Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 0. Nr. Juli 2002

Experts or Mediators? Philosophers in the Public Sphere(1)

Michael Dusche (New Delhi)


This paper is inspired by the 1995 dispute between the philosophers Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls in the Journal of Philosophy about the role of the philosopher in the public sphere. I am criticizing Habermas in his attempt to depict Rawls as a kind of justice expert. I am grounding my defense of Rawls in an argument that parallels Quine's indeterminacy argument. This crossover of argumentative strategies taken from analytic philosophy into moral and political theory can possibly justify the relevance of this paper in a conference on post linguistic turn philosophy, firstly, because the syncretistic nature of such an attempt bares a certain affinity to postmodern fashions of thinking. Secondly, I believe that a thinker such as Quine, who is firmly rooted in the analytical tradition, nevertheless surpasses this tradition in a way that in some parts may be seen as paralleling the developments in poststructuralist and postmodern thought. In Quine and some of his contemporaries and disciples, analytical philosophy turns away from the positivist assumptions of its fathers. It no longer stipulates a single way of representing the positive world in the only one and true theory. Truth, in fact, comes to be looked at as relative to a theory of which there can be many. However, if many theories serve the same purpose equally well, then truth, as theory dependent, becomes a pluralistic concept itself. This much, I think, I should say to guard against the misunderstanding that all analytic philosophy is positivistic and hence that all moral and political theory that avails itself of argumentative strategies from the analytic school is infected by positivism. Analytic philosophy has of course inherited the skepticism of the positivists vis à vis classical metaphysics. It refused to tackle metaphysical problems directly, because it very often dismissed them as merely a confused way of speaking. In order to assess where the problem is real or where, in fact, there is no problem at all, analytic philosophy turned towards our common way of speaking about the problem in question. Instead of directly asking, for example, whether human beings have a free will, analytic philosophers would ask: How do we talk about freedom? Or: What do we mean by the word "freedom" in our everyday conversation? Consequently, either the metaphysical problem would go away or it had to be reformulated and clarified in terms of a language that we do understand. Asking these kinds of questions is, of course, critical of classical metaphysics, but it is not necessarily positivistic. Thus, it seems that we have to distinguish between two kinds of philosophical schools, both operating under the paradigm of the linguistic turn: the early positivist and the later non-positivist schools of analytic philosophy. Both share the view that reflection upon language is the primary step in philosophical investigation. They differ in their respective monistic and pluralistic conceptions of science and truth. Now the question arises as to where to place moral and political theory within this paradigm. Until the early seventies when Rawls' Theory of Justice appeared, it was commonly held among analytic philosophers that moral and political theory had no place at all in modern post-metaphysical philosophy. It was either not scientific enough or it would be subsumed under the social sciences. It is Rawls, precisely, who made this view obsolete by demonstrating that moral and political theory can operate outside the whole paradigm of post linguistic turn analytic philosophy and still not fall prey to the inadequacies of the dismissed, old-fashioned metaphysics. I would therefore call Rawls an early post linguistic turn philosopher.

Philosophers in the Public Sphere

Philosophers take part in the discourses that take place in the public sphere of a democratic society. They do so mainly in two roles. Either they assume the role of experts, drawing upon the specialized knowledge of their field, or they participate as intellectuals drawing only on common sense and claiming a certain moral authority. These two roles can be exemplified by the following two instances. As a first example, we can think of a philosopher who is working in an ethics council where ethical problems relating to genetic engineering are being discussed. The philosopher may be called upon as an expert on moral philosophy. As such, he may share his specialized knowledge regarding analogous ethical questions from other contexts. As a philosopher-expert, he may point out to his fellow council members a range of solutions that are already available in the philosophical literature. In the present example, let us assume that the discussion concerns the acceptability of parents to obtain a genetically engineered child. Discussion may be about particular parents who misuse the growing opportunities for genetically engineered reproduction in order to satisfy their narcissistic desires with the help of children that are manufactured to meet the egoistic ends of the parents. The philosopher-expert could draw the attention of the discussants to a well-known philosophical notion that tells us never to use people only as means for our own ends, but to respect them as beings with their own ends. Bringing in Kant's Categorical Imperative, of course, does not imply that the philosopher assumes a role as a judge. So far, he has only been a counselor. He has only drawn the attention of his fellow council members to a part of the philosophical tradition without taking any decisions in their stead.

In the role of an intellectual, on the other hand, the philosopher does formulate authoritative judgments. If a concerned philosopher-intellectual appeals to the general public not to support, say, an all out war against Afghanistan, thereby condemning a certain policy of a certain country, he employs his competence in an authoritative and no longer in a counseling fashion. Here, however, he does not claim any philosophical expert knowledge. He does not draw on any knowledge that common sense and publicly available data could not reveal. On the contrary, his moral authority derives partly from the fact, that he is appealing to the common sense of everybody, thereby aiming at a consensus. Partly, it also derives from the fact that he is perceived as independent and neutral with respect to the vested interests within the society.

The philosopher has been perceived as the per se neutral institution in public life in many instances. One such instance is Kant's famous essay on Eternal Peace, where he writes on the public role of the philosopher:

It is not to be expected and not to be desired that kings start philosophizing and that philosophers become kings: for, the possession of power unavoidably spoils the free exercise of reason. However, it is necessary that kings and kingly peoples (that is, peoples which govern themselves in accordance with rules of equality) do not allow the class of philosophers to vanish or to become quiet, but that both, for the enlightenment of their business, allow them to speak publicly, because this class, by its very nature, is incapable of banding or clubbing together and is thus unsuspicious of any propagandistic reputation. (Daß Könige philosophieren, oder Philosophen Könige würden, ist nicht zu erwarten, aber auch nicht zu wünschen: weil der Besitz der Gewalt das freie Urtheil der Vernunft unvermeidlich verdirbt. Daß aber Könige oder königliche (sich selbst nach Gleichheitsgesetzen beherrschende) Völker die Klasse der Philosophen nicht schwinden oder verstummen, sondern öffentlich sprechen lassen, ist beiden zur Beleuchtung ihres Geschäfts unentbehrlich und, weil diese Klasse ihrer Natur nach der Rottirung und Clubbenverbündung unfähig ist, wegen der Nachrede einer Propagande verdachtlos).(2)

In other words, the sovereign, that is, the people in a liberal democracy, should listen to the philosopher with due respect, but also they should beware of mistaking him for a king, that is, as someone who could assume sovereignty in their place. The philosopher-intellectual derives his moral authority not through expertise in moral philosophy but through his personal credibility. According to Kant, he is not only not in a position to take decisions of sovereignty. He is even incapable of doing so, if he wants to maintain his independence and credibility. Instead, he is believed to be able to take a neutral stand due to this very incapacity. He is unable to assume the role of the sovereign on pain of losing his freedom in the exercise of his reason. I hope to show later what 'free exercise of reason' can imply today.

Kant might have regarded his contemporary, Voltaire, as a prime example of an intellectual who involves himself in the public debates of the time. A more recent instance is the omnipresent, politically engaged philosopher-intellectual à la Sartre. Because of his moral credibility and his intense occupation with almost every phenomenon of political and cultural life at his time, the intellectuel engagée gained such an influence in the public sphere that he could all by himself set the agenda and define his own role. The great days of the intellectual have largely determined the image of philosophers and the attitudes and expectations regarding their role in the public sphere. Attitudes range from awe to aversion. Those who feel disturbed by the interventions of practical philosophers in public affairs tend to question the relevance of philosophy in public matters. Practical philosophy is not a science whose results are largely undisputed as the results of the so-called hard sciences are. If a national parliament does not feel competent to give an assessment of the risks involved in the civil use of atomic energy, it will call upon an expert committee to carry out the assessment. If the credibility of the experts is established and their vote is unanimous, the parliament will follow their expertise. However, if a national parliament is to decide on controversial normative questions, say on the issue of abortion, it will hardly call upon a committee of philosophers. Philosophers are generally not expected to reach unanimity on any topic, not to speak of controversial normative questions.

Nevertheless, we can observe a tendency to employ practical philosophers, whatever the credit of their field, as experts for difficult ethical questions as they arise due to the new possibilities of biological, medical and genetic engineering. The Federal Chancellor of Germany, Schröder(3), has recently organized a National Council for Ethics,(4) in which philosophers and experts from the life sciences, judges and representatives of the two main churches in Germany are going to debate the ethical problems pertaining to genetic engineering and related topics. It is worthwhile to analyze the opening speech that Schröder held before the members of the Ethics Council, for it is indicative of the expectations and worries that prevail within the general public when it comes to the role of the intellectual in the public sphere. One such worry is that the Ethics Council could assume the role of an expert committee that would be invested with the authority to bind the decisions of the legislative bodies or the voting public. Schröder made it a point to emphasize that the role of the Ethics Council is not to serve as a substitute for the decisions of the responsible political bodies. Neither is the Ethics Council to be an institution to which the public can delegate its ethical responsibility. Nor is it to be a group of experts whose role it is to sanction the decisions of others in the matters concerned.

Ihre Empfehlungen können und sollen Entscheidungen politisch verantwortlicher Gremien nicht ersetzen. Der Ethikrat ist kein wie auch immer gearteter Parlaments- oder Regierungsersatz. Er ist auch kein Gremium, das etwa an Stelle der Gesellschaft und der dafür Verantwortlichen Entscheidungen trifft oder an das wir ethische Verantwortung einfach abtreten wollten... Schließlich ist er ganz bestimmt kein Expertenkollegium, das Entscheidungen anderer bloß mit passender ethischer Legitimation ausstatten soll (cf.

Thus, the Ethics Council has no legal authority. Does it have a moral authority? – Not, according to Schröder, if this means, that the Ethics Council pronounces judgments about "good and evil." Schröder points to the plurality of 'moral' perspectives, each of which can claim to be legitimate but which, nevertheless, can be in conflict with each other.

Es geht uns nicht darum, zwischen Gut und Böse, zwischen schwarz und weiß, zu unterscheiden. Vielmehr stehen bei einer Vielzahl der zu beantwortenden Fragen Ansprüche nebeneinander – gelegentlich auch gegeneinander –, die gleichermaßen für sich reklamieren und vielleicht auch reklamieren können, 'moralisch' zu sein (cf.

Schröder hereby appeals to the neutrality of the Ethics Council and its independence from any particular moral philosophic standpoint. Surprisingly or not, Schröder's own choice of words does not meet his own requirement. When he talks positively about the role of the Ethics Council, he employs concepts that unambiguously reflect a religious bias. He speaks of "creation" with respect to our biosphere, thereby presupposing the existence of a creator god, an assumption that is not shared by many atheist and agnostic Germans.

Es geht also in diesen Fragen nicht um die Grenzziehung zwischen ethischem und unethischem Handeln, sondern darum, eine Ethik des Heilens und Helfens mit der Achtung vor der Schöpfung und dem Schutz des Lebens in Einklang zu bringen (cf.

Schröder, as one representative of the Kantian sovereign, proves to be a bad philosopher here, which is a fair thing to be for a politician. However, it is yet to be seen how well the free exercise of reason will fare in such close proximity to power.

The Indeterminacy of Reason and the Concept of the Political (5)

So far, I have described two different roles in which philosophers may act in the public sphere. I have described these roles in terms of their positive aspects and of their limitations. The philosopher-expert was said to be limited to the role of a counselor, as which he was to abstain from any judgment exceeding the limits of his expertise, which is basically in the field of the history of ideas. The role of the philosopher-intellectual, on the other hand, allows for authoritative judgment. However, the authority of his judgment does not derive from his expertise as a philosopher but from his credibility as an unbiased person. So far, our approach has been heuristic. I have not given an account of why I am suggesting these two roles and only these, and why I am defining them with these limitations. Why, for instance, would it be wrong to propose a philosopher-expert with authoritative competence, one who could decide, say, difficult ethical questions on behalf of the government, a judge or the general public?

In the following, I will try to amplify and buttress the present picture and the limitations that it implies. I will do this ex negativo, that is, I will try to show that the contrary proposition is not tenable. The contrary proposition would be the following: The philosopher can combine the moral authority of an intellectual with the role of an expert, or, in other words, the philosopher can be an expert on normative grounds. There are actually some philosophers who claim such authority; others have the reputation of maintaining it involuntarily. An example of the latter kind is John Rawls in his Theory of Justice. He is accused by Jürgen Habermas of attempting to prescribe to a democratic society what it should take to be just and what to be unjust. The objection is, that

[Rawls] does not regard the material part of his investigation as a contribution to a discussion leading to the formation of a collective will with respect to the basic institutions of a late capitalist society but as a result of a 'theory of justice' for which he as an expert claims responsibility. ([Rawls versteht] den materialen Teil seiner eigenen Untersuchung [...] nicht als Beitrag eines Argumentationsteilnehmers zur diskursiven Willensbildung über Grundinstitutionen einer spätkapitalistischen Gesellschaft, sondern eben als Ergebnis einer 'Theorie der Gerechtigkeit', für die er als Experte zuständig ist.)(6)

According to Habermas, Rawls prematurely anticipates in his theory of justice the results of a process of democratic procedural justice and places himself outside the democratic procedures as a justice expert. Such expertise, according to Habermas, does not befit the philosopher, and we can see here that Habermas follows Kant in this respect. The democratic public, according to Habermas and Kant, is sovereign in its value decisions, and ultimately no one can presume to have a larger say in normative matters than anyone else. Not even philosophers.

In my past research I have dealt with Habermas' objection against Rawls in detail, and I have found that Habermas was right in rejecting a philosopher as a justice expert but wrong in rejecting Rawls, who, as I have tried to show, is not a suitable target for the kind of criticism that Habermas employs against him. I have argued that Habermas' objection against Rawls is based on a misinterpretation, and that Rawls, just like Habermas, pays the required tribute to the sovereignty of the democratic public: Since the justification of Rawls' conception of the original position is based on 'our' well-considered judgments of fairness, Rawls' assessment of justice is always subject to the agreement between 'you and me,' and is hence intended only as an appeal to 'our' common sense. In his appeal, Rawls' turns to the critical public of a society and thus pays respect to the sovereignty of a democratic people. Rawls' argumentation in support of his two principles of justice does not transgress the limitation of being only a contribution to the process of social communication.(7) In defending Rawls against Habermas' criticism, I have found that strictly philosophical reasons justify the democratic public's rejection of a philosophical expert in ethical matters. These reasons lie in the indeterminacy of human reason, as they became apparent through the work of Willard von Orman Quine and others. More specifically, the reason for the rejection of a philosopher-expert in ethical matters is the irreducible pluralism of ethical views and the incommensurability of these views, which compel us ultimately to a form of collective decision, in which the internal truth of any particular one of these views cannot play a dominant role.

In the following, I would like to point out a parallel between Rawls' thesis of the incommensurability of different but yet equally suitable conceptions of justice(8) and Quine's indeterminacy thesis. I shall show that a thesis of indeterminacy of normative theories can be formulated in analogy to Quine's thesis of the indeterminacy of empirical theories. Consequently, Rawls has to be reconstructed as a consensus theorist with an appeal to the unanimous consensus as the ideal of justification regarding questions of legitimacy and justice in a political community, and not, say, as a correspondence theorist striving towards an accord with an "objective moralistic order," as Habermas' interpretation of Rawls seems to suggest.

In Political Liberalism, Rawls holds the view that the long-term result of the work of human reason under free institutions is an ever-growing diversity of worldviews and value orientations.(9) This diversification comprises practical philosophy and especially political theory and theory of justice. In view of certain limits of human reason, as we will see below, it is no longer realistic to expect the existence of only one reasonable theory of justice. "A modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines."(10) Many reasonable and yet incommensurable theories of justice compete for acceptance before the forum of public reason. Their reasonableness is evaluated in the light of what Rawls calls the "idea of public reason."(11) Any theory of justice that deserves to be called reasonable has to take into account the mere fact that there may be other reasonable but incompatible theories of justice and accept mediation from the point of view of public reason. If theories of justice would yield only uncontroversial results, no such mediatory position would be needed. Then, normative questions would be on a par with other matters of expertise, and the public would delegate them to their experts, just as questions of a technological nature are delegated to expert committees and not debated in parliament or court. Unfortunately, however, normative theories are indeterminate in a way to be explained subsequently and therefore normative decisions remain within the discretion of the public and its representatives. They are the domain proper of the political and cannot be delegated to experts outside the political process.

To explicate the point of view of public reason, we have to avoid any claim that is potentially controversial among different reasonable theories of justice. Determining the limits of what we can legitimately suggest from the point of view of public reason, amounts to determining the reasons for potential disagreement between different comprehensive doctrines. In Rawls' own words: "The idea of reasonable disagreement involves an account of the sources, or causes, of disagreement between reasonable persons."(12) This is what Rawls calls "the burdens of judgment."(13) I have tried to give an account of the "burdens of judgment" in a principled way, using Quine's concept of indeterminacy as a model. According to Quine,

(Q) It is always possible to devise two or more theories that account equally well for the same set of empirical data but which are yet incompatible.

The reformulation of Quines indeterminacy thesis in terms of normative theory would yield the following sentence:

(R) It is always possible to devise two or more normative theories that account equally well for the same set of basic normative assumptions but which are yet incompatible.

From this it follows that for any given theory of justice, there can be at least one other equally adequate theory of justice and thus no theory of justice can ever be expected to remain forever undisputed. Reasonable disagreement based on at least one alternative and equally suitable conception of justice is always possible. No conception of justice can therefore hold a permanent claim to the domain of public reason and to the realm of the political.

We are used to thinking with Kant in terms of a dichotomy of legal ethics and virtue ethics. Therein, Kant follows the classical liberal framework, which differentiates between law and ethics. This framework rests historically upon the experience of thirty years of religious war in Europe that eventually gave way to the opinion that reasonable disagreement between religions as regards the pious life of their supporters is possible and legitimate. It became common sense that the role of the state is not to eliminate religious disagreement between its citizens by use of force. Religion thus became a private affair, its normative propositions binding only its supporters. Legal affairs, by contrast were viewed as binding for every citizen regardless of their faith. In the legislative process, the res publica had to remain neutral in all matters exceeding the limits of legal ethics and transgressing the bounds of virtue ethics. Rawls as a self-proclaimed disciple of Kant differentiates accordingly. In his terms, we have to differentiate between the scope of public as opposed to private reason. Public reason is a matter of politics, virtue ethics a matter of private reason.

The concept of the political, of legal ethics or of res publica, has traditionally been defined in terms of material propositions, as if the difference between public and private matters existed in the material norm itself. Rawls suggests a Copernican turn in moral theory by formalizing the concept of the political. It is no longer implied in the norm itself, whether it is to be subsumed under the domain of legal or of virtue ethics. The distinction between legal matters and ethical matters is carried out formally by recourse to the criteria of reasonable disagreement. The realm of the political and the scope of legal ethics are defined by the scope of reasonable disagreement alone. The domain of politics corresponds to the domain of disagreement in ethical matters. Politics is about the peaceful settlement of conflicts regarding matters of justice. It has to mediate between divergent views of justice between groups of individuals. The role of practical philosophy is to assist in this mediatory process by its contributions to public debate.

Since, as we have seen, reasonable disagreement is always possible, it is never the expertise of a philosophical conception of justice that ultimately decides which normative framework is to become the guiding framework for the legal and political sphere of a given society. The ultimate decision rests with the public and its representatives, guided by public reason. The role of the philosopher cannot be that of an expert but only that of a mediator. As a mediator, he can enlighten the public as well as the conflicting parties about the reasons for their disagreement, of which they may often be unaware. As someone who understands both sides, he can gain a certain authority by being neutral.

Practical Philosophy and Public Life

To understand the mediatory role of practical philosophy, let us examine the processes that take place in the public sphere of a democratic society. In considering these processes from a philosophical perspective, we will focus on their normative aspect. Practical philosophy, very broadly speaking, is about the justification of normative propositions, with virtue ethics being about norms that guide us towards our individual or communal happiness or bliss. Moral norms compel us or our community to observe certain rules of fairness vis à vis other individuals or communities, and the norms of political theory and philosophy of law guide us towards legitimate and just rule and enable us to assess the justice and legitimacy of policies and their implementation. I shall concentrate here on the normative aspects of public life and leave aside ethical questions in the sense given above, that is, questions relating to individual or communal happiness or bliss. Following the basic liberal distinction between the public and the private, I take ethical questions to be the private concern of individuals or groups of individuals that are numerically smaller than the polity in question.

It follows from the above discussion of the indeterminacy of moral theory that normative propositions are peculiar, in as much as their validity depends less on their truth-value within a certain theory of justice but more on their justification, that is, their support by all the individuals who are affected by that norm. This is why practical philosophy is intrinsically related to the normative discourses taking place in democratic societies. Ideally speaking, a norm is justified between 'you and me,' if and only if we have both agreed to that norm. This is the basic contractual assumption that forms the basis of our liberal democracies. Contractual theories, of course, face many difficulties. However, I believe that they are the most accurate reconstruction of the normative system governing the public life of a liberal democracy and that they are best suited to understand and also ameliorate that system.

Democratic elections are best understood as an approximation of the ideal of a unanimous consensus. Majority rule, as in the legislative assembly, can be seen as the expression of the greatest consensus that can be achieved under reality constraints. Turning to the executive, we expect our government to represent the whole electorate and not only the party by which it was elected. Its decisions should be in principle supportable by all. In any case, they should not go against some very fundamental values of any reasonable party in the polity. On the judicative side, judges are expected to deliberate based on public reasons and not go by their private value judgments. Public reasons take into account that the legitimate conceptions of justice are many and that the decision cannot be one that is utterly unacceptable for any one of these.

The examples cited make two things clear. Firstly, we all know the norms that govern our public life, and secondly, we all know that they are mere ideals. In practice, they may often not be followed, and sometimes they may be a guise and an excuse for individual or group egotism and for a Machiavellian sort of politics. Nevertheless, they represent the thin fabric that holds a polity together and that, in whatever rare instances, makes people abide by certain rules more often than not. The belief in the 'fairy tale' of bringing about a just and fair society and legitimacy of rule by the self-determination of a people and the self-rule of the people prevents the collapse of the polity into anarchy. Of course, the common belief in this fairy tale has to be sustained by at least some amount of justice and legitimacy somewhere and sometimes. The fairy tale will never be fully true but there will always be a grain of truth in it.

I have called this the normative nexus that upholds the background understanding of a democratic society.(14) This background understanding involves basic liberal-democratic principles like the principle of equality before the law, equal fair opportunities of political participation and other human rights. Human rights also make up for the lack of idealness in majority decisions. Since the ideal of a unanimous consensus can never be reached, the minority will only agree to anything less than a full consensus as a basis for collective decision-making under the condition that certain basic rights can never be subject to any majority decision. The reason is that it would be irrational to accept majority decisions for anyone who is at risk to find him or herself in a minority position, if that means that his fundamental rights are at stake. Majority decisions are thus ruled out by the principle of human rights if and only if they call into question some or all of the fundamental rights of any individual or group of individuals. The fundamental rights of the minority must not be sacrificed for the greater common good.

This background understanding plays a double role in the political theory of the liberal democratic state. Firstly, as we have seen, it is a necessary condition for the stability of any given liberal democratic state. Secondly, it is also a necessary condition for its justification. The argument for this goes as follows:

Ideally, norms (and the institutions that are based on these norms) are justified if and only if they are accepted by every person who is affected by these norms (or institutions). That means in reality that no norm and no institution are ever justified since no unanimous consensus can ever be expected (cf. society A in figure below). Therefore, what we are looking for is a heuristic way to establish the relative distance of a given set of rules, which governs a given praxis (or institution) from the ideal of that unanimous consensus. Although this may be difficult to assess, a few things can be said with plausibility. We can at least say that a given praxis, if its rules require force for their maintenance, is farther away from the ideal of unanimous consensus than some other praxis whose rules are followed with less need to employ force.>

Society A is nearly ideal, since consensus regarding its social and juridical norms reaches almost 100% and the force needed to keep up its praxis approaches 0%.

As societies grow comparatively less ideal (B, C, D, ...), their distance from the full consensus grows. One could think of this in two ways. Either the percentage of the population which supports the governing norms is comparatively smaller than in A (i.e. the suppressed minorities are bigger in percentage), or the amount of violence needed to force minorities into accepting these norms is comparatively greater.(15)

An extreme case of illegitimate and unjust rule would hence be one, where abidance by the rule is accompanied by massive use of force or even killings. Acceptance of a rule-governed common praxis bears some advantage over the leap into anarchy, even if the rules of that praxis are non-ideal. I am arguing that the advantage of acceptance of a non-ideal rule-governed praxis over anarchy is the prospect of development and amelioration. A rule-governed praxis requires a common background understanding of its norms that can form a basis for a step-by-step procedure of amelioration through public discourse.

In liberal democratic societies, this discourse takes place in the public sphere, where the norms of the background consensus are under constant scrutiny and revision. Publicity itself, as defended by Kant (in his Eternal Peace), is a standard of legitimacy, and also the fundamental openness of the process is a benchmark for the legitimacy of such a background understanding. We can see now how the hermeneutic assumption of a background understanding for any liberal democratic society is a necessary condition for its stability as well as for its justification. A relatively non-ideal set of rules forming the material content of the background understanding of any liberal democratic society is justified as a set of norms governing public life only if it is understood that the composition of that set is not final. For the set of norms regulating a liberal democratic society to be legitimate, it has to be constantly revised and improved toward the regulative ideal of a unanimous consensus.

We can describe this process of review, revision and amelioration of the norms that govern the public life of a liberal democratic society in terms of the notion of a collective reflective equilibrium, a term introduced by Rawls in his debate with Habermas in the Journal of Philosophy.(16) The discourse participants in the public sphere of a liberal democratic society have a certain implicit understanding of the rules that ideally should govern their praxis. Amendments can take place, whenever an effort is made by groups within the public sphere to reach a more explicit understanding of these rules. In an attempt to explicate the norms that tacitly govern the shared praxis, these norms come under constraints of consistency, coherence and reaffirmation. Different such attempts compete for broader acceptance, and each attempt will point out some norms as more fundamental then others in order to gain support.

The self-referentiality of this process, whereby a given set of norms is criticized by means of a subset of these norms which is given increased emphasis, is an essential feature that led me to think of this process in terms of a hermeneutic circle. In hermeneutics, knowledge is secured in a circular manner. We start with an intuitive understanding of a certain state of affairs, move on to a more explicit or theoretical understanding and go back to our pre-theoretical understanding in order to test the plausibility of our explication. This normally takes place in the mind of one individual. However, in the corresponding case of public discourse on legitimacy and justice of the background understanding of a liberal democratic society, more than one individual is concerned. It is a social process, a process of 'socialized hermeneutics,' so to say.

Socialized hermeneutics mediates between the existing social praxis (as thesis) and the corresponding theoretical ideal (antithesis), by helping the existing praxis, of which it is a part, to transcend itself, leading it towards its ideal (synthesis). The ideal is not meant to be static; rather, it originates in the dynamics of the social communication process itself. In the normative sense, the idea of the social communication process is delineated only by the outer boundaries of minimal moral praxis: Force on one side and complete harmony on the other. Where no conflicts arise, there is also no need for moral, political or judicial control. On the other hand, where force governs social praxis, the social communication process has broken down, and one cannot speak of any minimally acceptable, and hence reformable, praxis.(17)

Let me sum up. I have tried to show that the role of the philosopher in the public sphere can best be understood as that of a mediator and not of an expert. I have tried to show this in two ways, first by appealing to our common sense in the examples cited in the beginning – the example of the member of an ethics council and the example of the engaged intellectual. Secondly, I have given a philosophical explanation of the reason why a philosopher could never sincerely assume the role of a justice-expert, the reason being that he would be ignoring the fact of the plurality of equally acceptable conceptions of justice and the indeterminacy of normative theory.

In addition, I have tried to explicate the mediatory role of the philosopher in the public sphere, utilizing the Kantian idea of the infinitesimal approximation to the idea of a unanimous consensus. The democratic public, being engaged in the never ending task of gaining a proper understanding of the societal norms which govern their praxis, while at the same time revising their background understanding, can be assisted by the philosopher as a mediator in matters of understanding, explicating and making consistent the background understanding of our society.

© Michael Dusche (New Delhi)

TRANSINST       table of contents: No.13


(1) My heartfelt thanks to Franson Manjali, organizer of the International Seminar 'Beyond the Linguistic Turn,' at the Centre for Linguistics and English, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 22—26 January 2002, where this paper was presented. For valuable criticism and comments, I am indebted to Anil Bhatti, Centre for German Studies, JNU. Thanks also to the participants of the conference for a vivid and controversial discussion.

(2) Cf. Kant, Immanuel (1900ff.). Kants gesammelte Schriften. Akademie-Ausgabe der Königlich Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin: Reimer. Vol. VIII, p. 369.

(3) Germany's prime minister.

(4) 'Nationaler Ethikrat', henceforth Ethics Council.

(5) The following is based on chapter 9 of Philosopher as Mediator.

(6) Cf., Habermas, Jürgen (1983). Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives Handeln, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, p. 76f.

(7) Cf. Dusche, Michael (2000). Der Philosoph als Mediator. Vienna: Passagen Verlag, p. 18 (henceforth: Philosopher as Mediator).

(8) Cf. his (1993). Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press (henceforth: Political Liberalism).

(9) Cf. Ibid., p. XVII.

(10) Ibid. p. XVI.

(11) Ibid. p. 212f.

(12) Ibid. p. 55.

(13) Ibid. p. 54ff.

(14) Literally: "the background-consensus of a society that has a democratic understanding of itself," Philosopher as Mediator, p. 14.

(15) It could be interesting to assess which socio-economic parameters correspond with the degree of legitimacy of a society. Binayak Sen (Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, Dhaka) made an interesting suggestion in this regard. One could attempt to correlate the state of legitimacy of a given society with its degree of development.

(16) Vol. 93, No. 3, 1995.

(17) Cf. Philosopher as Mediator, p. 14 (translated by Milind Brahme).

For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Michael Dusche: Experts or Mediators? Philosophers in the Public Sphere. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 0/1997.

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