Democracy and the History of Philosophy in the Age of Trump

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[Note: this is the text of a recorded mini-episode that is going up on the podcast feed. You can also hear it here on the website.]

This week, something rather surprising happened: Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States. A year ago, most observers were still thinking of this as a very remote prospect, more a cause for amusement than realistic political expectation. (That includes me, as you can see from this earlier blog post.) It’s a sobering moment for me as an American citizen and for the half of my podcast audience who live in the States, as well as for other listeners, who will inevitably be affected by this upheaval in world politics. It seems like a good moment to ask whether the history of philosophy has anything to say about an event like this. Is everything we’ve been discussing over these hundreds of episodes of merely abstract and academic interest? Or can ideas from long ago somehow help us to think about current events?

There are lots of ways to answer that question, but one of the most obvious would be to consider the value of democracy itself. Politically progressive people tend to see 2016 as a year that revealed deep flaws in “Western” democratic political systems. Not only was Donald Trump elected, but the British narrowly voted to leave the EU in a referendum held earlier in the year. Progressives see these two decisions as not just wrong, but deeply foolish. And Trump supporters might have reason to worry, too. Their man has just become President, but he got beat in the popular vote – millions more Americans wanted him to lose than to win. If not for the vagaries of the Electoral College system, Hillary Clinton would have just been inaugurated, whereas Trump supporters would have preferred to see her in jail (at least those who gleefully chanted “lock her up!”). So they hardly have reason to celebrate the wisdom of the electorate either. Besides, even leaving aside this divisive event, we can easily think of other alarming election results from around the world in recent years: Islamist parties winning polls in the Middle East, for instance.

So here we are getting close to what looks like a good philosophical question: is democracy the right way of making political decisions? Good question or not, though, this is a hard question for us to take really seriously. Whatever our misgivings about recent events may be, even the most pessimistic will probably agree with Winston Churchill’s famous remark that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” In the same speech, Churchill said that “no one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.” The fact that it occasionally produces what we might consider to be the “wrong” result is simply to be expected, and is no reason for us to give up on the whole project.

But there is a more fruitful and interesting question we might ask ourselves: under which conditions is democracy most likely to produce good results, and avoid bad ones? How should democratic voters approach their rights and responsibilities, if they want their societies to flourish? Obviously these are matters that modern-day political philosophers discuss all the time, and I am far from pretending to be an expert in modern-day political philosophy. But, having read up quite a bit on the history of political philosophy – not least while working on the podcast – a few relevant thoughts do occur to me.

I start from the obvious place, which is Plato’s critique of democracy in the Republic. As long-time listeners will recall (perhaps with difficulty, since it was a while ago that I covered this), Plato was convinced that the ideal state would be ruled by philosophers, by which he meant men and women with a secure grasp on truth and the good. He portrays democracy as being far removed from this ideal, in fact as the worst kind of political constitution apart from outright tyranny. We should be careful not to assume that Plato was talking about democracy as we think of it today. For instance, he says explicitly in the Republic that in the kind of democracy he has in mind, state offices are assigned by random lot – as they in fact were in ancient Athens. Also, whereas we mostly forget the original meaning of the word “democracy,” Plato certainly does not: for him and for any ancient Greek it means rule by the demos, or “people,” which means the common run of citizens as opposed to an elite. Plato’s assumption is that the demos is obviously not going to be knowledgable about the truth and the good. Instead, the people will have a wide range of different views about these matters. So in sharp contrast to the unified, coherent, and virtuous state he has described in the Republic, the democratic state pursues all manner of different goals and spurious ideals. For this reason Plato says that democracy is in a way beautiful, like a cloth with many colors; but it is nearly the antithesis of what he thinks we should aim for in political life.

How could we answer these worries from our modern perspective? The most obvious, I think, would be to question his pessimism about the wisdom of the people. Actually you don’t need to be modern to question that. The next episode in the podcast will look at a medieval thinker named Marsilius of Padua, whose pioneering political work the Defender of the Peace includes the observation that the people as a whole are always better judges than a few wise councilors. Majority decisions are decisions made on the basis of the widest possible range of experience. This by the way is also why in the TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the most powerful and reliable card to play is not phoning your expert friend but polling the studio audience. If you’re ever on the show, save that one until you really need it.

Yet Plato would probably want to remind us of another passage from his Republic. It is a parable about a boat where all the passengers want to have a turn acting as captain; all the while, a skilled navigator is on the boat, but he is spurned and ignored by the rest of the people onboard. Plato is making a good point: if there is someone in your society who does have expert knowledge concerning a vital issue, then it seems foolish to ignore that person and just ask the audience. This is especially true if the question is a very difficult and complex one, or one that previous experience doesn’t help much to answer. Take a couple of current examples: climate change and the British decision to leave the European Union. There is an objective answer to the question how dangerous climate change is, and whether it is caused by humans – these are not matters of opinion, but matters of fact. And there is an objective fact about what will happen to the British economy if it pulls out of the EU. Sadly, they aren’t questions we are in a good position to answer using nothing but common sense and previous experience, because we’re talking here about hideously complex phenomena and about prospects for the future. They are paradigm cases where it would be sensible to defer to experts, or at least take their views very seriously. Yet, to take just one example of the reverse sentiment, the Euroskeptic (well, he would no doubt insist that he is a Eurosceptic) Michael Gove batted away the dire warnings being issued against Brexit with the remark, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Less famously, he also said, “I’m not asking the British people to trust me. I’m asking them to trust themselves.”

I’m not quite with Plato: I think that there is a deep reserve of wisdom in the citizenry, and that democracy is admirable and advisable because it exploits that resource. But neither am I with Gove: I also think that voters in democracies should take seriously the views of well-trained experts. This sounds like a truism; so why do so many voters these days, to say nothing of Michael Gove, seem to disagree? One point frequently made recently is that there has been a leveling of the field of debate. Now anyone can go onto social media and propound their own ideas, no matter how ill-informed, and we can all find online sources that confirm what we already wanted to believe. That is surely part of the explanation. But I suspect a deeper reason may be the conflation of the “expert” with the member of the so-called “elite.” Of course it’s true that, for instance, climate scientists and specialists in economics (to say nothing of historians of philosophy, and come to think of it, Michael Gove) are the “elite,” in the sense that they tend to be highly educated and economically comfortable, to say nothing of predominantly white and male. For this reason, it would indeed be unwise to discount the possibility of bias on the part of the experts. But neither, I think, should laypeople take themselves to have as much insight into an issue like global warming as those who have done PhD’s, done experiments, and published research papers in the field.

Is it possible, then, to take heed of the advice of experts without just bowing to their authority, effectively outsourcing to the “expert elite” our responsibility to make up our own minds? As we saw in the podcast, this was an issue discussed intensively in the Islamic world. It went under the heading of what was called taqlīd, meaning “uncritical acceptance of authority.” A standard view was that the scholarly class, the so-called ulema, should never engage in taqlīd, whereas this is perfectly acceptable for the common run of people. On this view, it is part of being the member of an elite that one has the right and responsibility to think for oneself. That is an attitude we can find throughout the history of philosophy: in most periods, philosophy itself has been the most elite of practices, with the philosophers congratulating themselves for thinking deeply about issues others just take for granted. On the other hand, some theologians in the Islamic world insisted that every Muslim should take responsibility for his or her own beliefs. Even Muslims who are not scholars should at least work out that God’s existence can be proved, for instance. In this spirit, and in light of the fact that we live in societies with higher education and literacy rates than those enjoyed by medieval Islamic societies, we could argue that no citizen should engage in outright taqlīd. It’s not just the philosophers and scholars who should make up their own mind, it’s everybody.

But avoiding taqlīd never meant working out everything from scratch all on your own. It might mean doing that some of the time. But just as often, it meant training yourself to be a good judge of expertise. To put it another way, you can avoid uncritical acceptance of authority by engaging in critical acceptance of authority. Applying this line of thought to climate science, for example, we could conclude that our responsibility as citizens is not to go get a PhD in meteorology before taking the issue into account in our vote. It is to engage in a rational assessment as to which views about the climate are most trustworthy, and then follow the guidance offered by those views. Conversely, we should be suspicious of things we just happen to find on the internet. And we should be very suspicious of the politician who tries to convince us that everything is simple; that experts can safely be dismissed as a mere pressure group; that gut feeling is the first and last word on the important political issues of the day.

Aristotle might approve of this approach: not just because he too adopted a critical, but (usually) respectful attitude towards prior authorities, but also because it is a kind of “middle view” of the sort he often boasted of adopting. On the one hand, we should trust in our own rational abilities and use them to assess other people’s opinions, on the other hand, we shouldn’t trust in our abilities so much that we make up our own minds about complex problems without any help.

There’s another way in which the history of philosophy might push us towards this sort of confident modesty. If this podcast has shown us anything, it’s that valuable ideas are to be found in many, perhaps in all, places, cultures and times. Sure, we’ve looked at plenty of dead, white, European men – the sort of figures always included in surveys of the history of philosophy. But we’ve also found sophisticated philosophical ideas in ancient India, in the medieval and early modern Islamic world, in works by women who defied the oppressive conditions of the pre-modern world to earn their rightful place in our history of human thought. Learning about the history of philosophy should make us less impressed by our own moment in history and the culture of our own social group. It should make us open to ideas from other times and also from other kinds of people. The history of philosophy teaches us, in fact, that the more different these other people are from us, the more likely they are to have come up with ideas that we ourselves could never have invented. But if this is a kind of modesty, it is indeed a kind of confident modesty, in that we must still trust ourselves to understand and discover such truths when we search for them. We should be humble enough to open our eyes, trusting that if we do, we are capable of seeing.

In this way the history of philosophy itself offers a welcome correction to some of the pernicious political trends of our times. No one who is arrogant about their own viewpoint on the world, to the point that they are willfully ignorant or disrespectful of other kinds of people, can be a good historian of philosophy. The history of philosophy demands that we believe in the value of human reason wherever it is found. This is an attitude we can also live by when we are not doing history of philosophy; and it’s an attitude we should expect, and demand, from our political leaders. In times like these, philosophy, open-mindedness, and thoughtfulness are surely not enough by themselves, but they may be more important than ever.

Domain Rider on 22 January 2017

There's a good argument to be

There's a good argument to be made that one facet of education should be critical thinking and how to evaluate the competence of expert authority.

In reply to by Domain Rider

Daekar on 23 January 2017

I can't speak for the current

I can't speak for the current curriculum, but that was definitely something that was covered in my education in the 1990s and 2000s.  However, we heard the term "critical thinking" and saw critical thinking exercises in textbook sidebars but it was never defined or explained.  After years of hearing and seeing it in public education, I finally looked it up myself and I can conclusively say that the way it was taught was totally ineffective.  I critical thinking is very important, and I would definitely support its inclusion in the educational system if they can figure out a better way to teach it.

Concerned Citizen on 3 February 2017

Dear Peter,

Dear Peter,

What does the history of philosophy have to teach us about how we might help our culture and knowledge to survive a societal collapse? 

In reply to by Concerned Citizen

Peter Adamson on 4 February 2017

Well, I am a bit more

Well, I am a bit more optimistic than you - I don't think we are yet facing societal collapse. Consider that the USA and the world survived 8 years of George W. Bush as President - so we have good chances of surviving 4 years of Trump.

In any case I don't think (history of) philosophy can do much to confront what is happening directly: if I were talking to someone who thinks for instance that Trump's Muslim Ban is a great idea, I don't think my first move would be to try to get them to read Plato. Its role is more to be part of a long-term education (not necessarily in schools - also through such things as podcasts!) that inculcates such values as critical thought and respect for others, as I said in this piece. Someone who already has those values would never have been in favor of the Muslim Ban in the first place; someone who is in favor of it now needs more urgent intervention, and not in the form of a philosophical argument but something more like talking face-to-face with people who have been affected by this.

Seasick on 23 February 2017

I didn't know there were

I didn't know there were other things on the website besides the podcast. I'll have to have a look around.

On experts, I will suggest that a lot of the hostility towards them is that the often self-proclaimed experts have often failed to demonstrate their experise. In Plato's ship analogy, the skilled navigator is such, presumably, because they had successfully navigated through many voyages, some of them difficult. Ecomonic experts do not have that same track record of having demonstrated their expertise. Many people actually blame them for mistakenly navigating us into the bad weather when that was avoidable. The analogy further breaks down when we recognise that the skilled navigator has as much incentive not to let the boat sink as all the passengers do. Most likely the majority of the economists making decisions will be fine whatever happens to the economy. The analogy also fails to capture the disagreement among some experts. A better analogy would be if there were three navigators onboard, all with sketchy track records and all disagreeing about what the best thing to do is. In economics, some countries have adopted economic austerity and some other countries have opted for Keynesian stimulus packages. Almost completely opposite approaches. I think the ship's passengers might have some justification in throwing them overboard if things don't workout.

I don't like to be negative, so there are many other examples in favour of experts who have demonstrated they're expertise The experts predicted the existence of the Higgs-Boson and found it. I take their word on that. Malthus said we would begin to see food shortages if the population kept increasing. He was right, but experts found ways to produce more food from the same amount of land. That means we can still produce enough food so that in principle, no one needs to go without. Experts eradicated small pox. That took ambition, persistence and global co-operation between governments. An amazing accomplishment that benefits everyone. Well done those experts!

In reply to by Seasick

Seasick on 27 February 2017

I'm a little mad at myself

I'm a little mad at myself for forgetting what maybe the blackest mark against experts in recent years: that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq justifying war. Wikipedia estimates that between 151,000 and over one million Iraqis died as a result.

In reply to by Seasick

Seasick on 14 June 2017

As often happens when I read

As often happens when I read something interesting, this discussion about experts got stuck in the back of my mind. I tend to be skeptical about

experts, so any position that leans more towards deferring to experts is likely to make me bristle. That's how the column reads to me, though the

stated position is somewhere in the middle, not quite with Plato and not quite with Gove, leaving a lot of wiggle room ;)

If philosophy is about questioning everything, defering to experts, taqlid, seems antithetical to philosophy. Then again, am I just being arrogant and foolish in thinking I know enough to challenge what an expert says, or even to disagree with them? Am I just a crank trying hard to be different? Maybe. Where the column says "voters in democracies should take seriously the views of well-trained experts", I agree. For me though, there are just too many occasions when experts seem to get things wrong for me to defer to them.…


A lot of experts were recommending that the UK join the Euro years back. The Euro hasn't turned out so well. That seems like a bullet dodged. Then again, who knows? If the UK had joined the Euro, maybe the Euro would be stronger. If a butterfly flapped its wings just once more, maybe the whole universe would be fundamentally different. I think the Euro would still suffer from the problem of monetary union without a political union.…

Not so long ago, experts insisted that being gay was a mental illnesss that needed to be treated. This only changed in 1973. Experts at the World health Orgainsation only removed this from the ICD in 1992. Living memory for most. Experts don't simply pronounce on objective facts, they're heavily influenced by the prevailing cultural values of the time. They're also probably influenced by the narrower cultural values in which they work, for example, academics tend to lean left and economists tend to lean towards the capitalism that feeds them. Why shouldn't laypeople disagree if they don't share those values?……

In the UK, experts pushed for legislation that would encourage the use of diesel cars, for green reasons, now it seems that deisel cars are worse for polluting the environment.That's an important indication of how experts get it wrong on the environment, because more or less the same experts tell us that climate change is happening and man-made. As there seems to be a concensus, I accept that. The further issue then becomes: should we listen to the experts when they make recommendations on what to do about that, if we should do anything about it? It's not clear we should. Why spend huge amounts of money and cause a lot of upheaval in society based on their say so which has been wrong in the past? Why risk unintended, unforeseen consequences? That said, if there are simple, low cost, low risk, effective things that can be done, we should do them.…

It was a long time before the experts agreed that smoking was bad for people. Some experts were able to muddy the water for a long time on that. Apparently they still are, so perhaps it's too soon to say they agree. I'm sure many would say we can partially discount experts who have a clear incentive to produce certain findings. Still, all experts are funded somehow, experts often have a stake in the outcome and all experts have an incentive to produce research that supports their pre-existing positions: not being wrong.… 

It could be that 99% of the time, to pick a random number, experts are right, but the remaining 1% of cases create a lot of publicity and stick in the memory. The availability heuristic. Maybe. In pyschology there's recently been a replication crisis, in which researchers have only been able to replicate the results of 40% of the studies they tried to replicate. For whatever reason, with the other 60% of the studies, the new researchers acheived different results. Doh! It could be pyschology is just an odd case, not truly representative of all experts, or it could be it is representative and for whatever reason - political bias, economic incentives, group think, publication bias, attachment to an existing idea, ideological agendas, self-aggrandisement, whatever else - experts can't be trusted.

At least, they can't be trusted in the short term. Ultimately it seems that sooner or later science finds out the bad science and corrects it. But that takes time. On climate change people are making recommendations without the time to know if they will really work. With something like economics, I hesitate to call that a science. And in some areas it's not about science, but values. They might change for better or for worse. If someone thinks for worse, they're entitled to disagree.

I'm not saying we should ignore experts, or that laypeople are always in a position to challenge experts, or that we should be so cynical as to assume every expert is lying, incompetent or biased, just that we should be skeptical. More skeptical than the column seems to think we should be. If an expert says something, or even if a lot of experts say something, that doesn't make it so. Laypeople can't make up their own facts or hold any position they feel like. But as experts have been wrong, as experts may have their own agendas and as experts may have different values to the lay person taking a position, laypeople can justifiably disagree and think differently, though with a fair amount of humility as to what they actually know.

A long comment, a long time after the original column. It may be only myself that's interested, but I find typing out my thoughts helps get them clear. If people look at just one, check out the smoking link. It's good on experts for hire.

In reply to by Seasick

Peter Adamson on 15 June 2017

Thanks for the feedback. In a

Thanks for the feedback. In a sense I guess you are agreeing with me very broadly: the point would be to strike a balance between on the one hand refusing to follow expert advice and doing so slavishly. Obviously one needs to try to strike that balance right in each case and there is probably no overall method or stance you can use. My point though was that we are living in a political and cultural moment when some kinds of expertise are being subjected to undue skepticism and abuse: a lot of people seem to think, for instance, that climate scientists are part of a conspiracy to make them sacrfice economic well-being for no good reason, and to me this is paranoid and unreasonable. Unfortunately at the moment the most powerful man in the world epitomizes and also exacerbates this cultural moment, being way out on the anti-expertise part of the spectrum with his rejection of the reality of climate change, of widely accepted principles of economics, and of the validity of mainstream media. So I think that people who do believe in expertise need to raise their voices in protest: if, as you say, the experts are right 99% of the time and memorably wrong 1% of the time, then people like Trump are wrong 99% of the time and we should not be electing them to lead us. (And of course that reasoning holds even if the proportion is less favorable, like 80/20%, which I very much doubt.)

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Seasick on 16 June 2017

Yes, there is a need to

Yes, there is a need to strike a balance. I also agree that there's no overall method or stance we can use. It might seem like a good idea to assume that any group with an economic incentive can't be trusted. As with the tobacco industry. That doesn't seem to work though. With MMR, one of the reasons people were ready to believe it, was due to the idea that people were making money from vaccines. With GMOs, someone may disagree with patenting seeds or GMO business practices, but in addition to the various studies, we've now had about 25 years of real world experience, they seem safe. But people still seem to assume the experts must be paid off and there must be something wrong with GMO products. So it's everything on a case by case basis, which is a lot of work if someone wants to be informed.

My guess at the success rate of experts would have it lower than 80/20, but some of that might depend on who we call "experts". I've already written about economists. The artworks of the forger Han van Meegeren were held up as masterpeices when the art experts said they were Vermeer's. When van Meegeren revealled them to be forgeries, they then had to backtrack. When wine experts are subjected to blind tastings, they don't fare well. Those last two are fairly trivial examples, but it now seems that a lot of forensic science is junk science. That's not trivial as it's resulted in nobody's sure how many wrongful convictions. When you talk about the validity of the mainstream media, I think that's an indication that we're further apart than it might appear. That would be another long post ;)

(The last time I included url links, the post was rejected as spam, so if interested in those examples, it shouldn't be hard for people to find out more)

I agree that those who believe in expertise should speak up. I'm skeptical, so felt I should speak up about that. As I said, yours was an interesting post, it stayed in the back of my mind, I wanted to say more and to represent my view. I don't know much about Trump and don't know if this is a cultural moment, (wasn't there supposedly a cultural moment when Obama was elected?), so I tried to stick to experts.

As this might come across as unpleasantly disagreeable, I'd like to thank you for your podcasts and for engaging in the comments. You don't have to and it might often be a headache, so I respect that you do.

Tom L. on 30 May 2020

I came across this entry

I came across this entry while stepping through episodes.  Your comments regarding expertise and critical thinking struck home more so now than they did when you originally posted them.  In in discussing it with my wife, it appears that the egalitarianism of the Internet has contributed much to the disregard for expertise.  Now, with a simple Google search, one can access a large amount of information.  The trap is confirmation bias and the fact that once an individual has "the data" they assume their voice now carries equal weight with the "experts," the people that have spend a whole career researching and studying one area.  People have a difficult time recognizing their biases and are reluctant to even consider other points of the view.  This is something I try to convey as a manager to the people I work with and attempt to practice myself.  It certainly takes effort, which is perhaps why many folks do not care to do it.

On a separate note, I very much enjoy your podcasts.  I have worked my way into the 14th centrury and look forward to continuing through and into your series on Eastern and African philosophy.  My wife and I frequently discuss what I have listened to during my time on the elliptical and have had some wonderful conversations because of it.  Many thanks.

In reply to by Tom L.

Peter Adamson on 31 May 2020

Great, thanks! Glad you

Great, thanks! Glad you caught up with this old post and that you are enjoying the series. I have to say that what I said in this post has aged pretty well; I get the grim satisfaction of the accurate forecaster of doom.

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