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Conceptual History of Democracy


  • Berghahn Books

    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

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  • i RIL L Contributions to the History of Concepts 4 (2008) 176-201

    Conceptual History and Politics:

    Is the Concept of Democracy Essentially Contested?

    Oliver Hidalgo Institut fiir Politikwissenschaft der Universitat Regensburg


    This article surveys the history of the concept of democracy from Ancient times to

    the present. According to the author, the conceptual history of democracy shows that

    the overwhelming success of the concept is most of all due to its ability to subsume

    very different historical ideas and realities under its semantic field. Moreover, the

    historical evolution of the concept reveals that no unequivocal definition is possible

    because of the significant paradoxes, aporias, and contradictions it contains. These

    are popular sovereignty vs. representation, quality vs. quantity, liberty vs. equality,

    individual vs. collective, and, finally, the synchronicity between similarities and dis

    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

    cratic theory and practice are suffused with empirical and normative elements.


    democracy, conceptual history, conceptual politics, normative theory

    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

    (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

    to refer to a society in which people are able to elect and control their

    rulers as a means to guarantee freedom, equality, and the pursuit of self

    interest for all individuals.1 There are also countless other forms of govern

    " For a comprehensive analysis of ancient and modern democracies see Moses I. Finley

    (1980), Fritz Gschnitzer (1995), and Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick (1996).

    Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2008 DOI: 10.1163/187465608X363463

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  • O. Hidalgo / Contributions to the History of Concepts 4 (2008) 176-201 177

    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

    tions and qualifications. Most traditionally, one can speak of democracies

    that are liberal or republican, direct or representative, consensual or majori

    tarian, market or socially oriented. More recently, other variants acquired

    prominence such as participatory, deliberative and grassroots democracies,

    or even alternatives like demarchy, skewed democracy and non-partisan

    democracy. Finally, considering how democracies have evolved worldwide, even the possibility of a specific Islamic transformation of democracy or of

    a socialist and anarchist brand of democratization might expand the scope

    of the concept in the future.

    If a typology is plausible (a difficult task as it is, since nowadays the basic traits of a direct democracy -initiatives, referenda and recalls

    take place

    within the representative system and the people sometimes not only han

    dle legislative but certain executive and judicial powers as well), we cannot

    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


    Rather than succumbing to a mood of dismay, we must take into con

    sideration W. B. Gallie's classical statement that democracy - like justice or arts is yet another one among those "essentially contested concepts"

    which lack unique standards of definition.3 Furthermore (and fortunately) the contest seems to concern first and foremost the interpretation of the

    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

    to assess what is the best interpretation of the concept of democracy or

    whether all there is to be done is to accept a juxtaposition of competing

    versions. This approach implies a second, deeper problem, namely, the extent to which conceptual history might help in acquiring a normative

    perception of democracy. At first glance, there can only be an answer in the

    negative: conceptual history (here understood as the description and anal

    ysis of concrete historical semantics, origins, derivations and alterations of

    8 Giovanni Sartori (1992), 11. 3> See Walter B. Gallie (1956). 4) See some considerations concerning normative concepts presented by Stephen Lukes

    (1974) and Rainer Forst (2003), 50-52.

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  • 178 O. Hidalgo / Contributions to the History of Concepts 4 (2008) 176-201

    concepts) apparently belongs to the empirical paradigm in social sciences,5

    therefore a normative notion of democracy (and not only a reflection of

    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

    ceed to analyze the historical and conceptual contexts that provide the

    framework for the development of a normative theory of democracy after

    the linguistic turn.6 It is therefore possible to separate conceptual history

    from an abstract history of ideas even if it remains closely bound to norma

    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

    ceptual history of democracy might function as a basis for any kind of

    conceptual politics7 depending on whether they are able to extrapolate the

    "best interpretation" of the concept of democracy. However, first I would

    like to discuss, briefly, democracy as a historical concept, before showing that conceptual history also leads to the necessity of a normative concep

    tion that reflects the aporias and contradictions of democracy.

    1. The Concept of Democracy

    As it is well-known, ancient Greece is the birthplace of democracy.8 The

    word "5r|poKpaxia" (which means the "rule by the people") was invented

    by the Athenians in order to define their political system after 462/461

    B.C., particularly after Ephialtes put in place the proposals of Cleisthenes in 508/507 B.C, disempowering the aristocratic Areopagand turning most

    5) Through his writings on Quentin Skinner and Reinhart Koselleck, Kari Palonen (2002)

    intends to turn the history of concepts into a subversive critique of normative political

    theory. 6) Arno Waschkuhn (1998), part 3. 7)

    "Conceptual politics" is my translation of Reinhard Mehring's concept of Begriffspolitik

    by which he wants to characterize both the method of Carl Schmitt and Reinhart Koselleck

    in contrast to their own conceptions of sociologist or historian of concepts. See Reinhard

    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

    Sumerian City and the first republics of ancient India but these examples are at best democ

    racies avant la lettre which makes them irrelevant for this article.

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  • O. Hidalgo / Contributions to the History of Concepts 4 (2008) 176-201 179

    of the important political decisions to the assembly constituted exclusively

    by male citizens.9 At the time, the first principles of democracy were free

    dom and equality all citizens being free by birth each one would accept

    the other as an equal,10 and henceforth by ruling they accepted to be ruled

    in return. After the second half of the fifth century, democracy also m