It might be thought that the theory of ideology has ideology as its subject matter, and so cannot itself contain its subject matter. But this thought too is incorrect. The logician Alfred Tarski provides a proof of the soundness of the axioms of the calculus of classes in a metatheory. But the reason the soundness proof works is that the meta-theory also has axioms that express those same principles. The meta-theory is not an attempt to provide the justifications of the propositions expressed by axioms of the theory to someone who doubts them. Its task is different: it is to deliver important knowledge about the object theory. Similarly, the task of the theory of ideology is to yield important knowledge about ideology. Even if the theory of ideology is ideological, it can issue in knowledge. As in the metatheory for logic or set theory, a neutral stance is neither possible nor required, Jason Stanley (2015) How Propaganda Works, 77.
Yesterday, I noted that there are three distinct features of Stanley's approach to propaganda: first, that propaganda amplifies (or reduces) ideals; second, that it does so by nonrational means; third that propaganda is also possible, even endemic, in liberal democracies (49ff). While I propose an alternative approach, Stanley is right that propaganda can be true and/or sincere.
One notable feature of Stanley's approach is that he grants (see the quote above) that his own theory of ideology cannot escape being ideological itself. In fact, I argued that his analysis presupposes a kind of deliberative understanding of public life with accompanying ideals of "fair deliberation and equal participation." This limits his approach in contexts that have very different or conflicting fundamental commitments about politics (and it is one reason why I argue for a different approach).
More subtly, Stanley's account of propaganda has, in addition to the three distinct features I noted before, a kind of consistency or integrity principle built into its exemplary definitions. Recall his definitions:
Supporting Propaganda: A contribution to public discourse that is presented as an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to increase the realization of those very ideals by either emotional or other nonrational means.
Undermining Propaganda: 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. Jason Stanley 53 (emphasis in original).
In Stanley's hands, propaganda moves one from a status quo (in terms of an ideal) and, in so doing, moves one toward more coherence (supporting propaganda) or toward incoherence (undermining propaganda). This emphasis on consistency embodies an ideal of rationality (but by no means sole ideal of rationality), as is revealed by the very clever and surprising appeal to Tarski when he describes his approach to ideology (quoted above). Recall that in Tarski's famous paper the "proof of the soundness of the axioms of the calculus of classes" is a means toward explicating truth.
For, at a high level of generality, one can understand Tarski's explication of truth as combining in creative fashion a commitment to a correspondence theory of truth (Tarski calls it the "classical" even "Aristotelian" conception of truth [recall]) and, on the meta-level, instantiating coherence as the ideal of rationality. (Of course, Tarski's explication is compatible with deflationary and more substantive approaches to truth.) What is notable about the uptake of Tarski's explication within philosophical circles (but perhaps not eventually in logical circles) is that it left little room left for alternative explications of truth. I have reported how hard it has become, in practice, to understand and discern genuinely alternative approaches to truth. (For example, recall that in the history of philosophy we can find non-classical approaches to truth as (i) a property/quality of an object or (ii) truth as identity of an object with (well) itself.)
Now, Tarski could presuppose a high epistemic status for formal languages (including arithmetic) such that proofs in the metalanguage about the object language can be accorded (fairly or not) the honorific, 'knowledge.' Nothing analogous is in play in Stanley's theory of ideology (or propaganda). So, in Tarski the apparent unwillingness to offer "justifications of the propositions expressed by axioms of the theory to someone who doubts them" is un-problematic (when it comes to the epistemic status of the theory). But Stanley's theory of propaganda presents the phenomenon of ideology (and propaganda) as well as a theory about it. But both are contestable in ways that Tarski's are not. As Stanley notes "the facts are under dispute." (75)
So, while Stanley is undoubtedly right that in such contested and contestable matters "no neutral stance" (77) is possible, his methodological appeal to Tarski is unpersuasive. Some other time, I return to this methodological issue because the problems with it are also revealed in the theory of (social) concepts that Stanley relies on in later chapters (for relevant musings prompted by another work see here).
In this post, I have emphasized the ways in which Stanley's approach to ideology and propaganda exhibits commitment to a particular ideal form of rationality, one that values integrity or coherence between ideals and practice. But there are other more substantive forms of rationality, some of which emphasize contextual judgment, or acting from reasons, or self-legislation, etc. Some of these ideals fit well with the coherence ideal of rationality, others less so. The point is that Stanley assumes a kind of political consensus over his preferred ideal form of rationality as well as (as I noted above) the noble ideals of "fair deliberation and equal participation." Given the significant work these ideals do in his work, the lack of effort to provide substantive justification strikes me as a reason to deny that the theory that relies on them produces "knowledge."
As an aside, I also worry that Stanley's methodological stance will reinforce the already regrettable tendency in contemporary analytical philosophy to avoid responding to foundational objections. We are supposed to spot others their foundational commitments and our criticisms are supposed to be immanent (or are otherwise thought question begging). But while this is an efficient practice, it also generates considerable moral problems -- as I learned from Amia Srinivasian and Daniela Dover (and undoubtedly I am not doing justice to their subtlety) -- when some groups can simply stipulate their commitments to an intellectual or political community while others not.
The concern I have is that when our understanding of propaganda and ideology is loaded with these ideals, we are likely to miss the occasions when precisely the firm adherence to these ideals exhibit noxious forms of ideology or propaganda. That's not a refutation of Stanley's approach (it can't be), but it suggests we should use it with caution, and we should keep exploring conceptualizations of propaganda and ideology that fit with alternative or different mix of ideals.