A Democratic Theory of Judgment

A Democratic Theory of Judgment

by Linda M. G. Zerilli

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In this sweeping look at political and philosophical history, Linda M. G. Zerilli unpacks the tightly woven core of Hannah Arendt’s unfinished work on a tenacious modern problem: how to judge critically in the wake of the collapse of inherited criteria of judgment. Engaging a remarkable breadth of thinkers, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Leo Strauss, Immanuel Kant, Frederick Douglass, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, and many others, Zerilli clears a hopeful path between an untenable universalism and a cultural relativism that forever defers the possibility of judging at all.
Zerilli deftly outlines the limitations of existing debates, both those that concern themselves with the impossibility of judging across cultures and those that try to find transcendental, rational values to anchor judgment. Looking at Kant through the lens of Arendt, Zerilli develops the notion of a public conception of truth, and from there she explores relativism, historicism, and universalism as they shape feminist approaches to judgment. Following Arendt even further, Zerilli arrives at a hopeful new pathway—seeing the collapse of philosophical criteria for judgment not as a problem but a way to practice judgment anew as a world-building activity of democratic citizens. The result is an astonishing theoretical argument that travels through—and goes beyond—some of the most important political thought of the modern period.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226398037
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/12/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 392
File size: 762 KB

About the Author

Linda M. G. Zerilli is the Charles E. Merriam Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Signifying Woman: Culture and Chaos in Rousseau, Burke, and Mill and Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

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A Democratic Theory of Judgment

By Linda M. G. Zerilli

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-39803-7


Democracy and the Problem of Judgment

The loss of standards, which does indeed define the modern world in its facticity and cannot be reversed by any sort of return to the good old days or by some arbitrary promulgation of new standards and values, is ... a catastrophe in the moral world only if one assumes that people are actually incapable of judging things per se, that their faculty of judgment is inadequate for making original judgments, and that the most we can demand of it is the correct application of familiar rules derived from already established standards.


What would it mean to foreground the capacity to judge critically and reflectively as a central feature of modern democratic citizenship? This question, raised poignantly albeit not systematically in the work of Hannah Arendt, is of crucial importance for political theory today. In light of the widespread value pluralism of multicultural democracies, we, democratic citizens, find ourselves increasingly called upon to make judgments about practices not always our own, judgments that require what Arendt called the capacity for "representative thinking" — that is, an ability and willingness to imagine how the world looks to people whose standpoints one does not necessarily share. To engage in such thinking, she argued, is to resist the temptation, on the one hand, to employ our own concepts as rules with which to subsume the particulars calling for judgment and, on the other hand, to assume that in the absence of rules, we cannot judge at all. The break in tradition and the unprecedented experience of totalitarianism led to the modern problem of judgment, Arendt held, but the irrevocable loss of standards also opened up a space for the democratic world-building potential of judging anew.

However we may share Arendt's optimism, her valorization of opinion as the sole coinage of politics and refusal to regard political judgments as making cognitive validity claims that can be adjudicated according to shared truth criteria, critics charge, leaves her unable to answer what is arguably the most pressing question for a contemporary democratic theory of judgment; namely, how can we decide which judgment is correct? In multicultural democracies the problem of how to adjudicate among competing points of view seems paramount. "A modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines," writes John Rawls. Given equally reasonable yet incompatible worldviews, whose criteria shall decide? That would appear to be the real problem of judgment in a democracy.

In the most widely read and cited texts in contemporary democratic theory — namely, those of neo-Kantians such as Rawls and Jürgen Habermas — judgment is defined almost wholly as a problem of adjudicating value conflicts in the absence of universal criteria and a transcendent or authoritative conception of the good. More precisely, it is a problem of finding the proper criteria according to which such conflicts could be fairly and rationally adjudicated given widespread value pluralism. It is not that these theorists mourn the loss of a common standard according to which such conflicts could be rationally settled, nor do they lament the empirical fact of value pluralism itself; on the contrary, they celebrate both as the achievement of liberal democratic societies. Nevertheless, this celebratory spirit is also deeply cautious and tempered by a persistent worry about widespread value differences run amok, as it were, with parochial perspectives and affects unchecked by reason and no way of deciding in favor of liberal democratic values, save by means of a groundless will. To forestall irreconcilable political conflict and decisionism, neo-Kantians advance (various versions of) "public reason," with which they seek ever more neutral grounds "to separate by argumentation generalizable interests from those that are and remain particular," as Habermas puts it.

The ability of conceptual, discursive rationality to settle stark differences of opinion on public issues tends to presuppose the very shared sensibility that neo-Kantians minimize as having any real relevance to political life. As I argue in chapter 5, it is not difficult to see how I might reach agreement with someone who already shares my sense of what Rawls calls "reasonableness," itself rooted in basic values, cultural background, or worldview. In that case, the proper application of concepts to the particulars of political life may well strike me as having "the unforced force of the better argument," to speak with Habermas. But are those the conflicts that really concern us today?

In the view of critics, the idea of public reason expresses the residual rationalism of the deliberative model. To purge such rationalism and the quest for public reason as the new standard of judgment, political theorists such as William Connolly, Leslie Paul Thiele, and John Protevi would have us focus not on political judgment but on political affect. Rather than view political judgment as a conscious language game of giving and asking for reasons, they see it as the modulated expression of the already primed, preconscious dispositions that are formed through the complex interaction of the social and the somatic. Rooted in various theories of body/brain processes (e.g., cognitive neuroscience, the complexity theory of Gilles Deleuze, the somatic theory of Antonio Damasio, the basic emotions theory of Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman, or some combination of these), these accounts of political affect distance themselves not only from the strict cognitivism of the neo-Kantians but also from the more familiar accounts of feeling, emotion, or sentiment that play a role in many feminist strands of affect theory, in theories of political judgment from Aristotle through John Stuart Mill, and in more recent feminist critiques of the deliberative models. Such accounts, it is argued, remain too tightly bound to the idea of a political subject as a rational cognitive subject. In new theories of political affect, affect is seen as a distinct layer of experience that is both prior to and beneath language and intentional consciousness, an irreducibly bodily and autonomic force that shapes, without the subject's awareness, conscious judgment. As Connolly puts it, "Affect is a wild card in the layered game of thinking [acting and judging]."

Whereas deliberative approaches to intercultural value conflicts and the problem of judgment assume that disputes can be resolved by discursive argumentation once the ground rules for engaging in public debate are clear, many political affect thinkers regard public reason as a rationalist exercise in wishful thinking. The problem of judgment cannot be the presumably neutral adjudication of equally reasonable yet incommensurable worldviews, for these are little more than post hoc rationalizations of affective response. Rather, the problem of judgment is how to redirect affects through tactical work on dispositions installed below consciousness with the aim of promoting new modes of affective responsiveness. For now, they argue, it is best to be deeply wary of any claims about our capacity for rational judgment if not to suspend judgment altogether.

What interests me in these two broadly construed contemporary ways of posing the democratic problem of judgment is less their easily discerned differences than how much they less obviously share. Theorists of political affect share with deliberative democrats a deep suspicion of our ordinary modes of judging and the pervasive sense that these are based on affective and parochial attachments that impair our ability to get the world in view. Whether figured in terms of the "lifeworld" (Habermas), a "comprehensive doctrine" (Rawls), or the subrational workings of affect, both approaches tend to see our ordinary modes of judging as intrinsically partial and distorting, especially when it comes to public matters of common concern. And though each puts forward a mechanism that would supposedly mitigate if not correct for that distortion, what remains is the basic sense that our ordinary criteria of judgment are not good enough and are in need of some sort of correcting supplement. Insofar as this supplement in multicultural democracies cannot take any substantive form of the good, it tends to be construed in increasingly neutral or minimal terms, be it public reason based on an empty rule of argumentation (Habermas) or an overlapping consensus about justice as fairness (Rawls), or the replacement of such reason with a vague conception of democratic ethos (political affect theory).

The distrust of ordinary modes of judging is rooted in a more general distrust of the intrinsic partiality and affective character of the perspectives with which each of us views the world. There is no doubt that our individual perspectives can and often do distort our view of any particular object or that our attachments, worldviews, and values can play a large role in such distortion, giving rise to false beliefs and ideological blind spots that deeply restrict our capacity to judge critically and reflectively — that is, without reliance on fixed rules that neglect the particulars of any given case. The issue, however, is not whether our perspectives sometimes or even many times distort our judgment but whether qua human perspectives they always distort, rooted as they are in our subjective and affective modes of apprehending the world.

The view of perspective as irremediably distorting, as James Conant argues, radically departs from the original historical understanding of perspective (in Renaissance painting), which lives on — albeit it in an often unacknowledged way — in our everyday understanding. On this ordinary view, objects can appear different depending on the conditions and the perspective in which they are viewed (e.g., the same coin can seem elliptical when viewed from the side or round when viewed straight on). Whatever distortions arise from viewing the object from one perspective can be corrected by viewing the same object from other perspectives. Judging rightly would involve correcting for distortions in this way. Furthermore, the irreducibly subjective (human) dimension to perspective, though it surely can distort, is also crucial to our sense of an object's shared reality and so to objectivity. "The concept of perspective," observes Conant, "from its very beginning, involves an internal relation between objective and subjective moments in a perceptual encounter between a perceiving subject and the object(s) of his [or her] perception."

For a democratic theory of judgment, the problem with thinking about perspective as irremediably distorting is that it can never quite shake the nagging sense that a plurality of perspectives and "affective interpretations" — the term is Friedrich Nietzsche's — though clearly crucial to democracy, is also the greatest threat to democracy. What could the addition of more perspectives be other than more opportunities to distort? Suspicion toward our ordinary idea of perspective can lead us to think of its corrigibility in terms of something extraperspectival rather than the plurality of citizen perspectives themselves. Both the search to find ever more neutral rational grounds for democratic justification and the denial that any rational justification of a judgment can be achieved are symptomatic of a view of perspective and affective interpretations as intrinsically distorting and not corrigible by other perspectives. As I shall argue subsequently and develop in the following chapters, this suspicion is part of a larger problem of thinking about perspective as that which is "merely" subjective in our claims to what is objective or, put somewhat differently, thinking about our subjective endowments as limiting our access to how things stand in the world, as if we were confined in our current modes of subjectivity — absent, that is, a saving supplement.

The suspicion with which democratic theorists tend to view the particular affects and values that each of us brings to our encounters with the world takes the shape of an ongoing oscillation between celebrating the impossibility of ever affirming the objectivity of our judgments and recoiling into the ideal of objectivity that democratic citizens really can do without, one based on an ideal of reason that requires the elimination of "any admixture of subjectivity" that can only be hostile to plurality. This oscillation leads to the curiously shared view of deliberative democrats and some affect theorists that the capacity to judge itself — insofar as it operates within "the space of reasons" (that is, the rational and normative structure that governs the use of concepts) — must involve the wholly conscious and rule-governed practice of subsuming particulars under concepts. The problem of judgment, as defined and debated by both sides, remains in the grip of the intellectualist conception of knowledge, according to which judgments, to be rational, require that the judging subject disengage its affective propensities and exercise a fully cognitive grasp of concepts as if "operating a calculus according to definite rules," to cite Ludwig Wittgenstein. Failing that, judgments are little more than the effects of already primed dispositions that lie beyond the reach of consciousness and meaning.

Worries concerning the place of our subjective endowments in anything we judge to be objective are visible in the opposition between reason and affect not only as this opposition maps onto the self-identified differences between deliberative democrats and political affect theorists but, more broadly, in debates about cognitive versus noncognitive modes of judging — that is, judgments (or states) with a truth-evaluable content and judgments (or states) without a truth-evaluable content. The political stakes of this opposition animate the now extensive critical literature on Hannah Arendt's turn to the aesthetic judgments of Kant's third Critique.

Arendt's Kantian Alternative

The chapters that follow take up Arendt's creative appropriation of Kant's Critique of Judgment in an attempt to rethink the problem of judgment in late modernity beyond the frame of the intellectualist conception, be it the cognitivism of many neo-Kantian deliberative approaches to judgment or the noncognitivism of many forms of political affect theory, and to resituate the problem within the register of the ordinary. It may seem strange to present Arendt's reading of Kant as an alternative to noncognitivism, since it is precisely noncognitivism of which her reliance on the third Critique stands accused in neo-Kantian (and neo-Aristotelian) receptions of her work. This debate turns on Arendt's insistence that politics involves the exchange of opinions that seek to persuade others, not truths that compel their agreement. Like aesthetic judgments on Kant's account, political judgments cannot be treated as truth claims, for they are not based on concepts or the giving of proofs. Arendt's turn to the third Critique, argues Habermas, is symptomatic of her refusal to provide a "cognitive foundation" for politics and public debate ("ACCP," 225). As Ronald Beiner, editor of Arendt's Kant lectures, explains, "It is not clear how we could make sense of opinions that did not involve any cognitive claims (and therefore, by implication, truth-claims that are potentially corrigible) or why we should be expected to take seriously opinions that assert no claims to truth (or do not at least claim more truth than is claimed by available alternative opinions). It would seem that all human judgments, including aesthetic (and certainly political) judgments, incorporate a necessary cognitive dimension."

In Beiner's influential extension of Habermas's critique, noncognitivism is just where the problems begin. Not only does Arendt reject cognition as relevant to political judgment, she also seems to reject the idea that there is a "distinct faculty that we might identify, characteristically, as political judgment; there is only the ordinary capacity of judgment, now addressing itself to political events (or as Arendt would say, political appearances). This shift from the specific faculty of political judgment to a "unitary and indivisible" (ordinary) faculty of judgment as such, argues Beiner, reveals the gap between Arendt's earlier account, where judgment was linked to "'representative thinking' and opinion ... [and] exercised by actors in political deliberation and action," and what emerges as her "definitive formulation," in which judging withdraws from the vita activa into the vita contemplativa, the life of the mind.


Excerpted from A Democratic Theory of Judgment by Linda M. G. Zerilli. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1          Democracy and the Problem of Judgment
2          Judging at the “End of Reasons”: Rethinking the Aesthetic Turn
3          Historicism, Judgment, and the Limits of Liberalism: The Case of Leo Strauss
4          Objectivity, Judgment, and Freedom: Rereading Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”
5          Value Pluralism and the “Burdens of Judgment”: John Rawls’s Political Liberalism
6          Relativism and the New Universalism: Feminists Claim the Right to Judge            
7          From Willing to Judging: Arendt, Habermas, and the Question of ’68
8          What on Earth Is a “Form of Life”? Judging “Alien” Cultures According to Peter Winch
9          The Turn to Affect and the Problem of Judgment: Making Political Sense of the Nonconceptual
Conclusion: Judging as a Democratic World-Building Practice
List of Abbreviations

What People are Saying About This

Nadia Urbinati

“An elegant, beautifully written, and intelligent attempt to answer the fundamental question of fair evaluative judgments in a democratic polity. Zerilli argues that judgment that aims at fairness in a pluralist society does not need to be rendered as a merely procedural guide for adjudication among irreconcilable values. And she also argues that to make judgment a politically creative and reflecting function of evaluation does not necessarily entail falling into the trap of relativism or the identification of rationality with the reasons set forth by the winners in the game of politics. To solve these entrenched problems, Zerilli takes inspiration from Hannah Arendt, whose work guides her through a journey of interpretation and theoretical analysis that is absolutely brilliant.”

John G. Gunnell

“Zerilli has presented an original and meticulous scholarly argument about the nature and possibilities of democratic judgment as well as about what might be construed as authentically political judgment in the context of a plural society. Her argument is lucidly and eloquently articulated, and it offers a pointed challenge to some of the dominant contemporary trends in the literature on democratic theory, particularly to the arguments about public reason that have been advanced by individuals such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. Drawing creatively on the work of Kant and Arendt, Zerilli speaks to anyone concerned with the peculiarities of democratic deliberation and action, whether it takes place in formal institutional settings or in other dimensions of social life.”

Jason Stanley

“What is democratic political judgment? Does it require a standpoint of neutrality about normative truths? In this monumental work, Zerilli, combining both continental and analytic traditions in philosophy, gives a powerful case for the role of truth and objectivity in democratic political judgment, one attuned to the irreducible plurality of democratic societies. It is a vital contribution to what is arguably the central question of democratic political philosophy: What is democratic reasoning?”

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