Examination of the problems of false consciousness
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date14/03/2023
Lee, Lilith W.
The concept of false consciousness is understood to involve individuals who act in ways that contribute to their own oppression, on the basis of ignorant beliefs that resist revision when confronted with attempts at correction. And these beliefs are themselves thought to arise from the individual’s oppressed conditions. This thesis is an attempt to rehabilitate the concept back into the toolkit of analytic social philosophy against its detractors. I thus examine the common problems associated with using this concept in social philosophy, using the case of women anti-suffragists as a central case study. I begin with a brief genealogy of the concept of false consciousness, which attends to the history of the concept as it developed within the Marxian and Critical Theory traditions, before making a few preliminary clarifications about how the concept will be defined and used here. I then explain several challenges to using the concept of false consciousness, suggesting that detractors of the concept often rely on characterisations of it that sit uneasily between our emancipatory goals and certain extant approaches to social epistemology and ontology, normativity, and moral blameworthiness. The concept of false consciousness is often criticised as an ad hoc explanation for why someone acts a particular way that is contrary to their own interests. There is no standard account for why someone has false consciousness especially under multiple systems of oppression. I address this by proposing an approach that treats the concept as a means to regulate social research and direct attention to various looping mechanisms that sustain oppressive beliefs and practices. These mechanisms converge upon an individual to produce beliefs that may be shared with other oppressed agents when seen from the perspective of a system of oppression. Yet at the same time, such beliefs are nuanced differently at more agent-targeted levels and in relation to other systems. Another problem with false consciousness is in determining the appropriate standard for employing the concept in critique. Standards of critique are themselves often the very things in dispute. The problem thus lies in needing to provide a standard of critique that can avoid such disagreement and also ensure that the standards themselves are not products of false consciousness. I address this by appealing to the notion of well-being, which would generate standards that are by definition the agent’s own. Extant accounts of well-being, however, are inadequate for the task. I thus outline my own account, grounded in our status as sense-making organisms and second-order norms regulating our organismic processes. False consciousness is also often thought to involve victim-blaming, since the individuals are thought to be irrational or not to know any better. Using the concept to pick out the individual as contributing to the very oppression they experience thus seems to be inappropriate as irrationality and ignorance are exculpatory in many other cases in ethics. I address this by focusing on a historical case study of several women anti-suffragists. I first examine the charges of irrationality and find that the charges do not hold for them. I then consider the reasons behind their systematic ignorance and find that they are indeed brought about by culpable mechanisms. In turn, the women are also culpable for the acts that follow from them. Hence, false consciousness does not preclude blameworthiness. I conclude with a brief observation of a tension between moral criticism— wherein agents are criticised as individuals—and social criticism (critique)— wherein individuals are criticised in terms of social categories. I suggest that, although the concept of false consciousness can overcome the above conceptual problems, it nevertheless appears to have some limited use in relation to our blaming practices. This thesis, therefore, is an attempt to clarify, defend, and rehabilitate the concept of false consciousness, in order to expand the social philosopher’s toolkit and refine our understanding of social criticism both in philosophy and public discourse.