Freedom as Ideology and Counterfeit Coinage: Why We Must Attend to the Meaning of Words


Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

The word ideology first appears in English in 1796 borrowed from French idologie (the study or science of ideas; the political or social philosophy of a nation; and later, having also the connotation of impracticable theorising). The French coined the word during their secularizing Revolution. John Adams (in some writings of 1813) mentions the usage of the word by Napoleon Bonaparte himself to mean ‘impractical theorising’. The meaning of a set of ideas, doctrines or beliefs was not recorded in English until 1909.

Although obviously related to the word idea its derivative ideology is a good example of what I call counterfeit鑒 usage - that is, the semantic degradation of the original sense of a word.

The underlying sense of the word idea is that which is ‘seen’ or ‘perceived’ (rather than that which is ‘thought’) comes from the Indo-European root ueid, meaning ‘look at, see’. This root gives us Sanskrit Veda, knowledge, as in the sacred books of Hinduism. Vidya is ‘knowledge (‘seeing’ in Sanskrit) and a-vidya is ‘ignorance’, or at best ‘imperfect knowledge’, literally ‘not seeing’ or ‘blind’. The same root ueid gives us Greek eidos and idea, as we have seen, and Latin videre (‘to see’) from which our own English derivatives are legion. The word white is a derivative of the same root from Celtic, and literally means ґeasily seen.

So, the underlying concept is that of ґseeing not of ґthinking. As with so many words which had kept a measure of their original meaning in the medieval period, the sense of idea as something ‘seen’ was reduced in the post-Renaissance world to something ‘thought’. A concrete entity, a ‘tasting’ (Arabic dhawq), was reduced to an abstraction. “I see, therefore I know” becomes the wretched Descartian axiom “I think, therefore I am”. The locus of perception is downgraded from the heart (an all-encompassing faculty of knowing and seeing) to the brain (a merely rational, cogitating faculty). Hence the dislocation of so many modernist ґintellectuals, who have forgotten the true nature of the Intellect as a faculty residing in the Heart, and who therefore become, as the Qur’an says, ѓblind in heart”.

The misuse of the word freedom is yet another example of a counterfeitђ usage. Over the last three years, I have been collecting pairs of words which express a higher concept and its bogus or counterfeit usage. However, it is one thing when there are two distinct words which show the debasement of meaning (as in relationship/relativism; unity/uniformity; idea/ideology; synthesis/syncretism; individuality/individualism; science/scientism; modernity/modernism; Intellect/intellect; the Absolute/absolutism; authority/authoritarianism; liberty/libertinism etc.) but quite another when there is only one word which is used to convey both higher and lower levels of meaning. ‘Freedom’ immediately springs to mind, and another topical example is jihad, where the higher meaning of ‘spiritual struggle’ with one’s own lower self is almost totally obscured in public discourse by the attention given to the violent perversion of ideological and militant jihadism.

Someone in the USA recently sent me details of some recent research in visual perception which suggests that “if you don’t see something often, you don’t often see it” (he was referring to the way in which Americans are generally unaware of the best of Islam because it receives so little media exposure). I responded with the research I did myself for my Ph.D. in cognitive psychology back in the 80’s, which showed that “if you see something too often, you may see nothing else”. That is why totalitarian governments and corporations use repeated slogans to such effect. The same applies to verbal input: if you hear something too often (“freedom and democracy”, “jihad”) its truthђ is strengthened in the minds of undiscerning people. I guess this is what brainwashingђ is. However, “as the Qur’an tells us, “beware the farasa of the person of faith” (i.e. those with that organ of discernment which can sniff outђ deception).

Sometimes the higher concepts can be distinguished from the lower ones by capital letters, as in Intellect/intellect; Heart/heart; Reality/reality; Truth/truth. Rumi says, “The Intellect of intellect is your kernel; the intellect is only the husk.” This clarification by capitalisation seems to apply mainly to the faculties of man and the higher Truths of which he or she is capable of perceiving, but even then only amongst those who understand the hierarchy of human faculties and are aware of the way in which knowledge of the higher faculties has been gradually lost during the Age of Reasonђ. However, in an increasingly illiterate age, it is doubtful whether many people can perceive the implications of capitalisation. We live in an age in which big primordial concepts have been usurped by lower-case ones.

Another of the characteristics of the lower meanings of words is that they are often formed from abstract noun suffixes such as -ology and -ism, which mark them out as constructions of human thinking rather than as innate concepts.

So we might want to distinguish between freedom and freedomismђ. To avoid the clumsiness of a neologism of this kind, we could simply refer to the proper difference between the two words liberty (and its derivatives libertarianism and libertinism) and freedom although that has problems too, as I explain below.

This difference is made clear in the following letter to the British newspaper, The Independent:
Liberty and freedom

Sir: Your columnist Johann Hari has a great deal of trouble writing about liberty and freedom. It might help if he (and the rest of us, too) simply paid closer attention to what the two words actually say.

English is often blessed by its dual linguistic heritage, rarely more so than in this instance. “Liberty” is a French word, inherited from the Romans. Its Latin root, liber, means to do what you want to do, to “do your own thing”. (However, this misses its earlier origin, from the same prehistoric source as Greek eleutheros ‘free’, which may have denoted the sense of ‘being a member of a free people’ as opposed to ‘being a slave’.) Liber also gives us libido, an urge; libidinous, given to indulging ones urges; and (borrowed from the Greek) libation, an outpouring. We can also add libertarian and libertine (a rake or debauchee). Liberal carries the connotation of licentiousness and lawlessness for conservatives. Its original sense in English was ‘generous’ and ‘appropriate to the cultural pursuits of a free man (as in the ‘liberal arts’) and the sense of ‘tolerance’ did not emerge until the 18th century.

FreedomҒ is an Anglo-Saxon word, rooted in the Teutonic frei and ultimately the Sanskrit priya, meaning to hold dear or to love. Before we jump to make freedomђ mean doing what you loveђ, and thus like libertyђ, we need to explore a bit sideways. Freedomђ is a sister-word to friend, which also comes from frei and priya - and the two ideas come into Anglo-Saxon at about the same time. What their association says seems to be that you cannot be free by yourself. “Freedom” is a social word; “liberty” a selfish, anti-social word. “Freedom” requires of us responsibility; “liberty” is the assertion of our refusal of responsibility. If we keep that in mind, maybe our attempts at thoughtful discourse can be less troubled.

Significantly, the French Revolution lauded “Liberty” as one its three pillars, along with “Equality” and “Fraternity”.

Let me expand on Professor Hornback’s points (which he appears to have derived mostly from Shipley’s The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.


The word ‘liberty’ comes from the Indo-European root leudh, still intact in ancient Greek word eleutheros (freeђ), applied to citizens and not slaves, hence ‘free people’.
The original sense was mount up, grow, riseђ, applied to the population, as still in German Leute, people, and Latt’ a Latvian. The semantic development from the sense of grow, riseђ to freedomђ is not altogether clear.

Jefferson said that “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”, and no doubt he would agree with Mark Perry’s critique of the “absurdity of John Stuart Mill’s assertion that Liberty consists in doing what one desiresђ, an opinion which Hegel was to qualify as one of utter immaturityђ. Intemperance is not liberty but bondage.” (M. Perry, On Awakening and Remembering. Louisville, Fons Vitae, 2000, p. 285, note 109.


The word ‘freedom’ comes from the Indo-European root pri- ‘to love’ or prai, meaning ‘beloved’, hence ‘precious’, and hence also ‘at peace with’. The name Godfrey means ‘peace of God’. Norse Freya or Frija is the Goddess of love. Old English freond (a suffixed form of the same root) is more than ‘friend’ - also ‘lover’. The original meaning of ‘free’ was a term of affection uniting the members of a family in a common bond, but explicitly excluding their servants or slaves (i.e. those who were not ‘free’). Later, the meaning shifted from ‘affection’ to ‘freedom’.

I think Prof. Hornback is right is describing ‘freedom’ as essentially a ‘social’ word and ‘liberty’ as a selfish word. Another way of characterising this distinction is to see ‘freedom’ as a ‘relational’ word and ‘liberty’ as a solipsistic word, although it may be that in the deep origins of both words there is the common sense of ‘being a member of a free people’ (i.e. not slaves or serfs).

Certainly, the relational sense of freedomђ  is still preserved in the strongly affective sense of friendshipђ, and most deeply in the Sufi sense of The Friendђ, which still holds the earlier sense of Belovedђ.

And I think it’s right to say that there are many more pejorative associations with the word ‘liberty’. It’s earlier senses of liberalђ=generousҒ, or befitting the cultural pursuits of a free man, have now been largely lost in everyday usage, and the disparaging sense of liberal=bleeding-heart liberal, libertine, libertarian is common, especially, it seems, in the USA, even if the term liberal democracyђ still holds a generally positive connotation across a broad spectrum of political persuasions.

It would be interesting to check on the relative proportion of the two words in neo-conservative political propaganda. My guess is that President Bush has preferred the word ‘freedom’ (some of his ghastlier slogans have used this word, including the cringe-making simile about freedom rising like a sunriseӔ throughout the world). I guess that libertyђ might have some awkward connotations with the liberalђ leanings of his political opponents. But it may well be that he simply uses them interchangeably, being unaware of their particular nuances. Nuanced discourse is not something many people would associate with the present incumbent of the White House.

The preference for freedomђ is particularly ironic because what characterises the whole neo-conservative ideology is the autistic dismantling of relationships, the absence of any social awareness, and the denial of love. To promote freedomђ and preserve unilateralђ  dominance is a contradiction in terms, because freedom is by definition a relationship, a shared bond of affection between freeђ people - that is, people who are not serfsђ to anyone or anything.

I leave it your readers to judge in what other ways the use of the word Freedom as a political slogan in your country mirrors original or counterfeit meanings.

by courtesy &  2005 The American Muslim  republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact.