🦋 A democratic philosophy for democracy’s data mountain? 

John Min accepts Jean-Paul Gagnon’s premise that democratic theorists should persist in studying the nature of democracy, and sees the goals of Gagnon’s project as admirable. But he argues that several methodological issues concerning the means of achieving those ends need to be explored

The end 

Jean-Paul Gagnon makes a compelling case that democratic theorists should answer the question, 'what is democracy?'. Without it, they offer, at best, a 'limited truth' ('partial texture') and, at worst, an arbitrary theory of democracy. This is unfortunate because the world is experiencing democratic backslidings that threaten the existence and future of democracy. It is also ironic because what was once declared 'the only game in town' is now limited and arbitrary. 

So, how should democratic theorists go about it? By studying the words of democracy, according to Gagnon, and in so doing rescuing the abandoned science of democracy. We do this by first building a data mountain. There are vast amounts of data to describe democracy. Gagnon has identified and taxonomised over 4,000 adjectives in the English language alone. He suggests expanding that effort to other languages. Once equipped with these adjectives and discerning their contextual meanings, Gagnon believes we can traverse from the data mountain to the 'total texture.' 

equipped with the adjectives to describe democracy, and discerning their contextual meanings, democratic theorists could traverse from the data mountain to the 'total texture'

The 'total texture' project appears to be of an inverted-foundationalist nature. What I mean is that Gagnon mines the rich data to build the data mountain, from where he wants to get to the essential characteristics of democracy and finally to the nature of democracy itself. The project is the opposite of foundationalism, an epistemological thesis that all knowledge claims are causally traceable to 'basic' beliefs. It proceeds in the opposite way: from the data mountain to the 'total texture' (the nature) of democracy. 

While I am hopeful about the end (outcome) of the project, in the interest of furthering a dialogue already taking place in The Loop, I raise several questions about its means. 

The means: collecting words

Collecting words of democracy does not necessarily mean that we can get to the nature of democracy. Linguistic artifacts are evidence of what people believed or thought about democracy. As valuable as they are, how does collecting thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of words of democracy equal the nature of democracy? Should it? It is akin to saying that the nature of morality can be known through collecting words about morality. 

Collecting thousands of words of democracy, Gagnon might reply, will not get to the nature of democracy, just as collecting thousands of data about the butterfly will not get to the nature of the butterfly. The data needs to be taxonomised, synthesised, and theorised.

Collecting thousands of words of democracy will not get to the nature of democracy, just as collecting thousands of data about the butterfly will not get to the nature of the butterfly

Yet, what sort of methodology will be used for such work? Here the analogy to the biology of a butterfly is helpful. Biologists can answer the question, 'what is a butterfly?' by giving its essential characteristics. These characteristics transcend time, space, and culture. Sure, a butterfly in the US is different from a butterfly in Australia. But the difference is merely incidental; the essential properties do not change. As an analogy, democratic theorists should know what democracy is by delineating its essential characteristics. In essence, Gagnon aspires to be the 'butterfly collector' of democratic linguistic artefacts. 

Gagnon's mountain metaphor

The mountain metaphor raises conceptual, ontological, and epistemological issues. It is widely accepted that 'democracy' is an 'essentially contested concept,' like power, liberty, or culture. If so, the mountaintop may not exist. 

Gagnon might argue that just because 'democracy' is a contested concept, it doesn't follow that there is no real-world agreement or application. It is a meaningful concept. Moreover, democracy has several accepted and acceptable definitions. So, even if we can't define democracy with necessary and sufficient conditions, it certainly has 'family resemblance,' to use Wittgenstein’s phrase. 

The mountain metaphor also presupposes that the mountain has a summit. This may not be true, because to get to the nature of X, we must discover X. But the discovery of X presupposes that X exists; this makes sense in the natural sciences. However, political theory/philosophy is not about the discovery of X, but the construction of X. 

Reaching the mountaintop

To this ontological problem, Gagnon might respond that theorists assume rather than argue political theory/philosophy is about construction rather than discovery. While I am sympathetic to this position, Gagnon must still tell us how we reach the mountaintop. Is it rational reconstruction, inductive generalisation, crowdsourcing among democratic theorists, or conversation with non-democratic scholars? Ultimately, in my view, knowing the nature of democracy requires rational argumentation. Quality of reasons will be the determining factor. 

knowing the nature of democracy requires rational argumentation. Quality of reasons will be the determining factor

Finally, the mountain metaphor assumes we know what the top of the mountain looks like. Yet, since nobody has 'seen it,' how would we know what it looks like – and therefore whether we have actually got there? 

There are, then, two epistemological problems. First, can there be, in principle, an agreement about what the summit looks like? Second, perhaps there is not just one summit, but several. This would be consistent with pluralism, and in line with culturally rich sources of democratic philosophy. 

Inherent tension? 

The above suggests that there is an inherent tension in Gagnon’s project. One cannot non-arbitrarily study democracy until we know what the nature of democracy is. Yet, one cannot completely know what the nature of democracy is until we study democracy in its incomplete form. 

Can and should democratic theorists resolve this tension? On the one hand, unless we resolve the tension, we live in a precarious situation. On the other hand, living with the tension reveals that the goal is constantly worth pursuing.

This article is the sixteenth in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the 🦋 to read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of John Min
John Min
Philosophy Professor, Department of Social Sciences, College of Southern Nevada

John specialises in social-political philosophy and normative democratic theory.

He writes about deliberative democratic theory, the epistemic value of deliberation, power, and propaganda.

John's research in deliberative democracy and power has culminated in a book, Power in Deliberative Democracy: Norms, Forums, and Systems (Palgrave 2018), co-authored with Nicole Curato and Marit Hammond.

Power in Deliberative Democracy: Norms, Forums, Systems

His papers have been published by Philosophy Compass, Critical Review, Contemporary Pragmatism, and Democratic Theory.

Follow him on Twitter @JohnBMin

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