Reflections on Problems, Politics and Knowledge: Replies to the Discussants of ‘Democratic Problem-Solving’, Justin Cruickshank, Part 2

SERRC —  December 15, 2017 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham,

Cruickshank, Justin. “Reflections on Problems, Politics and Knowledge: Replies to the Discussants of Democratic Problem-Solving.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 25-38.

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The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers, and includes both parts. Shortlinks: Part One: Part Two:

In this piece, Justin Cruickshank of the University of Birmingham responds to recent critiques published at the Reply Collective of his recent book, Democratic Problem-SolvingBecause of its length, we have split his response into two parts. This is the second.

Problem-Solving Dialogue

Benton holds that Popper’s philosophy of science cannot meaningfully lead to a social and political conception of problem-solving given the latter’s difference from experimental activity in a laboratory. Social policy changes cannot be analogous to a critical problem-solving dialogue in science where a conjecture is refuted and a new theory then sought, because what constitutes a refutation and indeed what constitutes a problem are deeply normative and complex matters. Furthermore, in practice, policy-implementation is more like “utopian social engineering” than “piecemeal social engineering” because policies are imposed to fit with party political ideological commitments, with scant regard for their problematic consequences (Benton 2017, 63). Benton then argues that I am caught in a catch-22 when the reforms a more dialogic democracy could bring about require an institutional context which presumes the existence of a dialogic democracy that does not exist. How can dialogic democracy work when the conditions for it do not exist and if the conditions for it existed there would be no need to call for it?

To this, I argue here that there has to be a divergence in politics between mainstream politics and radical politics. Horizontal dialogue between groups of lay agents could entail pressure to limit harm from the state by, for example, mobilising against “austerity”-driven welfare cuts that are killing people, but ultimately people will need to remove the state and capitalism. The conditions for people to this can develop from existing problems concerning poverty and exploitation. Consciousness can be raised by different groups in dialogue with each other realising the problems they face stem from systemic issues and are not discrete anomalies in an otherwise functional and legitimate social order.

This does not map directly onto a falsificationist experimental method. It does though correspond to a dialogue that rejects authoritative sources, including public intellectuals seeking the types of reforms Sassower envisages, and which uses criticism to replace the prevailing justifications of the existing order. Such justifications would appeal to human nature, “pragmatism” (there can be no change) and neoliberal-individualist “justice” for the “hard working individual”, which defines human nature to fit the market which is actually constructed to fit corporate interests, with wealth distribution to the richest 1% being masked from lay knowledge.

Bacevic argues that while she is more sympathetic to the anarchism Chis and I espouse, she would prioritise liberal democracy over epistemic democracy, because of a concern with right-wing populism (2017, 52). Prioritising a plurality of voices is fine unless fascists then use it to spread hate and gain power. The debate has to be policed to fit within a liberal-democratic institutional and normative framework. Bacevic’s concern is well-placed and she is aware that obviously the epistemic-dialogic freedoms according under liberal democracy, despite being less extensive than those proposed for an epistemic democracy, can still facilitate the development of aggressively nationalistic and right-wing views.

Shadows of Max Weber

To suggest a way of dealing with this I will turn to Kemp’s response to the book. Kemp notes how I address Reed’s concern about problem-solving being an attempt to engage in a technocratic endeavour by arguing that for Popper all knowledge is mediated by social conventions and so admitting that problem-solving in social and politics matters is conceptually mediated does not take us far from Popper’s conception of science. Indeed, while some see Popper as a technocrat and positivist others, like Newton-Smith (1981) and Stove (2007 [1998]), see Popper as an “irrationalist”, because he argued that scientific decisions are influenced by social conventions: we decide to accept evidence A as a falsification for theory B because of convention C, rather than because raw reality falsifies theory B.

Kemp (2017, 27-28) also correctly notes a change in what problem-solving can mean when I move from the original article to the rest of the book. Originally I used the term in an interchangeable way with “adaptation”, which could imply that a problem had a definitive and objective solution waiting to be found, but then change to use problem-solving in such as way as to also imply it is as much about ‘problematizing’ as problems, which allows for a more open-ended approach. To see problem-solving in terms of conceptually mediated problematizing means the debate can always focus on the terms of reference used to define and try to solve problems, and the reasons why some definitions are chosen over others.

Kemp, following Max Weber, then raises the issue that a commitment to a particular definition or framing of a problem which stems from a normative commitment may entail a potentially debate-stopping dogmatism that is beyond reason. For Weber, values where wholly subjective and so beyond rational dialogue, with definitions of problems therefore benign beyond rational dialogue. Kemp argues that such a view need not be adhered to (because people can be open to rational debate about values) but notes it does raise an important question concerning how to find a balance between imposing framings on others (Rortian humiliation) or just submitting to others’ framings (2017, 31). This resonates with Bacevic’s concern about epistemic dialogue entailing the suppression of voices if the far right were able to gain traction in an unpoliced dialogic sphere. To deal with this balancing act, Kemp suggests basing a “non-impositional dialogue” on the search for anomalies, with “solutions” to problems being “coherence-expanding reconstructions” (2017, 32).

One way this could be engaged with, I would argue, is to undermine the claims by neoliberals about increasing individual freedom and neoconservatives about bolstering national power and security by showing how neoliberalism serves corporations and now neoconservatism has a contempt for ordinary people and serves elite interests through war and economic colonialism. In pursuing this, one could explore the funding of the Henry Jackson Society and publicise how members of this, including Michael Gove (a Tory MP) and Gisela Stuart (a former Labour MP), sway politics in a way that is driven by a commitment to a ‘think thank’ most people have not heard of, and which is committed to pursuing elite interests.

To return to Bacevic’s concern, I would say that policing dialogue to accept liberal democracy may be more of a problem than she realises because the terms of reference offered by some elite groups may be designed to smuggle in radically right-wing policies and ideas, without people being aware of this. Brexit, for example, was presented as offering a way to protect the NHS by putting £350 million a week from the EU into the NHS, but not only was this denied immediately after the referendum, but many Brexit supporting politicians want a ‘hard Brexit’, to reduce public services and create a deregulated low (corporate) tax haven for transnational capital. An elitist policy was pursued by populist means.

When it comes to the problem of right wing populism being unregulated with a more unpoliced epistemic democratic approach, the response could be that the supporters of the right could be engaged in slow dialogue to illustrate the anomalies and inconsistencies in their positions and differences in interests between the elite and the lay audience meant to support them. Obviously, that would not be easy but it is not an impossible task. The alternative may be that the neoliberal and neoconservative right shift the terms of reference, or political “common sense”, with increasingly right-wing – including nationalistic and xenophobic – ideas dominating the political mainstream within a liberal democratic framework.

On a related note, I wrote a piece for the SERRC (Cruickshank 2017) which argued that elites were trying to naturalise hierarchy and get people to see others as “things”, with critical pedagogy offering one way to tackle this.

Image by ydant via Flickr / Creative Commons


Conceptions of Deliberative Democracy

Vernon drew a useful contrast between epistemically conceived politics and an interest-based politics (2017, 5-6). Popper developed a “subjectless” epistemology for science, whereby the focus is on ideas being publicly tested, rather than the authority of the idea-holder. The political application of this broadly fits within the ambit of deliberative democracy, where the focus is on competition between ideas and not between interest-driven persons (2017, 5). Rorty, by contrast with Popper, did focus on interests, Vernon argues. Although Rorty recognised some role for cultural and identity politics to increase our sense of “we”’, it ended in the fetishism of theory, when change comes from large scale collective organisation serving an set of interests, such as trades unions (2017, 6). While Vernon thinks Rorty is stronger than Popper in recognising the role of interests in motivating agency and progressive change, he does criticise Rorty for trying to posit what I would term a meta-interest, in the form of patriotism, preferring Popper’s open society, to any notion of a closed “we”.

For while Rorty wants to expand our sense of we, patriotism, even a liberal minded patriotism, defines interests in a zero-sum way ultimately, with “our” interests being different from “theirs”. In the age of Brexit, the Trojan Horse hoax and Trump, I would argue that Rorty’s pragmatic bounding of an inclusive we along the national boundary is dangerous and potentially reactionary. Rorty’s sense of we could exacerbate the problem of a dialogue policed to conform to liberal democratic tenets actually being subverted by elite interests pursuing very right-wing politics with a liberal-democratic veneer. Nationalism is a potent and fictitious sense of identity and one that is very effective in serving elite interests via populist rhetoric.

Vernon also notes that Rorty is stronger on the argument about the need to recognise others as worthy of respect. This means recognising others as “like-us” by increasing our sense of solidarity and doing what we can to decrease socially acceptable sadisms. In a subject-less epistemic democracy there can be no basis for such respect and the only focus is on the best argument defeated and displacing the inferior argument. Assuming there were universally agreed criteria for such assessments to be affected, the problem would still remain that arguments stem from persons and persons as persons deserve respect. A vote may decide an outcome but behind that outcome lie people with views different from the outcome and they will not turn into cognitive and emotional tabula rasa with a vote wiping away previous convictions.

Vernon is correct to argue that we need some notion of interests shaping politics, to recognise that even if some see politics as the “free market of ideas”, such as Popper with his conception of science as perfected liberal democracy and Sassower with his account of public intellectuals as “gadflies” serving a public hungry for better ideas, interests shape the formation of policies and the formation of arguments. One does not have to be a determinist to hold that interests will play a role in argument, deliberation and acceptance of policies and ideas. This was implicit in my arguments about people using horizontal dialogue to reject the elite – the elite pursue their interests which run counter to those of the majority.

Vernon is also correct to argue against the subjectless approach to democratic dialogue. This is why I argued for slow dialogue in place of Popper’s speedy dialogue. To be ethical for Popper is to improve oneself as fast as possible to run away from any hint of dogmatism, but this is a very individualistic and detached ethical position, which is odd coming from someone who advocates a subjectless epistemology – “epistemology without a knowing subject” (Popper, 1972).

In knowledge we are shaped by conventions such that falsifications are mediated by conventions, but ethics unlike knowledge remains a radically individualist endeavour. In contrast to speedy dialogue, slow dialogue allows for the engagement with those who have very different views and, as my position did not see voting as the closure of a dialogue, this can allow for slow but significant change over time. In other words, slow dialogue presumes a level of respect to motivate it in the first place, and political dialogue is not terminated when policy decisions are made, because it concerns lay agents who see their interests are not directly aligned with the state. In talking with others about problems, policies could be discussed, but no policy would be a definitive solution to a technocratic problem.

Before considering Benesch’s criticism of my arguments about the speed of dialogues I will note that while Vernon states that he is not aware of any list of suffering-reduction achievements noted by Popper, unlike Rorty who does furnish such a list, Popper does actually give us a list of suffering-reduction points to address. These are in the essay The History of our Time in Conjectures and Refutations (1963). Popper’s list of points cites: poverty, unemployment, sickness and pain, penal cruelty, religious and racial discrimination, rigid class differences, slavery, war and lack of educational opportunities (1963, 370).

Engaging Collaboration

Benesch takes issue with my criticism of Popper for replacing justificationist speedy dialogues with critical speedy dialogues. He argues that: Popper carefully considered texts before replying; that critical dialogue in science and politics was a slow process of piecemeal change; and that Lakatos’ claims to correct Popper were erroneous because Popper spoke of metaphysical research programmes, which would be slow to change and which pre-empted Lakatos’s argument about research programmes and naïve and sophisticated falsificationism (2017, 50-51).

In response to this I argue the following. The issue for Popper was not so much the “preparation time” but the nature of argument and dialogue itself: how much time one spent preparing an argument was, like the origin of an argument, not relevant for Popper, given what Vernon called the “subjectless” epistemology, which saw ideas, detached from people, in competition with each other. A quick defeat of an idea in an ideational permanent revolution would speed us along with epistemic and ethical progress. The latter is of course problematic, given that ethics pertains to a subject unlike ideas. The impersonal clashing of ideas would improve the subject who let this happen without using dogmatism to corrupt this competition between sui generis abstractions.

On the second point Benesch argues that “[t]he collaborative effort of which Popper speaks will most often entail the ‘slow piecemeal ideational change’ that Cruickshank incorrectly claims Popper rejected’ (2017, 51). When discussing with Kuhn, Popper (1970) argued that we are prisoners of the conceptual framework but we can break out of this at any time, albeit into a “bigger and roomier one”. Kuhn was correct to hold that we always see the world via a conceptual scheme but incorrect to hold that this took a long time to change because we could “break out of this at any time” for Popper. In other words, progress turned on critical speedy dialogue with any recognition of ideas having traction taking us towards dogmatism and relativism. However, when Popper discusses political debate he may seem implicitly to endorse a slow conception of dialogue. Popper argues that:

It is often asserted that discussion is only possible between people who have a common language and accept common basic assumptions. I think that is a mistake. All that is needed is a readiness to learn from one’s partner in the discussion, which includes a genuine which to understand what he [sic] intends to say. If this readiness is there, the discussion will be the more fruitful the more the partners’ backgrounds differ. Thus the value of a discussion depends largely upon the variety of the competing views. Had there been no Tower of Babel, we should invent it. The liberal does not dream of a perfect consensus of opinion; he [sic] only hopes for the mutual fertilization of opinions and the consequent growth of ideas. Even where we solve a problem to universal satisfaction, we create, in solve it, many new problems over which we are bound to disagree. This is not to be regretted (1963, 352).

This may entail a critical slow dialogue because it would take time to understand those with different views and understanding would have to be worked at – one would need to work to get towards what Gadamer (2013 [1975]) called a “fusion of horizons”. If this is accepted then I think it points to a tension in Popper’s work between an ethical reaction to dogmatism which linked ethics to speed and a later position which focused more on dialogue being about understanding others’ terms of reference in a condition where there was no universal normative language. This may also lead to a tension between the subjectless epistemology mentioned by Vernon and a more embodied epistemology.

As regards the comment about Lakatos, I would say that Popper’s metaphysical research programmes were removed from scientific experiment unlike the core of the research programme for Lakatos. For Popper, metaphysical research programmes could provide inspiration for testable hypotheses, but were, from a strictly scientific point of view, irrelevant, because the origin of testable ideas was irrelevant; whereas for Lakatos, the core of a research programme would eventually be falsified. Metaphysical research programmes were, in effect, thus removed from critical dialogue, whereas a research programme for Lakatos was subject to slow change through critical dialogue changing the auxiliary hypotheses until the core needed changing eventually.

Benesch also criticises me for incorrectly attributing to what I called “the optimistic Popper” a belief in majoritarianism or “popular sovereignty” as Popper called it, where the majority qua majority are justified politically and ethically (2017, 53). Perhaps I could have been clearer when I discussed this in the book (pp. 109-110), but I did not regard the optimistic Popper as holding to a majoritarian view. I argued that the optimistic Popper, like Dewey, would see democracy as an “ethical way of life” where there was always an on-going dialogue, which was not closed off by any formal process such as voting. The argument about the Towel of Babel indicates such an outlook.

By contrast, the pessimistic Popper wanted to restrict democratic engagement the infrequent formal act of voting and prohibit coalition governments and proportional representation. Falsification was to be applied to politics by a decisive vote on a party’s claim to have succeeded in implementing useful policies. Politics for this Popper was to be a monologic affair.

Benesch makes a number of highly critical points about the chapter by Sassower and Jensen. I will not presume to speak on their behalf.

Shearmur, and Bacevic, both note that the notion of a unified public sphere has been criticised, with Nancy Fraser, for example taking Habermas to task on this. I agree with these points. The public sphere is not a sphere of abstract individuals seeking purely cognitive epistemic engagement, but is rather a sphere where different groups have different interests.

Shearmur also makes the important point that Popper’s friendship with Hayek did not translate into political agreement, given Popper’s “social democratic” leanings. Shearmur proceeds to criticise Popper’s concept of piecemeal social engineering by arguing that there is more role for the authority of specialist knowledge than Popper permits (2017, 11-12). Given the usual critical reading of Popper as an elitist technocratic (see the chapter by Reed in the book, and Benton’s review), it is strange to see an argument for what is in effect a shift from a more engaged democratic position to a more elitist one. Shearmur mentions the ghost of Plato (2017, 12), but given his critical appreciation of Hayek it may well be the ghost of Walter Lippmann that is at work here, with lay agents being seen a priori as too fickle and ignorant to engage in meaningful political debate. That is surely an essentialist dogmatism we can use Popper to reject.

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