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Fr. 432

November 7, 2013

In the closing pages of his introduction to Theories of Democracy, Cunningham considers several methodological problems facing any study of democracy. Of particular importance is the confusion surrounding a theoretical vantage point on democracy. In other words, from which perspective does a given study approach its subject-matter? With democracy, as with all things, differences in perspective can blur distinctions and lend surmountable differences the air of unbridgeable divides. Cunningham writes:

“Chief among these is the interpenetration in various and not always transparent ways of: normative questions about the value of democracy; descriptive questions concerning way societies called democratic actually function or might realistically be anticipated to function; and semantic questions about the meaning of the word ‘democracy.’ Different orientations toward democratic theory attach themselves to different approaches depending on which of these three dimensions they focus on or take as their point of entry to the field. This ‘triangle’ of orientations complicates efforts to compare and evaluate alternative theories of democracy” (Cunningham, pp. 10-11).

Cunningham then brings his threefold conceptual distinction on the three authors considered in the introduction: Schumpeter, Aristotle and Tocqueville. Of Schumpeter, he casts doubts on the former’s claims that his is an empirical approach to the underlying conditions of good democracy, for distinguishing between “better” and “worse” democracies requires a value judgment in view of a standard on the proper function of government. Of Aristotle, he remarks that the former’s attempts to lay out the ideal form of government tends to draw simultaneously on normative, descriptive and semantic claims, it never being entirely clear which is to have the precedence, particularly when the thinker defines democracy as the rule of the majority, the poor, vicious and crass, invoking values in the same breath as description and definition. Of Tocqueville, Cunningham notes that the former’s seemingly innocent, descriptive and “sociological” survey of American democracy brings with it normative overtones as Tocqueville seeks to demonstrate the extent to which majority rule is incapable of inculcating noble and aristocratic values, virtues and manners.

The difficulties that these thinkers encounter can be perhaps be generalized in terms of a skeptical trilemma, as it were, where any approach to the question of democracy qua semi-abstract, social phenomenon is doomed to fail before it even begins. On this view, in beginning from one of the three perspectives, normative, descriptive or semantic, the thinker is seemingly forced to abandon that perspective from which he or she sets out in virtue of that perspective’s own structural deficiencies in making sense of itself without recourse to the other two perspectives. In the end, there would thus remain a situation with three equally unsatisfying solutions.

A skeptical trilemma concerning theoretical approaches to democracy:

1. Normative: Which values should be attached to the term or concept in question? How do we select these values? By appealing to a repository of values or norms already available. Yet from where might these values themselves originate? From the world (of values) as it is presently constituted or from the harmony of the proposed value for the term or concept with its definition.  Accordingly, there would seem to be no new values to be had, as the only values available to the individual would be those already valuable (in some sense) to him or her or others. How does one introduce new values to the term or concept without drawing on the extant (description) or the definitional (semantic)?

2. Descriptive: How do we describe the term or concept in question? By seeking out its manifestation in the world, as it is in itself. Yet can the describer know the term or concept as it is in itself? If he or she does not have direct access to the term or concept “democracy” in that it is an abstract idea or a complex social phenomenon, then he or she can only have indirect access to it. In being indirect, that access must be mediated by the relevant perspective from which the describing individual approaches the term or concept. Of what is this perspective comprised and on what does it draw? On one hand, those values, norms and ideas that the individual already carries around with him or her, values that ground his or her experience of the world and, by extension, the term or concept. On the other, the meaning or essence of the term or concept qua abstract idea or complex social phenomenon as it is set out in definitions, permitting the individual better to grasp its sense. Accordingly, the indirect or mediated approach brings with it the latent, normative values of the individual and the definitional, semantic components of the understanding.

3. Semantic: How do we define the term or concept in question? By isolating the term or concept through abstraction from other terms, concepts and the world. Yet what remains when the term is isolated in a semantic vacuum? How does one fill that semantic vacuum? By appealing to the term’s or concept’s essence. Yet, in abstraction, the essence that the definer is most likely to provide will itself stem from something as it is in the real world or as it should be in theory. Accordingly, the descriptive function and normative function intrude upon the semantic.

Although Cunningham does not sketch out such a trilemma, he suggests the reasons for which the situation is inevitably so:

“It should be no surprise that reports of fact, expressions of value, and definitions of terms should be mixed together; nor is there anything necessarily misleading or otherwise amiss about this. Political theory generally, as all inquiry that engages vital issues and perhaps daily language itself, exhibits such interpenetration. Arguably, this is central to the dynamism of any such human undertakings. As will be seen in the ensuing discussions, much democratic theory presupposes the interaction of considerations of fact, value, and meaning and involves debates over which sort of focus should take the lead” (Cunningham, p. 12).

It is important to conclude, with Cunningham, that the obstacles sketched out above in the trilemma are hardly insurmountable and, thus, that we are not faced with a true trilemma but a heuristic exercise for clearly laying out all that is at stake in the seemingly anodyne sub-discipline of methodology. If the end goal is simply that of greater conceptual clarity, then Cunningham’s triangle and the adjoined “trilemma” can only serve to advance that end further.

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