The logic of democracy

Democracy never arrives at a resting place – it is always under revision, refinement and revaluation, write authors.

Ecuadorean Vice-President Lenin Moreno meets with British physicist Stephen Hawking
Physicist Stephen Hawking recently said that philosophers have not kept up with science and their art is dead [EPA]

From a political point of view people still believe in nostalgic and dangerous ideas like “objectivity” “reality”, “truth” and “values” as a precondition for democracy. But believers in absolutes forget a crucial lesson borne out of the historic record namely, that the tide of secularisation is irreversible and remains inextricably bound-up in the human condition. This reality necessarily checks and harnesses the search for fanatical, absolute truth-claims that, we maintain, are contrary to the very nature of democracy.

Indeed the demand democracy places on us is therefore a commitment to maximising critical, open dialogue whilst maintaining a minimal peaceable solidarity among different social and political actors. We thus submit the need to dispense with arrogant notions of truth opting instead for more temperate and humble philosophical programmes, ones that, for example help nurture a larger more volatile discourse of human flourishing. 

It is worth briefly examining the logic that appeals to claims that are absolute and beyond the reach of history. From the birth of religion and early philosophy the ever-changing natural world was interpreted as threatening, chaotic and unpredictable. This further resulted in a neurosis, which was only cured, it was thought, when the threatening material world of change was a result of a more fundamental unchanging, immaterial idea, or a God.

By appealing to absolute moral foundations, or a God, or Truth, any disagreement could be resolved so long as everyone agreed with the final appeal pronounced by the ruling class. And if there was disagreement, the rulers in power, like political or religious authorities, could be justified in exacting violence against a dissenter.  

Pragmatic and hermeneutical approach

The danger in this metaphysical universe was that only the King or Pope (or the philosopher-king) could discern what the true will of God (or Reason) was on earth without question or criticism. In this way, an eternal, unchecked idea was given moral justification beyond the reach of democratic discourse. Consequently, unjust political regimes could get away with implementing their power in the name of the Almighty or an idea.

It is little wonder that one minor tradition in Greek philosophy, the Platonic legacy, was quickly adapted into the Greek and later Roman Empire, as Peter Sloterdijk has recently argued. This legacy could then easily be transferred into the hegemony of Christianity in the form of the Roman Catholic Empire, which neutralised many other divergent Christian, religious, pagan and philosophical traditions in order to alight as an absolute authority both religious and political. This set the stage for the spread of the Islamic Empire in the 7th century.    

By contrast, we submit that history and not religion (or unchecked Reason) must be taken seriously as opposed to idealising absolutes, which, in political theologies, only serve as flimsy veils behind which violent and inflexible premises invariably lurk. It is difficult not to interpret mainstream religious ideology and its historical reality as employing appeals to almighty God as a means to dominate the cultural, political, moral and even economic discourse.

By contrast, when, for example, Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government excluding all others, what he meant was that you cannot find a better system if you take history seriously. This is a pragmatic and hermeneutical approach, which entails a modest style committed to an experimentation and perpetual improvement on inevitable shortcomings.  

When it comes to political deliberation, philosophy is a good servant but a bad master.

by Richard Rorty, American philosopher

Post-metaphysical philosophy has never claimed inerrancy; indeed it knows the tools it provides in good faith are nevertheless fragile, incomplete and above all contingent unlike extreme and historically unsustainable version of scripture that allows no room for error and all the room for “justified violence”. For this reason we agree with Stephen Hawking, who recently pronounced the death of philosophy.

The philosophy that is dead is, of course, the one that appeals to absolutes, that is, metaphysical philosophy. And with Hawking we join sides with Slavoj Zizek and the late American philosopher, Richard Rorty, by claiming that the duty of philosophy is a modest task. 

“I think philosophy is a very modest discipline,” says, Zizek. Philosophy does not solve problems, “the duty of philosophy is to show how what we experience as a problem is a false problem”. Philosophers deal less with absolute truth claims, like Hawking thinks, and operate more like Rorty says, “when it comes to political deliberation, philosophy is a good servant but a bad master”. 

In this modest sense, philosophy is useful in formulating new interpretations of social phenomena, but neither is it indispensable. What is distinctive about the hermeneutic (the philosophy of interpretation) approach is that it gives priority to relations between knowledge and social life, that is, to the concerns that arise as the inevitable result of one’s own existence: mortality, freedom, meaning and death. 

Developing a democratic society

A democratic society may develop itself only by generating culture not as an abstract body of superior knowledge but as a complex dialogue that must never come to rest. In fact, democracy must become a lived philosophy, which it can only do by refusing absolute truth and its attached totalitarian regimes. The only hope of a democratic politics is to form citizens who articulate their own practical needs, freely and unencumbered by the pressures of simplistic and lazy metaphysical systems. 

The political message of philosophy after the end of modernity is that there is nothing outside our human and natural community. Philosophers must understand problems as rooted in society. The danger is that philosophers become alienated from communities – as has happened to so many analytical philosophers. We therefore submit that philosophy must subordinate itself to the political demands of democracy. 

Rorty, together with Hans-Georg Gadamer, Gianni Vattimo, Zizek and many other philosophers, understand hermeneutics as possessing this possibility because it does not presuppose an absolute that dissolves differences. Hermeneutical philosophy is humbled by the hope that agreement will never be lost as long as the conversation lasts. And so the hope that characterises hermeneutics as the philosophy of postmodernity depends on privileging human historical narratives as opposed to abstract theories of reality. The moral justification of a political institution cannot thus be found through a philosophical explanation alone but also in those historical narratives that allow the conversation and even disagreement to continue unfolding. 

The point is to retrospectively interpret history as a continuation of events that arrives at conclusions needed for the betterment of society; that is, only by interpreting can we verify whether we are not simply regurgitating outdated phantoms that continue to reproduce unjust symptoms and forms of repressions. For example, when the American president, George Bush tried to construct a case for going to war in the Middle-East, he did this by appealing to God’s will and used the Bible as evidence to justify his theocratic agenda.

This way of appealing to absolutes should therefore be interpreted as giving up on dialogue and democracy in a panic moment to push a ruler’s own agenda in the name of the religion. Democracy continues to be difficult work, which never arrives at a resting place, but is always under revision, refinement and revaluation. In this respect, democracy is not an ideal – rather it is a process of employing tools of a modest hermeneutical philosophy. In sum, democracy reminds us that we need each other for our very survival. 

Creston Davis is Professor of Philosophy at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, Skopje. He is the co-author (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek) of Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology; co-editor (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek) of Theology and the Political: The New Debate; editor of John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? and author of Ghostly Icons.  

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, coauthored with G Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press. 

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