Saturday, April 21, 2007


Jeremy Stangroom (Talking Philosophy) discusses some difficulties in analyzing our concept of brainwashing. Some would consider religious schooling to be a (perhaps mild) form of brainwashing, for instance, drawing on an understanding of brainwashing as dogmatic instruction. To this, Jeremy raises the History Teacher Objection:
My teacher was an old style facts and dates kind of guy. He taught by writing notes onto a blackboard. We copied them down. There was no questioning, no dissent. Nothing to suggest that the details of history were contested, etc. But presumably people would not want to claim that I was being anything like brainwashed by my history teacher…

My suggestion: legitimate instruction exhibits epistemic sensitivity, or - more loosely - is responsive to reasons and evidence. If the facts and dates of history had been different, then so would the History Teacher's instruction have been. His teaching, though itself apparently 'dogmatic', is embedded in a broader academic system (of textbook writers, etc.) that is broadly reliable and responsive to evidence.

The same is not true, we may suppose, of most religious instructors. Even if Plantinga or other philosophers of religion established the truth of theism, they are too disconnected from most religious instructors to protect the latter against charges of brainwashing. The Sunday School teacher would teach much the same things no matter what the best philosophers discovered. Even if their teachings by some fluke happened to be true, it still fails to be the case that they are teaching it because it is true.

Just as a true belief may fail to constitute knowledge due to the holding and the truth of the belief not being related in the right way, so too a true or justified proposition may fail to be taught legitimately -- and instead constitute brainwashing -- because the act of teaching it fails to be properly responsive to these normative qualities of what's being taught.

Update: Could we be more explicit here, and say that legitimate instruction is precisely that form of teaching which is apt to produce knowledge? We can then pass the buck on the tough epistemological questions, whilst plainly distinguishing the history teacher from the sunday school instructor. However the details may go, those suspicious of religious brainwashing presumably hold that the religious instructor is not apt to produce knowledge in her students (even if her teachings happen to be true).


  1. I think this results in a very gerrymandered notion of brainwashing (but see below -- I think any notion of brainwashing will be gerrymandered). It would seem to make the vast majority of parental instruction brainwashing, for instance, due to the practical impossibility of consulting the experts on everything. Any serious and in-depth teaching will involve some degree of insensitivity to what experts say due to the straightforward pragmatic fact that people can't be continually consulting the experts on every little thing, however small or apparently obvious. And they certainly are not embedded in a broader academic system that is broadly reliable and responsive to evidence.

    I think the reason the Sunday School teacher would teach much the same things is that she thinks what she's teaching to be obviously true -- or at least sufficiently obviously true that if "the best philosophers" (even if she could possibly be in a position to determine who the best philosophers were, which blatantly very few, if any, people are) said that it weren't true her reaction would be like that of ordinary people to Berkeley's arguments: all very clever, but, after all, it's in opposition to something obviously true. And no one at all gives credence to reasoning that looks like it is simply ignoring the obvious. But it seems a little inconvenient for a usable notion of brainwashing to depend wholly on having an adequate criterion for distinguishing what's genuinely obvious from what only seems to be so.

    It seems much more plausible to think of brainwashing in opposition to pedagogy: it is a method of belief formation that is insensitive to the very issue of whether the belief being formed is true. On such a view, the Sunday School teacher is clearly not engaging in brainwashing unless she is using methods that are designed to introduce the belief independently of any reasons whatsoever to believe it -- i.e., unless she is simply trying to impress the belief on students by sheer force of breaking their resistance to it. This is what standard purported cases of brainwashers actually involve. And it is clear that Sunday School teachers don't generally do this, since in general their very curriculum requires them to give the reasons for thinking it true -- whether or not anyone else thinks them particularly good reasons. (A Sunday School teacher, after all, is usually there to teach the common views of the church in question, and show why those views are held.) But there are very few, if any, cases that would seem to fit uncontrovesially under the category of brainwashing on this analysis.

    The view that seems to me most plausible is that people use 'brainwashing' in order to be able to insinuate rather than prove that something should be repudiated. In other words: using the term is primarily a way in which people give themselves a way for not having to deal with evidence and argument at all. There is no substance to the term. People use it solely for its rhetorical effect. Because of this conceptual analysis can't yield an adequate account of the concept, because the usages of the term are governed less by clarifiable meaning than by ad hominem rhetoric. One might as well ask how we analyze the concept icky, or the concept conveyed by a sneer. I have never seen anything that gives me reason to think that it's a philosophically redeemable category.

  2. I didn't mean to suggest that teachers must be "continually consulting the experts on every little thing", or anything like that. Just that the truth of their teachings is generally part of the actual explanation of why they ended up teaching it. (It could be a very indirect explanation.)

    But see my post's "update" -- really I think this causal story is what's required for knowledge transmission, and I think that legitimate instruction is simply that which is capable of genuine knowledge transmission. Since parents obviously transmit knowledge to their children, so it follows that this process is not brainwashing.

    Of course, this may well be taken to imply that most religious instruction is not really brainwashing either. That's going to depend on various contingent facts about their epistemic and pedagogical practice.

    Mistaken accusations of 'brainwashing' would then rest on ignorance or misassessment of these practices. Which is not to deny that their illocutionary force may be that of a sneer; but I also think that there's some literal semantic content to be found here too.

  3. Richard,

    Interesting topic: the concept of brainwashing. Something I can honestly say I've never pondered. I do like Brandon's analysis which equates it, more or less, with indoctrination or impressing belief "by sheer force of breaking resistance to it." However, it seems odd to be able to say (as it could be said on that analysis) that one was brainwashed into believing that America is a country. (Maybe that oddity will just have to stand; I'm not sure.) It does seem adequate, though, to say that one was brainwashed into believing that America is a good country. Although this belief might very well be justified, it is an opinion—and should be acquired through reasoning—whereas the former is a fact, a historical fact which cannot be reasoned to but only relayed, as Chesterton says in regards to the facts of his own birth, as "hearsay evidence." It seems that a good, or decent, definition of "brainwashing" could be had by taking the term almost literally: to flood the brain, in essence overpowering one's reasoning. Again, I tend to agree with Brandon here since it seems that brainwashing might be a sort of teaching, or a process altogether in opposition to teaching (depends on one's definition of teaching), which uses methods that overpower the reason, whereas teaching ought not do that.

    Parenthetically, I think it is a little unfair to use the Sunday School teacher example, if one is thinking about small children, since all children, whether reared in churches or not, are taught, either explicitly or implicitly, a particular worldview. I wouldn't consider any of this brainwashing except in the instance that the view was hammered into the child's mind to the point of impairing his or her reasoning; and I don't think this generally happens at Sunday Schools.

  4. I think i can live with "one was brainwashed into believing that America is a country."* I have heard enough anti-statists to realize there is some truth to that (whether or not it is bad thing)

    what is even more worrying is that maybe we are brainwashed into thinking water means H2O...

    but if we accept that we are going for a broad definition - we could also go for a narrow definition where as long as the gate is to some minimal standard open to logic (either for the teacher or the student) then it is not 'brainwashing'.

    *particularly since it isn't true ;) America is a pair of continents


  5. Richard, Unless I'm misunderstanding what you mean by 'apt', it seems to me that your suggestion would require us to hold that all bad teaching is brainwashing. That seems an odd result.

  6. Brandon, right, we should be able to contrast brainwashing ('indoctrination' may be a better term) with, say, incompetent teaching where no coherent information is transmitted at all. So the kind of 'aptness' I have in mind is that which would allow the transmission of any existing warrant (where 'warrant' is whatever turns true beliefs into knowledge).

    Would that still lead to counterintuitive results, do you think? We can at least rule out cases where no beliefs are imparted. The trickier question is whether we think that simple bad teaching might instill unwarranted beliefs, without thereby qualifying as (even unintentional) indoctrination.

  7. Perhaps we need to distinguish between beliefs that would be unwarranted in virtue of their content (e.g. incoherent teachings), vs. those that would be unwarranted in virtue of the method of transmission (i.e. indoctrination).

    But then I guess we'd want to know more about these problematic methods of transmission. (That's where I pass the buck to the epistemologist.)

  8. I suppose that's fair enough; I'm not sure how promising it is (but, as I said, I'm inclined to think the whole issue is unpromising), but the distinction between two kinds of impediment to warrant might get one somewhere.


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