The People Unfounded: A Question of Method, Not Ontology
Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 15 Sep 2010
Date Written: 2010
Democratic theory typically considers "the people" as a real thing in the world; theories differ over what kind of thing it is. But this assumption leads inevitably to a string of familiar paradoxes, since it seems that the people would both have to found itself, and to have been already founded before it could do so. Moments of crisis lay bare the arbitrariness of such foundations and render the paradox acute. I argue that "the people" should be understood as a methodological postulate that makes possible normative critique, not as any kind of thing at all. Thinking of the people as a thing mistakenly leads us to look for its cause, and its beginning at a particular point in time. If we understand the people instead as a normative postulate, then the question becomes how we can fairly judge competing claims to speak for it in a particular case. The first step in learning to navigate the paradox is refusing to take a methodological question for an ontological one.
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