The Lost Art of Democratic Debate: Econocracy, Populism, and the Humanities
Penultimate draft 30 April 2021
Henrik Bohlin, professor of intellectual history, Södertörn University, Stockholm,
Forthcoming in Peder Thalén & Iulian Cananau (eds.), Populism, Democracy, and the
Humanities. Interdisciplinary Explorations and Critical Inquiries, Rowman & Littlefield,
Totowa, New Jersey.
For different but related reasons, democracy and the humanities have come under attack in
recent years. In both cases, I argue, part of the explanation is econocracy, a form of technocracy
in which the importance and value of political goals are defined by their effects on the economy,
while in turn the economy is considered a matter best understood and handled by experts rather
than by public opinion. Populism is a reaction to a perceived hijacking of the political system by
a ruling econocratic elite. The challenge it poses, therefore, is to reconstruct a public sphere
which allows for broader participation and argumentation on non-economic as well as economic
matters of value. While the humanities have no clear social function in an econocratic political
system, they have important tasks to fulfil in a non-econocratic democratic public sphere.
Jürgen Habermas’s notion of a “practical-hermeneutic cognitive interest” is a key to
understanding the nature of those tasks. Drawing on the Aristotelian concepts of techné and
praxis, Habermas distinguishes “technical,” factual questions concerning the best means to
achieve given ends, from “practical,” normative-factual questions, concerning not only what
means should be chosen but also what ends ought to be pursued. The role of the humanities is to
contribute to discussions on such practical questions, not by directly answering the questions
themselves, but rather by a hermeneutic effort to make explicit decisive elements in the implicit
fore-understandings of the participants to the discussions, thus making those implicit
assumptions available for critical scrutiny.
Populism and technocracy have been called “the two organizing poles of the contemporary
political landscape” (Bickerton and Accetti 2017, 187), and the main opponents in “the
defining political conflict of our era” (Esmark 2020, 1). On the one hand, power is
increasingly concentrated in the hands of unelected committees, networks, and regulatory
bodies, which draw their legitimacy primarily from their technical and administrative
expertise. On the other hand, populist movements gain support and influence by appealing
directly to the people in opposition to experts, elites, and established institutions (Bickerton
and Accetti 2017, 186). Technocracy depoliticises political decision-making by removing it
from the influence of parties, interest groups, and democratic public debate. Populists respond
by calling for repoliticisation, hoping thus to restore popular democratic control. Rejecting the
technocratic view that political decision-making requires knowledge and expertise beyond the
capacities of ordinary voters, populists claim that complex political issues are in fact simple
and that ordinary common sense is all that is needed to deal with them effectively. Frustrated
with the practice of making decisions in opaque networks of experts where no single
individual can be held accountable, they elect charismatic “strong leaders” who assume full
responsibility for their decisions and claim to have a direct and unmediated understanding of
ordinary people’s needs and sentiments (Esmark 2020, 207–214). Recent developments in
countries like Brazil, Hungary, and the US illustrate how the struggle between technocratic
depoliticisation and populist repoliticisation can become a “death spiral” (Esmark 2020, 231–
32), a destructive pattern that ultimately threatens democracy.
Can democratic societies escape this vicious circle? Is there a third way beyond technocracy
and populism? Expanding on ideas from Jürgen Habermas’s early thought, I will argue that
there is and that the humanities and interpretive social sciences are essential to it.
At the root of the technocracy-populism dispute lies a problem about the role of knowledge
and science in political decision-making. Should political decisions be determined as much as
possible by science-based expert knowledge, or should the people first and foremost trust
their own common sense to make the right choices? Habermas sees the source of this
dilemma in an overly narrow “positivist” or “objectivist” conception of knowledge, which
includes a strict distinction between “is” and “ought,” matters of fact and matters of value.
The positivist tenet that the ultimate aims of collective and individual action cannot be
meaningfully reasoned about has, in effect, exempted the most fundamental aims of political
decision-making from critical questioning and discussion. Thus,
progress of a rationalization limited in terms of empirical science to technical control is paid for
with the corresponding growth of a mass of irrationality in the domain of praxis itself. For
action still demands an orientation, as it did before. But now it is dissected into a rational
implementation of techniques and strategies and an irrational choice of so-called value systems.
The price paid for economy in the selection of means is a decisionism set wholly free in the
selection of the highest-level goals (Habermas 1973a, 265).
By decisionism, Habermas here means a political system where, as in today’s authoritarian
populism, the technical-administrative execution of political aims may be highly rationalised
but the aims themselves are determined in ways that “escape compelling arguments and
remain inaccessible to cogent discussion” (Habermas 1987, 63). Donald Trump’s “Believe
me,” and “It’s going to be great” exemplify a decisionist style of motivating, or pseudo-
motivating, political decisions. (For a different interpretation of decisionism, cf. Esmark 2020,
237–47.) Technocracy, by contrast, is a system in which not only the means but even the
over-all aims of political decision-making are determined by experts and administrators, or by
politicians following the same principles of discourse and thinking. A common denominator
is the assumption that matters of value cannot in the end be decided by rational
argumentation. Hence, this idea has had profound effect not just in the sciences, but also on
society, politics, and the democratic public sphere.
In an attempt to re-think the relation between scientific theory and political practice,
Habermas argues that science (in the wide sense of the German Wissenschaft) presupposes
cognitive frameworks, or viewpoints, which ultimately depend on human interests. The
natural sciences and some of the social sciences (notably economics) conceptualise reality
from a perspective defined by the “technical” interest in controlling the natural and social
environment. The interpretive humanities and social sciences, by contrast, conceptualise
reality from viewpoints defined by the “practical” interest in communication and interaction
with others and the “emancipatory” interest in human autonomy (Habermas 1971, 308–11).
The practical, non-technical fundamental orientation of the interpretive sciences gives them
the potential to take on the action-guiding task renounced by positivist science and help
democracy escape the technocracy-populism dilemma by contributing a collective practical
rationality to the democratic public sphere. However, this is possible only if they are first
freed from their misconceived objectivist constraints.
Positivism as the Source of Technocracy
A remark by the British intellectual historian Stefan Collini may serve to exemplify what
Habermas calls the “substitution of technology for enlightened action” (Habermas 1971, 316).
Much contemporary discourse on political matters, Collini points out,
finds itself in the self-defeating position of arguing that the carrying-on of activity A is justified
only if it can be shown to contribute to making more money, while acknowledging that the
purpose of making more money is to enable us to continue doing things such as carrying on
activity A. Clearly, the fundamental difficulty lies in the unchallenged position of ‘prosperity’
as a goal (Collini 2012, 110–111).
Proposals to increase public spending on culture, for instance, will typically be backed up by
evidence for positive economic effects expected to result from the proposed measures, such as
increased production and reduced health care costs stemming from positive health effects of
culture. But why is economic growth worth pursuing in the first place, if not because it allows
more resources to be spent on worthwhile things such as, for instance, culture?
The paradox is a consequence of certain philosophical assumptions implicit in technocratic
thought, and arguably even in so-called common sense. David Hume famously argued that an
“ought” cannot be derived from an “is” (Hume 2007, 18.104.22.168). “Reason, being cool and
disengaged,” can only determine facts (“matters of fact” and “relations of ideas” in Hume’s
terminology), but cannot distinguish between good and bad or right and wrong, or determine
whether one course of action ought to be preferred to another (Hume 1998, App. 1.21). To
illustrate his point, Hume famously remarks that it would not be against reason to prefer the
destruction of the whole world to the scratching of one’s finger, or one’s own death to a small
uneasiness of a complete stranger (Hume 2007, 22.214.171.124).
Hume does not deny that there can be valid argumentation on practical matters. However,
reason “directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the
means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery.” Hume illustrates by the example of
someone who is asked why he performs physical exercises and answers that he wants to
maintain his health. If asked why he finds health desirable, he may answer that sickness is
painful. But if the questioner goes on to ask why he considers pain something to be avoided,
then no further reasons can be given. That exercise is a means to attain health, and health a
means to avoid pain, are factual matters which can be reasoned about, but the absence of pain
is an “ultimate end,” valuable in itself and not just as a means to something else. Such ends
“recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any
dependance [sic] on the intellectual faculties” (Hume 1998, App. 1.18).
In his “Science as a Vocation,” Max Weber gives a classical statement of an influential view,
based on the is-ought distinction, on the relation between scientific knowledge and political
action. Science can identify means that will tend to lead to given aims and indicate the
probability that they will do so, but it cannot determine whether a certain aim is worth
pursuing or not. Scientists provide “knowledge of the techniques whereby we can control
life—both external objects and human actions—through calculation,” but unlike “prophets
and saviors,” or Plato’s philosopher kings, they have no answer to the question “What then
shall we do and how shall we organize our lives?” (Weber 2004, 25–27, 31). Although not a
positivist in any ordinary sense of the word, Weber here effectively sums up the set of ideas
which Habermas refers to as positivism or objectivism.
It has been emphasised that technocracy and populism have a common denominator in that
both are opposed to traditional democratic party politics, with its power struggles and
compromises between competing interests and ideologies, and that, in this important respect,
they are just “two sides of the same coin, the coin being the critique of party democracy”
(Bickerton and Accetti 2017, 201). But from a Habermasian perspective, the common roots
can be seen to go deeper, namely, to the positivist idea that the ultimate aims of political
decision-making cannot be determined by reason. Technocratic governance, being based on
value-free positivist science, remains neutral in principle on any “practical,” normative issue.
However, the technocratic depoliticisation of politics is possible only because the ultimate
aims of politics are so to speak smuggled in through the back door, as Collini’s paradox aptly
illustrates. Authoritarian populism, by contrast, is quite explicit about its value system and
ultimate political aims, but unable to defend them by rational argumentation and consequently
not open to critical questioning of them—hence its authoritarian style of thought and
Econocracy and the Crisis of Democracy
The contemporary political system of developed countries has been described as an
“econocracy,” a form of technocracy in which “political goals are defined in terms of their
effect on the economy, which is believed to be a distinct system with its own logic that
requires experts to manage it” (Earle, Moran and Ward-Perkins 2017, 7). Laden with
economic jargon like “competitiveness,” “efficiency,” and “employability,” much of today’s
political debate focuses on problems of the most effective means to achieve growth, national
competitiveness, and similar economic aims, while there is little discussion of those aims
themselves. The increasing importance of economics in politics can be illustrated by the fact
that in Britain, the word “economy” was used only twice in the manifesto of a winning
political party between 1900 and the end of the Second World War, but 59 times in the 2015
manifesto of the winning Conservative Party (Earle, Moran and Ward-Perkins 2017, 14).
Critics who question the value of economic growth or prosperity in an econocracy will not be
thrown into prison or burnt at the stake. More likely, the reaction will be similar to what one
could imagine Collini encountering if he were to express his doubts on the value of money in
an everyday conversation, namely, confusion and embarrassed silence, as if what was said
were just pointless theoretical hair-splitting, too absurd to deserve a serious response. The
status of economic ends as ultimate, in Hume’s sense, shows itself not in that they are
proclaimed from the rooftops and pulpits, but rather in that they are passed over in silence,
being treated as part of the “that goes without saying” common ground of beliefs and norms
which everyone implicitly takes for granted and without which everyday communication
would be impossible. One is thus reminded of Hannah Arendt’s remark that modern
governance has evolved into a “no-man rule.”
But this nobody, the assumed one interest of society as a whole in economics as well as the
assumed one opinion of polite society in the salon, does not cease to rule for having lost its
personality. […] [T]he rule by nobody is not necessarily no-rule; it may indeed, under certain
circumstances, even turn out to be one of its crudest and most tyrannical versions (Arendt 1998,
One effect of econocracy, and of technocracy more generally, is a crisis of legitimation for the
humanities. As Terry Eagleton puts it, “all publicly funded academic research must now
regard itself as part of the so-called knowledge economy, with a measurable impact on
society. Such impact is rather easier to gauge for aeronautical engineers than ancient
historians. Pharmacists are likely to do better at this game than phenomenologists” (Eagleton
Another effect is a democratic deficit. Once political issues have been redefined as technical
questions to be discussed in the language of economics and other fields of expertise, the
majority of citizens become unable to take active part in the discussions. Margaret Thatcher is
known for using the phrase “There is no alternative” to motivate austerity measures by
pointing to beneficial long-term economic consequences which, according to the economic
expertise, were to be expected from them. TINA, as the phrase is abbreviated, exemplifies
how political issues are reconceived as purely technical questions of the most efficient means
to achieve independently given aims rather than choices between conflicting political values,
and so become transferred from the arena of public political debate to that of the experts,
whose judgements the public is asked to accept on authority (cf. Séville 2017).
Habermas famously argued in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere that the
bourgeouis public sphere, where citizens participated in public argumentation as “the subjects
of public opinion” (Habermas 1989, 66), disintegrated in the 20th century.
At one time publicity had to be gained in opposition to the secret politics of the monarchs; it
sought to subject person or issue to rational-critical public debate and to render political
decisions subject to review before the court of public opinion. Today, on the contrary, publicity
is achieved with the help of the secret politics of interest groups; it earns public prestige for a
person or issue and thereby renders it ready for acclamatory assent in a climate of nonpublic
opinion (Habermas 1989, 201).
One recognises in this description what the sociologist Colin Crouch has later called “post-
democracy,” a formally democratic system where
while elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly
controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professional expert in the techniques of
persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of
citizens plays a passive, quiescent, even apathetic part, responding only to the signals given
them. Behind this spectacle of the electoral game, politics is really shaped in private by
interaction between elected governments and elites which overwhelmingly represent business
interests (Crouch 2004, 4).
“Post-democracy” provides fertile ground for populist leaders who promise to give back
power to the people, often using explicitly anti-technocratic rhetoric (Earle, Moran and Ward-
Perkins 2017, 19–24). A well-known example is a comment by Michael Gove, then British
Justice Secretary and a leading figure in the pro-Brexit campaign, in an interview from 2016.
“I’m asking the public to trust themselves. I’m asking the British public to take back control
of our destiny from those organisations which are distant, unaccountable, elitists and don’t
have their own interests at heart. […] I think the people of this country have had enough of
experts with organisations from acronyms” (Gove 2016).
In sum, the positivist idea of value-free reason confronts democratic societies with the
dilemma of either having the ultimate ends of politics be decided by strong-willed charismatic
populist leaders, or else minimise arbitrariness and maximise administrative rationality by
handing such decisions over as much as possible to technocratic experts, leaving only a
residue of arbitrary choice to the subjective individual preferences of citizens.
Beyond Positivism: The Interpretive Sciences as Practical and Emancipatory Inquiry
As Habermas emphasises, the positivist restriction of rationality to questions of fact does not
“bring about the disappearance of the problem-complex connected with the decision of
practical issues.” The question is just whether such decisions are to be made after something
like phronetic rational deliberation, or be “simply decided upon, one way or other”
(Habermas 1973a, 265). “Either there are still other forms of decision than the theoretical-
technical for the rational clarification of practical issues that cannot be completely answered
by technologies and strategies, or no reasons can be given for decisions in such issues”
(Habermas 1987, 64).
Habermas therefore takes upon himself the philosophical task of exploring the possibility and
nature of a form of practical rationality that goes beyond the narrow boundaries of positivist
reason. Is there a form of rationality, other than “instrumental” means-towards-given-aims
reason, by which questions of value can be if not settled then at least meaningfully argued
about, within the limits set by the logical fact-value distinction?
Habermas argues that, in an important sense, there is really no such thing as disinterested,
value-free knowledge. The scientific perspectives from which reality is seen are always
determined by certain fundamental needs or interests, deriving from the basic conditions and
social forms of human life. These are the need to technically control the physical and social
environment, the need to establish mutual understanding in well-informed collective decision-
making and cooperation, and the human need for Mündigkeit, autonomy, responsibility, and
freedom from external oppression (Habermas 1971, 311–13). To each of these corresponds a
specific “cognitive interest” (erkenntnisleitende Interesse), which Habermas calls the
technical, the practical, and the emancipatory, respectively (Habermas 1971, 308).
Habermas uses the term “practical” in a sense derived from the Aristotelian concepts of praxis
and techné. “Technical” questions concern the selection of means towards independently
given goals, but not the goals themselves. “Practical” questions concern the goals of action
and not just the means to attain them; in Habermas words, they “are posed with a view to the
acceptance or rejection of norms, especially norms for action, the claims of validity of which
we can support or oppose with reason.” To deliberate rationally on practical questions, one
thus needs both “technical” knowledge to choose the right means for one’s aims, and
something akin to what Aristotle called phronesis, practical reason or wisdom, to choose the
right aims (Habermas 1973a, 2–3).
Nomothetic (law-seeking) sciences primarily make it possible to explain, predict, and,
indirectly, control events and states of affairs, and thus serve a technical cognitive interest
(Habermas 1971, 308–09). For example, Newton’s laws of motion and data on the position
and movements of the earth and moon enable astronomers to predict and in retrospect explain
lunar and solar eclipses; laws of supply and demand allow prediction of price development,
and to some degree manipulation of it; knowledge of virus spread help explain and contain
The interpretive sciences have relatively few “technical” applications. Instead, Habermas
contends, they are motivated primarily by a practical cognitive interest. Interpretation and
practical decision-making are connected because understanding is a precondition of collective
deliberation on action. In learning everyday language, we learn how to understand others and
make ourselves understood, how to establish understanding when an utterance is unclear or
incomprehensible, how to shape others’ assumptions and attitudes, and how to resolve
differences of opinion about aims, norms, and values (Habermas 1986, 294–96). Hermeneutic
interpretation extends these everyday capabilities to cases where the cultural, temporal, or
social distance is greater and understanding therefore requires interpretive procedures such as
learning the language and acquainting oneself with the social and historical context
(Habermas 1970, 205).
Practical deliberation can be either individual or collective. The collective dimension of
praxis is essential to the democratic public sphere, where citizens “form themselves into a
collective subject of the whole, that is capable of action,” ideally through a process of rational
deliberation where every citizen can participate, everyone is equal, and only the strength of
the arguments presented determines the outcome (Habermas 1973a, 255).
The “emancipatory” cognitive interest derives from the fact that language is not only a means
for communication, but also a medium of domination and social power which serves to
“legitimate relationships of organized force” (Habermas 1988, 172). In socialisation into a
common cultural tradition, learning a language is inextricably bound up with accepting a
common ground of implicit background knowledge and pre-understandings (Habermas 1986,
313; Habermas 1986, 295). It is in the nature of socialisation that background beliefs and
norms are for the most part taken over so to speak dogmatically, without critical questioning.
We are, in this sense, in “bondage” to tradition.
Natural languages are informal, and for that reason speaking subjects cannot come face to face
with their language as they could with a closed system. […] [T]hey can be certain about the
meaning of something only to the extent that they also remain dependent, explicitly, on a
context which has been, on the whole, dogmatically transmitted and, implicitly, long since
preestablished (Habermas 1986, 295).
The “dogmatism” of tradition enables it to pass on not just valuable knowledge and insights
gained by previous generations, but likewise oppressive norms which have first been
established by violence and then over time become uncritically accepted as belonging to the
natural order of things, thus becoming part of the things that “everyone knows” and which
“go without saying.”
The critique of oppressive traditions was a major theme in the Enlightenment, which Kant
famously called man’s emergence from his self-imposed Unmündigkeit, immaturity, lack of
autonomy, and inability or unwillingness to think for himself. The opposite of Unmündigkeit
is Mündigkeit, maturity, autonomy, or responsibility, which is the word Habermas uses for the
“emancipatory interest” that guides critical studies in the social sciences and humanities
which aim to bring to light oppressive elements of cultural tradition and thus make it possible
to challenge them (Habermas 1971, 311).
Against the background of Habermas’s analysis, the humanities and interpretive social
sciences can be understood as a form of hermeneutic reflection on social practices of thought,
discourse, and action, with the broadly political (non-partisan and non-party-political) purpose
of making explicit traditions or systems of ideas and practices that implicitly shape the
behaviour of individuals and groups, and thereby enable critical questioning and assessment
of those traditions. The paradoxical fact about contemporary political discourse that Collini
emphasises is an example of how we are affected, sometimes in highly problematic ways, by
assumptions taken over implicitly and unreflectively by socialisation into cultural traditions.
The ultimate aim of practical hermeneutic inquiry is to contribute to political (in a wide sense
of the word) deliberation in the democratic public sphere. In his later works on deliberative
politics, Habermas likens the public sphere to a sensory apparatus, a “warning system with
sensors” (Habermas 1996, 359), that enables political decision-makers to become aware of
problems in society which require their attention, ways of conceptualising these problems,
and possible solutions (Habermas 1996, 366–81). Practical hermeneutic inquiry contributes a
reflective dimension to the processing of signals from the political sensory system by
identifying and critically exploring traditions, assumptions, norms, and concepts that are
already at work in that processing, that is, in political thought and discourse (again in a wide
sense of the word political). In accordance with Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutical theory,
such reflection takes “a path leading from practice toward making practice aware of itself
theoretically” (Gadamer 1981, 131), the aim being to make explicit the conventions that by
necessity always dominate us, the things that are “taken for granted and lies fully beyond the
explicit consciousness of anyone” (Gadamer 1981, 82).
Practical Hermeneutic Inquiry and the Lost Art of Democratic Debate
In 1967, Habermas commented on the plans for what would later become the Ben-Gurion
University in Israel. The new university was to be an instrument for the development of the
Negev desert, performing research and teaching in the natural sciences and technology for the
needs of future knowledge-intensive industrial enterprises. Habermas finds this “unusual,”
writing in a post-war West German context where it was considered a primary aim of
university education to educate reliable citizens of the new democratic order. The example of
the desert university suggests a radically different understanding of what universities are for,
“the peculiar idea that research and instruction today have to do only with the production and
transmission of technologically exploitable knowledge.” Universities stand at the crossroads
between these irreconcilable visions (Habermas 1987, 3–4).
Habermas comments that although it is undeniable that universities ought to contribute to the
economy, they should also provide political education of students by offering a place where
political issues can be discussed in a more reflective and less directly action-oriented mode of
thought than that of practical politics. Moreover, universities have a crucial task in
transmitting, interpreting, and developing the cultural tradition and self-understanding of
society, to “bring to consciousness, through reflection, the relation of living generations to
active cultural traditions, which otherwise operate dogmatically” (Habermas 1987, 9). The
interpretive social sciences and the humanities are particularly important for this reflective
social and political function of research and higher education (Habermas 1987, 2–3).
Since Habermas wrote this, what he described as unusual and peculiar has become normal, as
pressure has increased on universities to produce and transmit technologically exploitable
knowledge (cf., for example, Molesworth, Scullion and Nixon 2011). However, this does not
mean that universities have thereby ceased to fulfil an ideological and action-guiding
In every conceivable case, the enterprise of knowledge at the university level influences the
action-orienting self-understanding of students and the public. […] [I]t is conceivable that a
university rationalized as a factory would exert an influence on cultural self-understanding and
on the norms of social actors indirectly and without being conscious of its own role in doing so.
[…] [T]hen behind the back of its efficient efforts, it could be just as ideologically effective as
the traditional university used to be (Habermas 1987, 4).
The contemporary ideological dominance of econocracy and the rise of “post-democracy”
confirm this analysis. Collini’s paradox is, again, an illustration of how the apparent value-
freedom of technocratic thought and discourse conceals a particular set of political aims and
values which are implicitly taken for granted and do not become subject to critical
questioning and democratic debate.
In a TED Talk entitled “The lost art of democratic debate,” Michael Sandel argues that much
of today’s political controversies—over health care, the gap between rich and poor,
affirmative action and same-sex marriage, for example—turn into “shouting matches”
because they are really concerned with moral problems that are not clearly articulated as such.
There is a tendency to think that if we engage too directly with moral questions in politics, that's
a recipe for disagreement, and for that matter, a recipe for intolerance and coercion. So better to
shy away from, to ignore, the moral and the religious convictions that people bring to civic life.
It seems to me that […] a better way to mutual respect is to engage directly with the moral
convictions citizens bring to public life, rather than to require that people leave their deepest
moral convictions outside politics before they enter. That, it seems to me, is a way to begin to
restore the art of democratic argument (Sandel 2010).
This vision of revived democratic debate is in fundamental agreement with the Habermasian
idea of interpretive sciences guided by a practical cognitive interest. Like Habermas, Sandel is
careful to point out that problems of the most fundamental assumptions underlying practical
deliberation do not vanish just because they are ignored. “For all we may resist such ultimate
questions as the meaning of justice and the nature of the good life,” he remarks, “what we
cannot escape is that we live some answer to these questions—we live some theory—all the
time” (Sandel 1996, ix). As long as this is not generally recognised, we are—to borrow Hans-
Georg Gadamer’s words—“dominated by conventions,” by all that “is taken for granted and
lies fully beyond the explicit consciousness of anyone,” (Gadamer 1981, 82). Habermas’s
analysis shows how the humanities and interpretive social sciences have the potential to free
us, through hermeneutic reflection on practical problems, from what could be called the
tyranny of the that-goes-without-saying, the bondage to unreflectively accepted cultural
traditions, and so open for exploration and critical assessment of alternatives to entrenched
ways of thinking, acting, and organising society.
Conclusion: The Interpretive Sciences and the Democratic Public Sphere
In a passage quoted earlier, Max Weber contends that science cannot provide guidance in
moral or ethical choices, but only identify the means to control nature and human behaviour.
However, Weber immediately goes on to say that this is not the final word on the matter.
Science is concerned not only with “knowledge of relationships between facts,” but also with
“reflection on the self.” In the service of such reflection, academic teachers
can and should tell you that the meaning of this or that practical stance can be inferred […] from
this or that ultimate fundamental ideological position. It may be deducible from one position, or
from a number—but there are other quite specific philosophies from which it cannot be inferred.
[…] [W]e can compel a person, or at least help him, to render an account of the ultimate
meaning of his own actions. This seems to me to be no small matter, and can be applied to
questions concerning one’s own personal life. And if a teacher succeeds in this respect I would
be tempted to say that he is acting in the service of “ethical” forces […] I believe that he will be
all the more able to achieve this, the more scrupulously he avoids seeking to suggest a particular
point of view to his listeners or even impose one on them (Weber 2004, 26–27; emphasis in the
This suggests a conception of reflective knowledge which, I believe, fits in well with a
Habermasian conception of practical hermeneutic inquiry. Such reflection takes as its starting
point a pattern of action or behaviour that a person or group of persons already follows, asks
what general principles could possibly motivate someone to act in that way, and goes on to
ask what reasons speak for and against the general principles that the person or group of
persons is already following.
Practical hermeneutic knowledge, understanding, or insight, is concerned with the “practical,”
the normative warrantedness or otherwise of norms, aims, standards, and the like. However,
this is not to say that the humanities and interpretive social sciences provide such normative
insight directly. Although he may sometimes convey the opposite impression, Habermas does
not deny the is-ought distinction or advocate a return to a pre-positivist conception of reason
(Habermas 1987, 6; Habermas 1973b, 178). What practical hermeneutic reflection does
provide is, so to speak, the material for normative insights, in the realisation that certain
norms and assumptions are already generally accepted, perhaps in an entirely implicit manner,
that these norms and assumptions have such-and-such consequences (the paradox pointed out
by Collini, for instance), and that there exist alternative norms and assumptions with different
Habermas draws a parallel here to the therapeutic effects of psychoanalysis, which likewise
aims to emancipate (in a broad sense) through self-reflective enlightenment. The
understanding that patients may gain through therapy does not provide direct orientation for
action, but nevertheless contributes, in more indirect ways, to “the reflexive formation of
volition” (Habermas 1973a, 3). Analogically, the knowledge contributed by the humanities
and interpretive social sciences is not in itself normative, but the problems explicated and the
solutions provided are guided by a certain interest or need, namely, the need for self-reflective
understanding of norms and assumptions that already control us behind our backs.
Another analogy to therapy is that, in contrast to “technical” knowledge, hermeneutic
reflection aiming at the democratic public sphere requires active participation of the non-
experts whose practices are reflected upon, not just in the application of final results but also
in the process of reflective reasoning itself. The end users of a telephone or bridge do not need
to understand the research in natural science and engineering applied in their design and
production. In hermeneutic reflection, however, the reasoning begun by the researchers can be
practically applied only if it is continued by the practitioners themselves, employing concepts
and theoretical perspectives provided by the researchers to interpret and critically assess the
practices. Hence, the humanities and interpretive social sciences can benefit society only if
there exists a well-functioning democratic public sphere where normative, “practical”
questions are problematised, answers and solutions are proposed, and arguments for and
against conflicting problematisations and solutions are presented. As Habermas expresses it,
interpretation of “practical” issues “can only be translated into processes of enlightenment
which are rich in political consequences, when the institutional preconditions for practical
discourse among the general public are fulfilled” (Habermas 1973a, 3).
In the post-democratic public sphere, there is little room for practical philosophical and
hermeneutic reflection on political matters. Such reflection becomes troublesome either
because—as Collini’s paradox exemplifies—it raises questions which cannot be answered
according to the strict standards of technocratic positivist rationality, or because it questions
populist quasi-sacred values of the nation, or similar dogmas. An implication of this is that the
fate of the humanities and interpretive social sciences is ultimately bound up with the political
question of whether a public sphere can be created, or perhaps re-created, in which public
opinion is formed through collective rational deliberation. In other words, the social function
and value of the interpretive sciences is not just a problem in the philosophy of science or
related disciplines, but also a political problem that requires action. To reclaim the lost art of
democratic debate means to build a public sphere where decisions on the aims and not just the
means of politics are made after thoughtful collective deliberation, rather than the
manipulations of authoritarian populist leaders or anonymous technocrats.
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About the author
Henrik Bohlin is professor of intellectual history at Södertörn University, Stockholm. Bohlin
earned his PhD in theoretical philosophy at Stockholm Universitet in 1997 and was appointed
associate professor of philosophy at Södertörn University in 2010. He has published on a
wide variety of subjects in philosophy and history of philosophy, including Bildung and
liberal education, David Hume’s philosophy, empathy, critical thinking, relativism, and
skepticism. Among his publications are Medborgerlig bildning (Bildung for Citizenship,
2018, in Swedish) and “‘Effects on the Mind’ as Objects of Reasoning: A Perspectivist
Reading of the Reason-Passion Relation in Hume’s Sentimentalism,” Hume Studies, 2014.