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  • Introduction: Epistemic Approaches to Democracy
  • David Estlund

The papers published in this special issue can fairly be unified under the heading “Epistemic Democracy,” but there is more variety among them than this might indicate. They exhibit the broad range of ways in which epistemological considerations are figuring in contemporary philosophical discussions of democracy. The authors range from young and promising to established and distinguished. I’d like to introduce a few of the issues that run through the papers, sprinkling references to the actual papers along the way.1

From the beginning, democratic forms of government have included discussion and debate. In real life the value of democracy can hardly be separated from the value of free public discussion, prior to voting, about the issues and candidates. This is not to say that either the discussion or the vote have always been inspiring, but whatever value democracy is thought to have, it seems inseparable from public political discussion. One way of accounting for the value of the discussion is to suppose that voters exchange reasons (not always cooperatively) about what to do. Even a quick look at the content of political debate seems to confirm that it is mostly about which decision would be best for the country or city whose laws or leaders are in question.

A theory that tries to account for the value of democracy (or the authority of the laws it produces or the permissibility of their enforcement) might sensibly try to vindicate this aspect of actual practice in which people seem to be trying to figure out what should be done. One way would be to account for democracy’s value, at least partly, by reference to this epistemic aspect of political practice. Call any such theory an epistemic approach. One version might say that there are right answers and that democracy is the best way to get at them. Another version might say that there are right answers and there is value in trying collectively to get at them whether or not that is the most reliable way. Yet another: there are no right answers independent of the political process, but overall it is best conceived as a collective way of coming to know (and institute) what to do. There are others.

Epistemic approaches might make forays into epistemology, as that last variant seems to. It takes a stand about what constitutes a certain kind of knowledge. Some other views might make claims about how certain political practices are conducive to individual knowledge, or to collective decisions that tend to be good (or perhaps only better than individual decisions). Some of the great classic and contemporary political philosophers lie in the background of this literature, including Rousseau, [End Page 1] Mill, Peirce, Dewey, Habermas, Rawls, and Rorty. These influences pervade this collection, although exegesis arises only intermittently.

There is a lot of variety here, and this special issue of the journal displays much of it. It is useful to collect this variety of epistemic approaches together if only to demonstrate that there is no single epistemic approach to democracy, and so no simple answer as to the value of such an approach. More than that, however, these papers push the limits of what we know about the prospects for various epistemic approaches to democracy. Here are several important themes in the diverse literature on epistemic approaches. I roughly map these issues onto the papers in order to give some sense of what this collection contains.

Jury Theorem

There is a fascinating mathematical fact, discovered by Condorcet in the eighteenth century, that has re-emerged to drive an important strand of the literature on epistemic democracy. Putting it very briefly and simply here, he showed that if the members of a group, faced with a binary choice (such as “yes/no” or “true/false”) for which there is a correct or better answer, are individually more likely than chance to choose the right answer, then the group under majority rule can perform much better than any of the individuals. Large groups could be virtually infallible even if individuals are only slightly better than chance. There has been much discussion of the applicability of this result...


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pp. 1-4
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2009
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