Philosophical Gaslighting

I’ve witnessed a phenomenon that I call philosophical gaslighting. Simply, it is gaslighting in the context of academic philosophy. It happens in many other fields, but I will speak only about my world.

I notice two main examples:

  1. When you make an original contribution to a discussion and a person responds as if your idea is the same as what they’ve been saying all along.
  2. A person responds to your objection/question by shifting the whole discussion in a way that makes you doubt whether you were tracking what was happening.

Both cases are disorienting. They can lead to a creeping imposter syndrome. You start to question whether you are understanding what the other person is saying. It is certainly possible that you don’t. You may have asked a stupid question. The feeling of confidence that you do in fact understand is difficult to distinguish from arrogance or combativeness. So you default to humility or the concession that you must be confused (at least for the time being)—especially if you’re talking to a professor or someone with more institutional power.

Features of academic philosophy make this form of gaslighting particularly pernicious because it is both difficult to detect and an enticing conversational maneuver. For instance, we want our ideas to be general and profound enough to entail a bunch of interesting stuff. If the people you are talking to are simply (and unwittingly) charting out the consequences of your idea, you are doing philosophy at a high level—certainly at a higher level than they are. So many conversations include a subtle measuring of who has a better grip on the conceptual terrain. If you are able to depict the other person as not saying anything new but only rephrasing your ideas, there is no doubt about who has the insight.

Depicting yourself as the one with the insights by claiming that other people’s ideas are actually the same as your already-stated ideas makes you look like the real philosopher, the one truly in control of the conversation. It puts you in league with the great thinkers who have all the bases covered and have thought through all the potential moves. It makes the other people feel like they are simply trying to keep up—but more than that, by claiming their idea as your own, you are showing that they didn’t even know that all they were doing was trying to keep up. You’re that far ahead. The other person thought they were contributing something new, but really they were struggling to understand the nuance, richness, and fecundity of your thought.

Few conversations are openly contentious or acrimonious. This makes it especially challenging to call out philosophical gaslighting. To make known to the other person that you were expressing something new would be be a dramatic rupture of the conversation. It moves away from the particular topic to a self-conscious and self-reflexive acknowledgment of the power dynamics. More than that, it is a strong accusation of the other person, one they would be unlikely to concede. The conversation would become immediately tense and awkward. Relationships would suffer. Plus, a person can always respond with more gaslighting. So it is doubtful that calling it out would not solve much of anything.

You might respond by insisting on the originality of your thought. Although this wouldn’t qualify as “calling out” the gaslighting, it would likely have many of the same effects: it would disrupt the conversation and appear contentious. Overtly claiming ownership over ideas might seem petty or insecure. 

Practically, given how philosophical conversations tend to go, it is often difficult to recognize philosophical gaslighting in the moment. You have to crawl through the exercise of self-doubt and replay the give and take of the conversation several times, double and triple checking. By then, the discussion has moved on and you have to catch up. This kicks off a vicious cycle. Because you’re behind, you’re now unsure and thus less likely to identify philosophical gaslighting when it happens. These realizations tend to come after the conversation has ended and you have the benefit of hindsight.

Considering the second example I mentioned, when someone responds to your question with philosophical gaslighting, you are in a tough position. You cannot proclaim that they’ve failed to answer your question. That would be rude or shockingly brazen. We tend to assume good will in these conversations. So instead, if you choose not to shut up, you’re more likely to rephrase your question, often with a preamble about how you didn’t follow. This then achieves the very purpose of the gaslighting: you appear lost and unable to track the ideas, all of which is evidence of some type of inferiority. Now it is open for all to see.

Philosophical gaslighting can take the opposite form too. Sometimes people feign confusion and obtuseness as a passive form of strong criticism (similar to ‘sealioning‘). The message it usually expresses is something like, “Your idea is so utterly incoherent that I cannot make heads or tails of it, despite the fact that I obviously seem to be trying really hard.” This tactic is employed by people with power. Of course, they might be genuinely perplexed. But from the outside perspective, the two cases are difficult to distinguish. So they both can have the effect of making the other person (who has less power) shrink in self-doubt when maybe they have no good reason to.

Surely most of philosophical gaslighting is not intentional. If you are speaking to someone with less power—like, for example, a student—you simply might not be able to hear an original idea from them. You’re the one who is supposed to have the knowledge. If they say something novel and interesting, especially if it isn’t something you’ve considered, and you notice it, there is a resistance to acknowledging it explicitly. Otherwise the power dynamic might level out. Especially with graduate students, whose authority tends to be more precarious and who incur power debts in their interactions with professors, this would be risky.

So what should we do? Besides the obvious prescription (stop philosophical gaslighting!), perhaps there is more. When someone, especially someone with more power, calls an idea of mine interesting or deep, I feel encouraged and motivated. I imagine others do as well. When someone expresses that a discussion is mutually edifying by acknowledging the contributions of others, everything gets better. So in philosophical conversation, point out when other people say something insightful.

After all, if they are only saying what you’ve been saying all along, surely it is, right?Orange

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