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Interview with Christopher Zurn


Professor Zurn specializes in social and political philosophy, and the philosophy of law. His work in social and political philosophy focuses on three areas: theories of social justice, theories of deliberative democracy, and, critical social theoretic conceptions of personhood and identity. In the philosophy of law, he is working on a deliberative democratic account of judicial review: attending to how to justify and institutionalize it, and what a proper adjudicative method should attend to.


Recent Publications:


"Social Pathologies as Second-Order Disorders," forthcoming in The Critical Theory of Axel Honneth,edited by Danielle Petherbridge (Brill Academic Publishers, Leiden).


"Schwerpunkt: Anerkennung," Guest Editor's introduction to a special section on the philosophy of reecogintion, translated from the English by Dirk Effertz, in the Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, Vol.53, #3 (2005): 377-387.


"Recognition, Redistribution, and Democracy: Dilemmas of Honneth's Critical Social Theory," full version in European Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 13, #1 (April 2005): 89-126. Shortened versions also in Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, Vol. 53, #3 (2005): 435-460, and, Axel Honneth: Critical Debates, ed. Gwynn Markle and Rasmus Willig (SUNY Press).


"Group Balkanization or Societal Homogenization: Is There a Dilemma between Recognition and Distribution Struggles?" Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol.18 #2 (April 2004): 159-186.


"Arguing Over Participatory Parity: On Fraser's Conception of Social Justice," Philosophy Today, Vol. 47, Supplement (2003): 130-144; also forthcoming in Adding Insult to Injury: Social Justice and the Politics of Recognition, ed. Kevin Olson (Verso).


"Identity or Status? Struggles over 'Recognition' in Fraser, Honneth, and Taylor." Constellations, Vol. 10, #4 (December 2003): 519-537.


"Deliberative Democracy and Constitutional Review." Law and Philosophy, Vol. 21 (2002): 467-542. Also forthcoming in Philosopher's Annual, vol. XXV, ed. Patrick Grim, Ken Baynes, Peter Ludlow, and Gary Mar (University of Chicago Press) [an annual selection of the ten best articles in philosophy].





Christopher Zurn- I started to think about deliberative democracy as a topic, I think, probably in the late '80s. Of course Habermas' work was a formative influence here and as a graduate student I was studying that and "Faktizität und Geltung" had come out in German, working with Tom McCarthy, who was my dissertation advisor. I had access to that kind of discussion and so I got interested in it more from a socio-theoretic than a political theoretic perspective. That is to say my interests were not at first what makes democracy legitimate, but how do we understand the social processes and especially transformations characteristic of modern capitalism in contemporary capitalism in particular. And Habermas seemed to have a kind of interesting story about the role of law in that and I started thinking more and more about those issues.


- More about law?


Christopher Zurn- - More about law issues and in particular my current project is trying to think about what role constitutional revue plays in deliberative democracy. And I actually have a very specific time when this interest occurred. I was teaching a seminar at Ohio University on Between Facts and Norms, "Faktizität und Geltung" and a colleague of mine was sitting in one day and asked this relatively innocent objection I thought and it drove me crazy because I simply couldn't answer the objection. I couldn't figure out how Habermas would answer it. I couldn't figure out how a general theory of deliberative democracy would answer the objection and so unfortunately, fortunately I started on this enormous research project of trying to think about different ways of institutionalizing the function of constitutional revue and how that goes together or doesn't, with a general deliberative democratic vision of political legitimacy.


- Could you say more about the state of deliberative democracy now?


- As a theory, or?


- As a theory or as a condition.


Christopher Zurn- - In my project I take it as the most convincing, normative account of democracy. But it's convincing not just on sort of pure normative terms alone, that is not in terms of pure political theory but precisely because it at least has some - I think - empirical relevance. That is to say, we can see features of current political systems that are well characterized by the theory of deliberative democracies. So I take it that it's one of the say, three or four main competing paradigms of democracy, one that I find, as I say, enormously attractive and somewhat empirically useful. And now I'm trying to use it to do something that hasn't been done yet as much in the literature and that is to say doing sort of more applied institutional design. The sort of questions that, you know, political scientist are inevitably quite interested in, but approach from a different direction.


FH- And could you say more about the situation in Prague, when you had this lecture about deliberative democracy and the constitutional revue and the institutions of constitutional revue? How was the discussion, or the situation for you there?


Christopher Zurn- - The discussion was, well some of this is from the particularities of my pesentation there and where it goes in my research. What I presented there was the final substantive chapter a of quite long book. So some questions and concerns obviously were the kinds of things that I say "Oh yeah, I try and answer that in chapter three", "Oh yeah, see chapter six". But some of the questions were really quite helpful precisely because the trick in thinking about deliberative democracy is to neither prioritize the ideal nor the real. That is to say, to get the right mix of normative components from sort of pure political theory and the right mix of realistic assessment of capacities of institutions given what we know about how actual political systems work. And from that direction, the folks who come to Prague are particularly helpful in thinking about some of the actual impediments to realizing deliberative democratic ideals in the world as we know it.


FH:- Here in your book, you are saying political philosophy, for example, plays a crucial role in justifying the role of constitutional revue in terms of its fundamental role in the well-functioning democracy. But pure normative theory alone .... about how best to design institutions for constitutional revue... So could you say more probably about how constitutional revue plays this role in a well-functioning democracy?


Christopher Zurn- Well the short answer is - I hope I can make this short - legitimate deliberative democracy is constitutional democracy. That is to say there has to be some distinction between higher law and ordinary law, or entrenched law and ordinary law, precisely because what warrants the legitimacy of the outcomes of whatever democratic processes we have: so we take a vote or we have a parliament do something, what makes it expectable to the ordinary citizen that that's an OK outcome, even when that citizen disagrees with the substantive outcome and that substantive outcome is going to be as it were enforced upon citizens through the coercive monopoly of the state. What warrants the legitimacy claims of those outcomes, I think, are the reliability of the procedures that lead to that. Now if you have a constitution that says that there's higher law over ordinary law, then the problem is simply this: no organ of government has, as it were, from pure normative grounds, the legitimate claim to say what the constitution means. That is ultimately part of the constituent power of the people, collected as a constituent power. And of course we know from Rousseau on, that that's an impossible thing to actually do. That is, it's impossible to have, say, in my home land, a collection of three million people getting together and having a decent deliberation about what the particular procedures are that are going to structure democracy. So right then, you have a serious conflict between the ideals of constitutionally constructed democracy and how you can implement it in practice. There are additional complexities and ramifications and stuff like that, especially concerned with the sort of path dependance of legal developments . I mean once you choose the legal mode, you have to take along some of the good parts and bad parts of that way of regulating our common life together. So then it's seems to me that pure normative political theory putters out here and what you have to do is try and think about what the various kinds of ideals you want to serve in your institutional design are, and see whether or not you can actually realize them in different institutions. And from an academic perspective, or from a scholarship perspective, that means taking seriously the results of comparative law. And here's where we get to just a sort of sociological problem with current scholarship, that is to say it's mostly nation state specific.


FH:-Would you say that the public, or the public sphere's should play another role, or a better role?


- Yes. Probably some of my most radical institutional recommendations...


- More complex, but to have a complexity probably for these problems...


Christopher Zurn- I mean I think that... Let me try and be simple here. One of the neat innovations of Habermas' theory is that he doesn't pay attention simply to the formal organs of government. That is, the standard branches of a national government, you know, organized over if you have a federalist system, some kind of division of powers between the central state and the regional authorities. That's the sort of traditional place of looking at the public sphere. But one of Habermas' great innovations, I think, is to introduce a sort of two track notion of politics that is to say the political decisions of that formal sphere of politics are only legitimate if they in some sense work up and express what is detected, worried about, struggled over, and discussed in the much broader anarchic, informal, what he calls "weak public spheres" of radio, TV, scholarly discussion, every day discussion, coffee houses, etc. the whole story of wild and anarchic civil society as it were.