Juan J. Molina

Juan J. Molina
Juan J. Molina

viernes, 3 de diciembre de 2010

Democratic consensus and agonistic pluralism

Chantal Mouffe
Wittgenstein, Political Theory and Democracy

                                                       James Tully

The main point I have been trying to make in this paper is that, by providing a practice-based account of rationality, Wittgenstein in his later work opens a much more promising way for thinking about political questions and for envisaging the task of a democratic politics than the rationalist-universalist framework. In the present conjuncture, characterized by an increasing disaffection towards democracy – despite its apparent triumph – it is vital to understand how a strong adhesion to democratic values and institutions can be established and rationalism constitutes an obstacle to such an understanding. It is necessary to realize that it is not by offering sophisticated rational arguments and by making context-transcendent truth claims about the superiority of liberal democracy that democratic values can be fostered. The creation of democratic forms of individuality is a question of identification with democratic values and this is a complex process that takes places through a manifold of practices, discourses and languages games.
A Wittgensteinian approach in political theory could play an important role in the fostering of democratic values because it allow us to grasp the conditions of emergence of a democratic consensus. As Wittgenstein says: »Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end; but the end is not certain propositions' striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game.«. For him agreement is established not on significations (Meinungen) but on forms of life (Lebensformen). It is Einstimmung, fusion of voices made possible by a common form of life, not Einverstand, product of reason – like in Habermas. This, I believe, is of crucial importance and it not only indicate the nature of every consensus but also reveals its limits: »Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and an heretic. I said I would 'combat' the other man, – but wouldn't I give him reasons? Certainly; but how far do they go? At the end of reasons come persuasion
Such a perspective represents an alternative to the current model of "deliberative democracy" with its rationalistic conception of communication and its misguided search for a consensus that would be fully inclusive. Indeed, I see the "agonistic pluralism" that I have been advocating as inspired by a Wittgensteinian mode of theorizing and as attempting to develop what I take to be one of his fundamental insights: what it means to follow a rule.
It is useful on this point to bring in the reading of Wittgenstein proposed by James Tully because it chimes with my approach. Tully is interested in showing how Wittgenstein's philosophy represents an alternative worldview to the one that informs modern constitutionalism so his concerns are not exactly the same as mine. But there are several points of contact and many of his arguments are directly relevant for my purpose. Of particular importance is the way he presents how in the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein envisages the correct way to understand general terms. In his view, there are two lines of arguments. The first consists in showing that »understanding a general term is not a theoretical activity of interpreting and applying a general theory or rule in particular cases«. Wittgenstein indicates, using examples of signposts and maps, how I can always be in doubt about the way I should interpret the rule and follow it. He says for instance: »A rule stands there like a sign-post. – Does it show which direction I am to take when I have passed it; whether along the road or the footpath or cross-country? But where is it said which way I am to follow it; whether in the direction of its finger or (e.g.) in the opposite one?«
As a consequence, notes Tully, a general rule cannot »account for precisely the phenomenon we associate with understanding the meaning of a general term: the ability to use a general term, as well as to question its accepted use, in various circumstances without recursive doubts«.  This should lead us to abandoning the idea that the rule and its interpretation "determine meaning" and to recognize that understanding a general term does not consist in grasping a theory but coincides with the ability of using it in different circumstances. For Wittgenstein »obeying a rule« is a practice and our understanding of rules consists in the mastery of a technique. The use of general terms is therefore to be seen as intersubjective "practices" or "customs" not that different from games like chess or tennis. This is why Wittgenstein insists that it is a mistake to envisages every action according to a rule as an »interpretation« and that »there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call 'obeying the rule' and 'going against it' in actual cases«.
Tully considers that the wide-ranging consequences of Wittgenstein point are missed when one affirms, like Peter Winch, that people using general terms in daily activities are still following rules but that those rules are implicit or background understandings shared by all members of a culture. He argues that this is to retain the view of communities as homogeneous wholes and to neglect Wittgenstein's second argument which consists in showing that »the multiplicity of uses is too various, tangled, contested and creative to be governed by rules«.  For Wittgenstein, instead of trying to reduce all games to what they must have in common, we should »look and see whether there is something that is common to all« and what we will see is »similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them« whose result constitutes »a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing«, similarities that he characterizes as »family resemblances«
I submit that this is a crucial insight which undermines the very objective that those who advocate the "deliberative" approach presents as the aim of democracy: the establishment of a rational consensus on universal principles. They believe that through rational deliberation an impartial standpoint could be reached where decisions would be taken that are equally in the interests of all. If we listen to Wittgenstein advice we should not only acknowledge but also valorize the diversity of ways in which the "democratic game" can be played instead of trying to reduce it through the imposition of an uniform understanding of citizenship. This means fostering the institutions that would allow for a plurality of ways in which the democratic rules can be followed. There cannot be one single best, more "rational" way to obey those rules and this is precisely such a recognition that is constitutive of a pluralist democracy.
»Following a rule«, says Wittgenstein, »is analogous to obeying an order. We are trained to do so; we react to an order in a particular way. But what if one person reacts in one way and another in another to the order and the training? Which one is right?« This is indeed a crucial question for democratic theory. It cannot be resolved, pace the rationalists, by claiming that there is a correct understanding of the rule that every rational person should accept. To be sure, we need to be able to distinguish between »obeying the rule« and »going against it«. But space needs to be provided for the many different practices in which obedience to the democratic rules can be inscribed. And this should not be envisaged as a temporary accommodation, as a stage in the process leading to the realization of the rational consensus, but as a constitutive feature of a democratic society.
Democratic citizenship can take many diverse forms and such a diversity, far from being a danger for democracy, is in fact its very condition of existence. This will, of course, create conflict and it would be a mistake to expect all those different understanding to coexist without clashing. But this struggle will not be one between "enemies" but among "adversaries" since all participants will recognize the positions of the others in the contest as legitimate ones. This type of "agonistic pluralism" is unthinkable within a rationalistic problematic because it, by necessity, tend to erase diversity. Wittgenstein, on the contrary, can help us to formulate it and this is why his contribution to democratic thinking is invaluable.

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