How Epistemic Values Shape Democracy

Epistemic Values
Harvard University is the oldest university in the United States.

Epistemic values determine the types of knowledge societies embrace. The shift from traditional to cosmopolitan epistemic values has important implications for democracy. 

The Social Value of the Intellectual

The trial of Socrates captures the imagination of intellectuals, because it reflects their greatest fear. The natural identity of an intellectual relies on a radical sense of individualism. Their social value relies on their ability to think differently from the community. The trial of Socrates challenges their identity and social value. The group rejected not just Socrates but the social value of the intellectual. They challenged his individuality and even his identity through the trial and its verdict. 

The social value of the intellectual depends on a radical redefinition of the role of knowledge and information in society. The intellectual possesses a specialized knowledge few people have an inclination to know. The intellectuals of earlier eras also knew a specialized form of knowledge, but they set barriers to limit its accessibility. Today’s intellectuals actively work to communicate their ideas through books and interviews, but their message is often drowned out amid the wide range of ideas and perspectives available. 

Some intellectuals learn information others find too difficult to comprehend. People have long grown accustomed to trust doctors and lawyers for their expertise. But even these fields have fragmented into defined specializations few people may recognize. Moreover, it is the specialists who command the largest salaries. Intellectuals no longer ask the big questions, but settle for deep research into topics of limited interest in the wider community. Globalization has expanded the demand for specialized expertise making the shift towards esoteric knowledge no longer a feature of urbanization, but global cosmopolitanism. 

The Specialization of Knowledge

Despite the economic advantages conferred onto specialists they receive public disdain. Before the specialist develops a landmark vaccine or makes some significant contribution to society, they study esoteric topics with little relevance to the general population. Moreover, most intellectuals never make a development or contribution that receives widespread recognition. Indeed, even many breakthroughs involve the work of teams of specialists so no single person receives widespread acclaim. For example, the development of the Covid-19 vaccine has not propelled any single scientist into the public consciousness. 

It is easier to recognize the consequences of specialization on the economy and in the workforce. But the transformation reflects a cultural change in epistemic values. It has brought about a change in how people think about expertise, knowledge, and information. Moreover, this shift has dramatic consequences for democracy and underlies many of the tensions between liberals and conservatives today. Western nations in particular face a divide between a populist right and a technocratic left. 

The Lost Left and Neoliberalism

Many scholars have recognized a change in democratic politics in recent decades from interests towards values. Line Rennwald has described how social democratic parties in Europe have undergone a transformation in the base of their support. As production workers have declined, the traditional parties of labor have looked to other segments to supplement their vote share. Sheri Berman has written about the decline of social democracy and the lost left. Thomas Piketty has described the left of today as the Brahman Left, because it represents the intellectuals in contrast to the moneyed interests of the plutocratic right. 

Over the past thirty years, the policy positions of parties from the left and the right converged into what has been called neoliberalism. Both political parties embraced deregulation, lower taxes, and reductions in the size of the administrative state. Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti believe the logic of politics evolved from a negotiation between different interests into what they call technopopulism. Politicians claimed to represent the population as a whole rather than limited segments and they claimed the expertise to solve problems for the benefit of all. 

Populism and the Death of Truth

Nonetheless, something has changed with the rise of rightwing populist leaders. It resembles a reactionary rather than a conservative movement. The working classes have identified with populist leaders because its politics speak to their values rather than just their interests. Indeed, populism represents a rejuvenation of democracy even as it threatens democratic governance itself. Despite its risks, populism has rejuvenated democracy through the incorporation of large segments of the electorate who felt left behind. It has brought this part of the population back into the political process. But their participation demands a redefinition of democratic norms an governance in ways which may not preserve liberalism nor democracy after they have finished. 

The most perplexing aspect of populism has been its relation to truth. About midway into the Trump Presidency, Michiko Kakutani wrote an interesting book called The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. It touched on a sentiment many on the left had felt surrounding Trump and his populist allies. But Trump is not alone. Nearly all populist leaders regularly lie in their comments to the media or through social media. In the past, politicians lied to hide the truth. They had a firm grasp on the right answer and told a lie to conceal it. Trump tells a different sort of lie. He seems to believe what he says, but is indifferent to its relationship to reality. So long as it sounds true, it is good enough. Stephen Colbert has described this phenomenon as ‘truthiness.’

A Shift in Epistemic Values

Conservatives have long criticized liberal postmodernism for its embrace of moral relativism. But rightwing populism embodies the postmodern ambivalence towards the truth. Liberals now find themselves in search for an anchor to reorient themselves in a political environment where facts become arenas of political contestation. But this debate is so confusing because few have recognized the shift in epistemic values in recent decades. Epistemic values help explain some of the differences between notions of truth and distinctions between how the right and left think about democracy. 

Epistemic values reflect how society values knowledge. Every culture emphasizes some forms of knowledge over others. It is often reflected in the education of children. The Greeks recognized significant differences in how Athens and Sparta valued different ideas and educated their children. Even today social classes often have different epistemic values where affluent households emphasize formal education, while working class households will emphasize sports and practical skills. Too often formal education is viewed as the only vehicle for knowledge acquisition, but people learn skills and ideas important for their livelihood and their identity outside of traditional schools. Moreover, the absence of formal education does not mean people learn nothing. A long tradition of literature contrasts the street smarts of the working class with the book smarts of the more affluent. 

Traditional Epistemic Values

Nonetheless, it is too easy to divide epistemic values into formal and practical education as though everything outside of formal education is practical. Moreover, it defines formal education as something without any practical purpose. There is some truth to this distinction, but it does not explain the difference in the values between the two perspectives. It does not explain why formal education has social value today nor why such “impractical” knowledge has such enormous economic value. Rather than distinguish between formal and practical knowledge, I prefer to distinguish between traditional and cosmopolitan epistemic values.

Throughout most of history the types of knowledge we value has changed, but the reasons why knowledge was valued has largely remained the same. Knowledge or skills largely had value for everyone. Subsistence agriculture meant households remained largely self-reliant. But it also meant everyone learned from each other. Knowledge was valued for its widespread diffusion. Moreover, cultural knowledge had this same value. Stories and myths had greater weight because they were widely known and recognized. Societies worked to make knowledge homogenous throughout its communities. 

Rural communities continue to embrace traditional epistemic values. Some people might know how to fix things better than others, but there is an effort to learn from each other. Moreover, the diffusion of information means knowledge is rarely a competitive advantage. Instead, they credit work ethic for the difference in economic outcomes. Any slight advantage in agricultural technique disappears as farmers share ideas among each other. But knowledge is not valued solely for its practical value. People obsess over sports or memorize passages from the Bible for their own sake. Religion and sports reflect parts of culture widely shared. Their value depends on its widespread diffusion rather than a segmentation into narrow interests. 

Cosmopolitan Epistemic Values

Urbanization, on the other hand, brought about the earliest forms of specialization. Cities allowed for the density necessary to specialize into distinct trades and occupations. Recently, globalization has taken urbanization to an entire different level.  But more importantly it has shifted the economic and cultural value of specialized forms of expertise and knowledge. It is impossible to untangle the economic incentives from the cultural impact, but the cultural impact has greater consequences for democratic governance. Specialists have received greater economic rewards in fields like medicine or law than generalists for some time, but the culture has begun to respond as well. As people have begun to identify as specialists in their own occupations, they have begun to rely on the specialized knowledge of others.

White collar workers regularly rely on contractors for home repairs. Obviously, greater wealth makes it easy to hire others for common home repairs. Nonetheless, a new form of contractor has emerged in affluent communities that makes ‘honey-do repairs.’ They are called ‘honey-do’ because wives used to ask their husbands, ‘Honey, do this.’ As the workforce has shifted from blue collar labor into a white collar workforce, fewer people know how to make these common household repairs. As people have become specialists, they find they rely on other specialists for tasks previous generations used to do themselves. 

Deliberation and Epistemic Democracy

Some believe technocracy is the natural consequence of the increased reliance on specialization. As people rely more on specialists, some have assumed people will look toward specialists to govern. But this is a misdiagnosis. Cosmopolitans will not accept a single leader for their expertise. They look toward different specialists based on the problem society faces. Indeed, cosmopolitanism has transformed epistemic values so knowledge is no longer valued for its homogeneity across the culture. Instead, knowledge becomes heterogenous throughout the community. People rely on different experts to solve different problems so nobody has the technocratic expertise to govern. It is a radical redefinition of democracy where increased participation brings new experiences and expertise to allow for better decisions. 

Deliberative democratic theory has a natural epistemic quality. It believes democracies make better decisions through deliberation than autocratic governments. Moreover, they believe mistakes are recognized more easily in a democracy than authoritarian governments because the public sphere continues to deliberate public policies even after they go into effect. But this is a very different form of deliberation than traditional town halls in more homogenous communities. Prior notions of deliberation believed people debated over values and interests common to the community. Every person had the ability to participate on every subject. Everyone shared knowledge in common so public deliberation was largely among equals.

The new cosmopolitan epistemic values democratize participation through the inclusion of diverse perspectives and expertise, but it also excludes those without something unique to contribute. People look toward scientists to understand climate change, but they also look toward disadvantaged minorities to understand discrimination and racism. Democracy looks toward a greater diversity of perspectives and experiences, but also forces average citizens to take a back seat to those with the relevant expertise or experiences. 

Bridging Differences in Epistemic Values

Traditional epistemic values have their own democratic elements. It empowers people to form their own opinions even without the necessary information. Traditional communities valued information, because it was widely dispersed so there is a natural mistrust of experts who claim to know better. Moreover, the rapid specialization of higher education has left the less educated to regard it as esoteric and less important. The cosmopolitan values knowledge for its specialization, but traditional communities value knowledge for its generalizability and accessibility. From this perspective, politics does not require expertise, but rather a healthy dose of common sense. 

Populism is the natural consequence when traditional epistemic values are overlooked. The populist no longer believes deliberation is necessary for democracy. Any leader with common sense has the tools to govern already. So they look to a charismatic leader with exceptional qualities. But this description is a bit misleading. The leader is exceptional not for their expertise, but rather their ordinariness. They do not govern, because they know more than others. Rather they govern because they understand the community. But it’s impossible to grasp populism without a reflection on its epistemic implications. The populist believes everything worth knowing is widely known so deliberation, debate, and even expertise become entirely redundant. 

Few people embrace a radical notion of traditional or cosmopolitan epistemic values. Most people find some balance between the two. But usually one side has greater weight than the other. Democratic governance requires a recognition of both perspectives. Indeed, good governance is often the reconciliation of these two divergent perspectives of knowledge into coherent policies. Nonetheless, the current political moment has become so tense because it involves debates over values rather than ideas. Perhaps the most relevant dispute over values for democratic governance involve how society values expertise, education, information, and data.

A Few Sources

Sheri Berman (2016), The Specter Haunting Europe: The Lost Left

Michiko Kakutani (2018), The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump

Thomas Piketty (2019), Capital and Ideology

Plato, Apology

Line Rennwald (2020), Social Democratic Parties and the Working Class: New Voting Patterns

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Chris Bickerton Defines Technopopulism

Hélène Landemore on Democracy without Elections

More Episodes from the Podcast

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