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Political Research Exchange - PRX

Theoretical Perspectives on Knowledge and Politics

Political Theory
Critical Theory
Section Number
Section Chairs
Javier Burdman
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt
Frieder Vogelmann
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt
Section Co-Chair

New political developments have put the relationship between knowledge and politics at the center of debates within political theory. The expansion of fake news, generalized distrust in scientific facts, and open lying in politics have led to what many scholars have called an “epistemic crisis” characterized by “post-truth politics.” This context generates new questions and problems. In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of political theorists questioned the subordination of politics to the ideal of scientific neutrality, arguing that such ideal conceals power asymmetries and excludes the perspectives of disadvantaged groups. Today, it seems as if distrust in scientific neutrality also carries political dangers, for nothing seems to constrain the ability of political actors to mold reality in accordance to their interests. It is therefore important to reassess the role of objective facts, scientific consensus, methodological neutrality, and universal validity in public and political discourse today.

The goal of this section is to reconsider the relationship between knowledge and politics in light of these new challenges. We are interested in papers that reflect on the relationship between knowledge and politics from the perspective of contemporary political theory, the history of political thought, science and technology studies, feminist epistemology, social epistemology, critical theory, poststructuralism, and biopolitics, among others. Empirical studies of specific cases are welcomed as long as they include a clear contribution to theoretical debates.

We propose to organize the section in the following three panels:

1) "General theories on knowledge and politics." The relationship between knowledge and politics is fiercely contested in political theory, especially if we focus on democratic politics. Let us mention just four examples. According to Plato, democracy in inherently antithetical to knowledge, because it subordinates it to mere opinion. From an opposite point of view, Hannah Arendt warns about the tyrannical nature of truth upon political speech, although she also insists that the political obliteration of truth opens the door to totalitarianism. Jürgen Habermas argues that democracy itself has an internal epistemic dimension and contributes to our search for truth. Michel Foucault claims that “frank speech” (parrhesia), in which truth is spoken despite the risks involved in doing so, is constitutive for democracy. The relationship between knowledge and politics looks very different in each of these approaches (which are just some examples among many). Hence, in order to evaluate the merits and limitations of different perspectives on the issue, the panel aims to discuss general theories on the relationship between knowledge and politics. How are we to conceptualize this relationship, and how can we justify these conceptualizations?

2) "The role of the sciences in politics." If the relationship between knowledge and politics is contested, the same holds for the role of the sciences in politics. Again, we find two opposed tendencies in political theory. On the one hand, some scholars believe that the sciences still provide the best model of reason-based communication. As a consequence, they should inform politics as much as possible. The failure of politics to respond to the insights of climate sciences offers a clear example of the problems involved in disregarding scientific consensus. On the other hand, some scholars are skeptic of science as a model for politics, on grounds that such model legitimates technocratic rule. Rather than heeding to the experts, political actors should focus on the internal conflicts in the sciences as well as on the specific difference between political conflict and scientific debate. From this perspective, the subordination of politics to the "science" of economics is a danger to be avoided. This panels aims to discuss whether scientific consensus is indeed "neutral" and "objective," and to what extent the practices that seek this consensus are applicable to political speech and action.

3) "Untruth in politics." Given the heterogeneous nature of the debate about the relationship between knowledge and politics, it is no surprise that we find many different proposals on how to consider false statements in politics. The terms for designating untruth in politics include concepts such as “propaganda,” “ideology,” “bullshit,” “fake news,” and many others. However, the relationship between these different conceptions of untruth in politics is far from clear, as it is often passed over in silence or treated as self-evident. Is the notion of “post-truth” a successor to the concept of “ideology,” by which those who use it try to avoid the pitfalls of theories of ideology? How are “propaganda” and “ideology” related? What are our best accounts of these concepts and what difference does it make whether we analyze individual false statements in politics as “fake news”, “ideology” or “bullshit”?

Panel List

Code Title Details
P120Epistocracy, Expertise and Disagreement: Themes from Political Epistemology View Panel Details
P442Truth and Untruth in Politics and in Political Theory View Panel Details
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