Events leading up to the recent referendum on EU membership help to show that our politics is poorly served by the ways in which we think about reason and rationality in relation to our central political institutions.
Our democracy and the media that reports on it both perform public reasoning functions on society’s behalf. Our politicians table motions, engage in parliamentary debates and participate in committee meetings in order to explore argument and evidence and reach political decisions on the nation’s behalf. This encourages reasoning by citizens themselves, who are caused to reflect on parliamentary debates and decisions in order to consider whether or not to re-elect their political representatives. And indeed, as we have seen, citizens are occasionally tasked with directly deciding on an issue via referenda. For its part, the media functions to facilitate citizens’ reasoning by describing and publicising these democratic reasoning processes, while of course also engaging in reasoning itself as it seeks to inform and assess our politics, advancing particular claims and arguments which not only reflect public discourse but also help shape it.
The contributions to public reasoning made by our democracy and our media are typically taken to play out in accordance with a particular understanding of rationalism – one which holds that reason proceeds via conflict and contestation. This familiar understanding of public reasoning holds that issues are framed such that debate may ensue between a small number of disagreeing groups, identifiable by their distinctive views, who each strive to ensure that their own stance will prevail over those of their opponents’. Our democracy can be seen to rest on an understanding of public reasoning that draws on an image of martial conflict, with opposing political ‘armies’ squaring-up to each other in the Houses of Parliament in order to engage in a form of intellectual battle whose victors are decided by votes among politicians who are whipped to follow their party line. Our expectations of the media reveal the same tendency to understand reasoning in terms of an image of contestation, with journalists taking care to provide ‘balanced’ reporting in which the views of opposing ‘sides’ of a debate are sought out and given air time and column inches in fair measure, lest allegations of bias be raised.
That we understand public reason in terms of contestation has certain implications for the ways in which our politics proceeds. Firstly, an understanding of reason as contestation demands that issues be fixed and framed to facilitate competitive debate. This has the effect of solidifying and simplifying complex and shifting circumstances such that stark positions can be taken and binary choices offered. Secondly, an understanding of reason as contestation requires that opposing sides be clearly delineated. This can have a divisive, polarising effect, crystalising and delimiting the range of possible positions and narrowing the terms on which debates can be engaged with, thus widening the gap between those with different points of view. And thirdly, an understanding of reason as contestation anticipates that discerning an ultimate and decisive victor is a simple matter of initiating a democratic process of decision making. This can effect the ways in which public reasoning processes unfold, as they are shaped to accommodate the expectation of imminent finality and to expedite its arrival.
All of this is readily apparent in relation to Brexit. The path to the stark binary choice offered in the referendum is an exemplar of the kind of narrowing and increasingly divisive public reasoning process outlined above. From a heterogeneous range of objections to various aspects of European integration emerged the catch-all term ‘Eurosceptic’, and, in consequence, its opposite: ‘Europhile’. The sides of the debate thus established, the media were set to invent countless ‘Euromyths’ and to amplify the voice of UKIP in the interests of ‘balance’. Calls for a decisive electoral test came with a mounting sense of urgency: why delay the inevitable, given that our view of reason-as-contestation anticipates such easy closure? We thus found ourselves urged to take our places, with degrees of discomfort, on ‘sides’ of a debate whose terms suited too few of its participants. Indeed, it has been widely noted that the ostensible terms of the debate seem not to have been those that were actually at issue for many voters. Immigration, nebulous notions of control and sovereignty, and revolt against a seemingly remote and technocratic politics all emerged as key motivations for ‘leave’ voters, whereas Number 10 had anticipated a debate about EU membership on narrow economic grounds. And what might Brexit mean? Although, apparently, “Brexit means Brexit”, a more enlightening definition of what we have voted for has yet to emerge: the referendum has conspicuously failed to provide an ultimate, decisive settlement on our relationship with Europe, raising many more questions than it answers. So it seems that not only does our understanding of reasoning-as-contestation distort our politics, but that it also fails to accurately capture the realities of public reasoning, in which issues are mutable and multivalent, rarely lending themselves to starkly opposing positions, with decisive closure remaining elusive.
This should come as no surprise. Academic work in the field of the social study of science has, for several decades now, favoured an alternative conception of rationalism. Rather than assuming contestation, ethnographically-based work by Bruno Latour and others encourages us to understand reasoning as a process more akin to that of coalition building, in which heterogeneous participants make and remake their own distinctive translations of a multivalent proposition, as opposed to seeking fixed relationships of identity with a likeminded ‘side’. This work offers a valuable repertoire of sensitivities, concepts and techniques that not only point the way to the production of more realistic accounts of public reasoning, but also speak directly to the idea that our conceptions of public reasoning shape our politics, being particularly concerned to explore how reasoning, and our understandings of it, go hand in hand with changes in the world in ways that are difficult to disentangle.
Has this work in the social study of science been successfully absorbed by academics engaged in the study of politics? Not yet. Presently, some of the most prominent theoretical perspectives on political reasoning remain those which emerged from an intensification of interest in its study during the 1990s. The much-cited work of Peter Hall, Peter Haas, and Paul Sabatier and Hank Jenkins-Smith attempts to repurpose Kuhnian and Lakatosian philosophy of science for the study of political rationalism, but as such work itself relies on an image of contestation, it unfortunately serves merely to perpetuate the commonplace understanding of reason outlined above. However, things are beginning to change. Recent books such as Jan-Peter Voß and Richard Freeman’s Knowing Governance point to exciting new directions for politics scholarship, and later this Summer the joint 4S and EASST social studies of science conference will feature no less than fourteen tracks which discuss political themes.
That academics studying politics are seeking-out new ways of thinking about reasoning not only makes a valuable contribution to the study of politics, but it may eventually even come to shape the ways in which our public reasoning proceeds.
Patrick Coupar is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London