Epistemic Democracy: Elizabeth Anderson and Deweyian Experimentalism

Elizabeth Anderson writes with a scalpel. Every word is chosen with precision. Her arguments are taut and tightly argued. No fat left on the plate. In a previous Counterpunch essay on Anderson’s thought (“Communist dictatorship in our midst,” October 19, 2019), I set out her argument for democratic governance in the workplace. Gazing around at the US corporations, she couldn’t find any evidence of such a beast. In this article, I would like to extrapolate some key ideas from one section of her article, “The epistemology of democracy,” Episteme, 2006. Although she does not dwell in the land of an extensive deliberative democracy scholarship, she offers us several concepts that enhance and deepen our understanding of the epistemic foundations of egalitarian decision-making. She works within the domain of “social epistemology” which investigates the “epistemic powers of institutions.”

While social epistemology is not apart of my own vocabulary, we share a common concern in how citizens actually make decisions that either address public problems or do not do so. Epistemic democracy asks these questions: do institutions of a particular type have the capacity to “gather and make effective use of the information they need to solve a particular problem?” What problems ought to be assigned to institutions with specific epistemic powers? How ought institutions be designed to “improve their epistemic powers”? Although Anderson uses neither the vocabulary of deliberative democracy nor the language of the learning organization, she, in fact, shares concerns with adult educators working to create the conditions in enterprises and civil society associations for egalitarian democratic learning processes. One does wonder, from time to time, why scholars do not climb down from their ladders in their silos and talk with others thinking along similar lines.

Anderson considers three models (the Condorcet Jury Theorem and the Diversity Trumps Ability Theorem and Dewey’s experimentalist theorem). She argues that Dewey’s “experimentalist account of the epistemic powers of democracy” is the only one that embodies “all three of the constitutive features of democracy: diversity, discussion, and dynamism (feedback).” For Dewey, democracy was reflective thinking in action oriented to solving problems of practical interest. The experimental dimension of his democratic thought refers to the way an engaged citizen rehearses possible solutions to problems in their imaginations first, exploring possible consequences of policies decided upon. Ideas are put to the test. If results are unfavourable—as one might discover in a natural science experiment—citizens can decide to revise their policies. “Practical intelligence, then, is the application of scientific method to practical problems.”

But the capacity and will to revise policies requires that citizens abandon dogmatism, affirm fallibilism and accept the consequences of observed practices. Anderson remarks that: “Dewey took democratic decision-making to be the joint exercise of practical intelligence by citizens at large, in interaction with their representatives and other state officials. It is a cooperative social experimentation.” Dewey strongly argued that “problems of public interest” required that people from different walks of life combine their intelligence to ensure that everyone’s concerns are taken into account and the “situated knowledge” of citizens be validated. Anderson rivets this affirmation securely in place. “Collective, democratic discussion and deliberation is a means of pooling this asymmetrically distributed information for decision-making.”

On the Canadian prairies the literature of the early twentieth century agrarian protest movements such as the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) and the Saskatchewan Grain Growers Association (SGGA) was replete with statements stressing the need to build an educative democracy. Farm men and women learned democracy by actively participating in meetings where they could learn to speak and act confidently. The farm local was the key educative form. But the movement culture was also sustained as an oppositional learning site through lectures, study clubs, speakers’ networks, farm newspapers and the annual convention. Through these social learning processes, individuals combined their intelligence. These agrarian movements enacted a form of Dewey’s co-operative experiments in action.

Dewey did not think it was enough to have legally mandated periodic elections. Anderson thinks that: “Culture had to change too, so that citizens at large, interacting with one another in civil society, welcome diversity and discussion, and take an experimental attitude toward social arrangements.” These words must be taken to heart in our time of raging anger and feverish unwillingness to listen to anyone else attentively. Paint spattered on monuments, statues toppled into the sea, others shouted down and even beaten, neighborhoods aflame. “Diversity and discussion need to be embodied and facilitated in the discussions and customs of civil society.” These words sound too tame. What must we do to foster a culture of listening and peace? Anderson observes: “If people smear, shout down, or abuse those who disagree, or regard diversity as a threat, the words of the excluded, if they dare to talk, will fall on deaf ears.”

These words leave the taste of ashes in our mouths. This, I believe, is why Anderson focuses attention on the “epistemic import of dissent.” If diversity and disagreement are “central features of democracy,” an adequate epistemic model following Dewey must provide “roles for dissent at each of these stages” (during deliberation, at point of decision and after the decision has been made). The gist of her refined argument is this: “Majority rule, while it permits majorities to override minority objections, does not pretend to have fully answered those objections. Minority dissent remains open rather than suppressed, reminding us that any given decision remains beset by unresolved objections.”

Rightly, Anderson argues that “Dewey’s experimentalist account of democracy as the collective exercise of practical intelligence offers rich resources for evaluating the epistemic powers of particular democratic institutions, and for suggesting reforms to improve these powers.” She uses Ben Agarwal’s research on community forest groups (CFGs) in India and Nepal to illustrate how a Deweyian “experimentalist model of democracy can inform efforts to improve epistemic powers of particular democratic institutions.” Basically, the CFGs are organized at the village level. Set up to respond to the “gross degradation of local forests,” these formally democratic institutions helped create villages that “enjoyed flourishing forests, greater biodiversity, and higher incomes.”

That sounds good. A success story? Not quite: many of the benefits of CFGs were achieved at a “severe cost to women.” The primary users of the forest, women’s assigned role is to scrounge for firewood for cooking and heating bath water. Without consulting women, about half of the CFGs banned wood collection by women. So women had to travel further distances to get firewood (increased time from 1-2 hours to about 4-5 hours). One thing leads to another. This extended time meant that women had to take their daughters out of school to assist them.

Women also had to use dung and dried leaves as alternate fuels. These imperfect fuels require more maintenance to keep alight. The problems tumble onward. More smoke in the home from lousy fuels increases indoor pollution and impacts women’s health badly. Women also faced inept male guards who were supposed to guard the forests to permit women only to forage for firewood. Women know the best places; but the guards turn a blind eye to rule-breakers. Women are also ill at ease with all-male guards. They want this role shared by each gender.

South Asian women have suggested remedies. Women’s “situated knowledge” enables them to know better than men how much firewood can “be sustainably gathered from the forest, which species are best for fuel and fodder, and where foragers are likely to go to gather wood. This is a classic case of situated knowledge that is distributed asymmetrically by gender.” However, Anderson insists strongly that the CFGs “need to be reformed so that women can join, speak up, and be heard. Ideally, we would want the political order to be so structured as to include methods of self-correction, so that it can steadily increase its epistemic powers. This is the point of the Deweyian model of democracy as an embodiment of scientific method.”

In the face of unresponsive CFGs, women’s “vigorous dissent” has forced the CFGs to add women to the patrols. But it is incredibly tough for women to reject internalized submission to men. Anderson shows that when there is a “critical mass of women in CFG meetings,” women straighten up and stand tall before male power. Women also discovered that they are “emboldened to speak in CFG meetings if they caucus beforehand.” And if they practice speaking in all-women groups, they become more effective in CGF meetings.

In sum, Agarwal’s study of CFGs illustrates that: “The diversity of participants by gender, including women’s knowledge, plays a key role in enhancing the ability of CFG policies to solve the problem of firewood and fodder shortages. So does discussion women need to talk among themselves to hammer out a common agenda that they are able to bring to the floor, and need to address the whole group to get their ideas incorporated into CFG policies.”



Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.