Outside Mill’s Door

Some further thinking on patchwork epistemologies emerging in me after watching — of all things — the latest episode of Philosophy Tube about Brexit and democracy. I liked this section of his video — quoted below and starting at 29:10 — because it basically lays down the problematic foundation that has been at the heart of patchwork chat over the last 18 months in terms that are explicitly leftist.

It is this intellectual history that has long fascinated me and particularly the ways in which many leftists fail to recognise the teachings of their own in the mouths of those they don’t agree with. That doesn’t mean people better start agreeing with each other but I think it is telling.

As far as I can tell, democracy is in crisis in much the same way that capitalism is in crisis — which is to say by virtue of its own flawed internal logic. It can’t help but encourage its innards to escape and we can see it grasping desperately at those things which slip through the cracks.

True progress means moving beyond these cloistered systems. The thing not to do is to allow the system to auto-correct and eat itself (again).

Emphasise the instances of progress without falling into the temptation to course-correct and uphold the hegemonic boundary. Be minoritarian, push through and resist.

Apparently, people are becoming less fond of democracy. A study by the anti-racist advocacy group Hope Not Hate claims that the British public are losing faith in democratic institutions as a result of the government’s handling of Brexit. The Washington Post expressed similar opinions following the 2016 American election, using words like “cynical” and “distrustful” to describe the apparently blossoming anti-democratic feelings of the American people. Supposedly, we’re becoming more divided and polarised and the whole thing is affecting our characters.

[John Stuart] Mill thought that democracy could promote good character by encouraging people to take an interest in how their country is run and cultivate the intelligence required to participate. We might call these “epistemic virtues” … The flip side of that, though, is that a lack of democracy could promote bad characters and epistemic vices.

[Quoting Mill]: “It is a great discouragement to an individual, and a still greater one to a class, to be left out of the constitution; to be reduced to plead from outside the door to the arbiters of their destiny, not taken into consultation within.”

We might want to reply to Mill that people’s characters are affected by a lot more than just the political system they live under, but this idea of democracy relating to epistemic character is something that the philosopher José Medina picked up on in his book Epistemic Resistance. Medina wants us all to become a little bit more aware of how we construct the frames through which we see the world. For instance, I’ve talked on the show about how a lot of professional philosophy tends to be written by white people and that can affect the kind of stuff that gets written. Epistemic resistance might involve challenging that. […]

Whereas some people might worry about societies becoming increasingly divided, Medina might say, “No, that’s a feature, not a bug, of democracy.” It shows that democratic participation in widening — at least epistemically if not in terms of the numbers of actual people voting — because there are more ideas in the public sphere than perhaps there were before; more frameworks from which to choose.

The philosopher Antonio Gramsci coined the term “cultural hegemony” to describe the dominant value system of a society through which its members view almost everything, and arguably one of the most useful and terrifying things about democracy is that it contains within it both the possibility for unjust hegemonies to form and the seeds of epistemic resistance against it. It constantly invites us to consider radically different ways of looking at things and poses the question of just how willing we are to live alongside those who hold them.

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