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  • A Democratic Politics of AcknowledgementPolitical Judgment, Imagination, and Exemplarity
  • Aletta J. Norval (bio)

[T]he power of judgment is a special talent that cannot be taught but only practised.

—Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

It might be a mark of our times that there has been a veritable explosion of works reflecting on the question of judgment.1 These works all seek, in various ways, to overcome or at the very least to rework the horns of a familiar dilemma, namely that of the reconciliation between universalism and pluralism,2 a quest that clearly goes well beyond the domain of questions concerning judgment. These contemporary discussions of judgment display a number of rather peculiar features. Questions as to the circumstances under which the need for judgment arises are rarely if ever addressed. Equally rare are discussions of the effects of such judgments, and the place of human subjectivity in judgment more often than not is only grudgingly acknowledged. Moreover, even though much of this discussion takes place in relation to political questions, they only rarely reflect on the specificity of the character of political judgment. It is on these and related questions that I wish to focus in this essay: where and under what conditions does the need for judgment arise? What are the effects of such judgments and what is the place of subjectivity in them? Speculating on the reason for these peculiar features of contemporary treatments of political judgment, one cannot but consider the fact of their origin in a specific form of political theorizing that has always tended to treat questions of normativity, and hence of judgment, as something in the order of the objective. On this picture,3 any account of judgment that is tainted by subjectivity necessarily must be inadequate and fall short of what is needed to defend and maintain standards of conduct that are specifiable and defensible in separation from any particular context in which they may be embedded. The recent revival of interest in political judgment has begun to put some dimensions of this picture into question, in particular that of the reluctant recognition of the role of subjectivity in judgment. [End Page 59]

Leaving this dominant picture of judgment aside for a moment, the wager here is that political judgment is best understood as a practice. On this understanding, we are called upon to make judgments when we come to experience some aspect of our world as problematic, puzzling, or perplexing and in need of explanation. Examples of such occasions abound in politics. Confronted with the dislocation of 9/11, with the changing social, cultural, political, and religious landscapes of contemporary Europe, with questions of water and food scarcity as well as climate change, we are called upon to express our views and act in contexts where the given no longer provides adequate guidelines for action. It is under circumstances such as these that the need for political judgment arises. It typically takes the form of a reconsideration of the criteria guiding our actions, where the lines no longer intimate to us the way we are to go. Hence, on this view, making judgments cannot be a matter of appealing to the guidance of prior logical categories or rules. Rather, we learn to make judgments, and we do so in the context of other judgments. As Wittgenstein puts it,

We do not learn the practice of making empirical judgments by learning rules: we are taught judgments and their connections to other judgments. A totality of judgments are made plausible to us.

[Philosophical Investigations §222]

Viewed in this manner, judgment is a practice, which we learn and in which, as Alice Crary suggests, we draw upon a set of acquired sensitivities and exercise our imagination [Beyond Moral Judgment 123]. The practice of making judgments also varies in scope, ranging from affirming our existing judgments as correct in a particular case to having to rework particular judgments and their connections to other judgments. Depending on where one finds oneself on this spectrum, the effects of judgments will vary, from presenting a perspicuous representation of where we stand to effecting an aspect change. This picture of judgment diverges in obvious ways from...

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