Definition & Democracy
Updated: Nov 21, 2019
Proposition 1: It is undemocratic to ignore the will of parliament
Proposition 2: It is undemocratic to ignore the electorate.
Proposition 3: Parliament is unable to make decisions on serious issues. Not allowing an election is undemocratic since it does not allow the electorate to determine where an indecisive parliament goes next.
There is no intention here to make a case for or against any of these propositions (or others similar to them). Rather, my aim is to use them to show up and give philosophical treatment to a curious feature of our language - one that is interdependent with our practices and which is fairly common, but which frequently goes unnoticed.
The feature is this: each of these propositions is a definition of ‘undemocratic’ (a stipulation of what undemocratic is) and each is slightly different; yet it is commonly supposed in political discourse that there is a fact of the matter when it comes to the nature of democracy and what is undemocratic. This supposition allows for the possibility that each of these propositions is a criticism of the other as essentially incorrect. But such a criticism is only substantial if the meaning of ‘undemocratic’ is unambiguously the same in each case; since it is not in these kinds of instance, any argument that such propositions are intended to support is confused, because (among other things) it presupposes the truth of the proposition to which it appeals for support.
Meaning, Agreement and Convention
The meaning(s) of terms are agreed by convention, which is precisely why there is confusion in these kinds of cases; cases in which the convention is disputed (here the relationship between language and practice is clearly exposed).
“A triangle has three sides” is analytically true precisely because there is no dispute concerning the meanings of the terms within the proposition. Of course, the defining characteristic of such an analytically true proposition is that the predicate (“has three sides”) is contained within the subject (“triangle”); in an important sense however, the analytic nature of the proposition is dependent upon context. Were I teaching a child the meaning of the term “triangle”, for example, then the predicate “has three sides” would not be internal to (contained within) the subject, because in this kind of context the predicate tells the child something new about the subject. In an analytically true proposition, nothing new is discovered. Consequently, agreement in meaning is determined; we have an original stipulation (definition) – in this case “a triangle has three sides” – upon which all agree and which enables the possibility of teaching practices. Such a proposition can also be understood as a geometrical truth; it is a true statement that does not require recourse to experience in order to be verified, and is thus, a convention of geometry. Accordingly, when I talk about a triangle or triangles, I do not confer meaning on the term triangle each time I use it – rather, I report it; I show it in my grasp of mathematics or geometry, for example.
Put another way: a stipulation of meaning (the provision of a definition) or the stipulation of a rule is neither true nor false. However, once meaning has been established, the tautologous nature of the proposition “a triangle has three sides” becomes obvious – one can see clearly that such a statement is analytically true; one does not need to observe what a triangle looks like in order to establish the truth or falsity of the proposition. The truth of the proposition (and whether it is analytic or synthetic) is determined by the meanings of the terms in the proposition and the context in which it is uttered.
The Interdependence of Language & Practice
That I do not give meanings to the terms myself shows up an interdependence between public practice and truth and falsity (something that is frequently concealed by the sentence letters that characterise formal logic – but that is another story). The practice aspect is that when I say, “A triangle has three sides,” I am speaking English and using terms that have clear and accepted meanings and uses in geometry and mathematics. The truth of this proposition is, therefore, rendered so by our practices in a way that ensures one does not need recourse to experience in order to establish its truth-value. Put another way: there is a logical connection between our concepts, the stipulations we provide to govern their use and our practices. One is only doing geometry if one fulfils certain criteria in practice – among them that accepting the definition of a triangle as a three-sided figure is analytically true because of the established meanings of the terms involved. The proposition would be false or nonsense if one or more of its terms meant something other than it does. It is the stability of the established meanings which ensures this is not the case and it is such stability that is interdependent with our practices.
To return to the three political propositions with which I began: in each case (like “a triangle has three sides”) these can be read as stipulations about what is undemocratic and, thus, be neither true nor false. However, they can also be read as criticisms of political processes – processes that are in breach of legitimate democratic processes.
The debate that surrounds which processes are undemocratic is, to a large extent, confused. Unlike the proposition “a triangle has three sides” in which the meanings of the terms are clear (because they are agreed by established conventions and practice), the same cannot be said in relation to many arguments concerning what is undemocratic. The arguments that surround the disagreements are interdependent with an implicit lack of agreement over the meaning of the term ‘undemocratic’ – remember that stipulations cannot be true or false, but need to be generally accepted and stable if the propositions in which they are contained are to be truth-valued.
In relation to the three propositions containing the term ‘undemocratic’, people who use them (and others like them) are giving their own meaning to the term ‘undemocratic’ in order to support their own political arguments; because this is occurring and because there are many varieties of political setup (in which there is an electorate) that are termed democratic, some of which are incompatible with one another (e.g. first past the post versus proportional representation), there exists no way in which propositions that contain the term undemocratic can be truth-valued. This shows both that the term ‘undemocratic ‘does not have a clearly accepted meaning and that what counts as undemocratic practice is often not settled; the relationship between linguistic meaning and practice here is clear (and interdependent). Accordingly (unlike the term ‘triangle’), the term ‘undemocratic’ cannot, in many cases, be reported accurately through its use.
Instead, within these political arguments, there are differing stipulations and reports of the same term taking place simultaneously, and this is consistent with the variety of political setups that are accountable to an electorate. What is undemocratic cannot, therefore, refer to a particular kind of electoral parliamentary accountability; its opposite ‘democratic’ is an overarching term, which contains many different processes that are accountable in one way or another to an electorate and parliament.
In relation to the three propositions with which I began (each referring to the other (in critical terms) as undemocratic), none is more than rhetoric, insofar as each is a stipulation and can therefore be neither true nor false. The arguments between people who employ them as the basis for their own favoured position cannot, therefore, pertain to truth either; argumentative weight lies in nothing more than their ability to form part of an argument that persuades others to change their practices through rhetorical means. As I suggested at the start, the adoption of such propositions as the basis for a political argument presupposes the merits of the argument beings made, as opposed to providing support for it. But then, perhaps this is all part of what is meant by living in a post-truth age. If it is, then Socrates knew a thing or two over 2000 years ago.