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Making Disagreement Matter: Pragmatism and Deliberative Democracy
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 18.1 (2004) 9-22



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Making Disagreement Matter:
Pragmatism and Deliberative Democracy 1

Cheryl Misak
University of Toronto


1. Introduction

There is a direct connection between deliberative democracy and the pragmatist theory of truth. The deliberative democrat thinks that correct political decisions can only be reached by free and open deliberation. And the pragmatist, at least the kind of pragmatist who follows the founder of the doctrine, C. S. Peirce, thinks that correctness or truth in any kind of discourse is that which would be the upshot of unlimited deliberation and inquiry. 2 Indeed, pragmatists have always wanted to bring moral and political judgments under our cognitive scope—under the scope of correctness, truth, falsity, knowledge, error, and reason. Peirce was the least explicit in conducting this task (but see Misak 2004), whereas James and Dewey were very explicit. The tradition has been continued by contemporary pragmatists such as Hilary Putnam and Jürgen Habermas. Moral and political judgments aim at getting things right and the best way of achieving or approximating that aim is to engage in reasoning, debate, and the consideration of different perspectives and evidence.

It is unsurprising that so many pragmatists are moral cognitivists, as Peirce's theory of truth, on which true beliefs are those that would be undefeated by deliberation and inquiry, seems tailor-made for cognitivism. It leaves the prospects for cognitivism intact, as it does not require a causal connection between our beliefs and physical objects. Moral and political judgments cannot be candidates for truth and falsity on a theory of truth that, for instance, has it that judgments are true if and only if they correspond to the mind-independent or physical world.

The Peircean account of truth is entirely general—that is, it is applicable in principle to any discourse or domain of inquiry. 3 A true belief, Peirce maintained, is one that is "unassailable by doubt" (Collected Papers, 5.416). 4 It is a belief that would forever stand up to deliberation or inquiry; not lead to disappointment; be "indefeasible" or not defeated, were deliberation to be pursued as [End Page 9] far as it could fruitfully go (CP 5.569, 6.485). Truth is a stable property—a belief is either true (indefeasible) or not. And truth is not a matter for some particular community—if a belief is indefeasible, it would stand up to whatever could be thrown at it, by any community of inquirers.

In Truth, Politics, Morality, I presented a sustained defense of this pragmatist cognitivism. The starting point of that argument was that we take ourselves in morals and politics to aim at the right answer—i.e., at the truth, rather than at what my own standards point to (what is justified by my lights) or at what community standards point to (what is justified by our lights). We try to get things right, we distinguish between thinking that we are right and being right, we criticize the beliefs and actions of others, we think that we can improve our judgments, and we take ourselves to be able to learn by listening to others, by putting ourselves in another's shoes, by examining the arguments of the other side, by broadening our horizons, and so forth. We think that "rational" persuasion, not brow-beating or force, is the appropriate way to get people to agree with us. Indeed, we want others to agree with us, not to merely mouth what we say or fall in line with it.

That is, our practices—what we find when we examine morals and politics—point to cognitivism. The pragmatist is of course committed to keeping philosophical theories true to practice. As Peirce writes: "We must not begin by talking of pure ideas,—vagabond thoughts that tramp the public roads without any human habitation,—but must begin with men and their conversation" (CP 8.112). This commitment to respecting practice is not itself without arguments in its support: for instance, a theory of x must take seriously...