Democracy and Knowledge: Key Issues

Posted on July 31, 2007


We might draw an analogy between democracy and knowledge and the traditional philosophical tension between politics and truth. Philosophers since Socrates have tended to align philosophy with truth and rhetoric with the sophistic world of the political. However, ‘truth’ has connotations rather different to those of ‘knowledge’. While there are various philosophical conceptions of truth – with correspondence, consensus and coherentist being the main three – truth is generally taken to be ‘that which is the case’ while knowledge is knowledge of a thing.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a particularly important figure in the history of modern democracy. He believed that laws should be general and impersonal rather than specific, applied to the general populace rather than the individual: the whole population rules over the whole population and decides what the population is to do. Political parties and factions within the state impede this process, but only on the basis of such differences can the general will be identified and established. Therefore, Rousseau argues, particular and general interests should be kept separate so as to avoid the emergence of divisive political factions. With the appropriate mechanisms in place, laws which are in the interests of the people (instituted by le contrat sociale) can become apparent. This kind of legislative power, Rousseau believed, cannot be deferred or allocated to representatives.

It is important to note that this only applies to the realm of legislative and not executive power. For him, democracy is a form of constitutional government in which all citizens are required to participate. However, in a small, homogenous and uncomplicated society such a system cannot work since the abstract relationship between the individual and the state is compromised and individuals are likely to interfere with each other’s business. This leads Rousseau to the conclusion that democracy in the strict sense is a bad form of government that requires representation in order to give form to the principle of sovereignty. Government is therefore synonymous with the formal realisation of public political activity.

Rousseau uses the word ‘statute’ to denote the outcome of processes of representative democracy. This is deigned to denote more than an expression of will and incorporates the idea of the exercise of power. Crucially, this involves some dimension of knowledge – what is the case – before it can be formed. The exercise of executive power therefore requires both empirical and practical substantiation.

This position comes with a number of well-documented difficulties. What position is there, for example, for a dissenting individual within such a collectivity? Are we to understand the collective reflexively as a self-determining agent or referentially, as a ‘thing’, an object of knowledge? If an agent, what kind of autonomy can it display, what kind of voice can it speak with? Only representatives seem to have this authority, but they themselves remain individuals. If referential object of knowledge, it seems that executives have nothing to do but defer decision to those with the relevant epistemological expertise.

Rousseau attempted to overcome these problems through the figure of the législateur, who hopes to use knowledge and calculation to persuade and convince the people which laws should be adopted. However, the specialist knowledge that the législateur possesses is unavailable to the people themselves, who remain in a ‘democratic deficit’. Is the législateur obliged to tell the truth, or act in the interests of the people without their consent? If so, what place for democracy?

In the Republic, Plato says that the ideal political community will be realised by philosophers who become kings or kings who become philosophers. Glaucon asks Socrates how such a state is to be established. Socrates gives a rather unsatisfactory response, saying that after escaping domestic unrest and trouble abroad the paradoxical, unifying ‘third wave’ of moderate government is yet to come; and we cannot arrive at political knowledge prematurely (Republic, Bk. V). Nonetheless, the politicization of philosophy sets the programme for political philosophy as philosophy applied to politics and integrated within in. A commitment analogous to political commitment is made by the philosopher.

Leo Strauss has argued that the nature of political philosophy has changed. As representatives of modernity, he argues, we understand political philosophy in an entirely different way. Classical conceptions of practical philosophy, which took the cosmos to be a natural organisation, try to focus good governance on virtue, while moderns, who from Machiavelli and Hobbes onward understand society as something created or manipulated, concentrate on finding some sustainable sense of order.

The ancient understanding of virtue was a kind of self-training which cultivated morally excellent dispositions. It has connotations of aspirations towards greatness and excellence, as well as the maximisation of one’s potential. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, he considers what happens when a virtuous person experiences truth and then returns to the shared world of the unvirtuous. Strauss argues that this person becomes the political enemy of the cave community. Plato, for his part, expects such a person to be slaughtered (like Socrates) unless he is able to convey to them the truth he has experienced. To give this kind of political guidance, one must see discourse as a virtue, remaining focused both on what is philosophically pertinent and practically relevant.