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“Age of Manipulation” responsible for Conflict of Identity

13 December 2021 - Recent Visiting Research Fellow to the Trinity Long Room Hub, Professor Christian Illies argues that we are living in an “age of manipulation” as part of a new book project he is working on which draws on philosophical anthropology to answer political questions.

Much as the sirens lured the poor seafarers to the deadly cliffs of their shores or Eve simply “offered” the apple to Adam (at least according to a possibly biased reading), people are being led to do things that are in direct conflict with their identities, Professor Illies claims. Whether we look to the Old Testament or the tactics used by coffee shops today to entice customers into the premises, Professor Illies notes examples of “manipulation” at every level.

Professor Christian IlliesHolding a Chair of Philosophy at the University of Bamberg in Germany, Professor Illies spent the month of October at the Trinity Long Room Hub working on his project “Enacting narratives. Understanding human identity-formation with a Thomist theory of action.”

During his fellowship, Professor Illies delivered a lecture at the Department of Philosophy, where he also collaborated with Professor Paul O’Grady, Professor of Philosophy at Trinity, with whom he found “many interesting questions in common” around identity.

"Systematic" Manipulation

Describing manipulation as “a way to play with your emotions, bypassing reason to make you do certain things”, Professor Illies says it is “as old as mankind.”

Referencing historic figures such as Cleopatra and Napoleon, who had “skills to seduce the masses, to fascinate, to mesmerise”, Professor Illies notes that by the time we encountered  Hitler, we were already living in age of manipulation where this approach was “systematic”. In modernity, this “silent power has become dominant”.

Professor Illies traces the use of “manipulation” in this more systematic manner back to the early 20th century by looking at the politics of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States. Having campaigned for office on the basis that he would not go to war, Wilson then found himself in the midst of the First World War and the need to take on Germany with the allies in Europe. He also had a challenge in convincing the American public, who (at that time) “if they weren’t Irish, they were German”, Professor Illies notes.

President Woodrow Wilson“He [President Woodrow Wilson] was the first to engage specialists for communication. Basically, he created the job of these specialists to convey the new message and to convince the masses. And then he took these people with him to Europe, to the peace conference, and Edward Bernays was one of the leading figures. He coined the phrase 'Bringing democracy to all of Europe'. That was the seductive slogan under which America entered the war”, Professor Illies explains.

Bernays (also a nephew of Freud) believed that politics needed manipulation to “crystallise public opinion” in otherwise uncontrollable modern mass-democracies. And he coined the term “public relations” as a more digestible way to harness manipulation, Professor Illies observes.

by the time we encountered Hitler, we were already living in age of manipulation.

Professor Illies argues that as we move from politics to business, we see a focus on trying to “form a new type of consumer who buys things not because he needs them, but because he wants to be the one who has them”. This was a real challenge for marketers as many typical Americans at the turn of the 20th century were hardworking, modest and rather ascetic protestants. “Manipulation was then seen not only as a force or power to influence the individual, to think this or that, but almost to form a new personality.”

We also now had psychology helping us to understand what moves people to do things, Professor Illies explains, highlighting Bernays’ use of Freud’s lectures in psychoanalysis to help him develop his “technology of manipulation”, largely by inverting Freud’s idea that the unconscious speaks to us via images: He used images to speak to the unconscious .

“Up to the 1920s, women thought smoking was a sin, no decent woman would do it.  He [Bernays] phrased cigarettes as the torch of freedom and made a huge campaign with images of beautiful women lighting their cigarettes and just having an air of being liberated. He linked it to the notion of emancipation, liberation and so forth. And a new, huge market opened up for the tobacco industry.”

Identity Crisis

But what has this got to do with human identity?

“To see how that affects humans, we need to understand what it means to be a human or to have a sort of model of us, of our motivations. Only then can we give a plausible account of the effects of manipulation. And here identity comes into it.”

Identity, he says, is basically an inner coherence which “keeps things together”. According to Professor Illies, there are “two anchoring points for that identity”--our normative side and our descriptive side. The descriptive side of us is the part that holds all our desires and needs, our biological nature and the way we are formed. The normative side is the “ideal self”, as he calls it, the side of our goals and our understanding of the good. He argues that manipulation changes our descriptive side by adding powerful desires that push in one direction, while our normative side with its goals remains stable, creating what he describes as a “tension” between the two. “I think ultimately, we can describe the effect of manipulation as a minimal identity crisis, as a clash within yourself”, he says, adding that “we feel a self-alienation within our own will.”

we can describe the effect of manipulation as a minimal identity crisis, as a clash within yourself.
Professor Christian Illies

This form of identity crisis, Professor Illies claims, has a more threatening impact on the strength of our democracies because if you lose your inner coherence in a systematic way and are “permanently moved by outer forces” you are more likely to be open to some of the more sinister movements towards populism and other forces that work with human emotions.

Professor Illies notes that the last chapters of his book are focused on exploring the long-term societal effects where “manipulation becomes the prime force, the silent power of governments, and of the economy.” The book will end with recommendations for dealing intelligently with this silent power that is now inevitably part of our world.


Another contributing factor to the systematic adoption of manipulation as a silent power lies in modern technology. Long before big tech, “new means” created new modes for manipulating the masses. While Hitler, in distributing radios at a low price, “sold people the instrument by which he could manipulate them,” Professor Illies fears the same may be true about the smart phone we now carry around in our pockets. It might change our personalities rather profloundly.

Whether through Facebook distilling a very complex set of human emotional responses down to “likes” and “dislikes”, or Amazon paralysing the normative self and our inner resistance through tactics such as “buy with one click”, Professor Illies sees social media as “a huge emotion-arousing system” where “emotions mean earning money.”

“I would say that currently the most dangerous threats to democracy through modern technologies are a politics based on emotions and images, and secondly--partly as a consequence--the black and white form of thinking and judging. The friend and enemy category is dominating because you can arouse easily passionate emotions when you talk about an enemy."


Professor Illies describes his time at the Hub as one of an “invigorating inter-disciplinary exchange”, a key strength of the Institute’s fellowship experience, he notes. “It’s a chance to meet a colleague from next door who does medieval French literature and spend several hours discovering lots of interesting issues. As a philosopher, I get a lot of stimulation from conversations and ideas from different fields”, Professor Illies says, adding that he also appreciated the chance to interact with the fellows of the EU funded Human+ programme, a collaboration between the Hub and ADAPT, who are also working on complimentary issues of artificial intelligence and ethics. “This open atmosphere of intensive encounters and conversations over coffee is the magic of this place.”

This open atmosphere of intensive encounters and conversations over coffee is the magic of this place.
Professor Christian Illies

He also highlights that this opportunity for exchange is matched by having access to a private workspace, a combination which he says is “essential for any kind of advanced centre of research. Insights grow from exchange and the silence of solitary thinking.”

To find out more about our fellowship programme, click here.

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