Critical Thinking Before the Second World War

By Michael Boyle

One of the most frequently heard phrases in discussions of higher education today is “critical thinking.”  Whether the setting is a college classroom, a presentation by a university administrator, a political speech, or reports concerning what skills employers are looking for, there’s a good chance that the phrase “critical thinking” will crop up somewhere. This ubiquity, however, may make the word seem rather empty.  On the contrary, what we today call critical thinking arose as a reaction to a specific series of developments in the late 19th and early 20th  centuries, particularly in America. Moreover, an influential early approach –propaganda analysis- that struck at the heart of the problem of industrial democracy disappeared from critical thinking during WWII and never really returned, thus ideologically skewing the postwar treatment of critical thinking in a way still quite evident today.

The earliest developments (aside from general principles of reason known to us since Ancient Greece) in what we today call “Critical Thinking” go back to  the late 19th and early 20th Century Progressives, a loose term referring to an American political movement whose primary goal was addressing the consequences of the confluence of emerging industrialization and mass democracy. (1) More simply, Progressives (who were both Democrats and Republicans) believed that at least some state economic regulation was necessary both to ameliorate the negative consequences of industrialization and to preserve the freedom of the individual citizen. They essentially tried to preserve a belief in mass democracy while simultaneously trying to square this with addressing the consequences of the Industrial Revolution via limited state intervention, addressing the consequences of industrialization through a variety of reforms, from labor laws to anti-monopoly regulations to food safety to financial regulations and regular exposes of corrupt business practices by investigative journalists known as muckrakers. (2) Historian Stephen J. Diner described Progressivism this way:

…a set of ideas that framed American politics, the way people thought about and debated political issues.  Challenging the dominant laissez-faire and Social Darwinist ideas of the Gilded Age, progressive intellectuals, reformers, politicians, and journalists of diverse backgrounds argued for an activist government that would restore individual autonomy and preserve democracy in an age of industrial concentration.  Progressives lost at least as many battles as they won; conservative opponents of change remained powerful in many places.  But Progressives determined the language of political debate and set its agenda, defining the terms within which competing players argued their positions on corporate regulation, labor, conservation, welfare, women’s rights, representative government, and the other great issues of the day. (3)

What we regard as critical thinking today is the result of a number of different influences in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the abandonment of propaganda analysis, and some post-war developments. Prior to World War II there were at least four important movements afoot in what we would think of today as critical thinking: the attempt to quantify reasoning skills in the social sciences, the “straight thinking” movement, propaganda analysis, and various works dealing broadly with semantics. The social science influence (especially in terms of the quantitative measure of the process of correct thinking) would endure, as would elements of what was then known as straight thinking (especially the focus on things like informal fallacies) and some of the popular work on semantics survived, too. (4) What did not survive was the politically-engaged study of propaganda uses by government and business, considered by the time of the war to be too dangerous and subversive.

‘Critical thinking’ as a term goes back to John Dewey’s 1910 work for teachers entitled How We Think in which, advocating the teaching of reflective thought and dispositions, Dewey used modern science and its methodology as an exemplar. A pragmatist philosopher and Progressive educator first affiliated with the University of Chicago and then for decades with Columbia University, Dewey became the most famous of a number of Progressive educators at Columbia’s Teachers College. For Dewey, a critic of capitalism but never an advocate of radical political action, the core function of critical or reflective thinking was to provide citizens of modern democratic societies the tools for meaningful political engagement in the wake of industrialization and the rise of mass communications. Only one institution was capable of pulling off such a societal transformation: the school, revitalized so as not to teach mere rote learning or simply the intricacies of specialized knowledge, but to teach the young “to make distinctions that penetrate beneath the surface.”  Such a transformed system of education required critical thinking and would be nothing less than the political revolution modern industrial and egalitarian America required to make democracy real and not a farce:

What will happen if teachers become sufficiently courageous and emancipated to insist that education means the creation of a discriminating mind, a mind that prefers not to dupe itself or to be the dupe of others?  Clearly they will have to cultivate the habit of suspended judgment, of skepticism, of desire for evidence, of appeal to observation rather than sentiment, discussion rather than bias, inquiry rather than conventional idealizations.  When this happens, schools will be the dangerous outposts of a humane civilization. But they will also begin to be supremely interesting places.  For it will then have come about that education and politics are one and the same thing because politics will have to be in fact what it now pretends to be, the intelligent management of social affairs. (5)

A significant part of critical thinking prior to the war was, as we’ve noted, propaganda analysis. It was part of a larger critical look at propaganda in the US that arose following the First World War and especially the domestic experience with the Committee on Public Information (CPI) or the Creel Committee. The CPI was essentially a propaganda department of the federal government during the war and conducted one of the first national public relations campaigns using new mass communications technology as well as speakers who went all over the country. Widely successful but criticized after the war, it employed a number of individuals (Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann) who would become part of the public conversation regarding democracy, mass communications, advertising, and the ability of a free society to withstand the new forces of persuasion. In addition, the restrictions on civil liberties and free speech during WWI were also of great concern to Progressives, seen perhaps most famously in law scholar Zechariah Chafee, Jr.’s influential book Free Speech, published in 1920. (6)

The advent of the Great Depression deepened many Progressives’ conviction that continued reform was a must, especially now of capitalism itself. Columbia University was at the epicenter of much of the discussion,   especially its famed Teachers College. (7) In line with the popularity of propaganda analysis, which by the year the Institute was founded had already become “the dominant curricular approach to critical thinking in the public schools,” (8) a number of Columbia educators and others decided in 1937 to establish the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, an organization charged with encouraging more awareness of critical thinking among citizens, particularly by things like the identification of argument fallacies used in persuasion and by a campaign to raise awareness of propaganda of all kinds in public life and to call out malefactors in public life.

Active until our entrance into the war, the Institute was begun partly through monies provided by progressive business and credit union entrepreneur Edward Filene (continued after his death by a charitable organization of his) and headed by Clyde Miller of Columbia, onetime opponent of labor leader and socialist Eugene Debs and instrumental in the latter’s bogus arrest and conviction during WWI for encouraging opposition to the draft.  Although a highly successful businessman, Filene supported the Institute because he was troubled about the rising tide of anti-Semitism (the Institute would eventually publish a successful take-down of anti-Semitic radio demagogue Father Coughlin). Miller had turned away from his earlier commitment to ferret out supposed subversives to a firm belief that a greater awareness of propaganda techniques on the part of the American public was necessary to safeguard democracy.

Although able to overcome an initial period of difficulty and flourish by the end of the 1930’s, the Institute in the early 1940’s was unable to survive the pressure to become a more research-based group, avoid criticism that it was politically too far to the left, and abandon its impartial criticism of propaganda as America entered the war. Nonetheless, from 1937 through 1940, the Institute had had a surfeit of supporters in academia willing to help, was by its own account producing materials used in five hundred secondary and post-secondary courses and, according to the New York Times in 1941, the number of young people using its publications was north of a million.

1941 was the crest of its influence. As America’s involvement in helping the Allied effort while still formally staying out of the war increased, the war atmosphere and anti-Fascist sentiment became strong enough that many began to withdraw from involvement with it. Well known liberals criticized the Institute for merely creating cynical, uninvolved citizens and for its impractical approach at non-partisan analysis, seen as being more a hindrance than a help in the midst of Europe trying to survive the Nazi blitzkrieg. This kind of public criticism quickly started to take a toll on the Institute’s finances such that by 1942, it ceased publication of its magazine, Propaganda Analysis.

A second and initially less prominent critical thinking approach dubbed by one scholar textual rationalism, was known at the time as “straight thinking.” (9) Straight thinking, inspired in part by Dewey’s use of the scientific method as a model of rigorous and reflective thinking, focused on a drier, less political approach and put more emphasis on elements like informal fallacies, analogical reasoning, and psychological weaknesses exploited by persuasion.  Its focus was on developing the capacities of the learner via an approach largely disconnected with the more direct work being done in propaganda analysis. Straight thinking’s goal was to take note of the importance of reason in the new industrial era, but without direct political criticism of business and government propaganda.

Dewey’s writings (as well as that of his primary public interlocutor, journalist Walter Lippmann) were an inspiration both to those working in propaganda analysis as well as those in the straight thinking approach, reflecting the twin concerns over the capacity of citizens to adequately exercise their rational abilities as well as the the pressures of modern mass communications. Although the division between textual rationalism (straight thinking) and propaganda analysis wasn’t always sharp and clear and their work overlapped to a degree, there was a key difference in terms of what each thought the primary problem was, reflected in their different areas of emphasis. Those in propaganda analysis believed that the problem was to a great extent one of public manipulation by unscrupulous business and political forces. Hence the popularization not only of the “Seven Propaganda Devices” but also important investigative pieces. (10) Straight thinking, in line with general work being done in semantics in the field of English,11 social science data on quantifying reasoning, and also in general agreement with the old tradition of formal logic itself, believed that the primary problem was the intellectual weakness of the citizen and how to inoculate them against rhetorical legerdemain.

In terms of the postwar development of critical thinking, the straight thinking material and some of the popular work on semantics would survive, with the quantitative social science aspect taking center stage in the form of the oldest and most famous of critical thinking tests, the Watson-Glaser Tests of Critical Thinking (now known as the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal) first published by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis itself in 1939 and now in its fifth generation.

Its initial publication by the Institute reflected the view that this work would strengthen the propaganda devices side of their educational effort, seen as foundational to any future effort at reform. In the words of the Institute’s Director of Education in 1940:

Scientific appraisals are impossible in any other framework than that which comprises both the freedoms and the responsibilities of the concrete democratic realities we have cited. It is only within this framework that the process of critical thinking can take place; and propaganda analysis is critical thinking; it is inquiry into the nature, the causes, and the effects of the conflicts with which propagandas inevitably are associated.

… Such a process is necessary to the maintenance and the development of our democratic society. In this process propaganda analysis, the building of effective techniques for thinking critically, is a means to an end- the participation by the common man in the solution of the major problems of his own life and of our contemporary society. (12)

In retrospect, while the Institute may have believed that social scientific analysis of how people reason and how to improve their reason was part and parcel of propaganda analysis, it became quickly evident in succeeding years that this more apolitical social science trajectory, with admixtures of straight thinking and semantics, was the one that would survive, while the messier and more direct analysis of propaganda in society was shelved, being unviable in a conformist America increasingly suspicious of progressive educators.

The story of Goodwin Watson (co-author of that first major Critical Thinking test alongside protégé Edward Glaser) is itself a tale of a politically engaged progressive who was chastened (13) by America’s red scare hysteria, a tale instructive because it in some ways mirrors the changes underway as critical thinking shifted more and more toward a non-political stance, leaving propaganda analysis behind. Interestingly, it was Watson in his role as objective social scientist rather than politically active progressive who helped move critical thinking away from propaganda analysis.

In the end, one can clearly conclude that propaganda analysis foundered because of larger anti-Progressive pressures directly related to anti-Communism and the worldwide conflict of WWII.  With the equally conformist pressures of the Cold War, direct analysis of advertising and propaganda on the part of business and government disappeared and the more neutral, apolitical approach enshrined in the Watson-Glaser test was continued in an expanded and revised form by later critical thinking researchers in the 1950’s and 1960’s, most importantly philosopher of education Robert Ennis. The only thing left of the Institute’s work was some material on fallacies, whose treatment after the war came to largely mimic the dry discussions of other aspects of critical thinking.


  1. Although there was some early progressive work on argumentation in the fields of speech and rhetoric, these are not really connected to the main line of development in critical thinking, which is the focus of this short essay. After WWII, speech/communications departments would be revolutionized in terms of argument analysis, ironically by two individuals whose work on this went unnoticed in their own fields: philosophers Stephen Toulmin and Chaim Perleman.
  1. The four most important progressive leaders who facilitated much of this reform were Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR, Theodore’s cousin. Combined, they held the presidency for a third of the 20th Century, including during World Wars I & II.
  1. Stephen J. Diner, “Politics and People: The Historiography of the Progressive Era,” OAH Magazine of History 13:3 (Spring 1999): 7.
  1. It is important to highlight the fact that the social scientists and propaganda analysts we’re referring to saw propaganda in a negative light, unlike the “democratic realists” who including pioneering communications and propaganda expert Harold Lasswell, advertising maven Edward Bernays, and journalist Walter Lippmann. The propaganda realists had either already in essence written off democracy or would by the time of the war and had also abandoned any substantial faith in the capacity of the ordinary person to withstand the onslaught of modern forms of persuasion.
  1. John Dewey, “Education As Politics,” The New Republic (Oct. 4 1922): 141. As he grew older, Dewey realized that schools were not enough and that the public in a larger sense had to be on board. This was a primary purpose behind his pieces for the magazine The New Republic.
  1. Chafee belonged to the prominent Rhode Island Chafee family, which has produced senators, governors, and a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2016.
  1. Note that by this time, propaganda as a concept for investigation was a significant part of American social science, particularly what we would today call communications. World War Two would see the study of propaganda set aside in favor of less polemical studies in communication. See J. Michael Sproule, “Propaganda Studies in American Social Science: The Rise and Fall of the Critical Paradigm,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 60-78.
  1. J. Michael Sproule, “Ideology and Critical Thinking: The Historical Connection,”Journal of the American Forensic Association 24 (Summer 1987): 9.
  1. The term ‘textual rationalism’ comes from communications scholar J. Michael Sproule.
  1. The seven propaganda devices were: name-calling, glittering generality, transfer, testimonial, plain folks, and bandwagon.
  1. Important academic figures here include I.A. Richards, C.K. Ogden, as well as Californian S.I. Hayakawa, later a Republican senator.
  1. Violet Edwards, “Propaganda Analysis: Today’s Challenge,” ALA Bulletin 34 (January, 1940): 9.
  1. The chastening involved red baiting Congressmen, a Supreme Court decision, and FDR himself. Basically, Watson, a highly respected social scientist working for the FCC and looking at Axis propaganda, was drummed out of government service because of his past acquaintance with communist organizations and organizations who were thought to be communist. It also didn’t help that he had been very anti-capitalist during the Depression. Watson was highly regarded for his war work, said to be able to sometimes deduce German troop deployments just from analysis of their propaganda alone. Watson himself was told by a Congressman that he (and some others who were being investigated) were simply being used as a way to get at his boss, FCC Chairman James Lawrence Fly, who had been clashing with J. Edgar Hoover and others in Congress regarding wiretapping and civil liberties.


Brinson, Susan L. The Red Scare, Politics, and the Federal Communications Commission, 1941-1960. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

Dewey, John. How We Think. Boston: D.C. Heath & Co. 1910.

_____________ “Education As Politics” The New Republic, (Oct. 4 1922): 139-141.

Diner, Stephen J. “Politics and People: The Historiography of the Progressive Era,” OAH Magazine of History 13 (Spring 1999): 5-9.

Edwards, Violet. “Propaganda Analysis: Today’s Challenge.” ALA Bulletin 34 (January, 1940): 8-10.

Gary, Brett. The Nervous Liberals : Propaganda Anxieties from World War I to the Cold War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Peters, John Durham and Peter Simonson, eds. Mass Communication and American Social Thought: Key Texts, 1919-1968. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

Sproule, J. Michael. “Ideology and Critical Thinking: The Historical Connection,” Journal of the American Forensic Association 24 (Summer 1987).

___________________ Propaganda and Democracy : the American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

___________________ “Propaganda Studies in American Social Science: The Rise and Fall of the Critical Paradigm,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 60-78.

Watson, Goodwin. Columbia Oral History Collection. Microfiche 1-3, 1972 [transcript of 1963 interview].

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  1. Good luck with the new venture!

    An enjoyable review of some aspects of recent political history. The same issues seem relevant today, even more so. In spite of all the new technology, there are still very few sources of ‘reliable’ news. Most of the outlets today are subsidiaries of large corporate entities – one could even say backbones of the military-industrial complex. To expect fiercely independent reporting out of that is delusional. Maintaining a stable and compliant status quo with reliable revenue streams is job one.


  2. Thanks for isolating the invariably tendentious concept of ‘critical thinking’. Today it’s most commonly used to mean: coming into agreement with bienpensant skeptics, activist atheists, humanists and scientismists. This privileging of critical thinking places an unjustified faith in the ability of reason to control the passions; nor does it acknowledge that reason is a two-edged tool and not the Good in itself.


  3. After reading this article I am wondering where the term “fallacy-monger” as an insult comes from.

    Specifically I am wondering if it actually arose from a political movement against, or in some kind of opposition to, critical thinking movements. Mike, if you happen to have an answer on this I’d love to hear it, even if the answer is disappointing, e.g that we just made a phrase to label people who are pedantic in their identification of fallacies.


  4. Has democracy failed? probably. Is it possible to educated the majority of the people to reason in their best interests? no. So, why bother trying? because the alternative is docility, slavery, futility. One hopes for tomorrow in order to keep finding meaningful things to do today.


  5. @dantip: The phrase goes back to well before 1900, although maybe there is a connection to the teaching of rhetoric. The way fallacies are often presented certainly contributes to this sort of behavior.


  6. “… [P]ropaganda analysis [which] struck at the heart of the problem of industrial democracy disappeared from critical thinking [courses? publications?] during WWII and never really returned, thus ideologically skewing the postwar treatment of critical thinking in a way still quite evident today.”

    I don’t quite get this. Some would say that the tradition described here was ideologically skewed from the beginning, but perhaps less so after the 1940s. Michael Boyle seems to be attempting to present it as progressive in a non-partisan sense but I think most objective observers would see the likes of Dewey, for example, as being distinctly left-wing and the general spirit of his and his allies’ educational and social ideals as being decidedly more in line with left-wing views than with, say, secular conservative ones.

    The idea of propaganda analysis made me think of Noam Chomsky’s political work. But, significantly, it is unashamedly partisan – and done outside of an academic or institutional context.

    Problems arise (as I see it) if one attempts to institutionalize critical thinking – at least as it pertains to social and political questions. The propaganda analysis is inevitably compromised, and runs the risk (if it is built into a curriculum, for instance) of itself becoming propaganda.


  7. You think it’s “left wing” to be concerned about — and oppose — the use of crowd psychology and sophisticated marketing techniques to bypass the rational consciousness of the citizen and “manufacture consent,” as both Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann advocated?

    Aldous Huxley voiced precisely the same sort of concern, as did George Orwell.

    You’re attempt at a sort of even-handedness in describing those who support and engage in state- and corporate-sanctioned manipulation of the public and their opponents strikes me as neutrality to a fault. Sometimes one side is right and the other is wrong.


  8. @Mark English:

    There were a few free-standing courses on propaganda analysis (Clyde Miller of Columbia, who helped found the IPA, taught some). For the most part, however, I think we’re talking about educational materials and curriculum guides, particularly those used at the secondary level. The Institute itself certainly came under criticism for being too left, although it was *also* criticized by liberal Progressive interventionists for being critical of Allied propaganda and thus being too even-handed. The HUAC hearings did a lot of damage (mostly in terms of guilt by association), and Dies was rebuked both by FDR and the Supreme Court. Plus, the larger context was the issue of Fry’s opposition to wiretapping, etc. While it is certainly true that Progressives like Watson and Dewey questioned the viability of capitalism during the Depression (Watson admitted long after that the “bankers” had been right about that issue and he had been wrong), one needs to remember that both in terms of the Progressive movement as well as propaganda analysis itself, there were strong conservative voices. Progressive Republicans were a key bloc on Capital Hill (not least Republican Fiorello LaGuardia) and, in terms of propaganda analysis, conservatives were concerned with the New Deal and the power they feared Roosevelt was amassing. An example of such critics is New Hampshire Senator Charles Tobey, also a powerful figure in the isolationist movement and the America First Committee. Part of their concern about Roosevelt’s power was that they were afraid he was dragging us into another war (young members of America First included JFK, Gerald Ford, Gore Vidal, and Sargent Shriver). Also important is the fact that conservative isolationists like Tobey were keenly aware and critical of of the WWI Committee on Public Information, whose propaganda activities looked even worse in the eyes of public after the Republican Nye Committee hearings concluded that we had entered WWI because of war profiteers. The domestic criticism of FDR gradually changed into worries about communism and Pearl Harbor ultimately destroyed the isolationist movement. On a related note, in terms of liberal vs. conservative, Hayakawa (see note 11) became famous much later for opposing the Black Panthers at San Francisco State in ’68-69, which was a key reason that California Reagan Republicans sent him to the US Senate in 1977.

    Propaganda analysts like Miller were very well aware of the tricky position they were in insofar as their own criticism could be labeled propaganda itself. Nonetheless, both they and conservative critics believed that taking a hard look at such matters was crucial for the future of a healthy democracy. By ideological skewing, I’m taking my cue from Sproule (IMO the most important scholar of pre-WWII critical thinking) when he asserts that that disappearance of propaganda analysis had much to do with the notion that such investigation was itself subversive, and that the Cold War simply extended that WWII-era critique into succeeding decades. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable conclusion, given (for example) that we have had basically unrestricted children’s advertising since the Carter Administration and little effort to counteract such propaganda (I’m using the term Bernays -the founding father of advertising as we know it- used to describe his own work) with substantial classroom materials in these techniques of persuasion, whose primary intent is to undermine the rational capacity of the individual. If we all agree with Kant that the dignity and freedom of the individual is intimately connected with their rational capacity, I see no reason why a nonpartisan educational approach to this question is impossible.


  9. Dan

    I don’t see it as ‘left wing’ to be concerned about or oppose the use of such techniques, but I do see the leading US pioneers of this particular approach to dealing with the problem – thinkers such as Dewey – as having been predominantly of the left. Dewey wrote a glowing account of Stalin’s Russia in 1928 and, though he later came out against Stalin, he always remained a socialist. Clearly his educational philosophy was motivated – and strongly marked – by his political philosophy. (Would have to read up on some of the other thinkers involved but it seems clear enough that most of them had a left-wing orientation also.)

    You mention Huxley and Orwell, both of whom I respect. From what I know of their attitudes, my guess is that they would have been just as wary as I am of these sorts of educational programs, however well-intentioned the programs may have been.


  10. @Mark English:

    “From what I know of their attitudes, my guess is that they would have been just as wary as I am of these sorts of educational programs, however well-intentioned the programs may have been.”

    Actually, Huxley’s worry was that propaganda analysis would do its work *too* well, and needed supplementation by a positive exposure to democratic values. Hardly a man who sounds opposed to the educational work of the Institute in general, which he was very familiar with:

    “For the last two or three generations philosophers have devoted a great deal of time and thought to the analysis of symbols and the meaning of meaning. How are the words and sentences which we speak related to the things, persons and events, with which we have to deal in our day-to-day living? To discuss this problem would take too long and lead us too far afield. Suffice it to say that all the intellectual materials for a sound education in the proper
    use of language — an education on every level from the kindergarten to the postgraduate school — are now
    available. Such an education in the art of distinguishing between the proper and the improper use of symbols could be inaugurated immediately. Indeed it might have been inaugurated at any time during the last thirty or forty years. And yet children are nowhere taught, in any systematic way, to distinguish true from false, or meaningful from meaningless, statements. Why is this so? Because their elders, even in the democratic countries, do not want them to be given this kind of education. In this context the brief, sad history of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis is highly significant.
    The Institute was founded in 1937, when Nazi propaganda was at its noisiest and most effective, by Mr. Filene, the New England philanthropist. Under its auspices analyses of non-rational propaganda were made and several texts for the instruction of high school and university students were prepared. Then came the war — a total war on all the fronts, the mental no less than the physical. With all the Allied governments engaging in “psychological warfare,” an insistence upon the desirability of analyzing propaganda seemed a bit tactless. The Institute was closed in 1941. But even before the outbreak of hostilities, there were many persons to whom its activities seemed profoundly
    objectionable. Certain educators, for example, disapproved of the teaching of propaganda analysis on the grounds that it would make adolescents unduly cynical. Nor was it welcomed by the military authorities, who were afraid that recruits might start to analyze the utterances of drill sergeants. And then there were the clergymen and the advertisers. The clergymen were against propaganda analysis as tending to undermine belief and diminish churchgoing; the advertisers objected on the grounds that it might undermine brand loyalty and reduce sales.

    These fears and dislikes were not unfounded. Too searching a scrutiny by too many of the common folk of what is said by their pastors and masters might prove to be profoundly subversive. In its present form, the social order depends for its continued existence on the acceptance, without too many embarrassing questions, of the propaganda put forth by those in authority and the propaganda hallowed by the local traditions. The problem, once more, is to find the happy mean. Individuals must be suggestible enough to be willing and able to make their society work, but not so suggestible
    as to fall helplessly under the spell of professional mind-manipulators. Similarly, they should be taught enough
    about propaganda analysis to preserve them from an uncritical belief in sheer nonsense, but not so much as to make them reject outright the not always rational outpourings of the well-meaning guardians of tradition. Probably the happy mean between gullibility and a total skepticism can never be discovered and maintained by analysis alone. This rather negative approach to the problem will have to be supplemented by something more positive — the enunciation of a set of generally acceptable values based upon a solid foundation of facts. The value, first of all, of individual freedom, based upon the facts of human diversity and genetic uniqueness; the value of charity and compassion, based upon the old familiar fact, lately rediscovered by modern psychiatry — the fact that, whatever their mental and physical diversity, love is as necessary to human beings as food and shelter; and finally the value of intelligence, without
    which love is impotent and freedom unattainable. This set of values will provide us with a criterion by which propaganda may be judged. The propaganda that is found to be both nonsensical and immoral may be rejected out of hand. That which is merely irrational, but compatible with love and freedom, and not on principle opposed to the exercise of intelligence, may be provisionally accepted for what it is worth.”

    Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958), Chapter XI “Education for Freedom.”


  11. Michael, thanks for the replies. It’s an interesting story you are telling, and a complex one.

    On Huxley: I take your point. He was less critical of the Institute than I thought he would have been.

    On Hayakawa: he seems to have been more associated with thinkers you don’t really discuss in the essay (Korzybski, Ogden and Richards and so on), whereas the focus of my comment was Dewey (whom you do discuss and quote) and the particular American tradition of thought which he pioneered.

    You write: “Propaganda analysts like Miller were very well aware of the tricky position they were in insofar as their own criticism could be labeled propaganda itself. Nonetheless, both they and conservative critics believed that taking a hard look at such matters was crucial for the future of a healthy democracy.”

    A couple of points. Firstly, the problem as I see it is not that a certain approach may be *labelled* propaganda, but rather that it may *be* propaganda. Secondly, nobody is going to object to “taking a hard look” at anything. Points of contention would relate to how best to deal with this issue, in the context of a school curriculum for example. (We will all, no doubt, have our own views on what sorts of approaches are most desirable or effective.)

    “If we all agree with Kant that the dignity and freedom of the individual is intimately connected with their rational capacity, I see no reason why a nonpartisan educational approach to this question is impossible.”

    Well, there are Kantians of all political stripes, but there are lots of non-Kantians around also. I don’t know that we need Kantian ideas here, though I can certainly see how committed Kantians (of one kind or another) might be particularly motivated to devote themselves to causes such as critical thinking and propaganda analysis.


  12. @Mark English:

    I understand your concern in terms of a particular approach itself being propaganda. However, aside from Huxley’s worry (echoed also by others) re: the creation of cynicism, etc. I don’t really see your concern as a danger today provided that a careful presentation of factual data and the associated arguments are made. Were some Progressives too sanguine about the USSR prior to the 1936 purges? Yes. Were the isolationist Republicans wrong about the war? Yes. I don’t see how any of that weakens the case for the analysis of propaganda. If anything, it argues IMO for *more* vigilence in terms of rational public discourse. Moreover, given that advocates of propaganda in advertising, etc. are very clear that 1) they have no faith in the average citizen’s capacity to reason and 2) their appeals are clearly to the emotive levels of the psyche, I see every reason to educate the citizen so as to prevent their manipulation.

    Now, if part of what you are driving at is the fact that the model of human nature we subscribe to as citizens (rational model) is directly at odds with the one that underpins advertising (irrational model) and which is necessary to maintain consumption to solve the supply/demand imbalaces that arise with mass production and that criticism of the latter can morph into a general denunciation of capitalism, yes it can (and did with some Progressives in the Depression). Incidentally, decades ago American historian Merle Curti identified a 180 degree shift in the advertising industry from a view of the consumer as rational to irrational which occurred in 1910-1930.

    The first model of human nature is necessary for democracy; the second for consumption and thus a healthy economy. That doesn’t resolve the contradiction but an awareness of the contradiction between our roles as citizens versus consumers (and their necessity given the kind of society and economy we have) has to be the first step in creating a more aware and engaged public and having a substantial discussion concerning what we might do realistically to ameliorate the problem. You can’t have a real democracy when everyone’s getting manipulated. On the other hand, its clear that the only viable economic system at present is some form of capitalism.

    As for Kant, I was simply using him as a synecdoche for the rational capacities approach that underlies so much of the understanding of our freedom, rights, and dignity as modern persons.


  13. “I don’t really see your concern as a danger today provided that a careful presentation of factual data and the associated arguments is made. Were some Progressives too sanguine about the USSR prior to the 1936 purges? Yes. Were the isolationist Republicans wrong about the war? Yes. I don’t see how any of that weakens the case for the analysis of propaganda. If anything, it argues IMO for *more* vigilence in terms of rational public discourse.”

    So why were these experts in critical thinking taken in by the Soviet ‘experiment’ when many ordinary people as well as leading intellectuals and commentators were not? I would say that it was because they were ideologically predisposed to see it in a positive light. And it is extremely significant, it seems to me, that their much-vaunted methods of critical thinking and analysis were utterly ineffective here.

    “Now, if part of what you are driving at is the fact that the model of human nature we subscribe to as citizens (rational model) is directly at odds with the one that underpins advertising (irrational model) and which is necessary to maintain consumption to solve the supply/demand imbalances that arise with mass production and that criticism of the latter can morph into a general denunciation of capitalism, yes it can…”

    You are taking the debate entirely out of the historical realm here and introducing a different kind of analysis which seems to incorporate economic and general assumptions which I do not share.

    You appear to see rationality as being aligned with citizenship and irrationality with the marketplace. But one could just as easily see things the other way round: politics being essentially and necessarily concerned with various kinds of myths, and human rationality being most on display in the economic realm.

    Of course, we are never entirely rational in our behaviour, and I don’t deny that an education which makes us aware that much of our cognitive processing is unconscious and which emphasizes how vulnerable we are to certain kinds of deception and self-deception and so on is desirable.

    I don’t know enough about the sorts of courses you are advocating to judge them one way or the other. Rather, I am just expressing a degree of skepticism regarding some of the historical interpretations on display here, and also concerning the way you have conceptualized and presented the underlying problems.

    “As for Kant, I was simply using him as a synecdoche for the rational capacities approach that underlies so much of the understanding of our freedom, rights, and dignity as modern persons.”

    And by saying that there are lots of non-Kantians around, I was simply saying that a lot of people don’t buy this approach. But my major points are not dependent on having a particular take on this issue.


  14. “Taken in by the Soviet ‘experiment'”: the history here is complex. Dewey looked favorably on the USSR of the ’20s. Shortly after, when Stalin is entrenched, Dewey becomes firmly anti-Soviet, and later heads the Dewey Commission which writes an expose of the Moscow show trials. He also faught against communists taking control of the NY Teachers Union. In 1939, Dewey helped found and chair the Committee for Cultural Freedom to counteract communism and fascism. Dewey’s activities in the 1930s helped lay the foundation for liberal anti-communism, especially after the war. As for the Institute, neither the HUAC investigations nor allegations about editorial director Clyde Beals bore fruit, other than lots of innuendo and bad PR. Besides complaints that it did not run enough pieces on the left, it was also criticized by Progressives for being too even-handed with analysis of wartime propaganda. As I said, the history is complicated and regardless, the ideas we are talking about are bigger than any one individual.

    In terms of citizens and consumers, I’m simply describing the way things are. Liberal democracy is based on the idea of a rational citizenry. Business itself makes clear that it is practiced on the assumption of an irrational consumer. Economics is beginning to explore this with Behavioral Economics. You are certainly right that politics today follows much the same model, but note that this is done by subterfuge, while keeping the idea of the rational voter. If that’s not viable anymore, what is the alternative, other than a variant of the technocracy that Dewey, Huxley, and Orwell oppossed? That’s a key part of the reason critical thinking that makes us aware of our vulnerabilities and increases our awareness and clarity of thought is important- to fight against the sorts of things Orwell criticizes in “Politics and the English Language.”

    As for not buying the rational capacities approach, ok. Nonetheless,in terms of the law that’s an important ingredient in our having the rights we have.


  15. I admit I find it amusing that we have two articles posted one after the other, on the theory, practice, and criticism of rhetoric, and the word ‘rhetoric’ has only appeared 4 times; twice in Mr. Boyle’s article, twice in comments, and not at all in Mr. Tippen’s article.

    In philosophy the bias has been against rhetoric, in favor of logic, since Socrates. The hope in democratic cultures has always been that the general public could be educated to think logically, rather than responding to policy choices emotionally, which inevitably involves prejudice, fear, desire, and selfish interests. But as early as Aristotle it was possible to recognize that this was simply not possible. His argument, in the Rhetoric, is that people try thinking reasonably about community matters, but that they may lack the education or time to consider strictly logical arguments in depth. Along the way he also remarks that some people simply are not educable, and thus will always respond to public suasion without needed knowledge base or training in thinking reasonably. The implication is clear, that appeals to prejudice, fear, desire, and other selfish interests, however unfounded, will never go away, but may need to be incorporated into public suasion techniques even should the cause or policy argued for be the logically grounded, appropriate choice in a given situation.

    For instance, raising the minimum wage might be a wise policy choice because it redistributes wealth so as to increase its availability for increasing productivity. But that argument will mean nothing to people with little grasp on political economy. Invoking pity for impoverished families of the working poor – ‘single mom Mary has works two jobs, and her young son Johnny needs medical attention she can’t afford’ – or appealing to simple greed – ‘put more of the wealth into the pockets of those who work for it! (yes, you!)’ – may only be tangentially cogent, but necessary to make the political case.

    It’s not clear to me that we can adequately address problems of propaganda critique or issues involving informal fallacies, without firm grasp on fundamentals of rhetoric – the art of persuasion.


  16. I understand much of your comment here, but don’t get the “amusing” part at the beginning. What’s “amusing” about the two essays, both of which I thought were quite interesting?


  17. @ejwinner:

    “In philosophy the bias has been against rhetoric, in favor of logic, since Socrates.” Yes, and in some ways we still have the division between the school of Isocrates and Plato’s Academy.

    “It’s not clear to me that we can adequately address problems of propaganda critique or issues involving informal fallacies, without firm grasp on fundamentals of rhetoric – the art of persuasion.”

    Your point is well taken. In fact, originally the essay was to have included a section on the Progressive George Pierce Baker, an influential figure in rhetoric and argumentation (through his 1895 work The Principles of Argumentation) who would later establish Harvard’s famed Workshop 47 in drama (his students included Eugene O’Neill) and eventually helped set up Yale’s department of drama. In the interests of focusing on the turbulent period immediately prior to the postwar efforts of people like Robert Ennis (whose work belongs in general to the quantitative approach laid out by Watson and Glaser), I decided against including that section and relegated an oblique mention of it to footnote 1. However, two other scholars I mentioned in the same footnote (Toulmin and Perleman) who have been influential in the post-war speech/communications approach to argumentation will themselves be the focus of a future essay.


  18. Dan Kaufman,

    I certainly did not intend to disparage the two articles. I also find them both fascinating, for different reasons. I found Boyle’s essay very informative, which is why I did not submit a substantive comment until the issue of rhetoric seemed useful to bring up. Tippen’s article clarifies an epistemic distinction in a way that – I think – actually reveals its fuzziness. So my ‘amusement’ was not with the articles per se, but with the historic context of philosophy’s seeming allergic reaction to rhetoric as an inevitable social practice. It’s somewhat akin to the common American suspicion of ‘politics,’ in a country where the political can never be avoided in public discussion.

    I should note that our senses of humor appear to be quite distinct; I spotted that in your response to my comment on Quine, which was intended partially tongue-in-cheek, in response to a tongue-in-cheek attitude that I read (perhaps mistakenly) Quine as taking toward Carnap (seemingly increasing as his text went on). I am not asking for forgiveness for my occasionally obtuse sense of irony, merely suggesting that the target of it may not be what it first appears (I did end up agreeing with Quine, after all).

    Michael Boyle,

    Thank you for your reply; for one thing it has spurred me to research George Pierce Baker further. I also did note your remarking Ogden and Richards, among the most respected rhetorical critics in English studies (at least when I was an undergrad). To reciprocate, allow me to suggest Kenneth Burke’s essays in rhetorical criticism from the ’30s; as I remember, his analysis of how news journalism re-enforces capitalist beliefs was superb. (I admit he has been an embarrassment to me for 20 years. I wrote a rhetorical analysis of Hitler’s chapter on his WWI experience in “Mein Kampf,” only to discover soon after that Burke had recognized exactly the same issues as I had, thus making my essay unpublishable. But give credit where it’s due, he was an excellent reader.)

    I look forward to your next essay on the topic.