Theory and Practice: Democracy and the Philosophers

By Barber, Benjamin | History Today, August 1994 | Go to article overview

Theory and Practice: Democracy and the Philosophers


Barber, Benjamin, History Today


Plato and the remarkable character Socrates whom he created and with whom he is often confounded have both long been associated with scepticism about democracy. Platonic idealism has been understood to be a 'foundationalist' view incompatible with the constructivist and creative tendencies of democracy. If we believe ideals are written somewhere in stone -- in nature or heaven or science -- (or that everything exists in an ideal form) human institutions can only mirror them. Only if we believe they are human constructions, are we responsible for them. Foundationalism and democracy are inherently at odds with one another.

Recently, however, some commentators have tried to rescue Socrates from his creator Plato and argue that Socrates is a kind of democrat. Socratic method is, after all, discursive, even conversational, and reflects the democratic belief that truth emerges from debate. Now I am a political theorist rather than a classicist, and I do not have the classicist's command of ancient Greek. I approach our subject here in a fashion that serious classicists, if they are polite, will deem at best casual. Nonetheless, since my ultimate aim is to discuss the relationship of democracy and philosophical foundationalism, I will venture to tread on classicist turf. For there is no better way to show how far the democrat's position is from foundationalism than to challenge the (to me) spurious claim that Plato's Socrates is, in his own fashion, a kind of democrat.

In what follows, I will address the problematic relationship between the attempt to set political and moral norms in some kind of metaphysical groundwork (what philosophers call 'foundationalism') and the democratic insistance that all social norms be subject to ongoing discussion and revision. In particular, I want to challenge the argument some have made, that a controversial approach to rhetoric of the kind exhibited by Socrates is the same thing as democracy. On the contrary, I will argue, while philosophical discourse and rhetoric are about truth and knowing things, democracy is finally about common decision-making and action, about doing things in common, in the absence of truth and in the presence of conflict -- even ignorance.

On the way to distinguishing democracy from mere rhetoric, and common action from the philosophical search for truth, I will also have something to say about political education (civic education) as it arises out of, and conditions, my understanding of democracy. To do so will, I believe, help illuminate the premises and the entailments of what I understand to be democracy -- something about as far from the Socratic purview as can be imagined.

If one wants to pursue the Platonic conviction that politics rests on knowledge, that prudent 'doing' derives from adequate 'knowing', one might compare Socratic dialectic and democratic political deliberation. But it is the character of politics in general, and of democratic politics in particular, that it is precisely not a cognitive system concerned with what we know and how we know it, but a system of conduct concerned with what we will together and do together and how we agree on what we will to do. It is practical, not speculative, about action rather than about truth. It yields but is not premised on an epistemology and in this sense is necessarily pragmatic. Where there is truth or certain knowledge there need be no politics, even though (as Plato warns) politicians and citizens may wantonly ignore truth and certain knowledge in pursuit of base interests or raw power.

But democratic politics begins where certainty ends. The political question always takes a form something like: 'What shall we do when something has to be done that affects us all? We wish to be reasonable, yet we disagree on means and ends and are without independent grounds for making the choice'. For Socrates the point is to secure the independent ground -- whether through dialectical discourse or pure speculative reasoning. …

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