🦋 The open texture of democracy

Open texture

One tool I’d recommend is the idea of open texture. This idea is perhaps best known in legal circles. In 1961, HLA Hart used it to describe how laws are open to new and unexpected interpretations. His example was a rule that bans vehicles in city parks. But what counts as a vehicle? Cars and motorcycles, certainly, but what about bikes? Or skateboards? Or motorised wheelchairs? Hart’s point is that courts will have to settle these questions because the concept of a ‘vehicle’ has an ‘open texture’.

Open texture ≠ vagueness

In fact, the phrase ‘open texture’ was invented around 1945 by Friedrich Waismann, an Anglo-Austrian mathematician and philosopher. By ‘open texture’ Waismann had something different in mind. He’s clear that ‘open texture’ is not the same as vagueness. If a term is vague we can make it more precise: we can just make a rule that you’re not tall until you clear 1.80 metres in height, or that it’s not cold until the mercury falls below 0°.

In theory

‘Democracy’ also has an open texture. This accounts for the fact that democracy comes in so many different varieties but, again, it’s deeper than that. It’s not just that ‘democracy’ is vague or ambiguous. Rather, the point is that ‘democracy’ is an evolving concept (as Kyong-Min Son has also pointed out), just like the concept of ‘vehicle’.

In practice

Democracy — not just the word but the institution — embodies open texture in other ways, too. Back in the 1920s John Dewey made the argument that democracy is open-ended in ways that autocratic forms of government are not.

Open texture in democracy

The idea of open texture serves two purposes. First, it explains why ‘democracy’ can mean different things and why a single, precise definition is unlikely to work. Because of its open texture, ‘democracy’ isn’t like ‘tall’ or ‘cold’: there’s no rule we can use to make it more precise. Second, open texture highlights a unique feature of our democratic institutions. Democracies are designed to recognise and respond to change: not just changes in our natural world (such as climate change) or our social world (increasing income inequality, for example) but also in our conceptual world (like the meaning of ‘marriage’).

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The Science of Democracy

The Science of Democracy

Republished essays, in chronological order, from The Loop’s short essay series on the “science of democracy”