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Pragmatism, inquiry and political liberalism

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One of the most powerful but elusive motifs in pragmatist philosophy is the idea that a liberal democracy should be understood as a community of inquirers. This paper offers a critical appraisal of a recent attempt to make sense of this intuition in the context of contemporary political theory, in what may be called pragmatist political liberalism (PPL). Drawing together ideas from Rawlsian political liberalism, epistemic democracy and pragmatism, proponents of PPL argue that the pragmatist conception of inquiry can provide a satisfying interpretation of the idea of justificatory neutrality as it appears in political liberalism. This is contrasted with Dewey's understanding of the epistemic character of democracy, which is viewed as unacceptably sectarian. This paper identifies and criticizes the two principal lines of argument made in support of PPL: the clarification argument and the fixation argument. Neither of these lines of argument, it is argued, passes the test each sets itself. I argue that the latter closes down the epistemic openness in the justification of democracy that is central to pragmatism.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Politics, University of York, Heslington, York YO10 5DD, UK., Email:

Publication date: 2010-02-01

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