George Orwell (1903-1950) was an early twentieth-century writer best known as the author of Animal Farm and 1984. He also wrote essays, novels, and non-fiction books.
While not trained as a philosopher, Orwell’s writings include many philosophical claims. His philosophical insights are relevant to both pressing social issues and recent developments in philosophy. This essay discusses some of his philosophical views in political philosophy, epistemology, and philosophy of language.
Orwell was born in colonial India, where his English father worked for the British Civil Service, and was raised in England as part of the middle class. After completing school, he worked for five years with the Imperial Police in Myanmar (now Burma). During this time, Orwell became an anti-imperialist.
After resigning from the Imperial Police, Orwell returned to England to become a writer. His writing often reflected his personal experiences, which included living among the poor in Paris and London, researching working conditions in Northern England, fighting as a volunteer soldier in the Spanish Civil War, and creating World War II propaganda for the British Broadcasting Company.
Orwell published Animal Farm in 1945. It was a commercial success in the United States and the United Kingdom. 1984, published in 1949, was an even bigger success. Orwell died of tuberculosis less than a year after 1984 was published.
2. Political Philosophy
Orwell’s early writing focused on the themes of poverty and imperialism.
He claimed that upper- and middle-class people typically misunderstood why people lived in poverty and what living in poverty was like. Orwell argued that poor people were not poor because of inferior moral character, but because of dysfunctional social and political systems that created unjust inequality.
Orwell came to hate imperialism. He thought that both the oppressed and the oppressors were unfree under imperialism: the oppressed because foreign imperialist invaders subjected them to injustice; the oppressors because they were pressured into acting unjustly for the sake of keeping up appearances. Such oppressors also faced social pressure to censor themselves by not criticizing an imperial political structure that benefited their social group.
Orwell’s later writings focused on the themes of socialism and totalitarianism, among others.
He rejected capitalism in favor of socialism. For Orwell, a socialist government was one in which major industries were nationalized, income inequality was limited, and quality education was available to all, regardless of social class. Importantly, Orwell distinguished socialism from Marxism and Soviet Communism. He noticed how these things were sometimes inaccurately conflated with socialism. Orwell often specified that he was a democratic socialist, committed to a socialist society that preserved people’s freedom and autonomy.
Orwell was staunchly opposed to totalitarianism. He viewed totalitarianism as a specific kind of dictatorship that had not existed prior to the twentieth century. For Orwell, totalitarianism was characterized by an unbounded desire for complete control and power for power’s sake.
Orwell saw this desire for power and control as incompatible with a just legal system that applies to everyone and thus limits even a ruler’s power. But totalitarians will not tolerate limits on their power. Orwell viewed both Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism as totalitarian states.
For Orwell, totalitarian rule had epistemic consequences. Because totalitarian rulers need total control, they cannot tolerate facts that conflict with their goals. As a result, totalitarians will say whatever is necessary to retain power and will seek to convince people to give up on the concept of objective truth. Orwell used the primary antagonist in 1984, O’Brien, to model how the totalitarian desire for control leads the totalitarian to try to subvert truth.
Totalitarianism was not the only political threat to truth that Orwell worried about. Orwell also viewed what he called ‘nationalism’ as a threat to truth and to the formation of justified beliefs. Orwell used ‘nationalism’ as a technical term to refer to the practice of making the advancement of a nation or other political unit one’s central concern. Nationalists are fiercely loyal to their political team and tend to view everything “in terms of competitive prestige.” Orwell’s description of nationalism is similar to many contemporary descriptions of today’s political left and right in the United States and many European nations.
Nationalism, for Orwell, comes in positive and negative forms. The positive nationalist focuses on promoting one’s own political team. Negative nationalism focuses on denigrating a political team to which one is opposed. The epistemic significance of nationalism on Orwell’s account is that such political loyalty leads nationalists to distort their evidence, often unconsciously, in order to retain the belief that their political team is superior “even when the facts are overwhelmingly against” such a view.
Orwell’s insights can be expressed in modern terms as making a case for the view that political partisanship leads to cognitive bias and vice versa.
4. Language and Literature
Orwell believed that the development of politics, thought, and language were all interconnected.
Because language influences our thoughts and our politics, Orwell thought it was important to write well. Orwell’s desire to avoid bad writing is not the desire to defend “standard English” or rigid rules of grammar. Rather, Orwell’s chief goal is for language users to aspire “to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about.” For example, Orwell thought that we tend to pick the metaphors that first come to mind but that these metaphors often distort our ideas in unproductive ways. This is what led Orwell to work toward developing an art of political writing.
Orwell believed that, in some sense, all writing is political and that all art is propaganda because all writing conveys a political message, even if that message is just support for the status quo. As a result, Orwell viewed literature as a potential weapon against totalitarianism.
Political epistemology and political philosophy of language have only recently begun to emerge as distinct sub-fields within academic philosophy. In this way, Orwell’s insights about the relationship between politics, thought, and language were ahead of their time and are worth philosophical examination.
 See, for example, Orwell 1933/1961, Orwell 1937/1958, and Orwell 1938/1952.
 Many biographies about Orwell have been written, including Crick 1980, Sheldon 1991, and Taylor 2003.
 See, for example, Orwell 1931, Orwell 1933/1961.
 See Orwell 1933/1961, Orwell 1937/1958.
 Orwell 1937/1958, ch. 9.
 Orwell 1937/1958, ch. 9.
 See Orwell 1936, Orwell 1937/1958, ch. 9.
 See Orwell 1937/1958, Orwell 1941, Orwell 1946a.
 Orwell 1937/1958.
 See, for example, Orwell 1946a.
 For a sampling of Orwell’s anti-totalitarian writings see Orwell 1943, 1946a, 1946b, 1946c, 1946d.
 See, for example, Orwell 1941, where Orwell writes of the “totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power.”
 See Orwell 1944.
 Orwell 1943.
 Orwell 1949.
 Orwell 1945.
 Orwell 1945.
 See, for example, Rini 2017 and Abramowitz and Webster 2018.
 Orwell 1945.
 For contemporary scholarship on political partisanship, and cognitive bias see, for example, Rini 2017, Abramowitz and Webster 2018, and Finkel et al 2020.
 Orwell’s most famous writings dealing with the interconnectedness of politics, language, and thought are his essay “Politics and the English Language” (Orwell 1946c) and much of the dialogue and writings of various characters in 1984.
 Orwell 1946c.
 Orwell 1946a.
 See Orwell 1946a, 1946b, 1946d, and 1940.
 For recent work in political epistemology see Bernecker, Flowerree, and Grundmann 2021, Edenberg and Hannon 2021, and Hannon and de Ridder 2021. For recent work in social and political philosophy of language see Khoo and Sterken 2021.
Eli J. Finkel, Christopher A. Bail, Mina Cikara, Peter H. Ditto, Shanto Iyengar, Samara Klar, Lilliana Mason, Mary C. McGrath, Brendan Nyhan, David G. Rand, Linda J. Skitka, Joshua A. Tucker, Jay J. Van Bavel, Cynthia S. Wang and James N. Druckman. “Political Sectarianism in America.” (2020). Science 370 (6516).
Orwell, George. “The Spike.” Adelphi, 1931. (‘George Orwell’ is a pen name. This essay was originally published under Orwell’s real name, Eric Blair, but republication is generally credited to ‘George Orwell.’)
For Further Reading
Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought by David Antonini
Indoctrination: What is it to Indoctrinate Someone? by Chris Ranalli
Defining Capitalism and Socialism by Thomas Metcalf
Arguments for Capitalism and Socialism by Thomas Metcalf
Karl Marx’s Conception of Alienation by Dane Lowe
John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’ by Ben Davies
About the Author
Mark Satta is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. He received his PhD in Philosophy from Purdue University and his JD from Harvard Law School. Some of his philosophical interests include epistemology, philosophy of language, social and political philosophy, and philosophy of law. MarkSatta.com