A Theory of Ideology
J.M. Balkin

Yale University Press
New Haven & London

Copyright © 1998 by Yale University. All rights reserved.

Online version

With the permission of Yale University Press, the author has made an online version of this book available under a Creative Commons Noncommercial Sharealike (by nc sa) license, accessible at the author’s website at



This is a book about culture and historical existence. It is a book about what cultures are and about what it means to be a person who lives at a certain point in history and whose individuality is shaped by a particular time and a particular culture. These questions have fascinated people for centuries; this book offers a distinctive answer to them. I argue that what unites the ideas of culture, personhood, and historical existence is information. To be part of a culture, to be socialized or acculturated, is to possess a certain kind of infor­mation-cultural know-how. Cultures are populations of individuals with rel­atively similar kinds of cultural information. To be a person is to be constituted by a particular kind of cultural information that exists at a particular point in time. The cultural information within human beings grows, changes, and evolves as we come in contact with others. It is reflected in our technology, in our institutions, and in the articulation of the values we hold most dear.

We are the bearers of this cultural information; indeed we are constituted by it. And its constitution of us is our constitution as historical beings. It is the source of our historical existence.

I call this cultural information cultural software. Because cultural software is the basis of all cultural understanding, it is the basis of the shared ways of understanding that people call ideology. The different beliefs and worldviews that human beings possess are the product of the evolution of cultural infor­mation that is instantiated in human beings and helps makes them the unique individuals they are.

People come to these kinds of issues in many different ways and from many different directions. I came to them through the study of law. It does not take long for lawyers to recognize that people’s views about what the law is and should be are often shaped by their beliefs about society and justice. Moreover, law is often asked to resolve disputes between people with very different views of the world. Because I was drawn repeatedly to the question of how ideology worked, I decided to write a book about the subject. But as with so many projects, this one took me in unexpected directions. What started out as a relatively straightfoward analysis of the nature of ideology ended up as a spec­ulative essay about the philosophy of culture. Of course, the notion that the ideas in our heads take on a life of their own, and that ideas have us as much as we have them, is one of the major themes of this book.

In the last half of this century people have offered many theories that either assert or assume that individuals are socially and culturally constructed. These theories have tended to submerge the individual into the larger forces of society and culture. Perhaps partly in reaction to these trends, another group of the­ories has reasserted methodological individualism-the view that all social phe­nomena can be explained in terms of individuals, their actions and their mental states. Not surprisingly, these opposing approaches have symmetrical strengths and weaknesses, each explaining best what the other downplays or disregards.

I believe that a theory of culture must account for the uniqueness of each individual human being, while showing how the social and cultural forces shape us and produces our individuality. And I believe that individuality, like human freedom, is produced through culture, not in spite of it. The theory of cultural software offered in this book tries to explain why this is so.

Like methodological individualists, I would rather do without supraindivi­dual entities. I do not think that these entities can adequately explain the pro­duction of shared beliefs or the presence of dissensus and disagreement within cultures and communities. Yet I also believe that a thoroughgoing methodo­logical individualism is incomplete, for the individual is not the only unit of social explanation. Advocates of social construction have been looking in the wrong place; instead of looking above or beyond individuals, they should look deeper inside them. Instead of supraindividual entities, a theory of culture needs to take account of subindividual entities: the units of cultural transmission that help form individuals and create an economy of cultural development and exchange. These subindividual entities are cultural software; and they produce many of the effects that have led social theorists in the past to look outside the individual for explanations of the cultural.

This additional level of explanation makes it possible to view culture and society in a different light. We can see cultural software as something that both constitutes our interests and works against them. We can understand conven­tions and institutions as self-reproducing coordinated complexes of cultural software that have their own “interests” in survival and reproduction. And we can recognize how certain kinds of cultural software act like virtual parasites, breeding unhappiness and injustice as they reproduce in human minds and institutions.

Postulating subindividual entities like cultural software also frees us from other forms of social explanation. We need no longer offer functionalist ac­counts to show why cultures and societies develop as they do. We need no longer assume that human conventions and institutions exist because they pro­mote economic efficiency or human happiness, or because they solve important problems of social coordination. We need no longer offer “just-so” stories to explain away injustice or human misery as the necessary adjunct of achieving proper social functioning. Instead of functionalist accounts, we can offer evo­lutionary accounts, where the units of selection are not human beings but their cultural software, a cultural software that thrives and reproduces in the ecology of human minds. Nor need we explain human suffering as the necessary work­ing out of a predetermined teleology of progress. Cultural evolution proceeds, but not toward any particular goal. We are its agents but not its puppets. We are its bearers but not its slaves.

Finally, the approach that I advocate in this book allows us to bring to­gether many different and seemingly contradictory research programs in the human sciences. If human culture is bricolage, the solution of problems by adapting the various intellectual tools that lie to hand, the study of human culture-which is itself a part of culture-can hardly claim greater methodo­logical purity. It should be a bricolage about that bricolage, a metabricolage that makes use of insights from many different sources and approaches. That is the entrepreneurial spirit of human reason. That is the spirit in which I undertook this volume.

When I told friends that I was writing a book entitled Cultural Software, some of them were amused. Others nodded knowingly and advised me that I am simply a victim of the age in which I live: an age in which new fortunes and new empires are being constructed daily out of computer programs and computer networks. After all, didn’t philosophers impressed by Newtonian sci­ence offer mechanical models of human thought?

My response to my friends has been that we are always influenced by the age in which we live, we always absorb the intellectual tools that lie to hand. That is what it means to exist historically. That is one of the central themes of this book. Even if I deliberately eschewed the metaphor of software and hid my ideas beneath other conceptions less obviously inspired by the events of the late twentieth century, there would be influence enough. I use metaphors and ideas because they are useful, and in the hope that they will create a spark of recognition and excitement in others. It is true that no one would have compared cultural understanding to software two hundred years ago, but now that the comparison is possible, why not employ it?

Still others have objected to the metaphor of software on the grounds that computers are soulless, inhuman, and mechanical, and that human culture is too laden with value and emotion to be compared to information. But these concerns, too, strike me as misplaced. Cultural know-how is one of human­kind’s most distinctive characteristics; we become who we are through the ab­sorption and communication of information. And cultural information is not some inert form of data; it is skill, know-how, ability, empowerment. It does not do without human values but articulates them. It does not displace emo­tions but helps express them. It does not extinguish personhood but makes it complete. People who think that cultural information is soulless understand neither information nor the soul.

The metaphor of software, I predict, will in time seem no more forbidding than the metaphors of engines, or bicycles, or railroads seem today. Nowadays, some people think that steam-powered railroads are romantic. Yet for many in the nineteenth century, they were the very symbol of heartless mechanism. No doubt software will change its cultural connotations over time. Perhaps someday the word itself will seem hopelessly quaint and antiquated. I can only pray that the ideas contained in this book will not meet a similar fate. It is my hope that a few of these notions will grow, develop, flourish, and spread to other minds, helping those who absorb them to understand this world and themselves a little better. More than this an author cannot ask.

I was honored to be able to present the argument of this book as the 1997 Julius Rosenthal Lectures at Northwestern University Law School. I am grate­ful to the dean and to the faculty for their generous invitation and their warm hospitality.

Many friends and colleagues have commented on chapters of this book in its many previous drafts. I would like to thank in particular Bruce Ackerman, Tom Baldwin, Step Feldman, Owen Fiss, Liane Gabora, Bob Gordon, Susan James, Larry Lessig, Sanford Levinson, Jay Mootz, Tim O’Hagan, Richard Posner, Thomas Seung, Reva Siegel, Lea VanderVelde, and R. George Wright for their comments, as well as participants at a workshop at the University of Chicago Law School where drafts of what became the first four chapters were presented. I am particularly grateful to an anonymous reader for Yale Univer­sity Press whose trenchant criticisms greatly improved the book. An early ver­sion of Chapter 1 was published as “Ideology as Cultural Software,” 16 Cardozo Law Review 1221 (1995). Portions of Chapter 7 were originally published in “Transcendental Deconstruction, Transcendent justice,” 92 Michigan Law Re­view 1131 (1994).

Finally, I want to thank my wife, Margret Wolfe, for her faith in me, her emotional support, and most of all, her love. This book is dedicated to her.