Research Article

The Epistemology of Democracy

Elizabeth Anderson


This paper investigates the epistemic powers of democratic institutions through an assessment of three epistemic models of democracy: the Condorcet Jury Theorem, the Diversity Trumps Ability Theorem, and Dewey's experimentalist model. Dewey's model is superior to the others in its ability to model the epistemic functions of three constitutive features of democracy: the epistemic diversity of participants, the interaction of voting with discussion, and feedback mechanisms such as periodic elections and protests. It views democracy as an institution for pooling widely distributed information about problems and policies of public interest by engaging the participation of epistemically diverse knowers. Democratic norms of free discourse, dissent, feedback, and accountability function to ensure collective, experimentally-based learning from the diverse experiences of different knowers. I illustrate these points with a case study of community forestry groups in South Asia, whose epistemic powers have been hobbled by their suppression of women's participation.

Elizabeth Anderson is John Rawls Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her current research interests focus on the intersection of democratic theory and feminist epistemology.