Social Epistemic Practices and the Hampering of Scientific Pluralism: (Epistemically) Productive Interaction between Approaches

In order to address these worries, we can explore what kind of social-epistemic interaction is needed to ensure representativeness without ending up in isolationism or extreme relativism. What norms or dynamics for scientific practice need to be lived up to in order to secure epistemically productive interaction between different approaches, representing a plurality of values?16

Democratic Models of Scientific Pluralism

In earlier work, I developed the idea that the interaction between different approaches can be made explicit in terms of models of democracy, focusing on three models in particular: consensual deliberative democracy, agonistic pluralism, and antagonism (cf. Van Bouwel 2009, 2015). Using these models of democracy helps us to clarify different interpretations of scientific pluralism by showing how they incarnate different ideals about the desired interaction - the social-epistemic practices - among the plurality of research approaches. It is a fruitful way to explore the social-epistemic constellations as well as highlight the close ties to democracy.

1 will not discuss those three models in detail here, just briefly point at some key differences that might help in clarifying different social-epistemic norms in dealing with plurality in science. Let me first contrast the consensual deliberative model with the agonistic and antagonistic models of democracy:

Consensual Deliberative


Consensus without exclusion

Diversity without dissent

Eliminates conflict, depoliticization

No consensus without exclusion

Diversity and dissent

Acknowledges power, keeps disagreement alive

Different views are complements

Different views can be substitutes

In her development of the idea of agonistic pluralism, Chantal Mouffe starts with two critiques of the consensual deliberative model of democracy. First, according to her the consensus cherished by the deliberative model of democracy is de facto not inclusive but oppressive. Following the Haber-masian ideal of deliberation, it is necessary that the collective decisionmaking processes are so organized that the results are equally in the interest of all, representing an impartial standpoint. However, agonistic pluralists claim that the consensus-seeking decision making (in the common interest of all) conceals informal oppression under the guise of concern for all by disallowing dissent. Rawls and Habermas present their model of democracy as the one that would be chosen by every rational and moral individual in idealized conditions. In that sense there is no place for dissent or disagreement — the one that disagrees is irrational or immoral; the political has been eliminated, according to Mouffe (2005, 121-2).

Second, the theory of deliberative democracy eliminates conflict and fails to keep contestation alive. Agonistic pluralism points out that the consensual deliberative model can accommodate pluralism only by a strategy of depoliticization. We have to acknowledge power instead of ideally eliminating power and conflict, according to Mouffe:

In a democratic polity, conflicts and confrontations, far from being signs of imperfection, are the guarantee that democracy is alive and inhabited by pluralism. ... This is why its survival depends on the possibility of forming collective political identities around clearly differentiated positions and the choice among real alternatives.

(Mouffe 2000b, 4)

For Mouffe, political contestation should be a continuous practice, avoiding the oppressive consensus (seemingly in the interest of all) and acknowledging the plurality of values and interests (valued positively).

On the basis of these critiques of deliberative democracy, promoting a form of consensual pluralism, Mouffe develops agonistic pluralism. It emphasizes that the dimension of power is ineradicable in democracy, questions the ideal of consensus, puts contestation and antagonism central, and values pluralism positively: “the type of pluralism that 1 am advocating gives a positive status to differences and questions the objective of unanimity and homogeneity, which is always revealed as fictitious and based on acts of exclusion” (Mouffe 2000a, 19).

In Van Bouwel (2009), 1 used the agonistic model of democracy to make Helen Longino’s norms for critical interaction among research approaches more explicit. Longino’s account is often considered to be an example of a Habermasian, deliberative account, but I disagree and highlighted the agonistic elements in it.17 The focus was on contrasting consensual deliberative with agonistic pluralism.

The Importance of Agonistic Channels

Now18 we should probably look more at the contrast between agonistic pluralism and antagonism. The political climate being more polarized and antagonistic in the 2010s was itself a consequence of the consensualism of the 1990s, according to Mouffe. She suggests that rather than seeking an impossible consensus, a democracy should enable and institutionalize a plurality of antagonistic positions in order to create agonistic relations.

Agonistic Pluralism


Common symbolic space

No common symbolic space





Boundaries necessary but not reified

Reified boundaries

Agonistic relations differ from antagonistic relations to the extent that antagonism denies every possibility of a (stable or shaky) consensus between the plurality of positions; the “other” is seen as an enemy to be destroyed. Antagonists are not interested in finding common ground, but in conquering more ground, annexing or colonizing. Every party wants — in the end — to get rid of pluralism and install its own regime. Contrary to these antagonists, agonistic pluralists do cherish some form of common ground, a con-flictual consensus in Mouffe’s terminology, a common symbolic space, within which adherents of different research programs can engage, an arena where a constructive channeling of conflicts can take place. In this sense, agonists domesticate antagonism, so that opposing positions confront one another as adversaries who respect their right to differ, rather than enemies who seek to obliterate one another.

Thus, in order to domesticate antagonism, there is a need for a common symbolic space and for agonistic channels to express grievances and dissent. Lack of those tends to create the conditions for the emergence of antagonism, according to Mouffe. Agonistic pluralists aim at avoiding the antagonistic constellation, looking for ways to transform antagonism into agonism — providing a framework or agonistic channels that deal with conflicts through an agonistic confrontation. That could be a way to think of representativeness and the plurality of values. When understood in terms of social-epistemic constellations, it is the agonistic confrontation that brings about the desired (epistemically) productive interaction between a plurality of approaches, rather than consensual deliberation or antagonism.

Now, how could we understand the idea of agonistic channels in science? Let me suggest at least four arenas: (a) making explanation-seeking questions explicit, i.e., specifying research questions within a common symbolic space when debating what is the better explanation; you learn about the respective epistemic interests, the underlying values, and you make disagreement explicit

Transparency and Representativeness of Values 199 as well as debate which values are legitimate (cf. Van Bouwel 2014); (b) citizen engagement with science (cf. Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden 2017); (c) joint symposia; (d) scientific journals.

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