The Philosophy of Propaganda

A Workshop with Jason Stanley

November 3rd, 2015

'Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world.'
– Joseph Conrad

Philosophers like to think of themselves as the opposite of propagandists: we 'argue', propagandists 'manipulate'. But propagandists practice what philosophers theorise; in propaganda, many of the philosopher's interests overlap: political theory, epistemology, philosophy of language, aesthetics, and social ontology. Jason Stanley's recent work on propaganda stresses its philosophical significance, as well as presenting us with a model for how 'theoretical' philosophy can be brought to bear on urgent and contested political questions. We invite the submission of abstracts of up to 250 words on philosophical treatments of propaganda that engage with Stanley's work. We are particularly interested in the relationship of propaganda and political theory (What is the relationship between propaganda, democracy, and ideology? Can propaganda be properly understood using the standard methodology of political theorists?), propaganda and the philosophy of language (What does propaganda mean for the semantics/pragmatics distinction? What is the relation between propaganda and hate speech?) and propaganda and epistemology (Can propaganda be a source of knowledge? If knowledge is socially situated, how might propaganda alter one's social situation?)


11:00Opening Remarks
Session 1
Chair: Rachel Fraser
11:15Aidan McGlynn: How Pornography Works
Jason Stanley's How Propaganda Works characterizes and explores one democratically problematic kind of propaganda, 'undermining propaganda', which involves '[a] contribution to public discourse that is presented as an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode those very ideals'. Stanley's model for how undermining propaganda functions is Rae Langton and Caroline West's treatment of moves in pornographic language games; however, Stanley doesn't consider in any detail whether his theory of propaganda might in turn illuminate the harmful nature of pornography, in light of the familiar contention that some pornography acts as a kind of misogynistic propaganda (e.g. Brownmiller, Langton). Drawing on Catharine MacKinnon's work, and that of her philosophical defenders, I outline two ways in which pornography can be seen to meet Stanley's characterization of undermining propaganda. First, it can be presented as embodying the ideal of freedom of speech while eroding the right of women to speak. Second, and perhaps less familiarly, it can be presented as embodying the ideal of equality while systematically subordinating, or tending to lead to the subordination of, women. The aim is to illuminate both Stanley's characterization of propaganda and the ways in which pornography can problematically influence the beliefs, desires, and behaviour of men, and to consider whether there might be the makings of an argument for the restriction of pornography here that avoids some of the pitfalls of more familiar arguments for that conclusion.
11:45Response by Katharine Jenkins and Jason Stanley
12:45Lunch Break
Session 2
Chair: Odin Kroeger
14:45Alexander Miller Tate: Empathy and Propaganda
A recurring theme in Jason Stanley's recent monograph (2015) is the effect of propaganda on empathy for members of marginalised social groups (2015: 3 and 111-117). Although Stanley offers a formal linguistic account of the mechanism by which particular speech acts reinforce or erode empathy (2015: 144), he does not delve into the psychological mechanisms. This talk aims to make a first attempt at plugging that gap. I have argued elsewhere that a loss of empathy in depression results from affective de-situation. Specifically, other individuals' affective behaviour, such as facial expressions or prosody (Bourke et al, 2010; Péron et al, 2011) fails to integrate appropriately with the affective system of the depressed individual, leading to a loss of 'affective resonance' (Ratcliffe, 2014). Further, much of this is plausibly explained by dysfunction in the brain's active prediction of states of the world used to interpret and manage the flow of incoming sensory data. That is, predicting aspects of others' behaviour, especially those related to emotional performance, drives our empathic response (or, indeed, lack of it). Drawing on these insights, I defend the idea that propagandist speech acts tend to alter our experience of empathy for others when they are successful in changing our expectations of their behaviour in such a way that we literally perceive them as acting more (or less) 'like us'. This approach underscores the importance of the mutual interplay of brain-based and environmental factors in our experience of empathy.
15:15Response by Rebekka Hufendiek and Jason Stanley
Session 3
Chair: Daniel James
16:45Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò: That School is Poison:
Fukuzawa and Woodson on Miseducation
The potential for distortion, occlusion, or perversion of knowledge within an epistemic community is beginning to receive theoretical attention in analytic philosophy. Miranda Fricker's Epistemic Injustice, Jason Stanley's How Propaganda Works both respond to different mechanisms by which this can occur. Both works seem to suggest that the community ought to avail itself of its existing evaluative resources to identify, prevent, and remedy deformities in individual interactions or spaces of discourse. However, engagement with Carter G. Woodson and Fukuzawa Yukichi's work reveals another possibility: that a community's collective epistemic resources are constitutively deformed, and the epistemic resources available are insufficient or even counterproductive for the task of knowing justly. This possibility carries with it another perverse possibility: that what counts as a 'rational' evaluative process in such an environment would itself introduce deformity into our understanding of that which is being evaluated, which presents problems for these interpretations of Fricker and Stanley's proscriptive aims. In this paper I develop Woodson's concept of miseducation, use it to analyze Fukuzawa Yukichi's argument for "Western Learning", and propose a set of analytical tools suitable both for identifying when a scheme of education is actually a scheme of miseducation as well as reactive epistemic strategies. With these in hand, I will agree with Fricker and Stanley's central descriptive claims but offer different proscriptions.
17:15Response by Karin Kuchler and Jason Stanley
18:15Closing Remarks
19:00Conference Dinner


Jason Stanley is Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. Before coming to Yale in 2013, he was Professor II (Distinguished Professor) in the Department of Philosophy at Rutgers University. His first book is Knowledge and Practical Interests published in 2005 by Oxford University Press (OUP). It was the winner of the 2007 American Philosophical Association book prize. His second book, Language in Context, also OUP, was published in 2007. His third book, Know How, was published in 2011, also with OUP. His fourth book, How Propaganda Works, has been published by Princeton University Press in May, 2015.

Aidan McGlynn joined the philosophy department at the University of Edinburgh as a Chancellor’s Fellow in September 2012, and he has been a lecturer there since June 2015. His current research concerns first-person thought, particularly the phenomenon of immunity to error through misidentification, self-knowledge, and related issues concerning how we attribute mental states to ourselves and to others, and more recently he has started writing about politically-charged applications of speech act theory and how these relate to issues in epistemology.

Alexander Miller Tate is a first year PhD student in Philosophy at The University of Birmingham, UK. His research focuses on the Philosophy of Psychology, especially at the intersection of emotion theory, psychopathology, situated cognition, and social theory. His PhD project examines the situated dimensions of emotional experience in Major Depressive Disorder.

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is a PhD student in UCLA's Department of Philosophy. His dissertation project centers on the meta-ethical and political implications of narrative, with related interests in metaphilosophy, philosophy of language, education, economics.

Katharine Jenkins is currently a doctoral student in Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. In January 2016 she will take up a Junior Research Fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge, and in September 2016 she will join the Philosophy Department at the University of Nottingham as an Assistant Professor. Her doctoral thesis is about social ontology and injustice, with a focus on gender and race, and her other philosophical interests include pornography, epistemic injustice, and the philosophy of sex and love.

Rebekka Hufendiek is a postdoc at the university of Basel switzerland. Her research interests lie in the philosophy of mind, particularly in embodied cognition, emotion theory and naturalism. Her book on Embodied Emotions is forthcoming with Routledge next year.

Karin Kuchler is a PhD student and associate lecturer at the department of philosophy at the University of Vienna. For her dissertation, she is investigating the universalization of the European in 18th century historiography of philosophy. Further writing and teaching includes the philosophy of history in intercultural orientation, historical anthropology and the history of women philosophers.


Participation is free and open for all. We would kindly ask you to register if you plan to attend. That said, if you forgot to register or did not find the time, you are welcome nonetheless.


Institut für Wisenschaft und Kunst
Berggasse 17/1
1090 Wien


The Institut für Wissenschaft und Kunst (IWK), our venue, is located in the ground floor and accessible via a small ramp. Unfortunately, there are no accessible toilets at the IWK itself, but there are public accessible toilets in the vicinity as well as in some of the restaurants that are close by and we will have extended breaks.

"Schottentor" is the closest wheelchair accessible stop (subway line U2, tram lines 37, 38, 40, 41, 42, 43, and 44). Vienna's tourist office provides information on the accessibility of Vienna's public transport system.

We will ask speakers to prepare handouts for their talks and will send these handouts to registered participants in advance.


If there is anything else you would like to know, do not hesitate to write us at:

Program Committee

Rachel Fraser
Daniel James
Odin Kroeger