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In the Name of Reason

Shefali Jha

By Stephen P. Turner
Sage Publications, Delhi, 2003, pp. 154, £19.99


In the Western intellectual tradition, virtue is a commonly used euphemism for political inequality. In a different age, writing against the practices of democratic Athens, Plato argued that only the philosophers, with their monopoly of intellectual virtue and concomitant to that, their moral virtue, were entitled to rule. so what is so special about Stephen Turner’s position that the increasing importance of specialized knowledge in political culture weakens the democratic character of modern politics?      What I found interesting is Turner’s claim that prima facie, there is no conflict between modern science (scientists are the quintessential specialists or experts) and liberal democracy. Scientific method is no mysterious, private algorithm-—its rationality is public and transparent; scientific reason and the public reason of democracy are analogous. Quoting Schmitt, Turner writes that ‘parliamentary democracy depends on the possibility of persuading one’s opponents through arguments of the truth and justice of something’ (p. 21) and later approvingly cites Michael Polanyi’s argument that ‘liberal societies, rooted in the idea of public reason and ‘government by discussion’, respect the seeking of truth, and for this reason have a kind of ideological affinity to science’ (p. 134). jIn this light, it makes perfect sense that liberal democracies saw the gradual exclusion of religion from the public domain, with science taking over the domfinant position.      Turner is aware that in the hands of Habermas and Foucault, this benign relationship between science and liberal democracy falls apart. For Foucault, when the state relies on expertise, for example in the fields of psychiartry and criminology, this “expertise is not ‘neutral’ but ‘interested’ and serves hidden purposes, including purposes of suppression and control under the appearance of neutrality and bureaucratic rationality” (p. 37). According to Habermas too, expert knowledge is ideological, expert claims that are unwittingly accepted by ordinary people as fact have actually been expressions of patriarchy and racism. Anyway, Turner points out that for Habermas, liberalism itself is characterized by a fundamental fraudulence in which property owners falsely claim to represent the public reason of the citizen body. Liberal democracy represents a usurpation of the public space by the bourgeoisie “in the name of a ‘reason’ that is merely that of private persons pursuing private interests” (p. 101). The partiality of liberal democracy is matched by the partiality of science.      Habermas’s alternative to the ‘fraudulent’ public sphere of liberal democracy is a utopia of public reason “in which ...

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