Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Democracy's Eleventh Hour

A question that arises from Ben's similarly titled post of several days ago:

Is democracy the only value that can exist absolutley in a democratic society?

A somewhat poorly-constructed and vague question, yes, but purposely so as to have the answers originate in questions of what absolutism even means and how absolutism relates to or is the same as "ordinary" belief. Another question then: what does it mean to believe (in anything) in a democratic society and when do these beliefs (if ever) become opposed to democracy and when (if ever) does it matter or even become problematic?


Diana M. Gauvin said...

Hmm. Well, although some would like to say that isnomia is "absolutely" present in a pure democracy, your question is about a democratic society, which is rarely going to be pure. Here's my problem with absolutism in anything involving formations or ideologies of people (and this requires both): the words in themselves rarely have absolute meaning.

Well, maybe I shouldn't even be speaking in terms of absolutes, here. But this is what I mean: what is the "absolute" definition of democracy itself? It is available in, well, at least three forms, and even in its classic sense there were more than one definition. If, indeed, we could ascribe a specific and rigid -- an absolute -- denotation to the word "democracy," then we might be able to discuss what can absolutely exist within that scope. Lacking that, though, we cannot possibly speak of absolutes, can we?

Or maybe I'm just being a pain in the ass. I mean, absolutism is -supposed- to refer to beliefs. I just have a hard time accepting any absolutes except for the things that would be logical fallacies otherwise. Without my overblown semantic obsession, I would say that the only belief I can imagine that would become problematic for democracy would be the mistaken and collective belief in what it is. Certainly, belief that democracy should be overthrown is "problematic" for its continued existence, but ultimately it still exists up until the point this belief comes to fruition. Mistaken beliefs, though, negate its existence in the first place, no?

I admit that I'm new to this line of argument in general, which I avoid because of my belief in the... well, maybe not impossibility, but certainly the inaccessibility of abslutes at all. So forgive my lack of learnedness.

John M. said...

I think your question is one that's just out to pick a fight, BJ. It uses an inappropriate vocabulary to describe an idea of democracy. Democracy and the idea of an 'absolute' value system only work together when counterposed against an 'absolutist' structure, which is something very much irreconcilable with an ironic conception of democracy.
Rorty's liberalism is a negative value system--he always defines his values as what you should not do to another person--for a reason. A Rortian legal system would only exist to keep people off each others' backs, so to speak. Any positive ("thou shalt" as opposed to the "thou shalt not") system of mores would end up eventually instituting absolute values, and giving people license to do violence to one another: this is Nietzsche's conception of the law, that circumscription of the violence we do to one another.
The whole public arena for Rorty exists to allow the individual within it the maximum opportunity for private personal cultivation. And so his liberal ironism (that self-effacing will to deny anyone undue power over another) is a stepping stone to an actual democracy, his liberal ironism does hold democracy as an absolute, essentially as its telos, but only to combat other absolutisms that do not deconstruct themselves.
Within a truly democratic structure, there is no absolute, because its only precondition is a negation, and that's a very hard thing to get one's hands on.