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Monday, June 28, 2004


The last issue of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy contained a number of articles about democratic theory and pragmatism. John Dryzek, who has written extensively about what he calls, after Habermas, the ‘deliberative public’ – of which such things as the blogosphere would be subsets – poses an interesting question in his article, Pragmatism and Democracy:

“On one interpretation of pragmatism, which can appeal to Dewey as well as to Peirce, the idea would be to make the public as it confronts social problems much more like a scientific community in terms of its commitment to the pursuit of truth. The real world of politics does of course feature plenty in the way of partisanship, inequality, self-interest, ideology, strategizing, deceit, and the raw exercise of power. So would a pragmatist program for public deliberation have to involve an attack on these pervasive yet deeply problematic aspects of politics?”

Dryzek’s article is couched as a reply to another article in the journal by Cheryl Misak, who “believes that truth in the sense of indefeasible collective judgments is a proper aspiration in politics, such that there are right answers if only we deliberate long enough and well enough about a particular problem.”

Dryzek has a deep objection to this way of thinking:

“Without the preparedness to give up a belief in the face of decisive counterarguments, Misak says we will get "the degradation of belief to mere opinion." But in politics, opinion is not mere. What we mean by "public opinion" can be more or less distorted, more or less defensible. But do we really want to convert "public opinion" into "public belief"? The problem is that under any realistic time constraints, opinion cannot be eliminated. But even without such constraints, there would, as Hannah Arendt (1958) has argued, be something very peculiar about a politics that sought to exchange opinion for truth. Implicit in a situation where moral truth is sought is an incipient danger of the eventual silencing of the differing opinions that are the very grist of politics, especially if, as Misak puts it, "disagreement implies a mistake on somebody's part." A pragmatic defense against silencing here would be that all individuals should accept that they are as likely to be in error as their opponent in an argument. But opinions are not like truth claims in science, and here the pragmatist's view of continuity between science and democratic politics starts to look suspect. Opinions differ in large part because experiences and thus identities differ, and experiences may never be fully accessible to those who have not shared them. Such a view can find support in Rorty's pluralistic interpretation of pragmatism, which highlights linguistically-constituted variety. Asking an identity to be provisional and capable of being discarded if an argument is lost means the identity is not a core part of being—it is not an identity at all.”

LI thinks that Dryzek instinct is correct, here, but his analysis is deficient. His instinct is that opinion must be defended against the old Platonic ideal of the Republic. However screwed up Popper’s analysis of Hegel and Marx is, Popper was right to see a common thread in all political theories that seek to create a polity that emulates some kind of scientific, or truth-centric, ideal. Silencing the false, under this perspective, is the very goal of the policy maker. Dryzek is also right, to an extent, to see that the problem with this goal is that it conflicts with identity – with the heterogenous array of positions over social space. The social is the anti-universal, to put it in the briefest possible space. But his analysis falls short when it comes to living fact of identity, insofar as he emphasizes identity as a given, rather than as a struggle over time. In this way he makes identity into an untouchable – it becomes a Disneyland of difference. This, we think, expresses the deep desire of a certain form of East Coast liberalism, which is the latest stage in an ideology that goes back in American history to the early nineteenth century, and the establishment of a certain sense of decorum as a means by which the elite preserved their status positions both economically and culturally. This liberalism has a horror of depth, because depth is where the struggle goes on. Although we don’t, in the end, think Melville was fair to Emerson, we think that he sensed, in the Emerson of cliché, something of this same horror, and this same ossificiation of the plural. Here is a passage from one of the great letters:

“I was very agreeably disappointed in Mr Emerson. I had heard of him as full of transcendentalisms, myths & oracular gibberish; I had only glanced at a book of his once in Putnam's store -- that was all I knew of him, till I heard him lecture. -- To my surprise, I found him quite intelligible, tho' to say truth, they told me that that night he was unusually plain. -- Now, there is a something about every man elevated above mediocrity, which is, for the most part, instinctuly perceptible. This I see in Mr Emerson. And, frankly, for the sake of the argument, let us call him a fool; -- then had I rather be a fool than a wise man. -- I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he don't attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can't fashion the plumet that will. I'm not talking of Mr Emerson now -- but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.”

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