Truth and Lies in Politics

March 29, 2023 - March 31, 2023
Faculty of Psychology, Sigmund Freud University

Faculty of Psychology
Freudplatz 1
Vienna 1020


  • Fritz Thyssen Stiftung


Lehman College (CUNY)
University of Waterloo
University of Texas at Austin



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Vienna,29thto31stMarch 2023 Thescientificobjectives

“Noonehaseverdoubtedthattruthandpoliticsareonratherbadtermswitheachother,andnoone[…] hasevercountedtruthfulnessamongthepoliticalvirtues.”WiththisstartlingcommentHannah Arendt beginsherprofoundanalysisofthe significanceoflyingandtruthinthepoliticalrealm. Andsheadds: “Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade.” (Arendt 2000: 545) In times of fake news and “alternativefacts”thequestionstillstandshowweshouldunderstandtherelationbetweentruthfulness andlyingintherealmofpolitics.Onemightthinkthatvirtuessuchasmutualtrustandtruthfulnessare prerequisites for political communication. However, if there is some truth to Arendt’s claim the assumption that politicians are in one way or another committed to the truth might be unjustified. The conference will address this question in an interdisciplinary way by bringing together outstanding philosophers and psychologists who have been researching the topic of truth and lies for years.

The scientific aimsof the conference can be divided into four main areas: 1. conceptual questions,

2. the question of scientific knowledge in politics, 3. the relation between lying and politics, and 4. the interdisciplinary exchange between philosophy and psychology. Note that the main areas are not necessarilycongruentwithclusters,whicharrangetheconferenceaccordingtodifferentthematicpoints.

1.          ConceptualQuestions

Although the theoretical debate about the phenomenon of lying has a tradition dating back to Plato, Aristotle,AugustineandThomasAquinas(Lotter2017)thereisnocommondefinitionoflying(Derrida 1997). The most widely accepted definition is the following: To lie is “to make a believed-false statement to another person with intention that the other person believe that to be true” (Mahon 2016). ConsiderapersonwhostatesthatCovid-19isnodifferentthancommonflu.Thispersonislyingifand only if they believe that Covid-19 is no flu but claim it anyway in order to convince someone else that Covid-19 is indeed flu (see Saul 2000, 2012). According to this definition there are four necessary conditions. 1. The statement condition requires that in order to lie a person has to make a statement. 2. The untruthfulness condition requires that the person should believe the statement to be false. 3. The thirdcondition–addresseecondition–requiresthattheuntruthfulstatementismadetoanotherperson.

4. At last, the intention to deceive condition states that a person is lying if she intends that the other person believes the untruthful statement to be true. All conditions have been challenged in one way or another(Fallis2009,2010;Mahon2007,2008;Sorensen2007;Stokke2013a,2013b).Theseconceptual issues become particularly relevant when different phenomena need to be distinguished from one another. In order to understand whether bullshitting or fake news are forms of lying, one should understandhowtheconcept“lying”isdefined(Frankfurt1986,Jaster&Lanius2019).Bydiscussing

phenomena such as “bullshitting” (talk by Jaster & Lanius), “fake news” (talk by Kedar) or the phenomenon of “figleaves” (talk by Saul), one aim of the conference is to contribute to a better understandingoftheconceptoflying(talksbyMahon,Sorensen)andhowitrelatestootherphenomena of deception such as conspiracy theories, propaganda or populism (talk by Kempf).

2.          ScientificKnowledge

Political communication and its role in politics has changed a lot compared to the time when Hannah Arendt made the remark quoted above. The main reason is that global crisis such as climate change or the Covid-19 pandemic involve scientific stance towards certain problems that can be solved only politically. However, reference to scientific facts determines how speakers should behave with respect to the truth of what is claimed: they should accept it. If it is true, then Arendt’s claim that “[l]ies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools […]” should be refuted. It is an important goal of the conference to shed more light on the relation between scientific knowledge and political lying.

In previous research on the subject of “lying”, the question of the relationship between scientific knowledge and the political lie has received little attention. At this point the conference can fill a researchgap.Forthisreason,theincreasingimportanceofscientificknowledgeinpoliticstakescenter stage in the argument of several participants, both psychologists (talks by Benetka, Bechthold- Hengelhaupt) and philosophers (talk by Dietz).

3.          LyingandPolitics

In addition to the concrete topicsmentioned above, afurther scientific objective is to give anoverview ofthepossiblequestionsandissuesthatareaddressedby thetopicof“TruthandLiesinPolitics”.One issue concerns the moral status of lying (talks by Mahon, Sorensen). There is an intense debate about theextenttowhichpoliticaldecisionshouldbeguidedbymoralconsiderations(Sandel2006).Itisclear thatlyingismorallyreprehensible,butthethreatposedbypoliticalliesalsoaffectsotherareasofhuman interactionsuchasmutualtrust(Dietz2017,Williams2002).Itisthelossoftrustthatcomesfromlying whichagaincanhaveanotablydevastatingeffectoninterpersonalrelationsingeneralandondemocracy in particular (talks by Lailach-Hennrich, Lee). While philosophers look at the question of the relations between lies and politics in a more abstract way, psychologists look at concrete cases. Especially, the analysisofrecentexperienceswithDonaldTrumportheQAnonmovementenrichestheunderstanding ofthephenomenonofpoliticallying.Atthispointitbecomesclearthattheinterdisciplinaryorientation oftheconferencefacilitatesacomprehensiveconsiderationoftruthandliesinpolitics.Thisleadsusto the final scientific aim of the conference.

4.          InterdisciplinaryCooperationbetweenPhilosophyandPsychology

Cooperation between philosophers and psychologists can prove greatly beneficial for both disciplines whendirectedtowardsacommoninterestinknowledge,hereinthespecificcaseofthetopic“Truthand

Lies in Politics”. Inherent to the intention to deceive and to lie is a mental phenomenon that is studied byboth,fromapsychologicalandaphilosophicalperspective.Whatmakesthisconferenceexceptional is the fact that the phenomenon of lying is not examined as such but in the context of politics. The scientificaimofasuccessfulinterdisciplinarycooperationcanthereforebeextendedtoincludeanother goal,namelyasocial.Forthequestionoftruthandliesinpoliticspointsbeyondscience;itiscrucialto society as a whole. Hence, the conference gathers outstanding scholars who have done extensive research on the subject in question.

The conference was initiated and initially planned by Prof. Hans Werbik, Professor of Psychology em., who hoped this collaboration to gaingreat knowledge andnew insights. Prof. Werbik passedawayunexpectedlyinDecember2021.Inhishonor,theconferencewillbeopenedwiththepaper he had written on the topic of “Truth and Lies in Politics” shortly before his untimely death.


Arendt, H. (2000), The portable Hannah Arendt, edited with an introduction by Peter Baehr, London: Penguin Books.

Derrida, J. (1997), History of the Lie: Prolegomena, in: Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, 19 (2/1): p. 129- 61.



⎯,(2010),LyingandDeception,in:Philosophers’Imprint,10:p.1-22. Frankfurt, H.G. (1986), On Bullshit, in: Raritan, 6: p. 81-100.

Jester,R.&Lanius,D.(2019),DieWahrheitschafftsichab.WieFakeNewsPolitikmachen,Stuttgart:Reclam. Lotter, S.M. (2017), Die Lüge. Texte von der Antike bis in die Gegenwart, Stuttgart: Reclam.

Mahon, J.E., The Definition of Lying and Deception, in: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), edited by N. Zalta, URL:


⎯, 2008, Two Definitions of Lying, in: International Journal for Applied Philosophy, 22: p. 211-30. Sandel,M.J.(2005),PublicPhilosophy:EssaysonMoralityinPolitics,Harvard:HarvardUniversity. Saul, J. (2000), Did Clinton say something false?, in: Analysis, 60: p. 255-7.


Sorensen, R. (2007), Bald-Faced Lies! Lying Without the Intent to Deceive, in: Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 88: p. 251-64.




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March 28, 2023, 9:00am CET

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