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Jean-Paul Gagnon

Social and Political Philosopher, Journal of Democratic Theory

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If we could define democracy in a way that is as close to "true" for all of humanity, what would this mean for this world?

Democracy has no definition. It is a Wittgensteinian word-game and borders on the tautological. We have well over 60 different conceptions of democracy: those found in history, those found at present, and those we are thinking about (ideal models, proposals for reform) that may come about at some future time.

As David Held has argued, we as humans are always seeing but a small portion of information and we have to make do with what we have. But given that democracy is so very important to most in the world, how then can we be in a situation where it is not robustly defined?

I have been taking all of these different conceptions of democracy and asking them the same question: what do you have in common? I am doing this in the hope of piecing together the whole of what might in the future turn out to be a post-universalistic conception of democracy: something devoid of one particular power (i.e. a Eurocentric history or 'Chinese' history, etc).

I am very curious to know what you would think would happen in this world if we achieved a "democratic" definition of democracy that all of humanity could agree on: what would change?


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  • Oct 13 2011: In considering what you propose, I can imagine that your task will only be accomplished once the entire world converges on a singular set of norms regarding freedom, political participation, and the role of governing institutions. Until then, even were we to create a definition for democracy comprising words that everyone would accept, the meaning of those words would, of course, be interpreted widely by different people..

    In other words, a necessary precondition of a real universal definition for democracy is a universal definition of free will and of social good.

    As a counterfactual this is so remote in possibility as to be a waste of time as a guide for normative political theory, though I'm sure as sociological or historical investigation, your research would be fascinating.

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