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Knops 2007 – DPhil, Lecturer, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham, UK (March, Andrew, Journal of Political Philosophy, 15.1, “Debate: Agonism as Deliberation – On Mouffe’s Theory of Democracy”, Wiley Online)

The first point to make about Mouffe's argument in The Democratic Paradox is that it promotes a single, universal characterisation of the political. The terrain of the political is portrayed as constituted through power, making antagonism ‘ineradicable (DP, p. 104). This is a universal claim about the political. Moreover, Mouffe seeks to establish the acceptability of these claims by giving reasons. This implies that she assumes that it is possible to establish such a universal model of politics through rational argument. This is precisely what she criticises deliberative theorists for.

Of course, the content of the model for which Mouffe seeks rational acceptance is portrayed as very different to a deliberative approach (DP, p. 102). In particular, it accepts the inevitability of antagonism, seeks to convert this into adversarial contest, and rejects the possibility of ever reaching consensus. Agreements are always contingent assertions of hegemonic power that necessarily exclude and are therefore unstable.2 However, Mouffe does not believe that politics should be left as merely the interplay of differences within this domain of power.

Firstly, Mouffe argues that there should be common adherence to – consensus on – at least minimal ‘ethico-political’ principles of democracy. She is rather vague about what these principles might be, although specifying ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ as among them (DP, p. 102). Of course this could hardly be otherwise: her theory is a theory of democracy, so there must be some shared version of democracy for individuals to adhere to, and for the theory to defend. Mouffe immediately qualifies this constraint by arguing that there will be many different accounts of how these minimal principles might be applied and pursued, and that there should be no limitations on competition between opposing versions (DP, p. 103). Nevertheless, Mouffe still owes an explanation of how there can be such a consensus in the first place, of what such a consensus might consist, why it should be privileged over other versions of the political – for example, oligarchy, or dictatorship – and how this might be justified without recourse to some form of rational argument akin to that deployed by deliberative theorists.

Although less clear, it is also apparent that Mouffe requires all participants in her preferred adversarial mode of interaction to abide by a further set of principles: a mutual respect for beliefs, and the right to defend them (DP, pp. 102–103). Given that she contrasts such exchange with more aggressive antagonistic conflict (DP, p. 102), this suggests at least some overlap with the principles of equal respect and autonomy underlying a deliberative approach. Nevertheless, on this characterisation the fit with deliberation is not complete. It is possible to argue that other forms of interaction short of violence, such as bargaining, negotiation and trading between different interests, show respect for others’ beliefs and their right to defend them, and fall short of ‘annihilation’ or violence.

However, Mouffe adds a further qualification to the ‘free-play’ of differences that other theories permit. She argues that it should be possible to identify, condemn and act against relations of subordination or domination (DP, pp. 19–21). It would seem therefore that we should interpret her description of adversarial relations, and in particular the principle of respect for the right of others to defend their beliefs, in light of this further stipulation. So where relations of subordination restrict a person's ability to defend their beliefs, those relations should be opposed. If we read these two principles – of respect for belief and opposition to subordination – together, then Mouffe's model does appear to be privileging the kind of open fair exchange of reasons between equals that deliberative theorists promote. Not only do these dimensions of Mouffe's formula constitute further examples of consensus that can be reached in principle and by rational means (since Mouffe uses arguments to motivate our acceptance of them), but the content of that formula looks remarkably like the method for reaching collective decisions through a procedure for rational discussion that deliberative theorists support.

An insistence on the need to distinguish and combat relations of subordination is necessary for any theory to have critical bite. What does and what does not amount to oppression, and what should or should not be condemned, must then be gauged by reference to some sort of standard. However, Mouffe would seem to assume that we already all have access to such shared standards, or at very least that it is possible to establish them. Again, this marks her acceptance of another form of consensus – as she herself acknowledges (DP, p. 134). Furthermore, if that consensus is not to be biased against a particular group in society, it is difficult to see how the mechanism for reaching it can be other than a rational discussion. To argue otherwise would be to perpetuate the imposition of a hegemonic, partial and exclusive viewpoint – the exercise of power – that Mouffe is arguing against. So here Mouffe's theory requires the possibility, at least, of a rational consensus not merely on procedural matters that frame democratic exchange, but also on the substance or outputs of that process – practical political decisions. While she presents this as a small exception to her thesis in The Democratic Paradox, it would seem to be pretty much all-embracing. Having described politics as defined by the exercise of power, her theory turns out to admit of the possibility of rational consensus on matters of power – in other words, on any aspect of the subject matter of politics.

From all this we can conclude that Mouffe's alternative is firstly grounded in a universal account of the political and the democratic which she wishes us to accept on the basis of the rational arguments she advances in The Democratic Paradox. Since it is a defence of democracy, this model assumes further consensus on the values of liberty and equality, which are to be interpreted as incorporating respect for others’ beliefs and their right to defend them. Mouffe also argues that it is to incorporate an opposition to relations of oppression or subordination. Mouffe sees the purpose of political action as the identification of such oppression and subordination, and the organisation of collective action against it. This implies a deliberative mechanism of fair and equal exchange of reasons between all affected as the standard of legitimacy for political decisions, if decisions are not to reproduce the relations of subordination that Mouffe wishes to combat.

So it would seem that Mouffe's own agonistic alternative to deliberative democracy, designed to counter the impossibility of rational consensus, is itself reliant on that very notion. Without it, it is neither a theory of democracy (as opposed to a mere description of the domain of politics) nor a critical theory allowing for collective action against oppression and subordination. Yet Mouffe is now faced with a dilemma. The very reason for advocating her alternative was the impossibility of the notion of rational consensus, and she has offered detailed arguments to show how rational consensus was impossible. However, it now turns out that her alternative relies on the notion of rational consensus that she has rejected. Either she must abandon her alternative altogether, or she must rehabilitate the notion of rational consensus, and with it the idea of deliberative democracy that she has criticised. I will explore the second option.


Mouffe's objection to deliberative democracy is that it is founded on a notion of rational consensus that is not only empirically, but conceptually impossible to realise. Because of this, it is untenable that any one theory of democracy should be preferred over others on purely rational grounds, and within a democracy it is impossible to reach neutral agreement on what would be in the best interests of the collectivity. In this section I will defend deliberative democracy against these charges, showing that Mouffe's criticisms do not establish that rational consensus is conceptually impossible. It may be very difficult to achieve, but this does not undermine its utility as a goal at which we should aim. In mounting this defence I will initially concentrate on one of the two perspectives from which Mouffe launches her attack – that grounded in a Wittgensteinian theory of language. This defence will also demonstrate the similarities between that theory and a deliberative theory of rational consensus.3 These arguments can then be extended to deal with Mouffe's second line of criticism from linguistic deconstruction.

A. Wittgenstein

Mouffe explicitly identifies two sources on whose interpretation of Wittgenstein she draws in criticising deliberative democracy. They are Hannah Pitkin, in her work Wittgenstein and Justice, and James Tully.4 To do justice to Mouffe's argument, I will stick to the version of Wittgenstein advanced by these two commentators.

In arguing against the possibility of rational consensus, Mouffe uses three key Wittgenstinian concepts: the idea that general terms in language are learned through ‘practice’ and not through the application of a conceptual scheme to particular cases; that such practice is grounded in specific ‘forms of life’; and that forms of life are not susceptible of simple classification or description in the form of rules (DP, pp. 70–1). Using the sources above, I will take a closer look at these concepts, to show that it is indeed possible to reconcile such notions with the possibility of a rational consensus reached through deliberation.

As Pitkin explains, Wittgenstein's version of language suggests that we learn terms through practice. The traditional account of language learning views it as the process of associating a term, for example a name, with a particular object or picture of that object in our heads. We can then apply that name when we encounter the object again. We associate a definition with that name, and it becomes a label for the object.5 While language can be learned and used in this way, Wittgenstein argues that this is a very limited account, which only explains a small section of what we use language to do. What about learning the words ‘trust’, ‘spinster’ or ‘envy’?6 He therefore develops a more comprehensive account of language learning which sees it as a particular practice. We learn to use a particular phrase in a particular context. Having heard its use in a context before, we hear it repeated in similar circumstances. We therefore learn to associate it with aspects of those circumstances, and to reproduce and use it in those circumstances for ourselves. So, for example, the (polite!) child learns that “Please may I have the marmalade?” results in the person who uttered it being passed the marmalade. They make the same sounds, and they are themselves passed the marmalade. They later learn that “Please may I have the jam?” leads to their being passed the jam. Finally, they understand that “Please may I have x?” will lead to their being given whatever they choose to substitute for x. This example is helpful because it shows how the meaning of a word can be refined through its use. It may be that a child initially only associates “Please may I have . . .” with marmalade. It is only when the same words are used to elicit the passing of another object – in our example, jam – that they associate it with that other object, and then eventually, after several iterations, with any object. This process may also involve them using the phrase, and projecting it into new contexts of their own. It may also, of course, involve them making mistakes, which are then corrected.

Because words are developed through repeated use in this way, they rarely have settled meanings. By applying them to new contexts, we can use them to focus on different aspects of meaning. Pitkin suggests the example of ‘feed the monkey’ and ‘feed the meter’.7 Prior to such application, however, we may only have had a vague idea of the word's meaning, gathered through past usage. In most, if not all, cases this process is ongoing. So words are learned through a kind of ‘training’ or ‘practice’, and learning or understanding a word is an activity that involves using the word in the correct situation. It is not a case of applying a clear-cut rule to a definite situation.8

Because words develop through practices and their use in particular situations, and in many cases we continue to develop their meaning through such use, very rarely will a term have a single, fixed meaning. Rather, Wittgenstein argues, the different situations in which such a general term is used are like separate language games. Just like moves in a game, words that have meaning when used in one situation may be meaningless when used in another. For example, we cannot talk of ‘checking the King’ in football. While there are connections between games, they are linked like members of a family: some share the same colour eyes, others the same shape of nose, others the same colour hair, but no two members have all the same features.9 Wittgenstein also uses the analogy of an historic city to show how language builds up. While some areas may be uniform, many have been added to higgledy-piggledy, with no clear pattern over how streets are laid out, or which run into which.10 Wittgenstein therefore argues that it is impossible to assimilate the operation of all language to a single model, such as the ‘picture theory’ or label model of meaning. Different language games have different rules, and we can only discover these by investigating particular practices of use in specific cases.11

However, Wittgenstein concedes that there must be some kind of regularity to our use of words. Without some form of consistency, we could not know that our use of a word in a new context was supposed to indicate or evoke a similar context in which the word had been used in the past. That words do so, Wittgenstein argues, is due to their basis in activity– they are used by us in certain situations – and that such use is grounded ultimately in activities that are shared by groups of us, or all of us. Cavell sums this up well when he says:

We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place, just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humour and of significance and of fulfilment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation – all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’.12

These forms of life are not so much constituted by, but constitute, language. They serve as its ‘ground’. Therefore, although the process of explaining a term, and of reasoning in language, may continue up to a point, it will always come to an end and have to confront simple agreement in activity, ways of going on, or forms of life.

Mouffe sees this account as ruling out the possibility of rational consensus. Following Tully, she argues that the fact that arguments are grounded in agreement in forms of life, which constitute a form of practice marking the end point of explanation or reasons, means that all attempts at rational argument must contain an irrational, practical element.13 Neither is it possible to suggest, as she accuses Peter Winch of doing, that we can see forms of life as some underlying regularity, which argument or reasoning can then make explicit. Again with Tully, she contends that the ‘family resemblance’ or ‘historic city’ analogy for the development of language shows it to be far too varied and idiosyncratic for such an account.14

Yet I would like to argue that Wittgenstein's theory as characterised above does not rule out rational argument, and the possibility of consensus, at least in principle. Wittgenstein himself characterises the offering of reasons as a kind of ‘explanation’. This much is granted by Tully.15 Explanations are requested by someone unfamiliar with a practice, who would like to understand that practice. Wittgenstein sees this as a completely legitimate use of language and reason.16 This is not surprising, as this process of explanation is precisely the form of language learning that he sets out. A person uses a term based on their understanding of its use from their past experiences. This projection either meets with the predicted response, or a different one. If the latter, the person modifies their understanding of the term. It is only when we go further, and assume that there can be an explanation for every kind of confusion, every kind of doubt, that we get into trouble.17 But this is precisely not what a deliberative theory of reasoning holds. A deliberative theory of reasoning models communicative reason – reason used to develop mutual understanding between two or more human beings. To this extent, the truths that it establishes are relative, though intersubjective. They hold, or are useful for, the collectivity that has discursively constructed them. They do not claim to be objective in an absolute sense, although the concept can be extended, in theory, to cover all people and hence to arrive as closely as possible to the notion of an absolute.

The process that Habermas calls ‘practical discourse’18 and the process that Wittgenstein calls ‘explanation’ are basically one and the same. Both are synonyms for deliberation. Habermas sees the essentially rational nature of language as the capacity for a statement to be rejected, in the simplest case with a ‘no’.19 It is with this response that the request for reasons, latent in all rational statements, is activated.20 If we widen the sense of rejection meant by Habermas beyond the paradigm case of the utterance of a ‘no’ to the broader case of a failure to elicit an expected response, we can see the similarities between Habermas’ notion of deliberation and Wittgenstein's concept of explanation. Like Wittgenstein, Habermas sees ‘normal’ language use as taking place against a backdrop of conventionally shared meanings or understandings.21 It is only when this assumption breaks down, when the response differs from what was expected, that deliberation is required. Shared understandings and usage are established anew, through a dialogical sharing of reasons, or explanations, which repairs the assumption that we do use these words in similar ways.22

But this dialogical sharing of reasons is nothing more than Wittgenstein's concept of explanation and language learning. As Tully points out, Wittgenstein's view of language is inherently dialogical. His examples involve interlocutors who have different views of the use of language.23 This leads to the use of a word eliciting a response that was not expected – a rejection. The rejection requires the reappraisal and refinement of our understanding of the word, based on the new information given to us about it by the unexpected reaction. Based on this adjusted understanding we use words again to try to achieve our goal. Through this process of trial and error we build up a shared vocabulary, restoring the assumption that we use these words in the same way, and in the process we understand the other's form of life that gave rise to their unexpected use. The very process of developing that understanding is the process of deliberation. Indeed, in this sense deliberation – explanation or the clarification of usage across different forms of life – can in itself be seen as the process of development of language use.

Before moving on, we should note an important feature of this process: any instance of shared understanding developed in this way will be partial. It will have emerged from particular uses tied to particular spheres of activity. It is important, therefore, that we do not stretch an understanding developed in this way too far. We must be open to its fallibility – to the possibility that new situations will open up different applications of a term, and so require further development of meaning, as we encounter others who use terms differently due to different aspects of their ‘forms of life’.24 While there may be regularities in ‘forms of life’, it is difficult to specify them a priori. They only emerge, as Wittgenstein argues, piecemeal, through the process of attempting to understand others in language. However, the process of explanation, or understanding through deliberation, allows us to be open to these possibilities. The contrast with others’ usage that this involves also makes us more clearly aware of aspects of our own usage that were previously hidden. So we can see this as an understanding developed through reason, though partial, fallible and grounded in practice.

Deliberative democracy, then, is compatible with a Wittgensteinian theory of language, which sees language as grounded in forms of life. Mouffe makes two errors that lead her to suggest it is not. The first is the assumption that because language is ultimately grounded in practice, rather than reason, it cannot be used to reach a rational consensus. However, if we read deliberative theories as mobilising a form of rationality aimed at intersubjective explanation and mutual understanding, we can see that the two accounts are perfectly compatible. The second error is to take Wittgenstein's warning that different uses of language, in different games, are so varied and diverse as to be ungovernable by rules, to rule out any possibility of reasoned communication. Here we need to understand that Wittgenstein's concept of ‘forms of life’ refers to regularities in practice that underpin language. While these do not take the form of prescriptive rules, they can still be discovered through language and the process of explanation. Indeed, this is an important purpose of language. Seen in this way, Wittgenstein's thought shows how reason, or explanation, works to bring out emergent, partial, but shared understandings grounded in people's own, but different, experiences. The partial nature of such understandings also emphasises the need to regard them as fallible and open to challenge and revision when new situations are encountered. However, this does not in principle preclude the use of reason to reach consensus. Moreover, the partiality of such understandings can only be understood against a conception of complete or comprehensive agreement. This is exactly what deliberative theory proposes. These insights will now be used to defend deliberation against the second, deconstructionist, set of arguments that Mouffe musters.

B. Deconstruction

Agonistic games require provisional rules like topicality—opposing the structures that enable clash is a reactive gesture hostile to struggle and competition

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