Part of the power of John Dewey’s account of democracy is that it is a deep concept—democracy goes beyond periodic vote counting exercises and reaches into all of our everyday activities. Or more precisely, it should reach into all of our activities and interactions with others citizens.
Democracy denotes a possible and desirable habit of interaction, or a way of life as Dewey puts it as early as 1888. This paper proposes to unpack this rich concept of democratic life in regard to its communicative dimensions. How ought we to interact and solve problems with our fellow citizens? This question is deceptively simple, since a hallmark of diverse societies are deep religious and normative disagreements. There are even strong disagreements over the “facts” of many important disputes. How we solve problems involves how we argue and try to convince others of our views. The democratic way of life indicates that we should be open to disagreeing others, even when we initially believe they could be radically wrong. Herein lies the challenge in this deep concept of democracy: if our habits and views shape who we are, they also constrain our openness to other people and other ways of seeing the work. Democratic communication would involve some level of self-emancipation or escape from being and asserting who we already are. It would leave open the possibility for imaginative change and personal growth, along with synthetic cooperation with disagreeing others. Dewey’s interesting relationship to skepticism will provide us traction on discerning how much to doubt feelings and indicators of dogmatism or certainty, all the while leaving ourselves argumentatively open to self-change at the hands of disagreeing others. The form of pragmatist rhetoric (viz., an account of how we ought to argue and persuade others in a democracy) that I explicate here will attempt to resist a full embrace of skepticism as a way to defuse the quest for personal certainty, while acknowledging the value in well-placed doubt in unhelpful habits of belief in others and in one’s self.