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Br J Sociol. 2001 Mar;52(1):59-86.

The myth of the best argument: power, deliberation and reason.

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Department of Human Sciences, University of Trieste.


Power in communication takes two main forms. As 'external' power, it consists in the ability to acknowledge or disregard a speaker or a discourse. As 'internal' power, it is the ability of an argument to eliminate other arguments by demonstrating its superiority. A positive or negative value may be ascribed to these forms of power. Four ideal-typical positions are discussed--strategy, technocracy, constructionism, and deliberation. Public deliberation has three virtues--civic virtue, governance virtue and cognitive virtue. Deliberation lowers the propensity to, and the benefit of, strategic behaviour. It also increases knowledge, enhancing the quality of decisions. For Habermas, the unity of reason is expressed in the possibility of agreement on the most convincing argument. However, sometimes conflicts are deep-lying, principles and factual descriptions are profoundly different, and uncertainty is radical. The best argument cannot be found. There is no universal reason. The question is whether non-strategic agreement may spring from the incommensurability of languages. In search of an answer, Rawls's concept of overlapping consensus, the feminist theory of the public sphere, and the idea of deliberation as co-operation are discussed. The argument developed is that the approach to deliberative democracy may be renewed by rethinking its motivational and cognitive elements. Public deliberation is grounded on a pre-political level of co-operation. Intractable controversies may be faced at the level of practices, looking for local, contextual answers.

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