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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 18.1 (2004) 72-79

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Pragmatism and Democracy:
In Search of Deliberative Publics

John S. Dryzek
Australian National University

Pragmatism sees continuity between the problem-solving efforts of experts and lay citizens. All problem-solving is experimental inquiry under conditions of uncertainty, and involves a number of inquirers rather than the solitary thinker. Social problem-solving in particular features an ever-changing agenda to which particular sorts of expertise may be relevant, but for which any single sort of expertise is rarely conclusive. In this context, the decisive test of any argument or claim is to be found in its application in political problem-solving practice. Publics can then be constituted around particular problem-solving efforts (though Dewey also spoke of the public).

On the face of it, pragmatism provides a congenial philosophical basis for deliberative democracy, whose essence is the idea that the legitimacy of any collective decision should be sought in reflective acceptance on the part of those subject to the decision. The best way to ensure such acceptance is to define the relevant public as those affected, and to allow these individuals access (directly or indirectly) to consequential deliberation about the content of the decision at hand. Thus it is no surprise to find that pragmatism is recognized by some contemporary deliberative democrats (notably Habermas) as part of their intellectual ancestry.

Truth, Opinion, and Pluralism

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 [End Page 72] 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? Any attempt to eliminate them altogether would be truly heroic, involving massive efforts in citizen education as well as institutional redesign. A more modest approach might begin by seeking to establish islands of deliberative practice in the ocean of partisan politics, in the hope that they might with time expand their territory as they prove their effectiveness. Such is perhaps one rationale for the microlevel experiments in deliberative democracy that have proliferated in recent years, including citizens' juries in the United States and (especially) the United Kingdom, planning cells (in Germany), consensus conferences (beginning in Denmark), deliberative opinion polls, mediation of policy disputes, policy dialogues, and regulatory negotiation. Reform could also be directed at the operating rules of putatively deliberative components of dominant institutions, such as parliaments (Uhr 1998) and courts. Exactly where "the public" is to be found in all these experiments and reforms is by no means self-evident, especially in the context of a representative democracy that asks of citizens no more than an occasional vote.

Before starting to think about the content and purpose of any such reforms, a prior question arises. Is the truth-seeking aspiration on which they could be based really appropriate when it comes to political decision-making? As Cheryl Misak points out in her contribution to this special issue, truth in political judgment cannot refer to correspondence to some mind-independent world. Yet, following Peirce, she still 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.

But why exactly should pursuit of truth in any sense be the ideal for political deliberation—especially in light of the fact that deliberative democracy arrives mainly as an account of legitimacy? For Misak, "a legitimate procedure must be answerable to reasons," and so must the content of decisions. Yet it matters enormously whether or not these reasons have to be accepted in their content and their priority uniformly by all actors. To argue for a belief is...


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