Democracy and the History of Philosophy

Posted on 20 January 2017

Peter reflects on what the history of philosophy may have to tell us about democracy in the wake of the inauguration of Donald Trump.

To read the full text go to the corresponding blog post.

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Peter Adamson 20 January 2017

The image on this page is of Athenian leader Pericles, speaking thoughtfully with his female advisor (and possibly romantic partner) Aspasia, who also appears as the lead speaker in the Platonic dialogue Menexenus.

Padmadipa 21 January 2017

 Many thanks for putting this up Peter, that is just what the world needed!  A response to these events that causes us to use our critical reason is so uplifting in the face of what would otherwise be a very depressing episode in human history!

Daekar 23 January 2017

You know... it amazes me that some people take it as self-evident that DT's election is a gloom-and-doom scenario when everyone I know, working class to upper class, black, white, and every other color, is rejoicing that there is now hope again.  Please remember that almost half the country chose him over the other less-than-palatable alternatives, and did so with their eyes wide open despite the most incredibly poisonous and distorted press coverage I have ever seen.  They so blantantly abandoned their responsibility to report facts that it made many people aware of our profound vulnerability to received information - something that might be worth doing on an "applied philosophy" episode sometime where we discuss ideas about epistemology across time.  For us, when both the press and social media are no longer trustworthy, what do you trust?

I don't know any Trump supporters that would disapprove of the overall message of this episode, which is to appreciate perspectives other than your own and to critically examine information or perspectives you're presented with.  The people that voted DT in have done that, they just came to different conclusions than you did.  Maybe you should appreciate their perspective and find out why they - and the countless Democrats who switched sides for this one - see things so differently.

Funny thing about Brexit - so far, all the experts have been wrong.  I hope for the sake of the Brits don't go south.

This is an interesting comment here: "They so blantantly abandoned their responsibility to report facts that it made many people aware of our profound vulnerability to received information" - my sentiments entirely, exept that I took it the other way around - it seemed to me that it was the Trump camp that was doing tthe lying! So here is something that we could explore from a History of Philosophical perspective: what has philosophy got to say to help us distnguish between truth and just mere opinion (doxa)? With the claim recently that there is such a thing as "alternative facts" being branded around, a discussion along these lines would be timely!

I agree, that issue can definitely be seen both ways.  As the colorful election season progressed, I became more and more aware that all the sources of information I might turn to are seriously compromised in one way or another.  In the end, the only thing I concluded we could do was listen to what the candidates said as reported by all channels and try to get a feeling for the image that they were attempting to project and the initiatives they championed.  This generally meant discarding negative reporting on both candidates.  I made this decision knowing full well the dismal historical record that US Presidents of all parties have with their campaign promises.  I will say that "alternative facts" is a horrible buzz-phrase bandied about specifically to discredit those one disagrees with - it has nothing to do with facts at all, as I have seen it used in all types of contexts.  The fact that such an oxymoron came into being is a symptom of the very issue I'm referring to.

I would dearly love to solve this problem for myself, but all the solutions I have heard (including the somewhat terrifying "editorial commentary" solution to "fake news" that Facebook said they would implement) puts someone in charge as arbiters of facts.  I'm not anxious for any organizations to be appointed to function as the Ministry of Truth, my distrust of government, parties, and corporations runs deep.  The corporate and political classes are the new nobility of the modern era, and there are not many elites of any age that have a good record of respecting truth when propaganda is so much more useful.  Out of the three opposing forces of government, corporations, and the people, my concern rests always with the people.

Professor Moriarty 23 January 2017

The regurgitation of the electoral vote vs. popular vote fallacy is disconcerting. You can’t change the rules after the game has been played. It is like a soccer team claiming victory because they had more corner kicks or time of possession. If the game is decided by time of possession then the opponent surely would have played differently. I expect more from someone whose business is critical thinking.

Cheers.

As far as I can tell, this is part of a more general movement inside the establishment intelligensia to discredit and portray as irrelevant and outdated the philosophy, documents, and thoughts on which the country was founded.  You have to destroy the foundation before you can remake the government and society as you see fit.  They're doing an excellent job reaching people with that message so far, thanks to their iron grip on the public education system.  Marx always said that was a critical piece of social infrastructure to control.

Peter Adamson 23 January 2017

In reply to by Professor Moriarty

Just re the electoral vs popular vote, in case what I said was less than clear: I am not challenging the legitimacy of the result. As you say, the rules were clear the whole time. I was only pointing out that whatever your political persuasion is, you might have cause to worry about the deliverances of this particular election, since on the Republican view more people voted for the "wrong" person than the right one, though I grant that we can always speculate about how Trump might have done in California had he tried to compete in that state, etc. Of course he lost the popular vote by a pretty big margin, so I tend to doubt this kind of counterfactual speculation would get you very far. (I take it that Trump himself agrees with me, since he instead resorted to the idea of millions of illegal votes having been cast. On this claim, I refer you to my remarks about rational assessment of evidence.)

But as I say in the piece if you don't like that example you can easily think of the elections in recent and more distant history that "went wrong" (maybe you would like the example of Obama winning both popular and electoral votes for instance) so for all of us it is worth asking when democracy does, and doesn't, work at its best.

Peter, thank you for responding!  I really appreciate you engaging with us this way.

For what it's worth, I have always felt that the problem with democracy is that generally, whoever promises the people what they want (whether it is realistic or obtainable or not) often gets into power.  To me the issue comes not because that person is in power, necessarily, but when the government has power sufficient to oppress and control the population.  Ideally, the government would be limited such that it is unable to oppress the population, and therefore who gets into office would be less important.  With a system like ours, where the top levels of government are basically all-powerful and have access to (more or less) unlimited funding when they really want it, who gets elected REALLY matters because they can effectively control everything within the bounds permitted by an increasingly-submissive culture.

So you should definitely check out the next episode, on Marsilius of Padua (will air this coming Sunday). He is one of the first thinkers to engage seriously with that set of issues, and actually argues that certain forms of government are legitimate precisely because they have the best chance of serving the interests of the people. As a booster of the Holy Roman Emperor though he is not much on binding the power of the ruler!

I will look forward to it, thanks for giving me the heads up!  I can't tell you how much I enjoy the podcasts every week, they're one of my refuges of sanity (even if the Indian names do get mixed up in my head sometimes).

I most definitely feel your pain. You wouldn't believe how many edits we have to do where I stumble over the names the first (and second and third) attempt at getting them out. In that one respect I am dreading Chinese philosophy if I ever get to it.

David Jones 24 January 2017

I think you were a little harsh on Michael Gove re. his remark about experts. He wasn't saying they had no place; he tried to say the public  had 'had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong'. 

And, when it comes to predictions about the economy, there's a certain  merit in that statement - the Bank of England's chief economist has subsequently admitted the economists' predictions were remarkably wrong in some ways. To the point you made in the podcast about experts: this vote was finally about issues outside of the remit of experts, and anyway, in the case of economic forecasting, the experts have a pretty poor track record.

Gove was also pointing out that people weren't to be swayed by a wobbly prediction about GDP in 15 years time. There were principles involved that weren't addressed by a pure self-interested money-in-pocket calculation.

Peter Adamson 24 January 2017

In reply to by David Jones

Well, of course Gove's comment should be taken in the context of the whole interview he gave, and the whole Brexit campaign, but I think in this case that actually warrants the criticism rather than undermining it. It's not a stray, sloppy quote that misrepresents his view; to the contrary, it became rightly famous because it epitomizes him and the mendacious Brexit campaign as a whole.

The same goes for the recent kerfuffle over "alternative facts". I presume that neither the Trump spokeswoman nor the Trump administration as a whole is committed to the notion of alternative facts; this is not really a thought anyone who understands the English word "fact" could seriously entertain, at least without the benefit of years of philosophical education! But it is not unfair or inappropriate to criticize and even mock a political figure who comes up with such a phrase in the context of defending blatant and deliberate lying.

Having said all that, I should perhaps also add that I would distinguish the case of Brexit from that of climate change. I was very upset by the Brexit vote, which is what you'd expect given my personal history (moving from the UK to Germany and having strong ties to both places). But I can see a reasonable person being in favor of Brexit (it's very hard to know what will happen and whether in the end it will be good or bad for all concerned), whereas I don't think it is reasonable to reject the reality of human-caused climate change. Another example, which I belatedly realized I might have mentioned, would be evolution: if you find yourself believing that evolution is a hoax, then something has gone wrong with your reasoning processes, and that is not because you have failed to study biology but because you aren't engaging in good second-order reasoning about trustworthy sources of information.

David Jones 24 January 2017

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Conflating Trump and Brexit is a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. The two are not instances of the same phenomenon.

Gove's remark, in full, was true as a matter of fact - people had had enough - and not to be  easily dismissed when you consider the forecasting failures of economists. It's not so long since the UK narrowly avoided adopting the Euro, remember. Almost all expert economists now agree (but didn't at the time) that the Euro is wholly or partly a severe error. But more than the imperfect predictions of the expert economists is the fact that people were not casting their vote according to a simple money-in-the-pocket calculation and to that extent the predictions didn't matter. So to that extent Gove was also correct.

On the subject of predictions by experts in politics and economics I recommend this blog post by Dominic Cummings. His arguments would suggest Gove and the plebs were justified in being sceptical. And he was the person who masterminded the Leave campaign.

https://dominiccummings.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/complexity-fog-and-moo…

Peter Adamson 24 January 2017

In reply to by David Jones

So, basically what you are arguing is that the "experts" in this case didn't know what they were talking about. I (obviously) disagree but I would say you are doing what I recommend in the original piece, namely reflecting critically on the deliverances of (would-be) expertise. But your thoughtful approach was not characteristic of the Brexit campaign as a whole, which was inspired among other things by nativist populism (Farage) which can mostly certainly be linked to the Trump phenomenon, as well as Le Pen in France.

I'm not really saying economists don't know what they're talking about - they know the economy better than anyone else. But their ability to make accurate predictions is very limited  and greatly exaggerated. People do grok this: they remember the Euro campaign.

On the nativist front, in fact, Cummings felt that Farage nearly cost the Leave side the result. Cummings wanted to keep him at an arms length because Farage would put off precisely those people Cummings needed to come on board: that is, they objected to Farage and his followers and didn't want to be associated with him. That's why, with two Leave campaigns running, Cummings was the controller of the one Farage wasn't in.

I don't want to rehash political arguments on a philosophy blog but I would point out that there is a moral case to be made for liberalising immigration restrictions on non-EU countries, something the UK wouldn't have been able to do when freedom of movement gave it no ability to limit immigration from within the EU and the UK's relatively better-performing economy outside the Eurozone made it an attractive prospect for younger Spaniards, Greeks and Italians who've been let down by the faiulures of their economies. It's something that persuaded a couple of my Asian colleagues to support Leave.

Whether a liberal, open, immigration-friendly UK can emerge from Brexit is a moot point, I grant you. But it's one I'll be arguing for. 

BTW, I've been listening since episode one and I'm a huge fan. Always gets put top of my playlist when it arrives. Thanks very much for the effort you've put in over the years, it's been tremendous. Best wishes to Hiawatha.

 

Well, we can definitely agree on the hoped for ultimate result then! And I definitely agree with you that not everyone who wanted Brexit should be lumped in with Farage, a truly repellent figure if there ever was one.

Thanks for the kind words on the podcast. Hiawatha says hi, but characteristically my sister doesn't.

gwen564 25 January 2017

In reply to by Peter Adamson

there strikes me as an additional worry: a distinction about the nature of "experts" that goes beyond populism/technocracy. For example the distinction the mid 20th century American philosopher (a title he's not usually given but one that easily fits given the podcasts "big tent" definition of the term) Russell Kirk on a distinction between "scholars v intellectuals."

 

a potential distinction in what we mean by experts or intellectuals

Daekar 25 January 2017

In reply to by gwen564

Seems appropriate, since the pilots are the servants of the passengers, just like our politicians are. It even seems reasonable, at this stage, since our political pilots have been barrel-rolling with zero throttle as the plane hurtles earthward. Given that, I think it's very plausible that the bar for doing a better job would be as low as portrayed in the comic.

" I think it's very plausible that the bar for doing a better job would be as low as portrayed in the comic."

I think given context the comic is clearly intended to be read in the opposite direction: the new yorker is attacking the passengers for their obvious foolishness.

What I found most interesting was trying to figure out what the basis of the analogy is supposed to be grounded on. Plato is talking about his statesmen and their skills and aims are well sketched out but this isn't so clear in the new yorker piece. Unlike Plato's statesman democracy in America is ideologically rooted in the celebration of diverse interests each pushing their own way instead of a singular united vision of the good. How do you reconstitute the "skilled to steer the ship of state" analogy? Are you substituting a different telos, are you making a pure across-the-board technocracy argument, etc.? Am I going down a unhelpful tangent?

"I think given context the comic is clearly intended to be read in the opposite direction: the new yorker is attacking the passengers for their obvious foolishness."

Oh I agree completely.  I just think the joke is on the comic writer.

David Jones 25 January 2017

In reply to by gwen564

Doesn't work does it? When I fly I choose my airline and my destination. If I don't like the airline or the destination, I won't go again. 

Jack 9 February 2017

Professor Adamson,

As always I am thankful of your thoughtful articulation of philosophical application. However, I am surprised that in your analysis of the etiology of the results of the the 2016 US presidential election you invoked a failure of the democratic system. Ours is, in fact, a Representative Republic with an electoral process intended to avoid the pitfalls of straight democracy. One could argue that it functioned well in truly polling the vast, diverse citizenry of America and prevented the mob-rule and group-think of the populace centers that manifest in the media and Washignton, DC from choosing our representative.  The Founders knew their history and philosophy. We do well to study from them and their teachers. Thank you for your present day contributions.

Sincerely,

Jack, Chicago 

 

Peter Adamson 9 February 2017

In reply to by Jack

"Etiology," now that's a word one doesn't read every day!

Just to reiterate what I said above in response to another comment, I was not trying here to raise a question about the legitimacy or wisdom of the electoral college system. All I wanted to get across is that Trump supporters shouldn't necessarily be reveling in the wisdom of the people, given that more people voted against him than for him. Actually what you say here makes my point very well: that we might all have reason to worry about, and reflect on, "the pitfalls of straight democracy."

Libertarian Heretic 3 December 2017

I noticed all these comments were written around the time of the inauguration. I started the show a couple months ago and as of today this is how far I have gotten. A more recent voice might be helpful here.
Desiring to build bridges or show empathy are noble instincts but misplaced ones in this moment. At this point I just wonder if anyone hasn't finally come to understand the appeal of Trumpism. Trumpism is not about truth seeking, giving voice to a dispossessed demographic or leaning against the tides of historical change. It is an indulgence in the visceral and dischordant. To supporters its a game of thrill seeking where bullying, cheapshots, bigotry and willful ignorance are given a patina of respectful by hiding under a mountain of special pleading, double entendre and claims of victimhood. Its a gigantic cacophonous cesspool enchanted by the sound of its own thought numbingly loud belching.
Its not a movement worth so much as even a response anymore. I've tried with these people. With tremendous patience I've entertained the arguments and carefully made pâté of the thoughts of dozens of these zombies only to watch them octuple down on them and persist with the most ardent zeal long after any modicum of rationality would have advised leaving the field of battle.
There comes a time when you stop worrying about how the dog became rabid and just focus on putting it down. Hopefully Mr. Mueller earns many times over every penny of his pay.

Peter Adamson 3 December 2017

In reply to by Libertarian Heretic

Well as you can guess I have some sympathy with that. But I also think (hope!) that we need to distinguish between the true believer Trumpists who are probably too far down the rabbit hole of rightwing media paranoia (note the comments from others above that just take it as axiomatic that "mainstream media" is all lies), and people who were just for whatever reason prepared to hold their nose and vote for him instead of Clinton, or simply not vote at all because they didn't perceive him as an urgent threat to American democracy. The ones who aren't true believers may be persuaded to vote for someone next time who is not an utter monster like Trump.

For what it's worth I think the worst he has done so far is to be elected - which was pretty bad, given that in being elected at all after the campaign he ran and just being who he is, he has maybe permanently damaged the US's standing in the minds of people around the world. Certainly it has permanently changed my own estimation of my fellow American citizens, and for the much worse. Happily once in office his unbelievable incompetence has prevented him from getting as much done as his supporters hoped, though he has certainly done a lot of bad things nonetheless. I hope that in the end what he has managed to do can be in short order overturned when (if) sanity returns. He hasn't, for instance, done nearly as much damage as George W did; admittedly that's setting a low bar.

Libertarian Heretic 4 December 2017

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Actually I am in almost total agreement with what you have said here and have found myself saying much of the same as well. It reads like what I would have said in a less passionate moment. Theres nothing else I can add, you've cleaned up my excesses in a way I couldn't have done much better with.
Thanks for you terrific public service here at THOP and I pledgeto buy your Al-Kindi book in the future.

David 24 March 2021

I started this podcast around this time last year, and it was a little surreal to hear this episode, partially because I hadn't realized the span of time I'd covered, but partially because I had forgotten the shock and strangeness of that election. Arguably the worst of Trump's damage was done over the past year (coincidentally the period of time I've been listening to the podcast), but hopefully we'll be resilient enough to piece things back together moving forward.

 

PS, I'll admit that I came to this page mainly to see what the comments looked like. Very commendable that you kept it open for comments and that you were so engaged!

True, it's interesting to look back on this. Of course Trump's campaign against legitimate sources of information, which was the main thing I was criticizing, had its apotheosis in his challenging of the 2020 election results, and all that that unleashed. So I would say, in all modesty, that my take on him back in 2017 has aged pretty well. Trump aside, the theme is also newly relevant when it comes to things like vaccine skepticism.

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