justify their own policies, rather proves the point.

What Wouldn’t be Ideology?

Some people might ask at this stage: what sort of social theory wouldn’t be ideology in the way you describe? What they want to trap me into admitting is that my critique is unfair, because any theory about something as complex as human society will have to simplify and reduce things down to a schematic model.

Analytic philosophers are always mimicking economists expressing this sentiment, apparently oblivious to how ideological it sounds. “Everybody kills — for example you must have stepped on a few ants”, explains the Mafioso as he garrotes his victim. “All theories simplify”, says the economist, attaching ad hoc labels that say “consumer”, “firm”, “price”, “wage”, and “profit” to the abstract variables of a purely self-referential mathematical model.

Here’s a theory that wouldn’t be ideology, in my view: the labour theory of value, minus Marx’s disastrous assumption of a uniform rate of profit across industries.

With that assumption, the labour theory of value makes only one testable “prediction”, which is that two dimensionless variables should correspond: the overall rate of surplus value, and the overall rate of profit. This “prediction”, upon inspection, appears to be an accounting identity. What drove Marx towards that assumption, I think, was an expectation of rational optimisation among capitalists – a neoclassical moment for Marx.

Without the assumption, however, you get something testable: the relative prices of commodities should roughly correspond to the direct and indirect labour they embody. This seems to work out pretty well empirically.

And you can do a lot with it. You can show how much of total output is being produced and consumed by various groups, for example, using a uniform measure of value. These results will have political significance, and can’t be finessed to support whatever conclusions are most welcome to the user of the tool. They can show, e.g., that certain identifiable groups are putting in a lot more labour than they’re getting out. They can reveal social realities rather than obscuring them behind infinitely slippery models.

Could analytic philosophy adopt something like this ?

Anything is possible, but I think a move like that would go against the spirit of analytic philosophy in at least two ways.

First, the neoclassical paradigm seems to be in the blood of analytic philosophy, so to speak. Internally diverse as it might be, the general tenor of analysis in analytic philosophy just seems to be very “agent-based”. If either analytic philosophy or neoclassical economics entirely gave up trying to reverse-engineer the choice-architectures of real or ideal agents and instead looked at concrete phenomena like flows of labour, that would, I think, amount to a paradigm shift, and continuing to use a label like “analytic philosophy” would be misleading.

Perhaps I can illustrate with a marginal example. Amia Srinivasan — who is surely on the radical cutting-edge of analytic philosophy — ends her London Review of Books article, “Does anyone have the right to sex?” as follows: “In the very best cases, the cases that perhaps ground our best hope, desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.” Ascribing agency to desire itself sounds like something from Deleuze and Guattari. Srinivasan might be trying to evoke something of the flavour of the radical theories of the mid-20C with their abandonment of “the Subject”. Yet if you read the rest of the article, it’s pretty clear that Srinivasan can only really mean that individual agents — subjects — should choose what to desire rather than having this determined for them by politics, social norms, or other external pressures. The thought, in other words, gravitates towards On Liberty, even while the language yearns for Anti-Oedipus. The pull towards homo philosophicus analyticus is too strong.

The inner tension here is a poignant symbol of the difficulty that analytic philosophy faces in trying to escape the paradigm in which it grew. My guess is that analytic political philosophers trying to give up their neoclassical paradigm for something like a materialist analysis based on the labour theory of value would find themselves in a similar tension.

The second reason I don’t think that analytic philosophers on the whole would go for analyses based on the crude labour theory of value is that it’s just a bit low-tech for them. Analytic philosophy can sometimes seem like the Silicon Valley of the intellect. It’s true that calculating labour values involves some linear algebra, but that’s now a century-old technique – not slick at all. Taking on the crude labour theory, or taking a generally materialist approach, means turning problems of political economy into engineering problems rather than advanced problems of applied mathematics. Maybe I’ve got the wrong impression, but my general feeling is that the first could hardly satisfy the formalistic fetishes of the typical analytic philosopher.



Alexander Douglas
Genus Specious

Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews — personal website: