Re-thinking public reason


Isherwood, Jack Robert. (2015) Re-thinking public reason [Thesis].
AuthorsIsherwood, Jack Robert
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy in Social and Political Thought (PhDSPT)

This thesis critically examines the concepts of civil discourse and civil disobedience expounded by John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor. I claim that their accounts fail to consider the impacts of epistemic injustices, which lead to the unfair dismissal of the political claims made by marginalized communities in the political realm, and the impacts of social practices of ignorance which render the contestation of social and political injustices extremely difficult. Consequently, I develop an account of civil discourse and civil disobedience inspired by feminist epistemological theory. I claim that this framework is more attuned to inequalities of epistemic status, leading to my argument that civil discourse should be re-thought as a relationship of trust which requires interlocutors to fulfil particular epistemic responsibilities towards each other. I further argue that this re-conceptualization of civil discourse allows us to transcend a dominant dichotomous interpretation of the concept in the current academic literature. This discourse either claims that civility is an essential political practice in the face of deep political and moral disagreement or that civil discourse is simply a means to stifle contentious political struggles and to solidify the political dominance of privileged social individuals, groups and communities. Furthermore, I also claim that civil disobedience should be re-conceived as a political practice which challenges patterns of vested social ignorance regarding oppressive social, economic and political arrangements while also contesting epistemic injustices. I develop this argument by critically appraising the theories of civil disobedience proffered by John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. Like their theories of public reason, I maintain that they fail to consider the operation of oppressive epistemic norms, thereby severely limiting the insights of their accounts. Consequently, I develop a different set of normative criteria for analysing acts of civil disobedience which adequately considers the impact of oppressive epistemic norms while also proffering an explanation of how civil discourse is reconcilable with coercive political disobedience. Ultimately, therefore, I hope to illustrate that extending feminist epistemological insights into discussions of civil disobedience and civil discourse offers a fruitful way of exploring the broader connection between persuasion and coercion in contemporary liberal democracies.

PublisherACU Research Bank
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Research GroupInstitute for Social Justice
Final version
Publication dates01 Oct 2015
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