The open texture of democracy

Democracy comes in lots of different flavours. How do we make sense of this? Is having all these meanings a feature or a bug? John Capps suggests that the idea of 'open texture' can help us better understand democratic theory and practice

Jean-Paul Gagnons Science of Democracy project shows that democracy comes in many different versions, is described in many different ways, and can mean different things to different people. The hope (as Benjamin Abrams puts it) is this: if we get a clearer sense of what democracy means, we get a better understanding of the dangers it faces.

And if we get a better understanding of these dangers, we can do a better job explaining and defending democratic institutions. But what should we make of how 'democracy' is used in so many different ways? What can we learn from this? And does this make the job of explaining and defending it harder?

Open texture

One tool Id recommend is the idea of open texture. This idea is perhaps best known in legal circles. In 1961, HLA Hart used it to describe how laws are open to new and unexpected interpretations. His example was a rule that bans vehicles in city parks. But what counts as a vehicle? Cars and motorcycles, certainly, but what about bikes? Or skateboards? Or motorised wheelchairs? Harts point is that courts will have to settle these questions because the concept of a 'vehicle' has an 'open texture'.

Hart seems to equate open texture with vagueness. A vague term is one that has fuzzy edges. Is a 1.75m tall woman really tall; is 5簞 C really cold; and is a skateboard really a vehicle? Vagueness is not the same as ambiguity. An ambiguous term has multiple, possibly unrelated, meanings. 'Bat' can refer to a wooden stick used to hit a ball. It can also refer to a small, nocturnal, winged mammal. 'Bat' isnt vague, but it is ambiguous. A term can be vague or ambiguous or both or neither.

Open texture vagueness

In fact, the phrase 'open texture' was invented around 1945 by Friedrich Waismann, an Anglo-Austrian mathematician and philosopher. By 'open texture' Waismann had something different in mind. Hes clear that 'open texture' is not the same as vagueness. If a term is vague we can make it more precise: we can just make a rule that youre not tall until you clear 1.80 metres in height, or that its not cold until the mercury falls below 0簞.

We cant do anything about the open texture of language, because circumstances are always changing; we cant predict how a words meaning will need to change in response

But we cant do anything about the open texture of language. Thats because circumstances are always changing, and we cant predict how a words meaning will need to change in response. The people who banned vehicles in parks couldnt have anticipated Segways, motorised wheelchairs, or electric scooters. The issue isnt just that 'vehicle' is vague: its deeper than that.

The issue is that the meaning of 'vehicle' is unstable because were constantly inventing new ways of getting from Point A to Point B. As Waismann puts it, open texture is about potential vagueness. Not only can this not be addressed in advance, it would be foolhardy to try.

In theory

'Democracy' also has an open texture. This accounts for the fact that democracy comes in so many different varieties but, again, its deeper than that. Its not just that 'democracy' is vague or ambiguous. Rather, the point is that 'democracy' is an evolving concept (as Kyong-Min Son has also pointed out), just like the concept of 'vehicle'.

It used to be that voting in a democracy was a matter of 'first-past-the-post': whoever won a plurality of the vote won the election. But now more jurisdictions are using ranked-choice voting. This method would have been inconceivable not so long ago, but times have changed and so has our understanding of what a democratic election can look like.

In practice

Democracy not just the word but the institution embodies open texture in other ways, too. Back in the 1920s John Dewey made the argument that democracy is open-ended in ways that autocratic forms of government are not.

Democracy is about finding good solutions to real problems. It encourages us to give our input and doesnt prioritise the status quo. Dewey thought this made democracy well suited for the fast-paced and constantly changing world we live in today. It also means that democracy is especially good for recognising the open texture of words and concepts we use. These include words like 'family' or 'marriage' or even 'democracy' itself.

Open texture in democracy

The idea of open texture serves two purposes. First, it explains why 'democracy' can mean different things and why a single, precise definition is unlikely to work. Because of its open texture, 'democracy' isnt like 'tall' or 'cold': theres no rule we can use to make it more precise. Second, open texture highlights a unique feature of our democratic institutions. Democracies are designed to recognise and respond to change: not just changes in our natural world (such as climate change) or our social world (increasing income inequality, for example) but also in our conceptual world (like the meaning of 'marriage').

Open texture highlights a unique feature of our democratic institutions; democracies are designed to recognise and respond to change

Open texture means theres no getting around the many meanings of 'democracy'. Thats a lesson for democratic theory. It also means we need to pay attention to how concepts change and evolve over time. Thats a lesson for democratic practice. Recognising open texture doesnt make defending and explaining democracy much easier, but it does make the contours of the job more clear.

Number 54 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 Capps
John Capps
Professor, Department of Philosophy, Rochester Institute of Technology

John's research and teaching focus on epistemology (especially theories of truth), pragmatism, and the history of 20th century philosophy.

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