“Pragmatism and Democratic Values: Beyond Minimalist Accounts of Deliberation”

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This paper seeks to clarify the importance of Dewey's pragmatism for contemporary discussions of democracy and deliberation. Toward that it, it works through the problems of Robert Talisse's “minimalist” account of deliberative democracy, an account that seeks a universal (and procedural) standard of political legitimacy. While Talisse thinks that epistemological standards of inquiry are universally shared, he cannot fully account for their irreducible normativity and connection to particular experiences. Because any minimalistic account of democracy cannot justify its own standards without abandoning its minimalism, we must embrace a “thick” pragmatic notion of political legitimacy, as illustrated by reference to accounts of democratic process set forth in the work of contemporary philosophers as Noëlle McAfee, James Campbell, and John Stuhr.



What is democracy and how do we know when we have it? When is a government or law legitimate? In the last twenty years, one of the trends in political theory has been to answer these questions by means of procedural norms of deliberation. Democracy, according to deliberative theorists, requires participation and debate. A law is legitimate insofar as it is legislated deliberatively. Since obviously not everyone shares in a deliberative view of democracy, there have been many attempts to show that the only reasonable way to define legitimacy is via such procedures. All such attempts are thus universalist projects.

Rob Talisse gives us the most thorough-going version of these deliberative democracies in his book Democracy After Liberalism. He consistently grounds his “minimalist”1 proceduralism not in contestable value claims like “fairness” or “reciprocity” but in the supposedly value-neutral epistemological norms that he thinks everyone must hold. His theory most consistently achieves the “minimalist” project that proceduralists share in trying to find a set of norms that all reasonable people could agree upon. However, this project still employs normative commitments that are neither universal nor minimal. Efforts to achieve minimalism are misguided because any minimalistic ground—here epistemological—has normative commitments. The failures of this project are therefore highly instructive in pointing us towards the future of a more successful deliberative democratic theory that does not pretend value-neutrality but embraces the “thickness” of existing norms and practices, as well as their criticism. Accordingly, this paper intends not simply to poke holes in a way of thinking but to argue for a democratic philosophy closer to Dewey than Pierce, a theory that will find resonance with recent work by Noëlle McAfee, as well as James Campbell, John Stuhr, Michael Sullivan, and John Lysaker.

I begin with Talisse's criticism of traditional proceduralists. Despite the success of this argument, his theory displays many of the same problems he locates in other theorists. Liberal deliberative democrats like Rawls and Cohen, for example, attempt to find a universal normative ground of “comprehensive doctrines” or an “overlapping consensus” to ground their proceduralist theories. However, despite their claims to universality, Rawls and Cohen do make controversial value claims and must call non-liberals like Utilitarians, Communitarians, and Catholics unreasonable, as Talisse shows (36-42). The problem with the liberal deliberative democratic project, and the liberal project in general, according to Talisse, is that although it tries to avoid being grounded in contestable values it defines political legitimacy in just this way. More specifically, it prioritizes individual freedoms while simultaneously refusing to allow individuals the freedom of political dissent when it comes to issues of equality or reciprocity, for example. Talisse's recognition of this problem constitutes a highly effective critique of this kind of proceduralism.

Though there is reasonable pluralism about value claims, like the priority of fairness, Talisse believes that there is no such pluralism in epistemology. He thinks that he has found a set of norms that are incontestable and can ground a political theory universally. These are epistemological norms that everyone accepts, and they are few. First, to believe something requires that we are willing to give reasons for why we think or act a certain way, and second, to be involved in this process of reason-giving already involves us in the task of inquiry (103-4). Thus, anyone who has beliefs must aim at truth, and even snide postmodernists could be cornered into saying that they believe relativism to be true. The project of inquiry in which we are all engaged requires that our beliefs be subject to scrutiny, which means that demonstration, communication, and the results of experience are to be prioritized over blind submission to authority, closed-mindedness, and faulty experimentation.

Talisse maintains that because we require that reasons be sensitive to experience and demonstration in our everyday lives, we should then organize the state according to these epistemological norms. Political decisions must be grounded in experience and inquiry. Cheryl Misak, who has argued along much the same lines, “put[s] it bluntly,” writing that “deliberative democracy in political philosophy is the right view, because deliberative democracy in epistemology is the right view”2. At bottom, what Talisse gives us is a minimal definition of democracy or a criterion for judging when political decisions are made democratically: the more they uphold the norms of inquiry, the more democratic they are and the more we should be inclined to obey them. Legitimacy is defined only in terms of inquiry.

In some respects, Talisse's claim is not so radical. It would certainly be hard to find someone who wanted political decisions to be made on the basis of whim or authority. We want to be given reasons for why we ought to obey a law—its legitimacy in fact seems to depend on the reasons for its existence. How could our democracy be by, with, and for the people if it cannot answer to the people and if people cannot answer to each other? Perhaps not everyone could understand the highly complicated reasons of experts, but their recommendations must be held accountable. The problem with such an account of democracy is in the form of its claim about legitimacy. Talisse does not make the modest demand that our laws be somehow tied to experience in general but instead holds the stronger claim that they are only laws insofar as they are made deliberatively or according to the spirit of inquiry. Where does this claim about legitimacy come from? Why should inquiry be prioritized above all else?

Talisse recognizes the problems of a “view from nowhere” approach that values norms that are not connected to experience and tries to avoid the charge that these standards are unrelated to our lives as the musings of an armchair philosopher. Accordingly, his account of the prioritization of epistemological norms comes from a political phenomenology. By asking how people actually talk about politics, he finds that:

One of the striking features of our current modes of political discourse is how attuned they are to questions of epistemic character. [... They uphold] an image of proper public deliberation according to which responsible discussion is informed, balanced, responsive to reasons, open, and inclusive. (111)

People act as if political decisions ought to be intelligent, so the problem is how to make that ideal into a reality. No matter how often we may claim to have a No Spin Zone or to expose bias once and for all, surely these are rhetorical fictions. Talisse thus attempts to start where we are and solve a real conflict in existing norms and practices.

But is it possible that he still seeks an answer to the wrong question and that this question directs his phenomenology? Why do we need a universal definition of democracy? What would such a foundation get us? What might it ignore? I believe that we can answer these questions by asking what assumptions Talisse still accepts despite his critique of proceduralist deliberative democracies. These suppositions are common to many traditional ways of defining political legitimacy that seek a universal ground. Hobbes showed that a state was legitimate if it did not overstep what individuals would give up due to fear for their life. Mill proved that since people wish to maximize happiness, the state must do the same. Talisse now argues that since we are all beholden to modest epistemological norms, political decision-making is only binding if it adheres to the norms of inquiry as well. These liberal political philosophers all assume that our only hope of finding a standard for political legitimacy lies in finding the most minimal, most universally-shared criterion possible. The problem is that they search for such a criterion without investigating its value, assuming that having a supposedly neutral arbiter is the obvious goal. These thinkers thus posit a universal ground without questioning the value of universality.

It is clear that Talisse tries to make this distinction between neutral and questionable claims when he contrasts the educative function of the state as grounded in contestable moral norms and in neutral epistemological ones. Though he attempts to distance himself from the traditional liberal demand for a laissez-faire state that takes no substantive role, he tries to find an acceptable, neutral ground for a substantive politics without questioning the value of that ground. He writes,

Although [my] democratic theory is not a liberal one insofar as it rejects the liberal doctrine of official state neutrality, it eschews the [totalitarian] problems confronting communitarian and civic republican forms of antiliberalism by insisting that the formative role of the state is epistemological and not moral. (10)

Liberal values of state neutrality are unacceptable because they are moral, but Talisse thinks that since his epistemological norms are value-neutral, they can thus ground a substantive politics uncontestably. The state is allowed to foster a “democratic culture” insofar as it creates more deliberative people and not for any other reason. He later writes,

[T]he practice of inquiry involves not only the aim of truth, but also the secondary goal of maintaining and extending the material and social conditions under which inquiry can continue. Whereas the primary aim provides the justification for deliberative democracy, the secondary aim provides the basis for a pragmatic conception of democratic practice. (107)

It is assumed that having a universal ground is more important than anything else. This goal may have been the valid for Hobbes, but we cannot simply accept it today. In a global and plural culture, it may not be the case that neutrality or attempted neutrality is everyone's demand.

The difficulty with Talisse's view and that of the other liberal theorists mentioned is not just that they do not examine the value of neutrality but that they assume neutrality is possible outside of a given process, inquiry, or shared experience. While Talisse tries to turn the liberal project against itself, saying that it is not neutral or minimalistic enough if it is grounded in moral claims instead of epistemological claims, Dewey offers us another critique of liberalism in Freedom and Culture that is at the same time a critique of neutrality. Liberalism may contradict itself, but, more importantly, its assumption of even the possibility of neutrality is faulty. The negative theory of rights espoused in liberal theory is not neutral, because no value claim is neutral. A laissez-faire approach is grounded in existing norms and practices, serving particular purposes, and is meant to deal with particular circumstances. For instance, because conditions in America have changed since the time of our founding fathers, the doctrine of negative rights in the form of free speech has lead to a proliferation of opinion-forming devices as found in popular media. As Dewey writes, “The very agencies that a century and a half ago were looked upon as those that were sure to advance the cause of democratic freedom [such as a free press], are those which now make it possible to create pseudo-public opinion and to undermine democracy from within”3. There is nothing neutral about these rights, because they are contingent upon their context and the problems they attempt to solve.

Dewey shows that the neutrality that traditional liberalism strives for is indefensible not because universalism has failed and showed the truth of relativism, as many think, but because there are no neutral claims. Any thing's value is to be determined by experience, so we must seek not for that which is universal but for the value of the universal. The value of the norms of inquiry, just like the norm of fairness, must be sought in experience. Although a great majority of people fear death, as Hobbes recognized, or want to maximize happiness, as Mill showed, such commonalities are not adequate bases for a political theory. We must first ask what the value of these claims are. What happens if we use these criteria as political norms? When do they work? Who do they work for? When should we try for something else?

There is a tension in Talisse's theory between his tacit acceptance of the value of the norm of neutrality and his search for its experiential grounding in his analysis of contemporary politics. He realizes that something's value cannot be posited a priori but must be grounded in experience and so bases his philosophy on a phenomenology of political life. Even if the epistemological norms Talisse thinks everyone shares are universal, this says nothing about the value of making these norms the basis for a political theory. However, he never actually shows the value of inquiry in politics. He only points to its supposed recommendation by a small segment of the population, whereas the tests and needs of experience are what should really matter. While proclaiming the importance of keeping norms tied to experience, he actually maintains the traditional approach that seeks to ground politics in something neutral and universal without showing the value of neutrality or universality. He thus confuses supposed universality with a value recommendation, as Dewey shows traditional liberal theorists have done.

Instead of positing one minimalistic and unproven norm as the foundation for political theory, Dewey suggests, like James, that we philosophize in a “thick” manner. There is no one universal criterion that can give us a measure for legitimacy, because all standards must be grounded in the circumstances of experience. Any minimalistic theory, like Talisse's, attempts to narrow the role of experience into a point that cannot penetrate the richness and plurality of life. Certainly, we often want inquiry to be a part of politics, and there are surely many difficulties today with the lack of honesty and communication in politics, but this says nothing about the ways political decisions should be legitimated. There are many things that we want politics and political decisions to do. By making inquiry the sole standard of legitimacy, we close ourselves off from allowing other norms to be political standards.

The value of inquiry in politics can only be determined in experience in a dialectic between experts and laypeople. Instead of asserting that everyone could be shown to value inquiry, we should ask when inquiry is the most important determining factor of a particular political decision for the particular ends of particular peoples. It may seem as if we are inquiring into the value of inquiry, but experience contains much more than inquiry. Experience is the test, not inquiry. There may be many times when we would say that a law is legitimate not because it follows a universal procedure but because it does what we wanted it to do. The law's goal may have to do with inquiry, but it could also have to do with the increasing of autonomy, or of religious meaning, or of stable families. We might inquire into the law's ability to do these things, but it is the fulfillment of the goal, not the process of inquiry that makes such a law legitimate.

The question of legitimacy thus cannot be detailed in a procedure abstracted from practice, because the value of such a procedure cannot be given except in practice. There is no difference between a procedure grounded in epistemological or moral norms, since both are norms or things of experience. This does not mean that we should not inquire or try to create conditions that foster inquiry, but it does mean that no kind of ultimate legitimacy can be set in advance of experience. One of Dewey's goals was increasing the amount of inquiry in politics and the creation of inquiring communities. As he writes in The Public and its Problems, “The essential need [today] is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion, and persuasion. That is the problem of the public” (LW 2:365). Dewey saw that in order for public opinion to have any kind of meaning, it must become intelligent and not the product of manipulation techniques. Still, intelligent action, though a goal in many of our interactions, does not legitimate anything for Dewey. Legitimacy is to be proven in the experiences of people, not in the procedures of institutions, though these two will be mutually determining. This definition is purposely vague, because little should be said in advance about the changing and plural goals of a plural and changing people.

By working through many of Dewey's insights, Noëlle McAffee clearly points to a new non-proceduralist notion of deliberative democracy that prioritizes inquiry but does not posit legitimacy in advance. Her “Integrative Model” developed at the NIF “engages deliberators in the pragmatic task of delineating what courses of action might work given polity members' many aims and constraints”4. Instead of looking for legitimacy in changes to the individual wills of deliberators, as Fishkin's deliberative polls do, the Integrative Model seeks legitimacy in the public created in the deliberative process. It attempts to do “what works” rather than “what is true,” as McAfee notes (52).

The failures of minimalistic attempts to define democracy are instructive for understanding the role of experts—especially of political philosophers—in democratic processes. McAfee writes, “deliberations proceed quite differently depending on whether they see expertise in the service of deliberation (as NIF tends to do) or as something to aim for (which deliberative polling inadvertently does)” (56). Experts should be at the service of the demands of a people and not vice versa. It is not our task to define in advance their needs, but to help them understand them themselves. Instead of telling people the truth of their experiences, we both learn the values of interpreting and setting goals for these experiences in different ways.

By opening the question of legitimacy to things other than inquiry, we allow the question of legitimacy to be more grounded in experience and less narrowly defined. Minimalism could only be a virtue if it is assumed to lead to some kind of universal grounding. However, since the value of even that minimalistic ground must be played out in experience, we should make the question of legitimacy itself open to the plural and contextualized values of experience. While of course in practice we will create and find values and standards by which to judge laws, institutions, and practices, it is not the philosopher's place to posit these one-sidedly. We must, as Dewey says, be like the poets who inspire and show others possible values, while being attuned to and in conversation with laypeople (LW 13:349-50). We must not simply use our expert tools to tell people the “reality” of their experiences—e.g., that they prioritize inquiry above all other things—but must be in conversation, helping those who are not experts understand and give voice to their own experiences and the things they value. Again, legitimacy is not granted in the happening of this conversation but in the experiences that result from it.

With such a new understanding of legitimacy in tow, we can theorize a different kind of deliberative democracy than has been most in vogue. Instead of making deliberation itself the test of political legitimacy, deliberation and inquiry become tools for enriching people's experiences. These things may be legitimate because they may be experienced as legitimate—not because they follow a rule that only experts could understand. Or, to put it bluntly, pluralism in politics is right because pluralism in experience is right.

1Talisse, Robert B. Democracy After Liberalism: Pragmatism and Deliberative Politics. New York: Routledge, 2005. p. 103.

2Misak, Cheryl. “Making Disagreement Matter: Pragmatism and Deliberative Democracy.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Vol. 18, No. 1, 2004, p. 15.

3Dewey, John. John Dewey: The Collected Works, 1882-1953. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, Vol. 13, 168.

4McAfee, Noëlle. “Three Models of Democratic Deliberation.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Vol. 18, No. 1, 2004, pp. 52.