Philosophy is defined as the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline. Different philosophies examine how we should live our lives, including how we should structure our laws.

Democracy, on the other hand is defined as a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

Do the actions of the populace in agreeing to live (usually) peaceably in a democratic society and the problems associated with the system count as a type of philosophical statement (even if it's not a conscious choice of the people so involved)

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    Unconscious choices (the notion is itself controversial) hardly count as "statements", let alone philosophical ones, in the usual sense of the word. But even if they did, the "populace" generally "agrees" to live in whatever society they are born into, democratic or not, rebels and radicals are few, so it would be a rather uninformative "statement".
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 19:54
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    I can see how an action can be a statement, but I don't see how this works for problems. Can you clarify this post?
    – user2953
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 22:17
  • @Keelan What I'm trying to get at is the core of rule of law (particularly in a democracy) is an unspoken, unwritten, un-examined social contract, that is held together NOT so much by force of law (though in some instances it is) but by the sheer will of the masses, that if the masses no longer wish to live under its tennents, the entire system will collapse under its own weight. Does this social contract count as a philosophy/ philosophical statement in and of itself? Commented Nov 12, 2016 at 2:00

4 Answers 4


Your intuition that the core of democracy is an unspoken, unwritten, un-examined social contract is mostly right. While there are non social contract theories, e.g., instrumental (or utilitarian) arguments for democracy, many scholarly arguments for democracy are guided by the social contract intuition. But there are many written, examined works.

Rousseau, for one, argued for democracy from the social contract perspective. To Rousseau, a legitimate sovereignty must represent the general will, and people would sign on only democracy since democracy is the most likely to be able to do so.

The general will theory of democracy became out of favor among scholars due to the findings from the social choice theories (specifically, Arrow's Impossibility Theorem). Political scientists and political philosophers were deeply shaken by the implication of the Theorem on the interpretations of democratic decisions. A famous political scientist William Riker asserted the meaninglessness of democratic decisions and advanced, unsuccessfully, a liberalism direction for democracy.

After Riker, the new fad among political scientists and political philosophers had been deliberative democracy, popularized by Rawls and Joshua Cohen in the US and Habermas in Europe. Deliberative democracy tries to rescue meaning (epistemicity) in democratic decisions by focusing on deliberation and public discourse. They all believe that the deliberative nature will allow people to consent to democratic decisions.

Most recently David Estlund combined the epistemic element and consent element together to propose a normative consent theory of democracy. To Estlund, democracy is the only legitimate authority as it satisfies two necessary requirements for political authority (the moral right to obeisance): decision is wise, and people are treated as equals.


You can look at it either way. The basic idea of democracy is one of the oldest among forms of government. Small tribal government via election or plenary polling is very old. It seems to arise automatically when tribes or nations integrate, and no one bows to the tradition of another.

It was the natural choice for a system of government for cosmopolitan sea-traders on various continents who needed to integrate, but did not share a tradition. (This is one theory of why the idea was easy to accept for the Greeks, who had a maritime culture.) It seems that it can mature into large-scale controlled democracy all on its own, since an advanced, flourishing variety of it, untouched by Western philosophy, was observed when Europeans first came to North America.

Establishing it as a tradition for, for instance, various parts of Greece happened during a time when philosophical ideas were taking hold, but those ideas do not seem to be actual motivating factors for the actors that led the fighting if we accept legendary depictions of e.g. Harmodius and Aristogeiton The fear of recurring military dictatorship, and with it a distrust of appointed or inherited leadership, were reactions to a real observed problem, not philosophical premises. (The tyrants of the time were doing lasting damage, and needed killing. Letting their generals, their competitors, or their relations take over had repeatedly led to earlier generations of tyrants needing killing. Some change of direction was in order.)

On the other hand, the Athenians seem to have immediately and extensively re-framed their choice in philosophical terms, and it was rationalized extensively by Plato, who wove it into the background of all his narratives, despite expressing reservations about its ultimate usefulness, and by Aristotle, who described and prescribed the Athenian form in an analytic and authoritative manner.

Later, when large-scale democracies arose in the West, they founded themselves on Enlightenment principles, which include this philosophical tradition and also a general ethical tradition shaped by the philosophical rationalization of Christian principles like individual equality due to infinite personal value.

So I would claim that democracy is well-defended and carefully advised by philosophy, but not based upon it. Democracy is really a very primitive logic: if we do not hang together we may all hang separately, when some dictator goes mad, or when the royal family just has too few or too many sons.


Democracy joins philosophy when it comes time to consider human nature; the content (if any) of human nature is very much a philosophical question. Is it feasible to expect each person to govern themselves? In general, can people perceive accurately and think rationally?

The expectation that people be reasonable assumes their ability to be so. Being reasonable might seem as natural and noncontroversial as breathing, but the term “reasonable” packs a lot of power. When society expects reasonableness, its underlying assumption is that people can perceive accurately, think orderly, and choose prudently.

Not every society has been willing to recognize such abilities in individual people. To the extent that society assumes that people are not able to competently make their own choices, then to that extent society will remove decisions from the individual and transfer them elsewhere (a committee, a monarch). To the extent that society assumes most people can ably make a choice, society will move decision-making power to the individual’s end of the spectrum.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

There is a lot of philosophy packed into those words.


Yes it does.

In a democracy, the notion, ideal though it is, is that citizens have an equal stake in the governance of a polity. In modern democratic polities this is reflected in such institutions as universal suffrage, or that one is equal before the law or the possibility of being elected to the main governing body, or even leading it. And other institutions such as universal education, healthcare and welfare.

This is very different from its direct opposite, a monarchy where such institutions were, for obvious reasons, not tolerated (though they might have magistracies of various kinds representing the nobility and welfare for the same class).

It’s worth noting here Plato’s The Republic, which served as a philosophical blue-print for theorising about the nature of republics and of polities in general. For example, St. Augustine compared the city of men to the city of God.

It’s also worth recalling, that before liberal democracy broke out into the open in modern Europe (and pushed the ancien regime into history or at least irrelvance), it was preceded by the Enlightenment, part of which involved the recovery of the Greek philosophical tradition (and which had already played a substantial role in Islamic civilisation and in fact has mediated its recovery in Europe by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rush’d (Averroes).

It’s worth adding, I think, a few points that J. S. Mill made on his essay on Tocquevilles Democracy in America here:

It is necessary to observe that, by Democracy, M. de Toqueville, does not, in general, mean any particular form of government. He can conceive a Democracy under an absolute monarch.

Nay, he entertains no small dread, lest, in some countries, it should actually appear in that form. By Democracy, M. de Tocqueville understands equality of conditions; the absence of all aristocracy, whether constituted by political privileges, or by superiority in individual importance and social power. It is towards Democracy in this sense, towards equality between man and man, that he conceives society to be irresistibly tending ...

For, in democratic institutions, M. de Tocqueville sees not an aggravation but a corrective of the most serious evils incident to a democratic state of society. No one is more opposed as he is to that species of democratic radicalism which would admit at once to the highest of political franchises, untaught masses [which is one reason for the emphasis Plato put on education in The Republic] who have not yet been experimentally proved fit even for the lowest.

But the ever increasing intervention of the people, and of all classes of the people, in their own affairs, he regards as a cardinal maxim in the modern art of government; and he believes, that the nations of civilised Europe, though not all equally advanced, are all advancing, towards a condition in which there will be no distinction of political rights, no great or small very permanent distinctions of hereditory wealth; when as there will remain no classes nor individuals capable of making head against the government - unless all are, and are fit to be alike citizens - all will, erelong, be equally slaves.

And this from an aristocrat!

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