Public Sentiment and Its Powers, Part I, Mariam Thalos

“Public opinion doesn’t exist.” — Pierre Bourdieu 1972/79.

This essay aims at rethinking two important conceptions for use in social and political science:

(1) Public sentiment, to be used interchangeably, as is the common practice, with public opinion, and;

(2) People power—a term currently being used by a number of researcher-activists, prominent among them Erica Chenoweth and colleagues (2011, 2021, 2021) to refer to the force of nonviolent (“civil”) resistance against state authority. … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Thalos, Mariam. 2023. “Public Sentiment and Its Powers.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (6): 1-20.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Editor’s Note: Mariam Thalos’s “Public Sentiment and Its Powers” will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part I. Please refer to Part II. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.

Where the first conception (public sentiment, currently understood as an arithmetic function of individual sentiments) is fundamentally mis-directed—that is to say, conceptualized in such a way as to direct attention to the wrong place; the second (people power) is poorly-focused—it is conceptualized in such a way as to render the associated phenomenon under scrutiny fuzzy or hazy. The phenomena in question are thus currently obscured rather than illuminated by the pair of concepts as currently conceptualized. The first of the two concepts suffers from widespread predilections towards reduction in politics (not seeing the forest for the trees), and the second from inattention to important facts about how power is cultivated, depriving it of clarity and definition (ironically, not seeing tree detail for the forest).

The present project aims to re-conceptualize these two conceptions at once, and at a time in history when the two could not be more important politically. The reconceptualization is required because the two concepts are closely intertwined, and study of the referents of each is diminished by the infelicities in the current condition of the other. The refinements this project seeks to effect are important to making scientific progress with both concepts, and therefore in the social and political sciences that require them.[1]

Origins of Skepticism about Publicity

A certain philosophical tradition holds that the individual mind, the “I”, is the one and only bulwark against falsehoods, and the ideas to which it ultimately hews are at once the most certain and the most directly accessible of all, thereby forming the only suitable foundation of knowledge. From this rationalist orientation there ironically emerges a corollary—namely, that the most uncertain, the most obscured of all things, are the minds of others, if they even exist at all. The only mind that is knowable is one’s own. From this beginning point, the very notion of the public or public sentiment is straight-up poetry—there can be no such thing in prosaic fact. The rationalist must begin with the kind of skepticism about public sentiment that is openly expressed in the Bourdieu quote at the top of essay.

To be sure, the minds of others are not unproblematic, whatever philosophical persuasion one pronounces. Deceivers do exist, and those who excel at misdirection too. (In the animal kingdom, organisms that are too trusting of the “signals” they receive get taken in.[2]) So apparently fearsome is this possibility that a band of cognitive scientists/philosophers/anthropologists have recently come to the view that Reason is exquisitely evolved to counter enemy signals, via so-called epistemic vigilance—that this is the very function of Reasoning. According to Mercier and Sperber (2011), the act of countering the messaging of potentially hostile others is exactly what that transcendent 3-pound organ in the human skull is meant to do, in the contest that is life. Their argumentative theory of reasoning proposes that Reasoning has a sort of ecological and, more specifically, argumentative function. To put it plainly, the function of a given person’s Reason is to seek and destroy reasoning meant to separate them from resources, and (in the offensive mode) to disarm the defenses stood up by others against predation. Reasoning is a thoroughly competitive.

But Mercier and Sperber’s position is misguided—it simply cannot be that the function of reasoning is to resist the messaging of others. For the messaging of others, howsoever much it may be aimed at shaping our own, can be valuable for two reasons:

(1) It can be generally informative—for example as signals (in the ecological sense) of something in the world, or about the sender, and;

(2) It can be welcome for its power to shape a shared sentiment.

Mercier and Sperber’s position devalues both of these features of the communications of others, and in general devalue the non-zero-sum features of communication.

I take the view (Thalos, in progress) that human reasoning has numerous functions, given its numerous forms, and that one of them is to gather information about local sentiment especially, within the context of the public sentiment that one may associate with one’s largest thought community—the largest unit of which one is an action-taking member. Reasoning, among its many functions, enables individuals to connect to like-minded counterparts, or anyway like-ambitioned ones, drawing them into circles of trust. Trust is fundamental coin of the social realm. Because trust is essential to social life, reasoning must be enlisted in service of creating circles of trust that in turn serve individual, collective and social goals. One of the works of Reason, as I will show, is to stand up that which we call public sentiment. Public sentiment is the most explicit aspect of what sociologists of old aimed at characterizing—I will refer to it as the common mind.

It’s worth reiterating that Mercier and Sperber’s position, whatever virtues it may possess, derives from the rationalist tradition, which is oriented towards viewing other minds as permanently dark and consequently subject to being viewed only as relentlessly hostile. This orientation problematizes the very idea of public sentiment. Such problematization results in statements in more contemporary sociological works to the effect that:

The concept of the public, publicness, publicity, public sphere and public opinion are among the most controversial, ambiguous, and nontransparent concepts in the social sciences. … The concept of public belongs to the part of the social sciences that is marked by the absence of a clear, noncontroversial, and positive definition, which could best demonstrate the theoretical meaningfulness of the concept (Splichal 1999, 1-2).

Statements like this evince skepticism about what I’ve been referring to as the common mind too. This skepticism, which preempts all efforts to explicate the common mind, also prompts a reductive analysis of what people in a community share in common by way of thought. It promotes a conception of public sentiment as “similar thought”. But it is clear that “similar thought” is not always a matter of public sentiment, since the latter, but not the former, must fulfill the condition that the public in question is aware of the identified thought as shared.

Fortunately, there is an alternative philosophical tradition that declines all the rationalist’s premises and the dogmas that result therefrom. This tradition inverts the rationalist order of visibility. Within this tradition, the most visible of all things is what is visible from multiple sites of viewing within a community of shared inquiry. The most certain, according to this tradition, is that which is seen (and seen to be seen) from a range of perspectives, especially when that range is appropriately diversified. The best seen is that which is seen by all; and correspondingly, the best known is that which is known by all—and, at the height of knowability, known to be so known. Thus, the most public is the best known. Within this tradition, known as empiricism, the publicly visible must be the basis of all knowledge, and its best specimens are according named “evidence”. Evidence belongs to all, not to a single mind or perspective; evidence is evidence for all. Science is an evidence-based enterprise for precisely the reason of publicity. Science, according to this view, can (and indeed must) be conducted in public view. That is its defining feature, if anything is. And it declines the dogma that the minds of others are, by definition, dark.

This paper thus looks to evidence and the evidence-like to explicate the concept of public sentiment (a term I shall according to customary practice use interchangeably with public opinion), in line with the empiricist imperatives about knowledge and the nature of the publicly knowable. I will subsequently propose—against the prevailing practice—an analysis of public sentiment as rooted in a pool of shared materials (many of them contained in and connected to speech acts that are observable and therefore by any standards deserving of the name as evidence) in a shared context. The shared materials constitute the root, but the tree is constructed in individual minds via the application of strategic reasoning.

I shall aim to articulate here a theory of public sentiment and common mind, heavily overlapping, but also subject to division: public sentiment many not be “full-throated”; it can have “parts”, that might metaphorically be referred to as multiple “minds”. When that’s the case, people will generally say that public sentiment is divided, or that there is some controversy around the topic under discussion.

The Common Mind

I will use this term common mind to refer, at least in part, to a large spectrum of shared practical knowledge about the world, much of it entirely implicit, about how we live and move in it, and about how we’re organized in it locally and regionally.  Additionally, it will refer to a host of pro- and con- attitudes about people, practices and institutions—attitudes that also help to organize people in their tribes and allies around their local environments and concerns. For example, there might exist in your neighborhood a pro-attitude towards feeding the hungry and protecting the homeless, or there might be a con-attitude toward such behaviors. Along with attitudes we also find expectations of people, practices and institutions—for example, even a 3-year-old knows they can shout at a parent or sibling, but not Aunt Margaret or even a child stranger, because of the expectations they have in connection with those different individuals. Thus there are (a) understandings about, (b) attitudes toward, and (c) expectations of the people, practices and institutions in our local environment, and farther afield as our concerns become more comprehensive. Common mind is about all the norms that make life locally livable. This is generally what people are referring to when they speak of culture.

People are trained into the culture into which they are thrown at birth—they absorb not only the local knowledge of how to do things around here, but also how to feel about the folks, practices and institutions hereabouts, as well as what to anticipate from folks, places and institutions. Therefore, individuals fully grown up in a culture are primed to respond in the “normal” way (i.e. the way prescribed by the norms) to the happenings around them. They “close the circuit”, so to speak, when they pass along the training they’ve themselves received. To be sure, an individual could, if they worked at it, become able to prevent themselves succumbing to the culture norms, and also prevent themselves closing the circuit; an individual can disrupt the cycle of production and reproduction of culture. But this takes considerably more work than simply giving in to the normal production and reproduction cycles.

Children—like it or not, aware of it or not—absorb all the training they receive, largely uncritically, at least to start. For example, when a culture’s common mind fosters certain unfavorable or simply differential attitudes towards certain persons or types of persons, we might like to refer to that as “prejudice”—contracted as a kind of social disease. That disease need not consist in either a straight-up belief or in an animosity, but in a cluster of misguided attentions that people inherit from the common mind.[3]

This conception of the common mind is an old one—originating with the 19-th century founders of the discipline of sociology. The founders of the discipline of sociology had the idea that attitudes of people cohered, because the attitudes themselves interlace to create ways of life, that we quite routinely now refer to as different cultures or “different worlds.” They never worried about the philosophical boogie man of a “group mind” when advancing ideas about culture; from psychologist like Jung to sociologists like Durkheim, Collingwood and Parsons—all were concerned with what I’m referring to as the common mind. None of these construed the common mind in terms of the propositions or even the general sentiments around which individuals come together to form groups of the “like-minded” as we might now say.

The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies would have referred to groups of the like-minded as “nonorganic” confederations, confederations organized around explicit goals or concerns. Contrariwise, the organic confederations consisting of people held together in enduring social relationships—these confederations, Tönnies posited, are held together by a special and different sort of adhesive, in such a way that these people end up taking action together, because of the ways that they’ve taken up residence together, whatever they might individually hold in their individual hearts (as we might now say). The classical sociologists were particularly interested in motivational wholes (families, villages, ethnic groups), whose interests are highly interconnected, rather than strictly intellectual like-mindedness. We in the present United States, by contrast, have shifted focus to the latter.

To my mind the classical sociologists’ diagnosis of what holds people together in fact has yet to be improved upon. R. G. Collingwood’s description of the collectivist mind is especially illuminating:

The individual counted for nothing except as the member of his guild, his church, his monastic order, his feudal hierarchy. Within these institutions he found a place where he was wanted, work for him to do, a market for his wares. He could devote himself to fulfilling the duties assigned him by his station in that great organism within which he found himself lodged (1927, 23).

Collingwood’s idea is simply this: when people are not so much agreed on things, as simply taking certain elements of these things as their frame rather than their focus, they are rightly said to share a mind among themselves. Depending on the nature of this mind, it will either constrict or enlarge the lives it frames in much the same way that a frame enlarges or constricts the painting within its ambit. A frame can signpost the sorts of thoughts that are welcome or unwelcome (they “fit” or they don’t), the sorts of proposals one can entertain seriously, and so on. A frame signposts the boundaries of their consciousness, without impinging upon it and therefore without “showing up” inside of it. For example, a person in a sexually repressive society might be conscious of what thoughts may not intrude; and by the very same token, a person in a repressive political regime may know what social proposals are never to be spoken. The frame is essentially a live embodiment of norms of thought, instantiated in individual minds without explicit expression.[4]

It is also the common mind that renders intelligible how we manage to communicate so well whilst exchanging so few words on a given occasion—we share a wide range of understandings about our world, and our local region, in common, and appreciate all of it as shared. Among these are what sociologists refer to as “scripts” or “schemas”—for example, the script of dining at a restaurant in a particular locale, or local knowledge of which sorts of items and services are available for purchase in a given time and place—among the host of things people know about how to live a life here and now, and what experiences are eligible of belonging in a life lived hereabouts. These are almost never explicit—almost never the subject of explicit articulation in a person’s mind; and in those rare moments when the implicit becomes explicit, it is never thought of as a matter about which there can be choice—a matter on which one may or may not give assent.

Public Opinion

There is the set of attitudes and local expectations we share by way of a common mind; and then there are all the matters we disagree about. The former is immense, by any measure, in comparison with the latter; but the latter takes up all the oxygen. And before we even get to disagreements, there are matters we agree about explicitly—this is often referred to as “public opinion.”

Each of us already knows, without having to inquire, the public opinion on a variety of subjects. To be sure, some of us might have to do some homework to bring ourselves to the same level of knowledge about public opinion that others who (as it might be said) “have their ear to the ground”. That knowledge—the knowledge of where public opinion rests, more or less—often serves as an important resource in decision making, a resource every agent needs to draw on for the sake of navigating the social environment successfully and efficiently. This is because one needs to be able to anticipate the reactions of relevant others to “social moves” one is contemplating making, and alternatives to them (to use language at home in the discipline of strategic reasoning, a discipline that is based in the Theory of Games). Whether one aims at conformity, or by contrast at nonconformity, whether one wishes to use the reactions of others to good effect, or whether one has no use for them at all—one is well served by being able simply to know what to anticipate.

Knowing where public opinion lies in relation to a topic (and being able to work it out), on the one hand, and forming one’s own opinion on that topic, are quite different things, of course. It is quite wrong simply to assume that an ordinary community member never takes a critical stance with respect to articles of the common mind or public opinion. It is undeniable that it is at least theoretically possible for anyone, always and everywhere, to engage in contestations of culture (as we might call it). However it is much more likely, and much easier, for some than for others. We might, relatedly, also disagree with one another as to what is in fact an article (integral or otherwise) of the common mind or public opinion. Still, appreciating the common mind as a constellation of understandings and values that are largely implicit, but that may routinely and substantially overlap with public opinion, helps to untangle a certain puzzle.

Suppose that I wish to refer to a certain individual by the term “woman,” and you resist me. Is this a matter of factual disagreement between the two of us? Suppose that we furthermore agree about all the other attributions we are prepared to make of that same individual, including many of the things that are normally associated with those whom we agree as qualifying as “woman.” For instance, we might agree about that person’s life story, preferences, and even the ideas the person is likely to find agreeable. We agree about everything in regard to this individual, all except whether to refer to this individual as a “woman” (or maybe we even use the term “real woman”). It looks, therefore, as though we are in disagreement about how to use the term. But whereas the typical disagreement about applications of linguistic terms is routinely low key, engendering little heat except perhaps among language enthusiasts, this particular disagreement can bring us to blows.

Notice, however, that neither of us is much bothered about how someone in a country far away uses an analog term in their (different) language, a term that might be translated into ours as “woman”. Just as neither of us is stirred to anger or distress when it turns out that faraway others believe in witchcraft, so also is neither of us inclined to respond heatedly if those same others use their analog term differently from how we wish to use our term “woman.” But if a stranger just as far away but still part of your language community—say the distance from Anchorage to Atlanta—proposes to use the term “woman” differently from the way you wish it used, you likely will not be indifferent. Why? Because it bears on the common mind, which we share only with persons inside our community of thought—our common mind is something that might or might not change for us if the person proposing a different usage from yours gets their way. The common mind is importantly common, and so a change, or withholding of a change, has an affect on all those who share in this mind. As Dembroff (forthcoming) writes, terms like “woman” express a two-part relation between an individual and a social/cultural ideal, where the first party to the relation (the individual) is bound and policed by the second party (the ideal). It is therefore, manifestly, a matter of the common mind.

Thus, surface disagreements between culture-mates can be a sign of divergent public opinion, which in turn might signal a fissure in the common mind. The former are tolerable—people disagree, organize themselves around explicit differences of outlook and opinion. The latter is much more problematic, as it puts into question whether it is possible for us to live together as culture-mates.

Obstacles to Measurement of Public Sentiment: The Falsification of Preferences

This side of the 2020 US elections, political pollsters are wringing their hands because their predictions of election outcomes were so far off the mark, just as happened post the election of 2016. The landslides for the left did not materialize (and even incorrectly predicted a Biden win in some states), and the polls in their hundreds misjudged the extent of support for conservative candidates across the country.

After the 2016 elections, many pundits postulated the “shy Trump voter”, possibly to vouchsafe the familiar notion of public opinion as a simple arithmetic function of individual opinion. Some pollsters have expressed, if only in passing, a profound skepticism about whether there’s anything in the world that their methods are tracking when they pronounce on their findings (the Washington Post 11/4/2020; Ezra Klein on Vox [5] for instance, harks back to the debate about a decade ago entered into by such luminaries in the field of political science as George Bishop—on one side—and Robert Page and Benjamin Shapiro on the other).  A report published more than 4 months after the election by a consortium of five leading survey firms for Democratic campaigns (ALG Research, Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, GBAO Strategies, Global Strategy Group, and Normington Petts) represents a sort of public post-mortem of their work—as much as it is a kind of promise to do better polling, in the face of the skepticisms with which polling is now being met.[6]

These skepticisms are faint echoes of larger philosophical questions around whether the correct scale at which to describe a phenomenon correctly, whether it is a social phenomenon or physical one—is the correct description to be found with a focus on “atoms”?—here it would be the human individual, and the associated philosophical position branded individualism?  Margaret Thatcher famously said “There is no such thing as society”—meaning, there are only individuals, and all responsibility, explanatory or otherwise, is to be laid at the feet of individuals. An associated tradition in historiography takes a similar attitude towards recounting of important events in history.  This tradition lays the credit for certain historical achievements at the feet of “great men”.

The doctrine of individualism, memorialized in numerous philosophical writings on social scientific topics as methodological individualism,[7] which was ascendant in the late 20th century but admittedly has been taking a beating of late, stands in defiant contrast to the entire discipline of sociology, whose founding forebears we encountered before—the august figures of Ferdinand Tönnies and Emile Durkheim—who were able to appreciate, not only the qualities of individuals as movers and thinkers, but also differences in social contexts and conditions, and in the different social realities created by the whole. These grand old sociologists were prepared to lay credit for different histories at the feet of social structure itself, without giving up the option of laying credit for some outcomes at the feet of individuals.

While mindful of the larger debates, I will focus on the narrower question of how to conceptualize, and subsequently then to measure public sentiment. Does it exist, or something in its near vicinity worthy of the name, that stands still long enough to be susceptible of measurement (if maybe with better methodologies than most pollsters are using now)? Have we been thinking about public sentiment all wrong? I will argue that indeed we have been.

We already know about at least some of the potential pitfalls with measuring public opinion—in any case, it is an issue confronting a researcher aiming to represent the features of a large population that one cannot trial in its entirety. Known as the problem of biased sampling, this is the problem of obtaining a representative sample of a target population. Often the only way one learns that one’s sample was biased is in the rear-view mirror—when one finds out some other way about the properties of the target population. Such as, for instance, after an election.

Another obstacle, and the one I will emphasize here, is the presence of what I’ll refer to as sentiment falsification (my term for what Timur Kuran, 1997, calls preference falsification). This is when enough of the relevant individuals that one might try to “read” in one way or another, mis-represent what’s in their hearts. Just to be clear, sentiment falsification is not a matter of simply declining to answer a question about one’s sentiment; it is instead to give a false signal about it—for example, to say that one approves when one in fact does not.

Falsification can happen for many reasons, most of which are clearest in repressive regimes, many examples arise from study of the North Korean regimes, others from the regimes of the strong men of the middle east and eastern Europe, but some arise here in our own midst—and perhaps even occurred in connection with the US elections of 2020.

When Kim Jong-Un arranged for his uncle to be collected from a meeting with a large group of high-ranking government officials, and unceremoniously shot without a trial within earshot of all those assembled, that was a message especially to those present that no one, not even a family member, could breathe disloyalty and expect to live. No one in the North Korean audience of political luminaries defended the uncle. Indeed, that too was (is) part of the choreography of repression in North Korea.[8]

In a rather different example, the campaign of vilification against Vaclav Havel in the former Czechoslovakia, turned the victims of the repressive regime into complicit victimizers of its enemies, even when they were sympathetic to the enemies—the dissidents; parroting of the government’s messaging became one of the few ways one could signal loyalty; and one had to do it in order to avert attention from oneself. It may be that was to be Putin’s strategy in connection with Alexei Navalny. But as in the former Czechoslovakia, it seems to have backfired in Russia as well.

Similarly, mob or cartel bosses create fear by exhibiting their ability to punish others without becoming exposed to the power of the state.

In all these examples, power theatre is functioning to create fear that issues in sentiment falsification. The atmosphere of fear also results in is widespread suspicion—for good reason—that people will not signal in the open what they truly think. In such contexts, if there’s anything like public sentiment, it goes underground.

And this can happen no less in democratic societies than in more repressive ones. Indeed one can see the construction of public sentiment much more clearly in repressive societies—that is, it is analytically most transparent in such situations how public sentiment is formed. Indeed, such societies present us the clearer model of public sentiment formation, where more open societies are hybrid cases involving both explicit and implicit signaling in different measures. Whatever the context, the activities going into standing up public sentiment—highly resistant to the powers of tyranny—are irrepressible and are foundational for standing up public sentiment under all political conditions. Why? Because construction of a public sentiment relies on a mix of overt and covert signaling; when less of the former is available, more the latter is drawn upon. No amount of fear can separate a public from the capacity to construct a public sentiment.

Where there is fear on the side of the governed, this is because (perhaps surprisingly) there is always fear on the side of the governing. This is due to a second, just as important point about fear: to be sure there is fear on the side of ordinary citizens in repressive societies, but with it comes fear on the repressor’s side as well—fear that The People rise up. How could that happen? I will argue that it must be through the successful formation of a public sentiment—that’s what the tyrant knows that the pollster has somehow forgotten! The next sections will explain this claim at greater length.

Summarizing this section: if we are after a “reading” of a representative sample from which to extrapolate on the subject of what is in their heads, we face two kinds of obstacles: (1) sampling problems; (2) falsification. The real problem, I will argue, is that what pollsters seek to measure is not the sort of public sentiment that effects change. So, let’s begin now from the other end of things: what is it that is capable of bringing about social change—that thing already named “people power”?

❧ Please refer to Part II of “Public Sentiment and Its Powers.”

Author Information:

Mariam Thalos, (PhD, University of Illinois/Chicago, 1993), is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is a philosopher of science, first and foremost, focusing on physical, decisional, and human sciences, including formal decision and game theories. She is also active on philosophical topics around practical reasoning, including action theory, phenomenology, and theories of freedom. The author of two monographs and more than 100 articles and essays, she is currently working on a comprehensive philosophical study of human reasoning in the wild.


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Thalos, Mariam. in progress. Human Reasoning in the Wild.

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[1] In case it requires saying explicitly, I am proposing reconceptualization of this pair of concepts for purposes of social scientific research only. In the space of folk concepts, there is space for more than one concept to refer to, say, public sentiment. And if it should happen that the new concept I propose were to migrate to the folk, there would be no problem; when more precision is wanted there, then clarifications as to which concept is meant can be made.

[2] In Batesian mimicry, for example, which is a form of anti-predator adaptation, the red milk snake imitates the coloring of the coral snake. Those taken in miss out on a good meal.

[3] Munton (2023) presents an account of prejudice along these lines.

[4] One may think of the common mind as an extension of the concept of umwelt in sensory biology. Yong (2022) gives an engaging account of the different worlds inhabited by organisms unlike ourselves.

[5] See–except-that-the-media-and-pollsters-blew-it-again/2020/11/04/40c0d416-1e4a-11eb-b532-05c751cd5dc2_story.html and


[7] The locus classicus is perhaps Max Weber (1914).

[8] Sadam Hussein utilized the same methods with his own widely publicized executions. These examples come from Kuran (1997).

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