It would be difficult to overstate the timeliness of Linda Zerilli’s A Democratic Theory of Judgment. Though several years have passed since its initial publication, its main themes and arguments continue to resonate as the messiness of democratic politics unfolds before our eyes in real time. The past five years has seen a resurgence of right-wing populism from the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom to Donald Trump’s election in the United States. Though these are the most visible examples of right-wing movements for observers of Western politics, such movements are not limited by geography: Erdogan in Turkey, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Duterte in the Philippines indicate that the rise of right-wing populist sentiment is a global phenomenon, leaving political theorists and historians scrambling to interpret these turbulent political circumstances. Indeed, the rise of such populist movements has led some to postulate whether the very project of democracy is dying before our eyes.1 Against this background and context, I submit that Zerilli’s thought—and by extension Hannah Arendt’s—is needed now more than ever.
To try and succinctly capture the main thrust of Zerilli’s work would be difficult as its themes and arguments are multifaceted, and she engages with a voluminous amount of contemporary literature in political theory. However, we might capture something of crucial import about her work if we ask the following question: What does it mean to speak together within contemporary political societies and not at or against one another? Specifically, how can we offer judgments to one another about political events in the absence of a shared world?2
Given the above context, the events of contemporary politics certainly should give us pause. These events also give Zerilli’s Arendtian insight at the opening of her text renewed purchase in the years since its publication:
In light of the widespread value pluralism of multicultural democracies, we, democratic citizens, find ourselves increasingly called upon to make judgments about practices not always our own, judgments that require what Arendt called the capacity for “representative thinking”—that is, an ability to and willingness to imagine how the world looks to people whose standpoints one does not necessarily share.3
This imaginative capacity, upon which Zerilli builds her own account of “democratic world-building,” is, in my estimation, something contemporary citizens must be engaged in. I say this because of the urgency current of political circumstances—urgent in the sense of palpably lacking a common world from which to build dialogue and discourse with others. Zerilli suggests we can build such worlds through imaginative engagement with perspectives other than our own.
Within this context of world-building, I’d like to briefly introduce the essays in this symposium. The content of the essays is diverse and each approaches Zerilli’s text from a somewhat different angle, but all aim either to extend or critically engage her central arguments. The first two essays naturally go together because they both probe Zerilli’s account of world-building.
The first essay to appear is by Sarah Tyson, titled “Who Has a Perspective?” As noted in the quoted passage above from Zerilli’s text, central to her account of a democratic theory of judgment is the use of Arendt’s concept of representative thinking. On this score, Tyson is sympathetic to Zerilli’s project, especially as it relates to how judgment might help us navigate the difficult relationship between truth, facts, and the political realm. However, Tyson worries that Zerilli might be too quick to accept Arendt’s account of representative thought without questioning Arendt’s shortsightedness about who counts as having a standpoint. In particular, Native or indigenous peoples might not get to count as having a voice given some of the things that Arendt writes throughout her corpus. Tyson writes: “I am concerned that Zerilli takes up Arendt’s political theory while leaving her anthropology uninterrogated.”
The second essay to appear in the symposium is by Lucy Benjamin, titled “Upon Which Notion of the Earth Do Our Judgments Build Worlds?” Benjamin also welcomes Zerilli’s important insights about the need for turning to Arendt’s thought in light of the loss of a common or shared world, but pushes Zerilli to ask whether she has fully appreciated the implications of Arendt’s notion of “earth.” That is, she asks Zerilli whether she has fully considered how earth-boundedness, the very condition of human biological life, needs to factor into an account of building worlds via judgments. Specifically, Benjamin is uniquely approaching Zerilli’s work from the perspective of climate change and asking: if our condition as earthly creatures is being lost, how does this affect how we form judgments that build worlds?
Clive Barnett’s essay appears third and is a more technical piece, focusing less upon Zerilli’s engagement with Arendt and more on affect within contemporary political theory. “The turn to affect” in political theory is one of the central strands of thought Zerilli herself takes up in Chapter 9 of A Democratic Theory of Judgment. Without delving too far into the particulars here of what is meant by “the turn to affect,” broadly speaking, it is a way of theorizing the political focused less upon the cognitive or epistemological and more upon incorporating phenomenological insights into accounts of the political—in Zerilli’s case, the focus is specifically upon accounts of political judgment not grounded in reason or rationality. Though I have stated Barnett’s piece is a bit more technical, his engagement with Zerilli is close and careful and he brings out an important insight about her specific way of theorizing the political: “Zerilli is concerned with refashioning ‘logical geographies’ that characterize the conceptual frames that shape discussion of human action. By this, I mean that she attends to the ways in which relations between insides and outsides, or between different systems, or between distinct processes are imagined.”
Finally, Shmuel Lederman, while sympathetic to Zerilli’s use of Arendtian themes as they relate to work in contemporary liberal political theory (specifically Habermas and Rawls), pushes her to consider an often neglected aspect of Arendt’s thought: her discussion of the council system. Lederman suggests that the council system is the closest we get in Arendt’s thought to a normative approximation of what the public sphere should look like. Lederman writes the following: “Zerilli’s analysis seems to beg a discussion of the kind of public sphere Arendt herself suggested might be our best chance of recovering a common world in modern societies: radical, participatory democracy in the form of a citizen council system.” Though I’ll leave it to Lederman to expound upon the meaning of this concept in Arendt’s thought, his general point in response to Zerilli is that if we’re going to build a democratic theory of judgment out of Arendt’s thought, it must be participatory in nature.
I am very excited to share this symposium from such a wide range of scholars and interests. I sincerely hope readers will find it as timely and relevant as I have while organizing it.
See Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (Random House, 2018).↩
“World,” has a technical sense in Arendt’s thought and she famously uses the image of a table to make sense of what she means by it. She writes: “To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.” See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958), 52.↩
Linda Zerilli, A Democratic Theory of Judgment (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 1 (emphasis added).↩