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Eric Arthur Blair (1903–1950), better known by his pen name George Orwell, was a British essayist, journalist, and novelist. Orwell is most famous for his dystopian works of fiction, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but many of his essays and other books have remained popular as well. His body of work provides one of the twentieth century’s most trenchant and widely recognized critiques of totalitarianism.
Orwell did not receive academic training in philosophy, but his writing repeatedly focuses on philosophical topics and questions in political philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of language, ethics, and aesthetics. Some of Orwell’s most notable philosophical contributions include his discussions of nationalism, totalitarianism, socialism, propaganda, language, class status, work, poverty, imperialism, truth, history, and literature.
Orwell’s writings map onto his intellectual journey. His earlier writings focus on poverty, work, and money, among other themes. Orwell examines poverty and work not only from an economic perspective, but also socially, politically, and existentially, and he rejects moralistic and individualistic accounts of poverty in favor of systemic explanations. In so doing, he provides the groundwork for his later championing of socialism.
Orwell’s experiences in the 1930s, including reporting on the living conditions of the poor and working class in Northern England as well as fighting as a volunteer soldier in the Spanish Civil War, further crystalized Orwell’s political and philosophical outlook. This led him to write in 1946 that, “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism” (“Why I Write”).
For Orwell, totalitarianism is a political order focused on power and control. Much of Orwell’s effectiveness in writing against totalitarianism stems from his recognition of the epistemic and linguistic dimensions of totalitarianism. This is exemplified by Winston Smith’s claim as the protagonist in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.” Here Orwell uses, as he often does, a particular claim to convey a broader message. Freedom (a political state) rests on the ability to retain the true belief that two plus two makes four (an epistemic state) and the ability to communicate that truth to others (via a linguistic act).
Orwell also argues that political power is dependent upon thought and language. This is why the totalitarian, who seeks complete power, requires control over thought and language. In this way, Orwell’s writing can be viewed as philosophically ahead of its time for the way it brings together political philosophy, epistemology, and philosophy of language.