Philosophical Work on “Gaslighting” — Merriam-Webster’s 2022 Word of the Year

This morning, Merriam-Webster declared “gaslighting” its 2022 Word of the Year.

M-W’s popular dictionary defines gaslighting as:

  1. psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator
  2. the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.

Yet, as we know, dictionary definitions are of limited value in settling the meaning of complicated or controversial concepts. Gaslighting is one such concept, and philosophers have been working on developing accounts of gaslighting that capture the appropriate phenomena and help us understand it. For those interested in exploring the concept further, below is a selection of some philosophical work on gaslighting. Readers are encouraged to supplement this list with other scholarly materials (and links to them) in the comments.

Turning Up the Lights on Gaslighting” by Kate Abramson (2014, Philosophical Perspectives)

…The phenomenon that’s come to be picked out with that term [gaslighting] is a form of emotional manipulation in which the gaslighter tries (consciously or not) to induce in someone the sense that her reactions, perceptions, memories and/or beliefs are not just mistaken, but utterly without grounds—paradigmatically, so unfounded as to qualify as crazy. Gaslighting is, even at this level, quite unlike merely dismissing someone, for dismissal simply fails to take another seriously as an interlocutor, whereas gaslighting is aimed at getting another not to take herself seriously as an interlocutor. It almost always involves multiple incidents that take place over long stretches of time; it frequently involves multiple parties playing the role of gaslighter, or cooperating with a gaslighter; it frequently involves isolating the target in various ways. And there are characteristic things gaslighters say: indeed it is remarkable how much overlap there is between phrases that Gregory uses in the movie, and the sorts of proclamations that are made by gaslighters to their targets in real life. I want to propose an account of what’s wrong with this way of interacting with someone. To do so, we’ll need to begin with an account of the structure of interactions that fit the initial rough characterization just offered. Any such account of the structure of gaslighting interactions will involve some regimentation of the term—after all, what we have here is a colloquial and therapeutic term that is picking out a recognizable phenomenon in human interactions, and the more precision we give to what we’re talking about when we talk about the kind of ‘crazy making’ manipulation that’s at issue in gaslighting, the more we set parameters for what qualifies as central and peripheral cases thereof. My hope is to give an illuminating account of the structure of gaslighting interactions that nevertheless preserves as its core that which has made it possible for “gaslighting” to become a colloquial term identifying a  recognizable phenomenon. On the other hand, given that my aim is ultimately to give an account of what’s wrong with gaslighting, only some aspects of gaslighting interactions will be pertinent here.

Allies Behaving badly: Gaslighting as Epistemic Injustice” by Veronica Ivy (formerly Rachel McKinnon) (2017, Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice)

This chapter focuses on the bad epistemic behaviors of “allies”, approached from a trans* perspective. One common form of bad behavior is that when “allies” are confronted with their bad behavior, they use their identity as an “ally” as a defense; other times, people will do so on an ‘”ally’s” behalf’: “Dave couldn’t have behaved that badly, he’s an ally!” The chapter describes gaslighting as an instance of epistemic injustice – more specifically, as an instance of testimonial injustice. In many cases, “allies”, when listening to a person’s testimony, privilege their own first-hand experience over the testimony of the person they’re supposed to be supporting. Probably, the “ally” suspects that the affected person isn’t properly epistemically situated – perhaps they’re not suitably objective – to properly assess the situation. Maybe the “ally” thinks the person is expecting to see harassment, so they perceive harassment when it’s not really there.

Epistemic Dimensions of Gaslighting: Peer-Disagreement, Self-Trust, and Epistemic Injustice” by Andrew Spear (2019, Inquiry)

Miranda Fricker has characterized epistemic injustice as “a kind of injustice in which someone is wronged specifically in her capacity as a knower” (2007, Epistemic injustice: Power & the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 20). Gaslighting, where one agent seeks to gain control over another by undermining the other’s conception of herself as an independent locus of judgment and deliberation, would thus seem to be a paradigm example. Yet, in the most thorough analysis of gaslighting to date (Abramson, K. 2014. “Turning up the lights on gaslighting.” Philosophical Perspectives 28, Ethics: 1–30), the idea that gaslighting has crucial epistemic dimensions is rather roundly rejected on grounds that gaslighting works by means of a strategy of assertion and manipulation that is not properly understood in epistemic terms. I argue that Abramson’s focus on the gaslighter and on the moral wrongness of his actions leads her to downplay ways in which gaslighters nevertheless deploy genuinely epistemic strategies, and to devote less attention to the standpoint and reasoning processes of the victim, for whom the experience of gaslighting has substantial and essential epistemic features. Taking these features into account reveals that all gaslighting has epistemic dimensions and helps to clarify what resistance to gaslighting might look like.

Gaslighting, Misogyny, and Psychological Oppression” by Cynthia Stark (2019, The Monist)

This paper develops a notion of manipulative gaslighting, which is designed to capture something not captured by epistemic gaslighting, namely the intent to undermine women by denying their testimony about harms done to them by men. Manipulative gaslighting, I propose, consists in getting someone to doubt her testimony by challenging its credibility using two tactics: “sidestepping” (dodging evidence that supports her testimony) and “displacing” (attributing to her cognitive or characterological defects). I explain how manipulative gaslighting is distinct from (mere) reasonable disagreement, with which it is sometimes confused. I also argue for three further claims: that manipulative gaslighting is a method of enacting misogyny, that it is often a collective phenomenon, and, as collective, qualifies as a mode of psychological oppression.

Gaslighting by Crowd” by Karen Adkins (2019, Social Philosophy Today)

Most psychological literature on gaslighting focuses on it as a dyadic phenomenon occurring primarily in marriage and family relationships. In my analysis, I will extend recent fruitful philosophical engagement with gaslighting (Abramson, “Turning up the Lights on Gaslighting” [2014]; McKinnon, “Allies Behaving Badly: Gaslighting as Epistemic Injustice” [2017]; Ruiz, “Spectral Phenomenologies” [2014]) by arguing that gaslighting, particularly gaslighting that occurs in more public spaces like the workplace, relies upon external reinforcement for its success. I will ground this study in an analysis of the film Gaslight, for which the phenomenon is named, and in the course of the analysis will focus on a paradox of this kind of gaslighting: it wreaks significant epistemic and moral damages largely through small, often invisible actions that have power through their accumulation and reinforcement.

Gaslighting, First- and Second-Order” by Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky (2020, Hypatia)

In what sense do people doubt their understanding of reality when subject to gaslighting? I suggest that an answer to this question depends on the linguistic order at which a gaslighting exchange takes place. This marks a distinction between first-order and second-order gaslighting. The former occurs when there is disagreement over whether a shared concept applies to some aspect of the world, and where the use of words by a speaker is apt to cause hearers to doubt their interpretive abilities without doubting the accuracy of their concepts. The latter occurs when there is disagreement over which concept should be used in a context, and where the use of words by a speaker is apt to cause hearers to doubt their interpretive abilities in virtue of doubting the accuracy of their concepts. Many cases of second-order gaslighting are unintentional: its occurrence often depends on contingent environmental facts. I end the article by focusing on the distinctive epistemic injustices of second-order gaslighting: (1) metalinguistic deprivation, (2) conceptual obscuration, and (3) perspectival subversion. I show how each reliably has sequelae in terms of psychological and practical control.

Dilemmatic Gaslighting” by Cameron Domenico Kirk-Giannini (2022, Philosophical Studies)

Existing work on gaslighting ties it constitutively to facts about the intentions or prejudices of the gaslighter and/or his victim’s prior experience of epistemic injustice. I argue that the concept of gaslighting is more broadly applicable than has been appreciated: what is distinctive about gaslighting, on my account, is simply that a gaslighter confronts his victim with a certain kind of choice between rejecting his testimony and doubting her own basic epistemic competence in some domain. I thus hold that gaslighting is a purely epistemic phenomenon—not requiring any particular set of intentions or prejudices on the part of the gaslighter—and also that it can occur even in the absence of any prior experience of epistemic injustice. Appreciating the dilemmatic character of gaslighting allows us to understand its connection with a characteristic sort of epistemic harm, makes it easier to apply the concept of gaslighting in practice, and raises the possibility that we might discover its structure and the associated harm in surprising places.

Emotional Gaslighting and Affective Empathy” by Katharina Anna Sodoma (2022, International Journal of Philosophical Studies)

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that undermines a target’s confidence in their own cognitive faculties. Different forms of gaslighting can be distinguished according to whether they undermine a target’s confidence in their emotional reactions, perceptions, memory, or reasoning abilities. I focus on ‘emotional gaslighting’, which undermines a target’s confidence in their emotional reactions and corresponding evaluative judgments. While emotional gaslighting rarely occurs in isolation, it is often an important part of an overall gaslighting strategy. This is because emotions can help us to understand the evaluative aspects of our situation and thus put us in a position to protest wrongs, which is a context in which gaslighting frequently occurs. I argue that affective empathy constitutes an important antidote to emotional gaslighting. Affective empathy can lead to endorsement of a target’s emotional reaction as appropriate to their situation and agreement with the corresponding evaluative judgment. When it leads to endorsement, affective empathy can counteract the effects of emotional gaslighting because it reassures a target in their ability to make evaluative judgments based on their emotional reactions. Because of its opposing effects, affective empathy with the victim thus constitutes an important intervention to emotional gaslighting on the part of third parties.

There is also a collection of articles on gaslighting and epistemic injustice in Hypatia, volume 35, number 4 (2020).

Your suggested additions to the list are welcome.

(Edited to add: The idea here is to showcase academic philosophical work related to gaslighting; please limit your suggestions to such materials. Thanks!)

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Cameron Domenico Kirk-Giannini
1 year ago

Thanks, Justin, for highlighting recent work in this area!

Alfred Archer
1 year ago

I recommend Natascha Rietdijk’s excellent paper ‘Post-Truth Politics and Collective Gaslighting’ which investigates how post-truth rhetoric can function as a form of gaslighting

1 year ago

This is a really interesting area. In my everyday life I’ve found myself reaching for this concept more and more but without always being certain I know what I mean. As the work above shows it has interesting tangles and complexities.

1 year ago

I highly recommend Nora Berenstain’s “White Feminist Gaslighting” which appears in the issue of Hypatia that Justin mentions above: White Feminist Gaslighting | Hypatia | Cambridge Core
I think claims about structural gaslighting work well with claims about conceptual
engineering. I thus have combined these tools in recent articles, including in my article “Philosophy of Disability, Conceptual Engineering, and the Nursing Home-Industrial-Complex in Canada” in which I argue that (1) the naturalization and medicalization of disability is a form of structural gaslighting; and that (2) disability must be reconceived (conceptually re-engineered) as an apparatus of power.
That nursing homes and other institutions in which disabled people and elders are confined have been represented as places of care and love is a form of structural gaslighting too. As I argue in the aforementioned article, these places must be recognized as carceral contexts which dehumanize and homogenize populations in order to make them governable. My article “Philosophy of Disability, Conceptual Engineering, and the Nursing Home-Industrial-Complex” is here: Shelley L. Tremain, Philosophy of Disability, Conceptual Engineering, and the Nursing Home-Industrial-Complex in Canada – PhilPapers

Last edited 1 year ago by DR. SHELLEY LYNN TREMAIN
1 year ago

I’ll admit that I’ve only read four or five of these; time is precious these days, and I don’t have institutional access to all of them. But there is one central problem with the concept that needs more attention in my view: sometimes, people are such that they absolutely must have their epistemic competence questioned, they must come to seriously doubt their own abilities and they may even desperately need to form a relationship of dependency on another. Most seriously evil or psychopathic persons, for example, need this remedy very badly. Moreover, sometimes, some of those people belong to marginalized groups. An anorexic woman absolutely must come to doubt her own epistemic competence, or she will continue to slowly kill herself out of a desire to remedy a problem that does not exist.

So as an interlocutor facing someone I believe to be in such a category, what am I to do? According to MW(1), and according to the definitions given by Sodoma, Spear, and Abramson in their papers, even if I gently if strenuously insist that the anorexic is a healthy weight, that she has not been seeing things correctly and that she should rely on me (and others) to correct these deficiencies, I am gaslighting her. If that is gaslighting, then we should all definitely keep gaslighting people, and we should very much hope that therapists, family members and close friends stand ready to gaslight us when necessary. And we should hope that white supremacists and climate deniers are gaslit extremely effectively.

So the easy amendment is to build into the definition that the target is epistemically competent in the relevant domain and that their interlocutor has evidence of this. So far as I can see, only Stark does this: “the gaslighter’s judgment must also be unjustified”, and Stark’s discussion there is relevant and convincing. But this amendment does not feature in many of the papers above, which continue to define the phenomenon as (i.e. Abramson) “a form of emotional manipulation in which the gaslighter tries (consciously or not) to induce in someone the sense that her reactions, perceptions, memories and/or beliefs are not just mistaken, but utterly without grounds”. Much of the literature I’ve seen could stand to be more explicit about this: not every act of making someone severely doubt themselves is unjustified or wrong, and there are thorny questions about just how an interlocutor is supposed to know whether their target is competent or not.

Cameron Domenico Kirk-Giannini
Reply to  Cat
1 year ago

Hi Cat,

I am broadly in agreement with you that this is a problem with many accounts in the literature.

Just a quick note that I address this problem in my paper. On my account (roughly), a gaslighter needs to lack knowledge-level justification for the proposition that the victim lacks basic epistemic competence in the relevant domain. In the case you describe, this condition is not satisfied.

Enrico Matassa
1 year ago

I do think gaslighting is a very useful moral concept, but I also worry it’s a dangerous and overused one. I see accusations of gaslighting used to try to shut down interlocutors who simply disagree with someone pretty often. Disagreement is not gaslighting. Even when the other person is wrong and unreasonably so or just a flat out jerk that’s not the same thing as knowing he’s wrong but trying to manipulate you into thinking he’s right. In more than a few cases it’s seemed to me that the accusations of gaslighting are themselves rather blatant attempts at gaslighting. Now I actually think that most such accusations are sincere, but I do worry that overuse of this concept seems to rot away the presumption of basic honesty that any kind of argument requires.
I also worry that it gives unreasonable people both too little and too much credit. Many unreasonable people have absolutely no idea that they’re being unreasonable. That’s part of why being unreasonable often works for them! There’s too little credit in that they aren’t trying to manipulate anyone into doing something they recognize as unreasonable or unfair. There’s too much credit in that they don’t have an inkling just how unreasonable they are. To me it seems a term like “gaslighting” that is valuable in that it picks out a very specific phenomenon that we need concepts and a handy word for. But like “emotional labor” or “trauma it seems to be used so sloppily that it just means “person I disagree with who I think is unreasonable.” All of which is to say I’d like to see some literature that addresses the possible dangers and misuse of the word. Do any of the articles you mention do that? Sorry I haven’t had a chance to read them, and since we’re rolling into end of the semester craziness I won’t for a while.

Edward Cantu
Reply to  Enrico Matassa
1 year ago

“[I]t’s seemed to me that the accusations of gaslighting are themselves rather blatant attempts at gaslighting.”

This has been my experience as well. Every time I’ve heard the charge of gaslighting in my daily life, it has always been made simply because the accused is disagreeing with the accuser. The charge of GL is often, ironically, quite manipulative.