On Public Reason & Inflated Concepts

by Eric Schliesser on April 17, 2023

Hélène Landemore enthusiastically shared a piece, “The Inflation of Concepts,” published at Aeon by John Tasioulas (who she describes as her “Oxford colleague”). Appealing to the work of Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls, Tasioulas focuses on a “threat to the quality of public reason” (which he claims) “tends to go unnoticed. This is the degradation of the core ideas mobilised in exercises of public reason.” And, in particular, what he has in mind is ‘conceptual overreach’. This “occurs when a particular concept undergoes a process of expansion or inflation in which it absorbs ideas and demands that are foreign to it.”

At this point I kind of expected Tasioulas to suggest as an example ‘democracy’ but he initially focuses on “human rights or the rule of law” [he is a legal philosopher] which “is taken to offer a comprehensive political ideology, as opposed to picking out one among many elements upon which our political thinking needs to draw and hold in balance when arriving at justified responses to the problems of our time.” Near the end of his essay he does focus on democracy (which he thinks of as a more “contestable” example!) and while drawing on the excellent work of Joshua Ober, he complains that some people mistakenly use ‘democracy’ and ‘liberal democracy’ interchangeably. (Our reading habits are clearly different because most of the conflations I see involve ‘democracy’ and whatever views a theorist expects/wishes to see approved by their imaginary demos.)

In all three of his main examples, a clear concept is developed by the intellectual class in order to add new features to it, including some that thereby muddle it. Now, Tasioulas does not object to this on the grounds that may tempt what we may call a ‘conceptual purist analytic philosopher’ that true conceptual change is impossible (for the conventional wisdom in the corner of analytic philosophy in which I grew up was that concepts are what they are, eternally). For Tasioulas allows for “the possibility that a given concept might legitimately come to incorporate new demands over time without this constituting a form of conceptual overreach.”

So, lurking in Tasioulas is a kind of consistency requirement that only additions to the content of a concept are legitimate that are compatible with its original identity and, to use a vaguer terms its spirit (this to capture Tasioulas’ examples and his notion of ‘foreign’). Those political agents that inflate concepts beyond the possible limits of intra-conceptual coherence, are conceptual polluters.

I put it like that because Tasioulas shares with his sometime Oxford Colleague, Neil Levy (whose very fine book Bad Beliefs: Why They Happen to Good People reviewed here [open access]), a kind of fantasy that that the public sphere can remain unpolluted and (this is the public reason part) should remain unpolluted. Of course, if it is a fantasy, then (ought implies can) the duty to keep foreign elements out disappears and one can welcome conceptual hybridization (perhaps even inflation).

Before I explain why it is a fantasy, it is worth noting that the concepts Tasioulas focuses on are also paradigmatic cases of ‘essentially contested concepts’ (in Gallie’s sense) and so one might think that his purist approach to them does not get off the ground. Tasioulas hints at his awareness of this hypothetical objection (not just with his use of ‘contestable’ in the context of his democracy example, but also ) because — while tacitly invoking the concept/conception distinction that has been used by public reason scholars to domesticate the possibility of ‘essentially contested concepts’ –, he acknowledges that his position “is further complicated by the fact that there might be various equally acceptable ways of specifying the meanings of a range of important concepts.” But it is important to see that for Tasioulas these acceptable ways cannot, in principle, reveal or express internal, latent contradiction(s) or foreign-ess within the concept.

Interestingly enough, and to his credit, Tasioulas does not disguise the elitist commitments in his version of public reason. Alongside the “craving for simplicity,” he fundamentally blames “elite actors and institutions,” “special interest groups,” and “dialectical gambits” by political agents who wish to deprive their “political opponents of a conceptual place on which to stand.” And so in the final paragraph he closes with the claim that the “responsibility” for maintaining a relatively pure conceptual public sphere “falls on all of us, but especially on the wielders of great public and private power.” And this fits his diagnosis at the start of his essay that conceptual inflation is the effect of “the utterances of elite actors, such as bureaucrats, lawyers, politicians and representatives of international organisations and NGOs.”

What’s ironic about all of this is that usually (left) critics of public reason (like my brilliant former teacher Iris Marion Young) tend to point to the elitist presuppositions of public reason (comparing its norms to that of a genteel seminar room) to discredit it and that these norms leave out many other (quite intelligible) forms of contestation and argumentation. By contrast, Tasioulas basically blames the very people who ought to be all in on public reason for not living up to its demands for public speech.

With that in place let me acknowledge that I recognize that communication and decision-making might seem a lot easier if people stuck to a shared notion of particular concepts and that any extensions of these should remain sufficiently pure and avoid what Tasioulas calls inflation. I use ‘seem’ because Tasioulas ignores all the ways in which strategic ambiguity makes peace, collective decisions, coalition-building, and even agreeing to disagree possible.

To be sure, I too am tempted by worry over the confusion and lack of clarity that might follow from conceptual hybridization and inflation, and it can be terribly frustrating to see the mis-use of concepts in public. (I am often happy to die on the mole-hill that Trump was an attempted usurper between January 2-6, 2021, but did not attempt a coup d’état.) And I often see ‘violence’ used in ways that I think inflated. It is part of the analytic philosopher’s political faith that if the concepts are clarified, social life can be in a much better state (this is actually visible in Carnap and, as I have argued in, Ernest Nagel). Nothing I say here undermines that faith, or the purported utility that follows from conceptual engineering, conceptual clarification, or conceptual amelioration. After all, I have appealed to the work of a philosopher’s conceptual coining ‘essentially contested concept’ here! (Some time I return to the odd status of Gallie within professional philosophy.)

Now, above, I used ‘fantasy,’ for three reasons. First, Tasioulas ends up having to tell a mythic stories about concepts that originally are (relatively) pure and then are corrupted by (even well intentioned) strategic actors. (It shares quite a bit of elements with standard accounts of the Fall.) The story is mythic because the temporal and conceptual proper base line Tasioulas appeals to in each case is always drawn arbitrarily by him such as to make the concept do the work Tasioulas wants.

This can be seen even the case of the ‘rule of law.’ Tasioulas writes “Traditionally, this refers to a range of formal and procedural requirements that enable people to comply with the law.” (emphasis added) Because ‘traditionally’ is so vague it is hard to contest this on historical grounds (hence my use of ‘mythic,’ although it helps knowing that Tasioulas is an admirer of Raz!) I was a bit taken aback by this understanding of the rule of law because I don’t tend to think of it in such functional terms (that it enables compliance with the law).

For, it is worth noting that Dicey, who is ‘standardly’ (see what I did there?) credited by conservatives and liberals alike in the Anglo-world for giving the central formulation of the rule of law, describes its first principle as “no man is punishable or can be lawfully made to suffer in body or goods except for a distinct breach of law established in the ordinary legal manner before the ordinary Courts of the land.” This makes clear that the rule of law is understood as a kind of constraint on the exercise of power.

My modest point here is not to argue in favor of Dicey as the proper baseline (why him and not Aristotle or Cicero or Blackstone etc?), but just to suggest that in all his explicit examples Tasioulas is engaged in cherry picking to promote his own favored understanding of a concept as the baseline and then to treat deviations from it that he disapproves of as conceptual inflations. This is essentially arbitrary, and even where I happen to agree politically with Tasioulas, one should not expect wider agreement. I happen to think this is part of the human condition because conceptual inflation just is a strategy that is always available to political agents, but nothing I say requires you to accept that.

However, because it is always going to be somewhat arbitrary, conceptual inflation is always going to be a charge that itself will be contestable. And so functionally one can expect that if there is uptake of ‘conceptual inflation’ as a term of abuse, that rather than focusing on the issues under dispute, it shifts dispute to a more meta-level (about the origins and proper use of a concept). This may be good for the business of analytic philosophy (it’s our area of expertise), and other elite intellectuals, but it will neither cure us of the phenomenon (Tasioulas’ professed aim) nor solve the underlying disputes (although they may displace them which can be preferable sometimes).

Second, even by Tasioulas’ own lights his proposal to keep concepts in “good repair” is likely to fail. Because he does not address the grounds, institutions, or incentives that by his own lights give rise to conceptual inflation (This is why I mentioned Neil Levy’s book, which at least begins the important conversation what would be required to keep the political environment relatively unpolluted.) So, even if Tasioulas could establish a duty to avoid conceptual inflation, it seems defeasible in practice (because obeying it would undermine other important morally salient political aims).

Let me close by assuaging a possible worry that I am making a category mistake, and that I am sneakily trying to undermine commitment to public reason on empirical grounds. But that’s not what I am doing here (even though it’s probably true that I lack warmth toward public reason as a project). Rather, third, it is Tasioulas who mistakenly assumes (with appeal to Habermas and Rawls) that adherence to public reason is existing common ground. And if that were true then indeed he could remind participants in it (like a seminar leader) that they are violating shared norms and all would be well. But, unfortunately, contemporary elites (the ones he appeals to) quite clearly do not believe this, their actions (alongside their utterances) belie it.

  • This first appeared at: <https://digressionsimpressions.substack.com/p/on-tasioulas-conceptual-inflation> a reader-supported publication.




J, not that one 04.17.23 at 5:31 pm

How broadly is the opposition to definitional purity supposed to extend? Does a single individual need to use one definition consistently throughout their life? Throughout the length of a single conversation? It seems easy enough to understand, for most people, that changing definitions from minute to minute is maddening to the person one would be talking to, and doesn’t enable any kind of forward motion.

Similarly, is it even possible to say whether one thing or another is the usual way language changes over time, if terms are unstable to that extent? Is it possible to make any kind of judgment of value, or cast any change as illegitimate, without adducing either power or divinity?

At some point, one wants to ask oneself why one couldn’t say simply “I happen to prefer purity”?

More seriously, might those who study language change object to inflation of their conclusions, so that “language change exists” has turned into “language change is beyond any possible judgment of its value or lack of value”?


Eric Schliesser 04.17.23 at 5:38 pm

Hi J (if I may?)
There are lots of linguistic contexts where one can prefer and expect purity and stability. But as Tasioulas seems to recognize, there is social learning that impacts concepts used in political contexts. And sometimes inflation is needed to accommodate rather dramatic social change. For example, in my life-time ‘marriage’ has been inflated to cover relationships it previously didn’t. I am not sure what the objection to that is supposed to be.


MisterMr 04.17.23 at 6:33 pm


Mike Huben 04.17.23 at 8:31 pm

“usually (left) critics of public reason (like my brilliant former teacher Iris Marion Young) tend to point to the elitist presuppositions of public reason (comparing its norms to that of a genteel seminar room) to discredit it and that these norms leave out many other (quite intelligible) forms of contestation and argumentation.”

That sounds interesting. Could you point me to a reference? A concise one would be nicest.


Eric Schliesser 04.17.23 at 9:02 pm

Chambers, Simone. “Public reason that speaks to people: Iris Marion Young and the problem of internal exclusion.” Les ateliers de l’éthique= The ethics forum. Vol. 2. No. 1. Centre de recherche en éthique de l’Université de Montréal, 2007.


Alex SL 04.17.23 at 11:48 pm

Interesting that the central term here is expansion or inflation of a concept. It is a much more general problem, I think, that includes also deliberate or accidental misunderstanding of terms and equivocation.

Concepts can and, to the degree that new evidence accumulates, maybe should change their meaning. On the other hand, having a well-defined meaning for terms is a basic requirement for having any meaningful conversation at all. More promising than trying to figure out the degree to which conceptual expansion should be tolerated would IMO be to consider the motivation behind such expansion or muddling. Because if it is ideologically or religiously motivated, if it is merely trying to score a point through sophistry, then I would not consider that a legitimate reason for changing the meaning of a concept.

Democracy, republic, communist, socialist, fascist are all good political examples, but the ones I have been most frustrated by in the past are from the realm of what might broadly be called theory of mind: consciousness, free will, mind, etc. Both dualists and incompatibilists have a strong tendency to take a concept that was originally ‘invented’, one might even say needed, to describe an empirically observed process or state, mystify it to mean something magical, and then respectively conclude that the existence of the magic thing that they just defined into existence demonstrates that materialism is false (dualists) or that, because magic doesn’t exist, free will and our minds are illusions (incompatibilists).

In this sense, I then also disagree with at least part of the ‘fantasy’ aspect in the OP, unless I misunderstood it. Take the concept of conscious(ness), for example. It has now been mystified to mean a magical process in the brain, so that dualist philosophers can go round and round claiming that materialism is insufficient to explain consciousness, the mind, True Understanding, and so on (philosophical zombies and all that). But what does conscious really mean, where does that word come from?

This person here is sleeping; this other person over there is conscious. This person here has been knocked out; this other person over here is conscious. This human here has a consciousness; this rock does not; this beetle over there seemingly has some rudimentary form of it, and that bird over there has yet a bit more of it.

It is NOT the case that some philosopher decided one day in 200 BCE to invent the term consciousness as a synonym for magic when nobody else around him had yet noticed that some people are conscious and others are unconscious, or that humans have a mind but rocks do not. All of these are empirical distinctions, patterns, processes, and states that humans have observed and needed words for since they had any complex language at all. That is where that concept came from, even if different words are used for it in different languages. Consciousness being an empirically observed process and state is why consciousness can be studied empirically by science, contrary to the claims of dualists. Consciousness being an empirically observed process and state is why it is very much NOT an illusion, contrary to the claims of incompatibilists. The mysticism was slapped onto it later purely to conduct apologetics on behalf of dualism, to muddle things deliberately for religious purposes, and that is not a legitimate and good-faith redefinition.

Although the stakes are perhaps lower than in politics, I hope this at least illustrates that there are more problematic cases than expanding the meaning of marriage, for example. The whole “we are a republic, not a democracy” trope is another classic example of similar sophistry, although not being a US citizen, I have no stakes in that and am merely marveling from a distance at the wilful ignorance of the fact that democracies that don’t have monarchs as head of state are also republics.


John Q 04.18.23 at 2:28 am

Didn’t Wittgenstein cover all this with the prosaic example of “game”? It seems as if the kind of inflation being described here is an inherent property of language. Roughly speaking it results from the fact that similarity is not transitive.

Add to that the natural tendency to expand favorable/pejorative terms to apply to anything the speaker likes/dislikes and the problem gets worse.

The only way to avoid this, I think, is for a particular community of speakers to agree on a precise definition, turning an ordinary-language word into a technical term. For example, “mass” can mean all sorts of things to English speakers, but only one thing to physicists.

But this is still problematic when the ordinary terms have positive/negative connotations. The misuse of the term “efficiency” by economists is an example. It allows for motte and bailey fallacies where the term is used in its ordinary sense until it is challenged, at which point the user retreats to the technical definition.


J, not that one 04.18.23 at 2:43 am

Eric, hi, thanks for replying.

Honestly, I don’t believe in social learning in the sense I think you’re using it here.

I also don’t see the contradiction between Tasioulas accepting some conceptual changes, while condemning others because they corrode the original value a term named. The extension of marriage could fall into the first category, while some other change (for example a change to “human rights” that made them harder to defend) might fall into the second. Similarly, I don’t see a contradiction between accepting that definitions change, and wanting to set up organized efforts to explain what people meant by them last week.

The OP (in the context of similar rhetoric I’m familiar with) reads to me like ridiculing the idea of defining terms, definitively, as “purity” and “fear of pollution”, in the service of persuading that something called social learning is probably more defensible (without explaining what social learning is or how it might work).


Eric Schliesser 04.18.23 at 6:49 am

I have no objection to defining terms and trying to stick to them in many speech contexts. But what I am pointing out is that there is no a-political non-arbitrary way of dividing those conceptual changes you like and those you don’t when these concepts are politically salient.


Eric Schliesser 04.18.23 at 6:50 am

Yes, communities with specialized vocabulary can try to control (the rate of) change in/of a concept to some degree.


JPL 04.18.23 at 6:54 am

Even focusing just on the case of the expression “the rule of law” raises a lot of fundamental philosophical issues. One could set up the problem to pursue it in a systematic way, taking into account all the results in ethics and metaethics, linguistics, theory of governance and so on, naming almost every field. What I immediately felt was the need to look again at Hayek’s “The Primacy of the Abstract”, in his The Sensory Order, I think it was.

In the absence of that, I’ve long been bothered by media commentators, including some so-called “conservative” ones who firmly believe special pleading is perfectly acceptable, using the expression without much evident awareness of what all it entails, and never being asked, “What do you mean, what do you understand by the term ‘rule of law’?”. So I usually say that when somebody says “rule of law” they’re supposed to be referring to the “rule of law principle”, (which perhaps is there waiting to be discovered in a Platonic logical level of analysis, the world of “quid juris?”), which I try to express as something like, “Each person (or “ethical agent”) is equivalent (any ethical agent is equivalent to any other ethical agent) with respect to the application of the laws of the land”. Reading an article in the NYRB on “China: Back to authoritarianism”, by Ian Johnson, I was reminded of another main aspect of that principle that is usually expressed as “rule by laws, not by men”, i.e., that justice is about the the application of independently established principles, which are timeless and relatively unchanging with relation to regimes, and recognized by all citizens as fair (“fairness” (TBD) being a property of the laws applied under the rule of law principle), and citizens are not just subject to the whims of powerful narcissistic men. (This is essentially equivalent to Dicey’s formulation above.) The rule of law principle is a special case of the application of ethical principles in general, and at the Supreme Court level, at least, the possibility of unjust laws and consideration of purely ethical principles are included in the arguments, and the aim is to bring the law and ethical principles into line. But you can’t just have a group of powerful men, which you seem to have in the Chinese case, designing laws of the nation that will protect the interests of the rich and powerful; the laws have to be consistent with ethical principles, independent of the interests of the powerful, and not enshrine inequalities. Actions are instances of general schemata, and in individual agents ethical principles (insofar as agents understand them) take the form of schemata that regulate actions that affect other autonomous agents; any person can internalize such regulatory principles and apply them freely, whereas authoritarianism involves an actor with power merely telling someone what to do, i.e., coercion. Ethical principles are totally opposed to the power principle in all areas of life, including personal relations, like in a marriage, and something like the “rule of law principle” should apply there as well. Authoritarians (valuing “obediance”) seem to have trouble with the idea of the abstract.


JPL 04.18.23 at 7:04 am

I forgot to add: Power is irrelevant to the valid (as opposed to the factual) application of the laws.


Mike Huben 04.18.23 at 2:05 pm

Thanks, Eric. It took a few minutes to find it online: Public reason that speaks to people: Iris Marion Young and the problem of internal exclusion.

Worth reading. It was exactly the sort of brief summary I wanted.


Tim Sommers 04.18.23 at 3:30 pm

Great piece, insightful arguments, thanks.
I just want to mention the problem that I have with the “public reason” project, despite being pretty Rawlsian, is that I think that it’s actually easier to get agreement on certain principles than on the reasons or even agreement on language. My main is example is this. I read people, especially philosophers (here’s a widely circulated example (http://sootyempiric.blogspot.com/2022/04/why-i-am-not-liberal.html) denying their liberals. But I think liberalism is the view that justice demands that everyone have certain basic, rights, liberties and freedoms. (Maybe, that’s to weak: that the first principle of justice…?) I think this sort of “operationalization” definition of liberalism is more widely shared than any other political principle. Maybe, that’s wishful thinking. But I doubt many of the authors of such pieces would deny it.


Tim Sommers 04.18.23 at 3:31 pm

“their”=”they are”
Embarrassed. Sorry.


steven t johnson 04.18.23 at 4:14 pm

Thanks to Mike Huben: “First, when it comes to political speech, the dispassionate versus passionate dichotomy so popular among the Founding
Fathers is deeply suspect. The claim that dispassionate speech is somehow neutral and rational is itself often a rhetorical move to dress-up
self-interested claims in the guise of neutrality. Her second argument
is that attempting to identify a mode of speech that is non-rhetorical
or neutral often has the effect of excluding those who speak in a different idiom or with a different cadence. The groups regularly identified as lacking sufficient neutrality in speech have been overwhelmingly drawn from the marginalized or less powerful in society. Finally, she argues that rhetoric can actually be a very positive force in dialogue…. The reason why we should “allow”
multiple rhetorics, forms of expression and nontraditional communication into deliberation is not simply because devaluing these forms
of speech devalues the contributions of those who speak in these voices, that is, it is not simply a matter of fairness. We also should open
the doors to multiple forms of speech because in deliberation we want
people to speak to each other and not at each other.”

The first argument is wrong: The real reason a dispassionate tone is better, is that getting emotional generally keeps others from listening. It’s true that a sympathetic listener may make extraordinary efforts to ignore it. But it seems to me quite irrational to expect someone preaching to the choir will be listened to attentively by those not in the choir. The real objection is not the tone, but the bland assumption of facts and principles. Most complex public discourse relies on a whole series of conventions and agreed upon facts. The exclusion of so many groups of people from the process of tacitly agreeing upon the facts and conventions is a problem…but it’s not addressed by pretending indignation is an argument or similar moves.

The second reason is correct and compelling as to the facts. It’s just not clear to me that accepting everyone’s rhetoric at face value, giving the others/subalterns/what you will equal time, so to speak, resolves the problem of criticizing the hidden assumptions so often masked in so-called elite discourse. All public discourse expresses the passions and the interests. The problem is the humdrum ordinariness of the status quo doesn’t require defiance, it requires analysis and reconstruction. That is not a matter of a genial tolerance for non-standard grammar and sentimental appeals.

The third reason is peculiar: It is precisely confrontation that is the speaking at, rather than the speaking to. The conformist may lack sympathy for others, but it is not at all clear that they do so because they dislike bad grammar or bad manners.

If you really want to analyze discourse, possibly the place to start would be to analyze the notion of “trolling.”

Alex SL’s conspiracy theory of metaphysical free will suffers from the same issues of plausibility as those who claim all religion is a fraud imposed for the gain of the prophets (read, profits.) Also, it is not at all clear to me that the monstrous “incompatibilists” who are somehow worse than the priestcraft frauds actually have a habit of denying the existence of consciousness. I do think the claim consciousness does not give insight into the workings of the brain, and is prone to error, as in optical illusions, psychotic delusions, ideological systems and common place dreams is much less misleading than the opposite implied. One meaning of the word “illusion” is indeed, imaginary, nonexistent…but another meaning is, “a thing that is or is likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses.” We do not correctly perceive or interpret that operation of our brains, regardless—-or is it because of?—our senses, external or internal.


Eric Schliesser 04.18.23 at 4:26 pm

Hi Tim, I think we agree! And thank you for your kind words.
I really liked that essay by sootyempiric/Liam. Back in the day I wrote a response to it here: https://digressionsnimpressions.typepad.com/digressionsimpressions/2022/04/why-i-am-not-a-conservative.html


TM 04.18.23 at 4:41 pm

Human Rights as a definite and forever fixed concept that everybody agrees on? That’s a particluarly weird example that Tasiouslas gives…

stj: “The real reason a dispassionate tone is better, is that getting emotional generally keeps others from listening.”

This might come as a surprise to pretty much any successful rhetorician but whatever…


J, not that one 04.19.23 at 2:36 pm

@18 Your comment applies to a person with some power or elite status, addressing a large audience, but not to the person with less power addressing someone with more.

There is a certain kind of person who – in face to face conversation – will tune out anything they’ve perceived as “emotional,” or who will make such strenuous efforts to read behind what they think is “emotional” that they end up “listening” to an imaginary person instead of the one in front of them.

Pace Young, this has nothing to do with “elites.” It has to do with contempt for others. A working class mechanic will do it with a middle class client.

It’s unclear who Young is defending. It comes dangerously close to reverting to the assumption that everyone except the dominant class, gender, and ethnic group are ignorant and incapable of using reason, as if no one ever used logic before the eighteenth century, and we still had 2% literacy. Since she’s writing against enlightenment-centric identity politics, the only group left for her argument to apply to are the MAGAs, the followers of Modi, and so on.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that different points of view can come across as emotional to someone who doesn’t want to listen, but that is different from demanding non-elites agree to that judgment of themselves, and forgo logic in their own defense.


MisterMr 04.19.23 at 6:30 pm

Re cold reason VS emotional tone in rethoric:

When I was at uni now 20+ years ago I studied some sociology/psychology of mass media, and there were some influential studies about this in the 60s iirc.

The result is that emotional tone does a much better job of rallying people who already are on your side, but tend to alienate people who disagree with you or are in the middle.

However there is a second level to this because the people who already agree with you that you supercharged with your rethoric might act as “opinion leaders” and spout the same stuff to friends and family, so an higly emotional tone might still be succesful long term if the role of the opinion leaders is important (as opposed to the first level of direct persuasion of your public).

In fact, politicians know this and will speak very differently at a rally of their own party than when speak to the general public.

The diffusion of social media though made the opinion leaders more important though, and also makes us see more easily what we didn’t see before (like rallies of the opposite party).

I do not think that the speaker with/without power is relevant here, but consider that for example most heated internet dudes/dudettes are not really people with power, but both the “woke” version and the trumpist version are quite emotional.


William S. Berry 04.19.23 at 7:29 pm

@TM: “ This might come as a surprise to pretty much any successful rhetorician but whatever”

I think a “successful” rhetorician would sometimes be surprised to learn that they were being emotional or passionate.

They might well be, on occasion.

But being emotional, or passionate, is not in the job description. The purpose of rhetoric is the skillful use of language to arouse emotion in the listener— to create consent to the speaker’s propositions.

[I’d have thought that this would be well-understood. Maybe it’s just an stj thing?! One wants to correct him if one “catches” him in a “mistake”. The problem is: While stj can be a little off putting in presentation, his analysis is generally correct (IMNSHO; but completely wrong on Putin and Ukraine, I hasten to add).]


TM 04.20.23 at 7:32 am

J 19: You think “Black lives matter” is neutral, dispassionate speech, and it has never occurred to those in power to denigrate BLM speech as irrational and overly emotional? You think “government hands off my body” is neutral, dispassionate speech, and it has never occurred to those in power to denigrate feminist speech as irrational and overly emotional?

Is it really not obvious what this debate is about? The powerful have always disparaged the demands of those with less power as irrational and claimed that their own interests were the ones rationally justified.


TM 04.20.23 at 7:43 am

Also this: “Your comment applies to a person with some power or elite status, addressing a large audience, but not to the person with less power addressing someone with more.”

What about the powerless person addressing her peers? Or the powerful person addressing his peers? Have you ever followed parliamentary debates? Political speech is almost always emotional and often passionate. Claiming otherwise is just weird.
And regarding “the person with less power addressing someone with more”: are you suggesting that if the powerless only spoke rationally and dispassionately to their betters, the powerful would listen to their demands? This is a truly baffling model of how politics works.


J, not that one 04.20.23 at 3:00 pm

TM It depends what you think political speech is, I guess. STJ’s statement is in line with Young’s (as summarized at that link) claiming our society systematically denies a hearing to those who are out of power and who make emotionally tinged arguments. Which is undoubtedly true in many contexts.

Isn’t there a strand of technocratic thinking that discounts anyone with a personal claim, whether emotional or interest-based, in favor of abstract rules and social-science considerations that are supposed to be set in stone?

It remains true that lower-status people are usually encouraged to make sure their arguments to power are logical, based on evidence, and very carefully thought through, if they want to be heard. “Black Lives Matter” wouldn’t be a necessary slogan if everybody agreed “Black live matter,” is a true fact and reasoned accordingly.


TM 04.20.23 at 4:46 pm

“But being emotional, or passionate, is not in the job description. The purpose of rhetoric is the skillful use of language to arouse emotion in the listener”

So political speech is suppsed to be unemotional but arouse emotion in the listener? I don’t follow you.

A tidbit of relatively well settled psychologcal research is that emotion is heavily involved in both memory and decision making, so a speaker who fails to arouse emotional interest in the audience not only will likely be unconvincing but listeners won’t even remember what they tried to convey.

I’m not really much interested in this debate but I have taken issue with stj’s claim that “getting emotional generally keeps others from listening”. That assertion is patently false and I’m surprised that this is even controversial.


MisterMr 04.20.23 at 4:59 pm

IMO therer are two different problems.

The first is that non-scientific concepts will aways be fuzzy – they need to. For example, the early cavemen went to the sea and named some stuff that lived in it “fish”. The concept of “fish” is ambiguous, it did include dophins and whales, and probably at times also starish and shellfish, although everybody can see that e.g. a starfish is very different from a cod.
Then whith time there was an accumulation of scientific knowledge and today we do not count anymore dolphins and whales as fishes, let alone starfishes. We now have a well defined scientific understanding of what a fish is.
But the first cavemen who invented the concept could not wait until they had scientific knowledge before they named “fish”; if they did they would never have been able to create language and therefore we wouldn’t have scientific knowledge today.
Instead they used fuzzy, impressionistic and non scientific words as an approximation, and it is only thank to this that we gathered enough knowledge to arrive, later, at the scientific definitions.
More generally, while a scientific definition of a concept is a very useful thing and at times a prerequisite for scientific understanding, it is not always possible to have this kind of scientific definitions, and most of the time we do not have enough knowledge so we have to do with unscientific, fuzzy normal language concepts.
In addition to this, while our understanding of shellfish and whales changed with time, the shellfish and the whales themselves didn’t; but when we speak of stuff like “democracy” or “freedom”, democracy clearly is a human institution that is created through human culture, so if our understanding of what democracy is changes real democracies will also change, and the reverse (e.g. we would not consider real democracies countries where there is a minimum requirement of income/wealth to vote, we would consider them oligarchies, but for a while many democracies were like that).
So on the whole it is impossible to have a strict definition of democracy, because a platonic ideal of democracy doesn’t exist or, if it does, it exists only according to one theory or one conception that might change with time.

But there is a second problem, which is that people will use or stretch their particular definitions of terms like “freedom”, “equality” and other nice sounding words to suit their own rethorical needs.
This is a different problem from the first, that definitions of such terms are quite fuzzy.
The OP mostly refers to the first problem, and Tasioulas seeems to refer to this (at least this is what I think from the OP), but at times and in particular in the last lines of the OP it is clear that the real problem is the second, that people willfully stretch the definitions in a form of motivated reasoning.
The difference between “reasoning” and “motivated reasoning” is that the foirst is trying to understand, the second is trying to persuade.
But in practice we will always have people who are trying to persuade, so the only thing that we can do is to discount other people’s opinion if we sense that they are motivated reasoning (and this too could create problems).
I don’t thint that this is a problem that can be solved by having better definitions of concepts (problem 1), I think that if this can be solved it can be solved by having better understanding of motivations.
This really is close to the older thread about objectivity VS unbiasedness in journalism.


steven t johnson 04.20.23 at 5:13 pm

MisterMr@20 is correct in my experience that the speaker’s emotions are better at swaying those already convinced or favorable, not so much I think as to change their minds but to inspire some sort of action. The “action” may just be applause then claimed to be, vox populi. I would add that those in power may wish to shriek indignation, indignation, indignation but that’s not so much persuasion as it is erosion of the audience’s judgment. The powerless do not really have the option of endless repetition, much less of drowning out the conventional views. Those default views are often not held strongly, and often are not consistent, but neither are people amenable to long discourses aimed at persuasion. tl;dr is the greatest foe of the would-be reformer?

William Berry@21 is correct on one point (even if wrong on “a little): It is more likely the successful rhetorician feigns what emotion they seem to display, as a tactic.

TM@22&23: Reviewing the OP and my @16 it seems to me that I should amend this: “Most complex public discourse relies on a whole series of conventions and agreed upon facts.” Most complex public discourse which is inevitably dominated by the rich, the powerful and the credentialed, relies on a whole series of conventions and agreed upon facts and suspiciously elastic key terms which they—being the usual masters of the public arena—which they equivocate when convenient. [If that truly is what Tasioulas is arguing, and arguing against, I agree.]

If the rhetorical well is, so to speak, already poisoned with bafflegab, fighting words, buzzwords, dismissals tout court of all manner of ideas, ideals and perspectives, the problem is, allowing the powerless said rhetorical sins doesn’t help change anybody’s minds. It’s just fun for the speaker and those already committed to the cause.

And that’s why TM’s apparent belief that the most effective rhetoric is emotional strikes me as bizarre, to be generous. It’s like claiming that fire-and-brimstone pulpit pounding preachers are the most powerful speakers. Or that open defiance is how the powerless get their way. But then, I’m so far behind whatever curve TM is on, I am at a loss to understand why TM thinks parliamentary debate is actually meant to convince the opponent! The powerful addressing each other I cannot truly speak to from personal knowledge, but my impression from what has been leaked is they tend to sharply focus on the interests, much more than the passions.


William S. Berry 04.20.23 at 8:29 pm

“TM: “political speech is suppsed to be unemotional but arouse emotion in the listener?”

Well, that’s a substantial shifting of the goalposts there— from “successful rhetorician”— but yeah, you’ve pretty much got it!

Why are the speaker’s motives even at issue? Do you accept the sincerity of “rhetoricians” at face value? I don’t

I’ll concede you’re right about the “controversial” bit, however. It’s just that you have it exactly backwards. That speakers trying to influence the emotions and attitudes of their auditors are regarded as cynical manipulators— until they prove otherwise (which will only be by deed and action, not words)— ought to be the default position of anyone concerned with politics.

It’s not an end of the world type issue, I’ll grant you, but I think the distinction carries some importance.

(But we can fight about it, if you like! You can go ahead and start without me. If I’m not back to my keyboard in, say, a week, you can score it as a Win! ???? )


William Berry 04.20.23 at 11:20 pm

The “????” in my previous comment was supposed to be a smiley face wearing dark RayBans!


J-D 04.21.23 at 12:02 am

For example, the early cavemen went to the sea and named some stuff that lived in it “fish”.

Do you think so? Myself, I doubt any cavemen ever went to the sea.


MisterMr 04.21.23 at 8:06 am

@J-D 30

They totally did, they also hag boarskin beach umbrellas and spoke broken english.
Trust me.


Tm 04.21.23 at 10:26 am

(In case my comment didn’t go through)

I took issue with a specific claim by stj. Nothing that has been said even comes close to refute my observations. So what is this about?

I have a hunch that this dispute is based on a common misunderstanding that emotional speech is somehow incompatible with reason. That is clearly nonsense when stated that way. Black Lives Matter is both emotionally engaging and perfectly reasonable. J at 19 made it most explicit by claiming that Young‘s defense of passionate political speech was insulting non-elite speakers as „ignorant and incapable of using reason“, an absurd non sequitur. I don’t think there’s much to add.


J, not that one 04.21.23 at 3:50 pm

It seems obvious there’s no abstract defense used on behalf of the powerless that can’t be turned around to defend the powerful. “Women’s ways of knowing” (Gilligan) will get turned into “white conservative rural Christians’ ways of knowing.” If one is specifically setting “women, Black people, Muslims, immigrants are left out of discussions” against “those with other ways of knowing are left out of discussions”, this should be obvious.

I’d like to think that the reverse is true, that “internal exclusion” can be expanded to involve the groups that external exclusion used to apply to. But history doesn’t bear that out.

The link says Young’s insight is that “deliberation is not just about exchanging reasons, it is about real people speaking to each other”. I don’t know about anyone here, but I often provide reasons when I speak to another person. And I’m pretty sure I’m a real person.


Tm 04.21.23 at 8:50 pm

MisterMr 26: I agree with a lot of your account but I’m less sure than you seem to be that we can easily distinguish between „reasoning“ and „motivated reasoning“. The thing is that most reasoning is probably in some way motivated. For example we can be pretty sure that Platon used a great deal of motivated reasoning to arrive at certain politically desirable conclusions. Other philosophers did the same. If we tried to exclude all „motivated reasoning“ from the history of philosophy, not much would be left. I’m not sure that „unmotivated“ reasoning can even be proven to exist.

Further, reasoning doesn’t have to be wrong just because it’s motivated. Some would even say that the validity of reasoning should be evaluated regardless of the speaker’s (hypothetical) motivation. Don’t you think so?


MisterMr 04.25.23 at 8:42 pm


I fully agree with you (sorry for the late reply).


Dave in Austin 04.26.23 at 10:09 pm

“And sometimes inflation is needed to accommodate rather dramatic social change. For example, in my life-time ‘marriage’ has been inflated to cover relationships it previously didn’t.”

It is about time that my relationship with my favorite corporation was sanctioned by the state. Admittedly my relationship with her is platonic and defies convention, but my right to choose is being violated. She has decided to self-identify as female to avail herself of certain benefits while avoiding the requirement that she register for the draft when she turns 18. Marriage is a concept that still requires a bit of expansion, whatever the reactionaries and bigots say.

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