Conceptual History of Democracy

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Conceptual History of Democracy


<ul><li><p>Berghahn Books</p><p>Conceptual History and Politics: Is the Concept of Democracy Essentially Contested?Author(s): Oliver HidalgoSource: Contributions to the History of Concepts, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2008), pp. 176-201Published by: Berghahn BooksStable URL: .Accessed: 29/10/2014 07:11</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .</p><p> .</p><p>JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact</p><p> .</p><p>Berghahn Books is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Contributions to theHistory of Concepts.</p><p> </p><p>This content downloaded from on Wed, 29 Oct 2014 07:11:39 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p></li><li><p>i RIL L Contributions to the History of Concepts 4 (2008) 176-201 </p><p>Conceptual History and Politics: </p><p>Is the Concept of Democracy Essentially Contested? </p><p>Oliver Hidalgo Institut fiir Politikwissenschaft der Universitat Regensburg </p><p>Abstract </p><p>This article surveys the history of the concept of democracy from Ancient times to </p><p>the present. According to the author, the conceptual history of democracy shows that </p><p>the overwhelming success of the concept is most of all due to its ability to subsume </p><p>very different historical ideas and realities under its semantic field. Moreover, the </p><p>historical evolution of the concept reveals that no unequivocal definition is possible </p><p>because of the significant paradoxes, aporias, and contradictions it contains. These </p><p>are popular sovereignty vs. representation, quality vs. quantity, liberty vs. equality, </p><p>individual vs. collective, and, finally, the synchronicity between similarities and dis </p><p>similarities. The ubiquitous usage of democracy in present-day political language makes it impossible to speak of it from an external perspective. Thus, both demo </p><p>cratic theory and practice are suffused with empirical and normative elements. </p><p>Keywords </p><p>democracy, conceptual history, conceptual politics, normative theory </p><p>The concept of democracy has been associated at different points in history with some very opposing ideas: while the ancients used the term dripoKpaxta to identify the effective rule of the many or even of the whole people </p><p>(despite the fact only a minority were considered citizens and the popula tion was constricted to a small area), modern thinkers employ it in order </p><p>to refer to a society in which people are able to elect and control their </p><p>rulers as a means to guarantee freedom, equality, and the pursuit of self </p><p>interest for all individuals.1 There are also countless other forms of govern </p><p>" For a comprehensive analysis of ancient and modern democracies see Moses I. Finley </p><p>(1980), Fritz Gschnitzer (1995), and Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick (1996). </p><p> Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2008 DOI: 10.1163/187465608X363463 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Wed, 29 Oct 2014 07:11:39 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p></li><li><p>O. Hidalgo / Contributions to the History of Concepts 4 (2008) 176-201 177 </p><p>merit which adopt patterns, (sub-) types, and varieties of decision-making processes that have also been labelled democratic, making it hard to keep orientation. This myriad usage of the concept leads to a spate of distinc </p><p>tions and qualifications. Most traditionally, one can speak of democracies </p><p>that are liberal or republican, direct or representative, consensual or majori </p><p>tarian, market or socially oriented. More recently, other variants acquired </p><p>prominence such as participatory, deliberative and grassroots democracies, </p><p>or even alternatives like demarchy, skewed democracy and non-partisan </p><p>democracy. Finally, considering how democracies have evolved worldwide, even the possibility of a specific Islamic transformation of democracy or of </p><p>a socialist and anarchist brand of democratization might expand the scope </p><p>of the concept in the future. </p><p>If a typology is plausible (a difficult task as it is, since nowadays the basic traits of a direct democracy -initiatives, referenda and recalls </p><p> take place </p><p>within the representative system and the people sometimes not only han </p><p>dle legislative but certain executive and judicial powers as well), we cannot </p><p>avoid the suspicion that the "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" (Abraham Lincoln) might just as well mean "everyone and </p><p>everything."2 </p><p>Rather than succumbing to a mood of dismay, we must take into con </p><p>sideration W. B. Gallie's classical statement that democracy - like justice or arts is yet another one among those "essentially contested concepts" </p><p>which lack unique standards of definition.3 Furthermore (and fortunately) the contest seems to concern first and foremost the interpretation of the </p><p>concept, not the concept of democracy itself.4 Obviously then the question that must be made is whether it is possible to find arguments and criteria </p><p>to assess what is the best interpretation of the concept of democracy or </p><p>whether all there is to be done is to accept a juxtaposition of competing </p><p>versions. This approach implies a second, deeper problem, namely, the extent to which conceptual history might help in acquiring a normative </p><p>perception of democracy. At first glance, there can only be an answer in the </p><p>negative: conceptual history (here understood as the description and anal </p><p>ysis of concrete historical semantics, origins, derivations and alterations of </p><p>8 Giovanni Sartori (1992), 11. 3&gt; See Walter B. Gallie (1956). 4) See some considerations concerning normative concepts presented by Stephen Lukes </p><p>(1974) and Rainer Forst (2003), 50-52. </p><p>This content downloaded from on Wed, 29 Oct 2014 07:11:39 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p></li><li><p>178 O. Hidalgo / Contributions to the History of Concepts 4 (2008) 176-201 </p><p>concepts) apparently belongs to the empirical paradigm in social sciences,5 </p><p>therefore a normative notion of democracy (and not only a reflection of </p><p>the social and moral impact of democratic ideas and values) can only be informed by political philosophy. However, simply considering what the entire range of the history of political ideas is able to offer would be much too simple. Instead, we must acknowledge the importance and thus pro </p><p>ceed to analyze the historical and conceptual contexts that provide the </p><p>framework for the development of a normative theory of democracy after </p><p>the linguistic turn.6 It is therefore possible to separate conceptual history </p><p>from an abstract history of ideas even if it remains closely bound to norma </p><p>tive theories. This presents the political philosophers with an additional task. They must also make an effort to clarify the extent to which the con </p><p>ceptual history of democracy might function as a basis for any kind of </p><p>conceptual politics7 depending on whether they are able to extrapolate the </p><p>"best interpretation" of the concept of democracy. However, first I would </p><p>like to discuss, briefly, democracy as a historical concept, before showing that conceptual history also leads to the necessity of a normative concep </p><p>tion that reflects the aporias and contradictions of democracy. </p><p>1. The Concept of Democracy </p><p>As it is well-known, ancient Greece is the birthplace of democracy.8 The </p><p>word "5r|poKpaxia" (which means the "rule by the people") was invented </p><p>by the Athenians in order to define their political system after 462/461 </p><p>B.C., particularly after Ephialtes put in place the proposals of Cleisthenes in 508/507 B.C, disempowering the aristocratic Areopagand turning most </p><p>5) Through his writings on Quentin Skinner and Reinhart Koselleck, Kari Palonen (2002) </p><p>intends to turn the history of concepts into a subversive critique of normative political </p><p>theory. 6) Arno Waschkuhn (1998), part 3. 7) </p><p>"Conceptual politics" is my translation of Reinhard Mehring's concept of Begriffspolitik </p><p>by which he wants to characterize both the method of Carl Schmitt and Reinhart Koselleck </p><p>in contrast to their own conceptions of sociologist or historian of concepts. See Reinhard </p><p>Mehring (2006), 31, as well as the analogy to Hermann Liibbe's concept of Ideenpolitik. For the conceptual politics of Max Weber, see also Kari Palonen (2005). 8) Some authors argue that the historical origins of democracy can be found already in the </p><p>Sumerian City and the first republics of ancient India but these examples are at best democ </p><p>racies avant la lettre which makes them irrelevant for this article. </p><p>This content downloaded from on Wed, 29 Oct 2014 07:11:39 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p></li><li><p>O. Hidalgo / Contributions to the History of Concepts 4 (2008) 176-201 179 </p><p>of the important political decisions to the assembly constituted exclusively </p><p>by male citizens.9 At the time, the first principles of democracy were free </p><p>dom and equality all citizens being free by birth each one would accept </p><p>the other as an equal,10 and henceforth by ruling they accepted to be ruled </p><p>in return. After the second half of the fifth century, democracy also meant </p><p>that officials were to be controlled by fixed laws and by the people's vote </p><p>and - as stated in Pericles' funeral oration which survived thanks to Thucy </p><p>dides that citizens would be ensured the right to live on their own behalf </p><p>without being educated and guarded by the state and its public norms." </p><p>The first historian to mention the concept of SquoKpcmw was obviously </p><p>Herodotus. Nevertheless, we must retrace its origins at least back to the </p><p>tyranny of the Peisistratides12 and the Athenian Sea Union13 when the </p><p>nobles' position was weakened while that of the citizens - the 8t|po</p></li><li><p>180 O. Hidalgo / Contributions to the History of Concepts 4 (2008) 176-201 </p><p>and to call for the rule of the best (aptaxot), or of the ones distinguished by their bravery (xt|tf|i) instead of the rule of the many, the mob (oyAoc;).15 </p><p>Nevertheless, they were also capable of developing a readiness to accept an </p><p>arrangement compatible with democratic reality in Athens. Socrates </p><p>famously preferred to die rather than to break the democratic laws of the </p><p>city; Xenophon returned to Athens after the reconciliation between Ath </p><p>ens and Sparta; Plato made an interesting distinction between a "good" </p><p>and a "bad" form of democracy, which is supposed to have influenced </p><p>Aristotle's conception of ttoXtxeta as an amalgam between oligarchy and </p><p>democracy and therefore as a compromise between the quality of govern </p><p>ment and the people's participation.16 The mixed constitution subsequently </p><p>became the only conceivable form of Greek democracy outside Athens and </p><p>its Sea Union.17 Later the Romans put a new emphasis on law as a system, </p><p>including democracy only as a supplement. Their concept of res publico. - </p><p>connecting monarchic, aristocratic and democratic elements18 was a </p><p>model of constitution deemed to be the best insurance against instability, </p><p>from Polybius to Machiavelli. </p><p>After the fall of the republic and the rise of the Roman Empire the con </p><p>cept of democracy was submitted to new assessment as a result of political </p><p>circumstances. While Aelius Aristides called the Imperium romanum a </p><p>"common democracy of the world, under one man, the best ruler and </p><p>director,"19 Cassius Dio stressed that real democracy could only exist under </p><p>a monarchy, whereby the Platonic formula of justice ("Doing one's own") </p><p>was supposed to be no longer aristocratic but democratic.20 Ultimately, </p><p>15) Early supporters of democracy like Herodotus and Pericles, who linked justice and iso </p><p>nomia to the rule of the 8r||io</p></li><li><p>O. Hidalgo / Contributions to the History of Concepts 4 (2008) 176-201 181 </p><p>neither Aristides nor Dio wanted to renounce the legitimizing value the </p><p>concept of democracy still carried in the first centuries of the Christian era. </p><p>The situation only changed during the European Middle Ages, when the </p><p>predominance of religion over all aspects of life made the reference to </p><p>democracy evidently useless. It was not until the thirteenth century that a </p><p>few thinkers revived the concept - notably, St. Thomas of Aquinas, Engel bert of Admont, Marsilius of Padua and Nicole Oresme who encoun </p><p>tered it through their reception of Aristotle21 and started using it to describe </p><p>the contemporary politics of the Italian cities.22 But even the rise of Prot </p><p>estantism and the diminishing authority of the Catholic Church (accom </p><p>panied by the rise of contract theory, which epitomized the new forms of </p><p>rationalism in politics) could not immediately change the association of the concept of democracy with antiquity. The concept of representation, </p><p>especially, was for a long time considered to be incompatible with the idea of the ruling people. Hence Thomas Hobbes argues in favour of represen </p><p>tation and against democracy even though his argument that every man </p><p>is born free and equal can be said to be democratic. Meanwhile, Rousseau </p><p>insisted, vice-versa, on the sovereignty of the people against representation. </p><p>Obviously they shared the unchanged idea that democracy means nothing else than the reign of the people over themselves </p><p>- for Hobbes a terrible </p><p>image and for Rousseau something too nice to be actualized.23 Further </p><p>more, since the Reformation and the Enlightenment the concept of democ </p><p>racy was sporadically used to identify some specific elements of the mixed constitution in England (Blackstone, De Tolme, John Adams), of the </p><p>republican constitutions of Switzerland and its cantons, of the Netherlands, </p><p>21) Hie philosophical work of Aristotle was unknown in the West from the fifth century all </p><p>the way to the late twelfth century. 221 See Claire R. Sherman (1995), 240-52; Karl Ubl (2000), 134ff., R.W. Dyson (2003), 203-05 and 246-50. 23) "A prendre le terme dans la rigueur de l'acception, il n'a jamais existe de veritable demo </p><p>cratic, et il n'en existera jamais [...] S'il y avait un peuple de dieux, il se gouvernerait demo </p><p>cratiquement. Un gouvernement si parfait ne convient pas a des hommes." Translation: "In </p><p>its most rigorous sense, there has never been a true democracy, such a thing will never exist </p><p>[...] If a people of god existed, it would govern itself democratically. Such a perfect govern ment is not appropriate for mankind." Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social, (1959 </p><p>1969), III, 4. </p><p>This content downloaded from on Wed, 29 Oct 2014 07:11:39 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p></li><li><p>182 O. Hidalgo / Contributions to the History of Concepts 4 (2008) 176-201 </p><p>and also of some German cities.24 Nevertheless, the (Aristotelian) scepti </p><p>cism concerning the realization of a "pure" democracy still predominated </p><p>until the end of the eighteenth century. Indeed, als...</p></li></ul>


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