chapter  1
18 Pages

Democratic principles and basic assumptions

In this chapter I want to make explicit the bedrock principles and assumptions underlying democracy in any society. In fact of course democratic governments and institutions will always be situated in particular historical societies and in the following chapter I want to examine the kinds of institutions and practices appropriate to realise democratic principles in industrialised societies of the late twentieth century. The kind of thing I shall be doing in Chapters two to five-attempting to match institutions in a particular historical situation to the general principles outlined in this chapter-is, it seems to me, a task as important as the original formulation and refining of the principles. It is a task which political philosophers have increasingly been tackling for the twentieth century-classical political philosophers always did this, after all-especially in a great burst of publications in the 1970s. I am thinking particularly of work in the United States on, for instance, just and unjust wars, just income policies, children’s rights, racism, feminism and positive discrimination, much of which is represented in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs. It is, however, a kind of philosophical work which has not as yet, as I indicated in my Introduction, made much of a showing in British philosophy of education. In the general area of democracy and democratic theory work has tended to remain at the level of the exposition of general principles. There has been little attempt by philosophers of education-except perhaps in the area of issues to do with the democratic control of the curriculum (see, e.g., Sockett, 1980)—to attempt to offer suggestions on the concrete implementation of principles in our particular historical situation. One might say, of course, that there is a good reason for this. Philosophy is a matter of the formulation and refining of concepts and general principles. It is for someone else to apply these to the concrete situation. But who? Within the educational field I cannot see any ‘detail worker’ to whom I could pass on this job. In any case the classical political philosophers did it (cf. Plato on the domestic arrangements for the Guardians, Locke on decision-making machinery and Hegel on the family), American political philosophers tackle these questions, and in the UK there is work like The Sceptical Feminist (Richards, 1980), which must surely support the case that there is an important job for philosophers to do in applying general principles to the particular situation. It is of course a messy job in that one has to make empirical assumptions of all kinds, any one of which, if false, may destroy one’s case. One must, however, be robustly prepared for one’s work to be rapidly overtaken and to see this sort of endeavour as a kind of brainstorming in print. Its value is to be measured as much by the sheer number of ideas it throws up directly or indirectly as by the ‘correctness’ of the ideas put forward. The foregoing should not be seen as a digression, or material which might more appropriately have been placed at the head of Chapter two. It needs to be said here because the corollary of it is that the statement of the general democratic principles, which is the subject of this chapter, will be of lesser importance. In the context of this essay, therefore, relatively little attempt will be made to compare in detail even major writers on democratic theory like Rawls, Dworkin

and Ackerman, though from time to time signposts will be erected, linking points made here to their influential work in this field.