Philosophy, democracy, abstraction, ways of life

HANS HOFMANN, (1880-1966). Red Sun, 1949. Oil on canvas. 24-1/8 x 29-3/4 inches (61,2 x 75,4 cm).


Chapter of the recently released collective book “Why Philosophy Matters to Democracy”.


Is it possible to unequivocally establish relationships of mutual implication between philosophy and democracy? Are there elements inherent to both terms, sufficient to assume them as parts of a necessary relationship, in which each would be a condition for the effectiveness of the other? It is, in fact, a tremendous question and a complex approach.

Strictly speaking, a necessary and prudent step to reflect on this would require some exegesis of the possible conceptions of what both philosophy and democracy are, in order to detect, in the various modulations of the terms, the measure of their approximations and estrangements. The problem is that such prudence imposes its price: a long and painful excavation effort, far exceeding the small set of arguments that I intend to develop here. It would be necessary to compare, for example, different philosophical inflections that emerged over time with the long process of reframing the flatus you “democracy”, since its first linguistic appearance in the Greek kalends of good times.

There are, however, other possible and less oceanic ways of building a prudent argument, that is, a judgment that does not take itself as its own foundation; don't do it sui index, in an Olympicly autarkic way. I imagine that one of the ways could start from a negative evidence. It seems to me a possible path: before committing myself to a positive argument – ​​or affirming positive evidence – capable of sustaining a biunivocal, clear and distinct conceptual relationship between the terms philosophy and democracy, perhaps it is the case to seek support in a negative proposition. Your formula does not appear to me as problematic; here it is: despotic and undemocratic governments, by definition, hate the philosophy as much as those who practice it. Let's go this way.


The advantages of the negative orientation can be many. The greatest of all results from the fact that— medium-high pace Porchat – we know that “philosophy” means “conflict of philosophies”, because there will always be those who say that their private philosophical truth is capable of establishing anything more consistently than the others, including the postulation of a proper nexus of necessary implication with the idea and practice of democracy. If we go that way, in search of the most robust positive evidence, I fear that our reflective games will be guided by an emphasis on our philosophical differences, rather than by the possibility of imagining something as a philosophical effect, in the broadest sense, potentially carrying of inclinations, I do not say democratic, but at least anti-despotic. I advance, for further consideration, that such a philosophical effect has to do with the imaginative investment in a reserve of abstraction, a decisive factor in the resistance to the domain of brute facts.

Let us start, therefore, with the negative evidence, whose formula I reaffirm: despotic and anti-democratic governments, by definition, hate philosophy as much as those who practice it. One might object to this that nothing prevents a despotic regime from embracing a certain philosophy, according to its own and somewhat scalene interpretative rules, and making it the foundation of its actions and a sufficient reason to banish the others. However, the monopoly promotion – or rather, the relegation – of a philosophical orientation to the condition of official public philosophy, by isolating the chosen system from its larger philosophical environment – ​​that of diversity or the “conflict of philosophies” – disqualifies it as a philosophical way. It will be, in this case, only the particular affirmation of a foundation, whose roots may be in any philosophical system, with a view to legitimizing an idea of ​​reason of State, based on self-proclaimed truths.

My defense of the objection starts from the premise that the different philosophical forms do not subsist absolutely and separately as philosophies. What gives them full meaning, beyond their “internal issues”, is the link with the broader environment of variety and “conflict of women philosophers”. As for the “promotion” mentioned, it would only be one of the ways of the misery of philosophy. It is to remember what was done, for example, with Marxism, by the manual arts produced by the Soviet and Chinese academies during a good part of the last century.

The same can be said about the use of the philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, from the 1980th century, or the system elaborated by John Locke, in the previous century, as the supposed foundations of what Karl Polanyi (XNUMX), in an enlightened act, called the “religion of Marketplace". This, in fact, lacks a philosophical foundation: the crude behaviorist belief that humans are animal systems driven by “preferences” and “incentives” is enough. The world of the unrestricted and self-regulated market is, in effect, a salivary experiment, which only requires animals up to date with their instincts. The only abstraction required is that of accepting money as the universal equivalent of exchange.


If we start from the negative evidence, we soon find a counterpart: philosophy gets along badly with despotism and tyranny. It is, in fact, a shared aversion, a reverse of the diaphonia between the different philosophical systems. The point, I admit, calls for explanation.

One of the main arguments of ancient skepticism, that of diaphonia, argues that the diversity of human judgments configures potential scenarios of “undecidable” disagreements. On everything we can disagree, said the Greek skeptic Agrippa, since the evidence we use in confronting rival judgments are nothing more than elements processed by our own particular systems. The signs of diaphonia, as a constituent element of the pathway philosophical, are detectable in the incompatibility between positive propositions, emanating from different philosophical schools, about what the world is, or what is the case and, indeed, what both should be.

However, the emphasis on the aspect of incompatibility between positive propositions, as a form of analytical approach to the diversity of philosophical statements, ends up obliterating the presence of possible negative convergences. This is what seems to have happened in the context of classical political philosophy, in which the diversity of orientations regarding what the good life or good government should be did not prevent a certain convergence regarding what would be the worst of evils. A diaphony installed in the midst of efforts to define what is best for the political community does not have the same extension with regard to defining what can be the worst: beyond simple bad government, the dissolution of the political community. Of course, there are many ways to define and indicate the practical occurrence of what bad government is, but, in the deepest layer of the abyss of imperfect forms, reside tyranny and despotism, not as forms of government, but as dissolvers of community. policy.

Marks of the mentioned aversion can already be found in the Stories of Herodotus (1849), when questioning the compatibility between “well-constituted government” and the possibility of a ruler “doing what he pleases and without control”. The tyrant, in this key, acts against the political community, since, due to his idiotic orientation, he becomes an operator of unpredictability: there is no law or regulation capable of predicting what he will do and of limiting the effects of his actions: “if we show him respect in moderation he is offended because he is not honorable enough; and if someone honors him too much, he is offended by the flatterer […]. He changes the institutions of our ancestors, rapes women, and has men killed without trial.” (HERÓDOTO, 1849, p. 206, our translation).

Herodotus' judgment is not far from that made by Aristotle, in his reflection on “corrupt constitutions”. What would characterize them would be the fact that they only aim at “the good of the ruler”: “They are like the government of the master over the slave, in which the interest of the master is above all”. The State, on the contrary, must be “an association of free men”. (ARISTÓTELES, 1949, p. 112-113). Aristotle's judgment, I know, lends itself to many things. It can serve as a rule of exclusion of slaves within the political community. On the contrary, it clearly suits the defense of a form of State and society in which there are no slaves.

In any case, it is important to recognize the presence of a structuring mark of all future political philosophy: the constitution of a tradition of discourse about the common. The forms and requirements of the common are, of course, as legionnaire as the devil: it is the quintessential domain of diaphonia. However, it makes sense to imagine that the dispersion of images about what good order can be does not eliminate the fact that originates from a convergent aversion: the fear and revulsion of despotism. Despotism, in this sense, is not one of the possible modes of politics: it is just a parasite on the body politic; its “natural” program is the destruction of its own habitat.

A counter-diaphonia the aversion to despotism/tyranny seems to be based on the following negative markers: “whim – the tyrant does what he pleases –; absence of regularity – the tyrant changes institutions, offends ancestors and violates women –; privatism – the despotic government aims at the good of the sovereign –; fear as a social bond – despotism is the government of only one, through fear and disgrace” (LESSA, 2003, p. 114).

And so we follow, from the original moments of the tradition of political philosophy, an uncertain and confused roadmap populated by disparate trajectories. Provoked, to a large extent, by a common motive: the extreme horror and impossibility of a way of life guided by what is common. I do not want to exceed the mention of examples, thus violating a rule that I myself proposed, but it is inevitable mentions of Pierre Bayle – who, in the seventeenth century, imagined a political community founded on the silence of religion (the “republic of atheists”) as an alternative to the war of religious particularisms – and to Montesquieu – who, in the following century, made the horror of despotism the basis of an “institutional design” aimed at containing political and social powers. With regard to Montesquieu (1973, p. 79), it is well worth transcribing the smallest chapter in the history of political philosophy, entitled “Idea despotismo”: “When the savages of Louisiana want to pick a fruit, they cut down the tree below and they catch her. This is despotic government.” Despotism is spontaneous, visceral and needs no mediation.


But what is common? What it is? The common results from the work of abstraction. It is certainly not in things, for these, medium-high pace William of Ockham, subsist in their innumerable particularities, without ties, in a state of ontological abandonment. The common is what appears in the predicate of things. In no way as something generated by themselves, as if they had in themselves the program of their expression. Heirs to the culture of nominalism, we know very well what it is: we are the givers of predicates, starting with simple names and then, in sequence, to universal names, to Ernst Cassirer’s “symbolic forms”, to the world that we “paint for ourselves”. ourselves” by Wittgenstein, Nelson Goodman’s “ways of making worlds”, or the “precipitation of the infinite in the individual”, according to a beautiful formula by Fernando Gil.

The common is, at the same time, something that is not seen in things and a necessary hallucinatory reserve for things to be seen. A reservation that, as soon as it is placed and activated, causes things to lose any intelligibility outside the frame of reference established by it: this is the only way I can assume that unequal and different subjects are equal. The practical experience of democracy among the Greeks – as a decision-making method in which the majority of the demos indicates the direction to be followed by the city – it was preceded by the establishment of an original abstraction, isonomy, according to which political subjects represent themselves as equivalent, endowed with the same weight, despite the more than tangible differences between them.

In other words, the unavoidable primary visibility of difference and even inequality between subjects was, by a hallucinatory act – by definition every original act is hallucinatory – subjected to the force of an immaterial principle: everyone is taken for equals. It is abstraction in its pure state: establishing the existence of invisible and immaterial things and taking them as a condition for the government and “management” of visible things. The original democracy, in this way, presented itself as a practical and material way of governing the political community, founded on the abstraction of isonomy.


The abstraction factor does not only operate as a hallucinatory rearguard of practical experiments, such as a productive fiction in the Aristotelian sense. It ends up configuring the grammar of self-representation of the subjects themselves. Despite being singular and distinct, the subjects take themselves as equal and indistinct. This internalization of the abstract results in consequences that are not at all abstract: from the isonomy passes to isegory – equality in the use of the word – and the centrality of public deliberation, in a spiral of rules that increasingly requires investments in practical “applications” based, in turn, on abstract values ​​and principles. Life that goes on, confused and productive. Abstraction, isonomy, deliberation. We deliberate because we don't know; because we don't have true answers; only what we ignore requires deliberation. Certainly, the composition of geometric figures will not be under our judgment, whose logic falls upon us through demonstrative acts, never deliberative ones. But the form and purposes of the city do not dispense with deliberation on uncertain topics.

As a matter of fact, philosophy does not only demand democracy as its condition of possibility. Indeed, in scenarios of purely majoritarian democracy, moved by the expression of a “tyranny of the majority”, the practice of philosophy is dangerous, as well as advantageous for the resentful and occasional hemlock traders. An aristocratic society, of course, can gather more secure conditions for philosophy to flourish, as both the picture of modern philosophy and the social extraction of many of its practitioners illustrate. This, despite the ever-present censorship there, which was unable to prevent the proliferation of copious literature and clandestine philosophy, which results in a not insignificant part of our critical spirit.

The most favorable framework for the non-guarded exercise of philosophy seems to be that composed of political systems in which there was a combination of electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism, in which the expression of majorities finds limits in a set of subjective and counter-majority rights, including that of freedom of thought and expression, and in laws and rules that give them materiality. In the terms of John Stuart Mill, in the XNUMXth century, in such a regime the legitimacy of governments would derive not only from the expression of the majority, but, to a large extent, from the constitutional obligation to protect minorities.

But even in such semi-idyllic settings, it will not be said that philosophy is a necessary condition for the exercise of democratic government. The picture seems to me to be different: if an environment of expanded freedoms is undoubtedly conducive to cultural and intellectual invention, the strength of philosophical reflection is not given by the direct support of a specific form of exercise of political power, even if this is to some extent democratic. The relationship is of another nature. I will not say, strongly, that democracy requires philosophy as its condition of possibility. I will only say that it is an invaluable resource for reflexivity, for the exercise of thought and critical judgment and, above all, for the configuration of an abstraction reserve.

Michael Walzer (1977), one of the most important contemporary American political philosophers, concluded his beautiful book Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War and Citizenship (WALZER, 1975, p. 205), with the following statement: “what would become of democratic politics without its independent critics?”. The idea of ​​“independent criticism” should not be taken in a merely topical sense, as a marker of distance and objection to punctual elements of political life, such as a law, a decree, a speech or a certain action. It is, in my opinion, the constitution of an abstraction reserve in which, in addition to the invention of specific contents, the experience of reflexivity itself becomes relevant, as a fertilizer of imaginative repertoires.

Of course, philosophy does not have a monopoly on “feeding” such an abstract sphere: other languages ​​and traditions have their own forms and circuits for fertilizing the imaginary, as is the notorious case of arts and literature. However, the tradition of philosophy – in its various fields – maintains a special relationship with regard to the configuration of human life forms. To a large extent, the most general markers of modern sociability were directly affected by decantations of worldviews generated in the environment of the conflict of philosophies. Despite their dissonances, that conflict, countless abstract tools were introduced into the language we use to talk about things.

Thus, and to give one of many possible examples, Rousseau – in his magnificent Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men, from 1755 –, in order to better understand the phenomenon of the real difference between humans, he made use of the abstract idea of ​​equality, which he himself claimed to be historically non-existent. But that is beside the point: what matters is that the intelligibility of the hard matter of the world – the “brutto potere”, by the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) – seems to require the hallucinatory operation of abstract resources.

The position occupied by philosophy in the constitution of this reserve of abstraction is far from being consolidated. It is not a world different from that of experience, in which conceptual forms remain untouched at the disposal of our innumerable needs for help. The reserve I mention, although endowed with inertial dynamics, results, to a large extent, from the action and effort of its practitioners. Philosophy belongs to the broader field of culture, without being reduced to it as one of its effects. I am not talking about causality, but about inherence: philosophy – like literature – does not reflect reality; it affects you. The forms and effects of this affectation, as well as its strength and intensity, will depend on the ability and effort of practitioners of philosophy to place under their inspection the constitutive dilemmas of what David Hume designated as “the common affairs of life".

In an inconclusive key: the range of philosophical effects on the constitution and enrichment of a democratic culture depend, in my opinion, on the presence of a philosophical disposition to deal with the themes of common life and, in doing so, to enrich the cultural reserve of abstraction. The relationship between democracy and philosophy therefore depends on the consistency and commitment of a philosophical policy, or a policy for philosophy.

*Renato Lessa is a professor at PUC-RJ. Author, among other books, of The Skeptic and the Rabbi: A Short Philosophy of Laziness, Belief, and Time (Leia).


Waldomiro J. Silveira Filho. Why Philosophy Matters to Democracy. Salvador, EDUFBA, 2021, 480 pages.


Aristotle. The Politics of Aristotle. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949.

DALE, G. A Life on the Left. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

HERODOTUS. The Stories: A New and Literal Version. Translation by Henry Cary. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849.

LESSA, R. On corruption, despotism and some uncertainties: a skeptical perspective. In: LESSA, R. (org.). Agony, gamble and skepticism: political philosophy essays. Belo Horizonte: UFMG, 2003.

MILL, JS On Liberty. New York: WW Norton & Company, 1975.

MONTESQUIEU. From the spirit of the laws. São Paulo: April, 1973. (Os Pensadores Collection).

POLANYI, K. the great transformation: origins of our time. Rio de Janeiro: Campus, 1980.

PORCHAT, O. towards skepticism. São Paulo: Unesp, 2007.

SMITH, PJ A skeptical view of the world: Porchat and philosophy. São Paulo: Unesp, 2017.

WALZER, M. Of political obligations: essays on disobedience, war and citizenship. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1977.

WOLIN, S. politics and vision: continuity and innovation in western politics though. Boston: Little Brown, 1960.

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