restricted access Communication and Conviction: A Jamesian Contribution to Deliberative Democracy
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Communication and Conviction:
A Jamesian Contribution to Deliberative Democracy

Theories of deliberative democracy offer a vision of political decision making in which citizens are able to consider relevant matters from multiple points of view, critically converse with one another about options before them, and seek to enlarge their understandings of whatever matters are under scrutiny. These decisions are intended to be procedurally fair and, in the case of epistemic theories of deliberative democracy, to meet with widespread and uncoerced agreement precisely because they are improved in their epistemic quality.1 Under the best of circumstances, deliberation converges on the best available ideas on offer: on a presumably correct political decision.

This description has—and rightly should have—a mildly Kantian ring to it. And though we are not likely to be at all surprised that a number of deliberativists have taken inspiration from such Kant-inspired classical pragmatists as Peirce and Mead (as well as, to be sure, from the “Hegelian” Dewey), the broadly Kantian legacy of deliberative democracy would seem to be directly at odds with James’s philosophical temperament and his more sentimentalist approach to moral and political theorizing. As a result, one may not be able to help but wonder whether my intended aim within this article—to examine the extent to which deliberativists can benefit from drawing explicitly on James’s thought—amounts to the fruitless task of fitting a square peg into a round hole. The main challenge before me is to demonstrate that this is not so, and I proceed in two stages.

I begin by briefly laying out what I take to be the three core components of the general conception of deliberative democracy that has recently gained considerable traction among pragmatists. Although each component may appear prima facie to be objectionable to James, I argue that this is not so. We need not exclude his thought on these grounds from having something of value to offer deliberativists—especially those of a pragmatist stripe.

But that his thought is compatible with this pragmatist conception of deliberative democracy does not yet demonstrate that turning to it can prove beneficial in this regard. This is the subject of the second part of the essay. I contend that [End Page 259] James offers two tangible contributions to deliberativists. First, he reveals just how important it is for citizens to develop what he refers to as “responsive sensibilities” to the blindnesses they maintain that inhibit truly hearing others on their own terms. Second, his thought ably supports a recent move by a number of deliberativists to widen how we conceive of political argumentation in order to respond to the objection that deliberative democracy ultimately proves to be exclusionary.

I. Core Components of a Pragmatist Deliberative Democracy

Let us turn straightaway to the core components of the conception of deliberative democracy here being highlighted. In accordance with the first component, cognitivism, the reasons offered by citizens to support publicly their interests and concerns are regarded as truth-apt. They are not simply the vocalization of personal preferences. Moreover, political decisions themselves can be presumptively correct or incorrect; their epistemic quality is subject to improvement via public deliberation. The second component, collectivism, suggests that political decisions are to be informed by the input of all potentially affected citizens. Citizens are regarded (broadly) as a community of inquirers cooperating in the deliberative process. The third component, proceduralism, indicates that a set of institutionally supported standards must be established and maintained to facilitate the decision-making process. These include, inter alia, open channels of communication among citizens, effective means of dispensing information regarding the activities of public officials, an efficient system for translating citizens’ concerns into effective legislation, and the means to foster an informed and critical public. What would James have to say about these components?

i. Cognitivism

All too often, James is taken to be a subjectivist or a particularist with respect to truth. According to Cheryl Misak, for example, whereas the avowed cognitivist Peirce maintains that beliefs are true to the extent that they would stably and indefeasibly meet the challenges of all reasons, argument, and evidence, the story is rather different for James. (For...