What do these four countries have in common?

From top left, clockwise, we have the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, the German Democratic Republic, and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. All of these countries have “democratic” in the name. None of them are (or were) democratic.

Words like “democracy”, “freedom”, “equality”, “power” and “oppression” have magical political powers and so activists strive to define these words in ways that further their goals. This is a fact of politics.

Sometimes political theorists get in on this act. What does democracy really mean? Is freedom really about fulfilling your human potential or having your property rights protected? What is real egalitarianism? Such debates are at best unproductive, at worst obfuscatory. Historians can chart how these terms have been used over time, and activists can exploit their ambiguity to mislead, but there is no truth of the matter about what these words really mean. Nobody has pre-theoretical intuitions about what ‘democracy’ means; at best, they can report how the word is used in their linguistic community. Moreover, defining “democracy” in different ways does not necessarily imply any real disagreement about what we should do; all that only comes when under the further stipulation that a good government is a democratic government. But if so, why not just argue directly about what kind of government we should have, rather than conducting this debate via a struggle over the word ‘democracy’? People have intuitions about what we should do that go beyond mere linguistic usage, and (assuming some kind of cognitivism), there is actually something meaningful to disagree about here.

In this post I want to propose a methodological principle to direct political theorists towards more meaningful conversations.

In the 1920s, a group of founders of Analytic philosophy known as the Vienna Circle propounded their (in)famous “verification principle”:

The meaning of a statement is the method of its verification

This principle has had a bit of a bad rap, notably because it rules out all normative discourse as meaningless, and because it fails its own test. Still, I think there’s something appealing about the idea, at least when we apply it to ordinary descriptive statements about the world. Claims about physics or economics are ultimately claims about what we will find if we poke the world in certain ways, through experiments, surveys or whatever. The verification principle is a principle of demystification, enjoining us to be wary of reifying entities like “the economy” or “energy”.

I propose we can invert the verification principle into what we might call an “application principle” for normative propositions:

The meaning of a normative statement is the method of its application.

The idea here is that the meaning of ‘murder is wrong’ is that one should avoid killing in all the relevant situations. The real meaning of a normative statement lies in the actions that it enjoins. How the statement is applied in practice is what matters. A normative statement without any implications for how people should act is, by implication, meaningless.

How would this help with my original kvetching about arid semantic debates in political theory? It doesn’t mean we should never talk about how to define democracy, equality, or whatever. But it means these debates only become meaningful in the context of a broader theory about how the terms should be applied. Using a normative theory to define democracy or freedom is only meaningful once we understand what kind of normative priority these values or principles are being given in relation to other values or principles. Without knowing what the practical stakes are, I don’t really know how to begin evaluating whether one definition is “better” than another. For example, to say that “the real meaning of democracy is deliberative democracy” only becomes meaningful in the context of some kind of syllogism:

  1. Democracy is the best form of government
  2. Democracy is deliberative democracy
  3. Deliberative democracy is the best form of government

This makes it apparent that proceeding via an analysis of “democracy” has been a needless distraction: it would have been clearer to just argue directly about what is the best form of government.

The proliferation of competing revisionist definitions of key terms makes it harder for us to talk to each other without confusion. Better, I suggest, to stick with boring conventional definitions that are widely understood. The best way to criticise the naming of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is simply insisting on the conventional meaning of “democracy”, rather than getting caught up in an ultimately unresolvable duel of ideologically-motivated definitions.

If we need to introduce new concepts, it would be clearer to deliberately coin new terms of art rather than trying to shift the conventional definition. (For example, I think it was clearer when Phillip Petit coined the term “anti-power” to refer to his Republican conception of freedom). This means having the courage to abjure the power of these magic words, admitting that (for example) “democracy” is not necessarily the best form of government or that “freedom” is not always morally valuable.

There may be implications that I haven’t fully worked out here, and I’d be interested to hear about it in the comments. Nonetheless, at a minimum I think debates in political theory would be clearer if we talked about how to define these magic words only after making explicit the practical stakes behind our choices.

I am a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I have worked on the justification of democracy, the relationship between democracy and the market, and the political theory of business corporations.