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Democracy is sentimental | Aeon

Couples dance on Avenida de Mayo, Buenos Aires. Photo by Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images

Couples dance on Avenida de Mayo, Buenos Aires. Photo by Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images

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Democracy is sentimental

Reason and facts cannot be the basis of political debates and civic life. Love and laughter are the heart of the matter

by Elizabeth Cantalamessa + BIO

Couples dance on Avenida de Mayo, Buenos Aires. Photo by Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images

Something is amiss with democracy. Ask people from any or no political persuasion and they’re likely to give a similar story: contemporary politics has gone haywire because one side (or both) has lost touch with reality. We are living in a ‘post-truth’ partisan news hellscape that prioritises ‘feelings over facts’ and disregards the natural authority of the truth. But all sides seem to agree that there is a ‘truth’ that explains what really makes someone a woman, or an institution racist, or a politician fascist, in a way that compels acceptance from those who otherwise disagree. What we need to do is further emphasise the importance of science and reason, and perhaps sanction the overtly partisan media outlets that mislead otherwise good-natured people, then everyone will come to their senses and agree on things because they are true, because they reflect reality. Humans are rational, remember? Surely, Immanuel Kant wouldn’t lie.

But I don’t think the truth will, in fact, set us free. Our current ‘post-truth’ political landscape in fact calls for a pragmatist therapy to rid us of the belief that ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ deserve a special place in our public justificatory practices altogether. A pragmatist ethics calls for prioritising feelings instead of facts, because a truly humanist democracy is sentimentalist rather than rationalist.

One core tenet of the American strand of pragmatism is a rejection of representationalism, the view that the only measure for what one should believe is whether it correctly reflects or relates to what’s ‘out there’ in the world, or some non-perspectival reality. Richard Rorty was a prominent pragmatist philosopher in the late 20th century, who thought that representationalism posed a threat to genuinely democratic social relations. Rorty, drawing on John Dewey, thought that scientific realism’s appeal to nonhuman reality as a universally valid and thus compulsory authority was the secular incarnation of an otherwise fundamentalist and authoritarian stance. Rorty extended this ‘antiauthoritarianism’ to argue that scientific realism grew from authoritarian roots when it held that some beliefs, experiences or judgments were universally true in virtue of their relation to an objective or nonhuman reality.

Rorty worried that representationalism and realism were forms of wilful subordination to a nonhuman authority, descendants of social practices from earlier days when it made sense to posit a more powerful being such as God to ‘back up’ what we claimed. After all, life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, as Thomas Hobbes had it – there wasn’t a lot of time for debating the nuances of various political positions. However, contemporary democratic societies have progressed beyond the need to appeal to any nonhuman authority to back up their claims, including God’s secular counterpart: truth as a feature of reality ‘in itself’. Rorty envisioned a pragmatist society that could embrace contingency without undermining our responsibilities to each other or backing up what we say with a universal authority.

According to the pragmatist, all we ever needed to get authority off the ground is living in community with others and having the desire to be understood. In order for reasons to count as publicly justificatory, they must be understood as forceful to those the reason-giver addresses, the actual or potential audience. Justification is a matter of what communities mutually recognise as authoritative, as bearing on what they and their peers should believe, say or do. The desire to be understood presupposes that one takes themselves to be the subject of assessment by another, which is to say a perspective other than their own, from which there is a right and a wrong way to do things and, crucially, the potential of being misunderstood. In order to be understood, a child has to learn to use words and symbols in the right way, which means the way that their community uses them. Reasons are persuasive only from within a justificatory practice; I have to recognise your reason as a reason, as bearing on what I ought to do, say or believe. In order for that to happen, reason-giver and addressee must share background commitments about the relevant standards for what evidence gives a reason its force. To be in a social community, then, is in part to collectively recognise a set of reasons that count as justificatory – to participate in a justificatory practice. But no actual democratic society does or should recognise only one universal standard of correctness. Doing so would be next to tyranny.

So an emphasis on the truth as a universal authority will only further bifurcate society because such attitudes carry with them anti-humanist sentiments that are incompatible with genuinely egalitarian social relations. For example, if I claim that democracy requires abolishing the US police system because it is true that the police system is a corrupt institution, this presupposes a standard for what counts as evidence in favour of systematic corruption, on what makes that claim true. Any statement that is true is, by its own lights, true from any perspective, or universal. This means it would be irrational for you to deny that the US police system should be abolished, given what is true about it. But such truths are not ‘read off’ the world, and their evidential standards are not universally shared. As such, this claim will solicit agreement from those who already acknowledge it as correct, and denigration from those who do not. In fact, people who do not share in the same justificatory practice will find such a claim to be something more like a personal attack or political agenda than a description of reality. This might be why some people think that the very notion of evidence has been nefariously politicised, that we have replaced objective reality with subjective feelings. There is simply no ‘perspective’ we all share and from which all parties can neutrally weigh and exchange reasons. It is as if we are using the same words but speaking different languages.

How can we genuinely criticise an existing social practice if the only means to do so presupposes the validity of the justificatory practice one employs? How can we successfully communicate a politically transformative insight if we are limited by what others recognise as authoritative? If reasons are forceful only from within a shared justificatory practice, then any type of reason that appeals to the truth, no matter how progressive, will engender the same authoritative relations democracy seeks to extinguish. To think that any belief or doctrine commands assent because it correctly reflects ‘reality’ is to adopt an authoritarian stance toward other free beings. It is decidedly antidemocratic. But it’s hard to see how we can go beyond our current justificatory practices in order to successfully criticise or challenge them.

Social progress sometimes requires speaking and acting in ways that are incomprehensible to others – ways that do not seem, to one’s contemporaries, to be ‘true’. In a lesser-known essay on pragmatism and feminism, Rorty warns feminist scholars and activists against relying on realist doctrines to advance their utopia of gender equity. While it is true that gender oppression is unjust, its truth cannot play any explanatory role lest it recreate the very authoritarian social relations it aims to eradicate. The problem, Rorty suggests, is the idea that feminists need to give publicly accessible reasons at all. Rorty thinks that feminists do well by pragmatists’ lights when they engage in ‘creative misuses’ of public language. For example, when women first started using the term ‘sexual harassment’, they were met with confusion and sometimes scorn. Some men thought that the issue ‘in no way relates to the reality of the world in which we live and work’, as Eliza Collins and Timothy Blodgett noted in 1981. But women continued using the term and eventually it caught on. Rorty suggests that such misuses operate not in the space of reasons, but of causes.

‘Creative misuses’ of language can cause people to have feelings that lead to an ethically transformative insight

Typically, to say something operates in the space of causes is to suggest coercion or domination. If I put a truth serum in your drink, then I have caused you to speak truthfully but I did not convince you to do so using rational persuasion. I circumvented your consent and thus failed to treat you as an agent. Threats of violence, propaganda and advertisements cause us to feel or think things as a way to change our behaviour without giving any reasons for doing so. Feminists used language in unexpected and idiosyncratic ways, and in doing so were able to change how people felt about certain behaviours, rather than convincing them to care through rational persuasion (on their terms). It was to treat their politics like poetry.

Audre Lorde has likewise praised the poetic form as a medium for communicating genuine political insights beyond the confines of public reason. For Lorde, poetry exists outside what can be explained, yet it can communicate genuine political and ethical truths. Poetry can be a valid source of knowledge about ourselves, others and the world, even though what one ‘learns’ from reading a poem might not be fully expressible via reason-based explanation. Even Ludwig Wittgenstein, notoriously shrewd about the correct use of language, thought ‘nonsensicality’ was the essence of genuinely ethical and religious expressions, rather than a flaw. The point of poetry for Lorde is to deliberately misuse elements of a public language in order to cause a feeling or experience in the audience. Feelings of confusion or bewilderment can encourage audiences to adopt a perspective from outside their existing communal practices, at least momentarily. This ‘outsider’ perspective reminds us that, though our communal practices appear natural, given and obligatory, they are in fact contingent and voluntary, which is the first step toward changing them.

Lorde and Rorty share a conviction that ‘creative misuses’ of a public language (because what else do we have?) can cause people to have feelings that can lead to an ethically transformative insight. In the right context, using a word or expression in a new way (using ‘they’ as a singular generic instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’) can cause your audience to have certain experiences that they can think about and develop into a type of ethical understanding and therefore into action. Like an inside joke we happen to overhear, it can compel people to want to figure out what is going on. However, such feelings do not themselves play any publicly justificatory role. In short, the pragmatic, antiauthoritarian route to overcoming the post-truth gulf in our contemporary politics calls for causing people to feel differently.

This pragmatist emphasis on the political power of feelings can be found in some of its earliest incarnations. Though pragmatism is most often associated with its American incarnations, its historical origins go back to the 18th-century German idealists, notably the social-historical philosophising of G W F Hegel. But Hegel himself thought that the essence of humanity was rationality rather than sentiment (though he did praise the poetic form), so I want to shift focus to some of the proto-pragmatist ideas found in the work of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the neglected middle child of German idealism, whose work was bookended by that of Kant and Hegel. Fichte, like Rorty, is often classified as a romanticist because of his emphasis on the primacy of feelings and the philosophical value of artistic forms such as literature. Fichte held that feelings were the foundation for all knowledge: ethical, scientific, philosophical or otherwise.

According to Fichte, a human’s ‘vocation’ or purpose was not ‘merely to know, but to act’. He believed that self-consciousness or the self was necessarily embodied: its only reality is through action, rather than as an object of reflection or a collection of experiences. Since selves are fully embodied, they are propelled in part by their instinctual nature, or what he referred to as our ‘necessary’ feelings. Fichte thought that humans were driven by their natural feelings into a perpetual striving toward unity or perfection that they would never individually achieve but could ever further approximate as a species.

For Fichte, a self cannot transmit knowledge to another self, because all self-conscious beings must develop knowledge from their feelings. Knowledge was something one does when one develops one’s necessary feelings into publicly communicative insights; knowledge is the process rather than the result. Being in community with others causes us to have feelings and ideas that we then use to develop into knowledge, which means that humans must live alongside other humans in order to know anything.

So long as we can feel in a community with others, we can continue becoming better versions of ourselves

In a series of public lectures given during his time in Jena from 1793-98, Fichte declared that a public intellectual’s duty was to inspire the right sorts of feelings in their fellow citizens rather than transmit systems of knowledge or ethics. Fichte’s middle-period work The Vocation of Man (1799) is a philosophical-literary hybrid that aims to cause the same experiences in the reader as that of the protagonist, bringing both reader and protagonist through a sceptical process that begins once one realises the incalculable gulf that exists between the desire for absolute knowledge of what is true and the involuntary feelings that drive our investigation. Philosophy is this process of forging knowledge from one’s feelings, not a theoretical system or a body of texts. Philosophy is thus continuous with everyday life, so long as one is reflecting on and clarifying their natural feelings. That means that not all philosophers actually do philosophy.

Fichte understands human embodiment and finitude as a call to action. So long as we can feel and exist in a community with others, then we can learn and continue becoming better versions of ourselves. To think that we could find the truth that would cease our strivings and settle our worries is to deny the necessary limitations of human existence. Though we cannot know whether what we feel is ‘really’ true (because all we know must come from feelings), we contribute to the collective progression of humanity towards perfection through following where our feelings lead us.

Paulo Freire was a 20th-century Brazilian educator and philosopher who likewise believed that the purpose of education was to empower students to harness their feelings into political consciousness and thus action. Freire proposed an antiauthoritarian educational model that likewise framed knowledge as the process of developing understanding from one’s feelings rather than a relationship to a nonhuman reality. Freire called this form of education ‘critical pedagogy’, and outlined its ethos in his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). Freire thought that modern education proceeded as the unilateral transmission of static truths from the all-knowing teacher to the know-nothing students and, as such, education functioned to disempower the students. This ‘banking method’ of education defines the student as naturally powerless and the teacher as the given authority because teachers occupy a special relationship to the truth. Freire, like Fichte, argued that the purpose of education should be action rather than the memorisation of facts.

Freire contrasted the banking method with what he called ‘problem-posing’ education, or education as praxis. In the problem-posing model, instructors are not the obligatory authorities because they have access to the truth but must earn the students’ trust through collective investigation with them. Problem-posing education does just that: poses problems for students to collectively work out rather than providing ready-made problems with ready-made answers. Like the deliberate misuse of language, education as praxis seeks to cause particular feelings in the students – typically experiences of dissonance or frustration. The experience of frustration puts students in a position to forge their own knowledge through working through their feelings alongside the teacher and their classmates. Problem-posing contexts also mirror what students experience outside the classroom. Ideally, students will understand their own feelings as important indicators for what is important and conceive of themselves as active participants in the search for truth, rather than its passive recipients. As such, Freire’s educational approach is astutely antiauthoritarian.

A pragmatist ethics follows from Fichte, Freire, Rorty and Lorde. It aims to cause feelings that lead others to reconsider what they take to be true, or authoritative, rather than convincing them to accept some pre-established truth on our say-so. Authority is not ‘out there’ baked into the world in virtue of it being non-perspectival or objective, just as it is not transparent what God’s commands permit (hence all the disagreement). Pragmatism excises God, Truth and even appeals to the universal authority of science, and begins again with a commitment to unforced social cooperation, an attitude towards others that emulates what Friedrich Nietzsche called ‘the seriousness of a child at play’.

It’s time to give up the idea that ‘truth’ is the almighty stop-gap for justification and the hope that reasons will win out if we just find the right ones. Politically transformative work should aim to cause feelings and experiences in one’s adversaries that invite further investigation and reflection. Science, the environment, racial justice – all of these things matter because we care about them. As Nietzsche once mused, the head is merely the intestine of the heart.

Perhaps, then, political disagreements should be approached more like a work of art than a ‘rational’ deliberation, where the success conditions have been set beforehand. Art itself is a ‘creative misuse’ of our public technologies, spaces and mediums: photographs, bodily movements, movies and music, to name a few. Art can indicate a problem with social practices or values without having to explain what the problem is or why it is true. Art can cause us to feel things that lead us to reflect on our ethical or political beliefs (or convictions). Art is violence by other means, but it does not force compliance, it will just appear to one as bewildering, offensive or empty. The pragmatist treatment for our post-truth malaise calls for causing people to feel differently about themselves, their fellow citizens and the future ­­­– flooding the world with wholesome propaganda.

That there is no objective truth does not mean that anything goes: we must try even harder to communicate

There is one often-overlooked art form that illustrates the point especially well: humour. Mark Twain once said that ‘against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.’ Laughter can convey an insight without having to say or explain it (the joke is you don’t explain a joke), which is why humour serves as the ultimate weapon against authority. Laughing at the command of God is blasphemy. Humour also serves as a medium for communicating ethical truths. Satire is understood as the deliberate misrepresentation of some public figure, item or event in order to make a political or moral point. Satire, like all humour, is interactive – it requires participation by the audience, in the same way that reading a novel or poem requires active interpretation. We can understand satire as a mechanism for causing feelings that acknowledge sources of authority (what is ‘true’, ‘natural’ or ‘given’) while simultaneously indicating some ethical or logical inconsistency between or in them. Humour operates outside the space of reasons and causes us to feel things, but it does not thereby lack genuine cognitive import.

Like court jesters throughout history, we can use humour to cloak an otherwise unorthodox, offensive or transgressive insight. This is also what makes humour morally perplexing. Jokes can clearly commit offence, but it is hard to explain why – it’s always possible for the jokester to deny that they ‘meant’ the offensive part. I think satirical humour can cause culturally rich experiences that can give rise to transformative moral or cultural knowledge. Twain was particularly adroit at using humour to further political and moral ends. His use of satire – portraying white Christians as racist – demonstrated (without explaining or justifying) the inconsistencies between those two value systems. For a white southern Christian to find such a figure humorous is for them to adopt a critical attitude toward their own cultural practices and values. Satire is a means by which audiences can discern that something is wrong without a full grasp on what it is or why. It demonstrates that what is taken to be necessary and authoritative is in fact contingent and malleable.

The political and social potency of humour and satire sheds light on the ways in which an emphasis on feelings instead of reasons still carries genuine ethical, political or social import. Jokes presuppose that jokester and jokee are members of the same community but one that is based in shared experiences and feelings rather than justificatory practices or moral principles (these are not irrelevant to the feelings in question). Humour is the last weapon against the powerful because it operates from outside the realm of accepted authority, at the same time as it indicates mutual recognition of it as authoritative.

That there is no objective truth does not mean that anything goes, but that we must try even harder to communicate and collaborate with our fellow humans, because there is no predestined path to agreement. The truth will not save us because it was just an artefact we kept around to help us along for a particular period in our collective history, and in the coming political future we will have to learn to work together to save ourselves. What our post-truth political landscape needs is more love, imagination and laughter. Our political criticisms should emulate the form of a gentle tease from someone who loves us. A genuinely post-truth democratic society will be one that laughs at folly rather than punishes evil.

EthicsThinkers and theoriesPolitical philosophy

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