About the Project

Recent decades have seen a marked international rise in populist movements (Moffitt 2016). Although populism as a phenomenon remains difficult to define, a central feature is the self-identification of populist movements as representing “the people” against various perceived threats, often targeting either political and economic elites or groups thought to be cultural outsiders (Mudde & Kaltwasser 2018; Inglehart & Norris 2017; Kyle & Gultchin 2018). Populism is not an inherently negative term, and the rhetoric of populism often expresses what appears to be a genuinely democratic sentiment, that government should represent the will of the people (Rousseau 1987, Richardson 2002).   In addition, populist movements can bring to light legitimate grievances from the periphery with sufficient force to require attention and change by those holding power (Laclau 2005, Mouffe 2018).

In practice, contemporary populist movements on both the right and the left display distinct antidemocratic tendencies, and in particular instances have contributed to forms of competitive authoritarianism at odds with the contemporary norms of democratic governance (Levitsky & Way 2010).  Rather than strengthening democratic governance, the recent rise of populisms in many instances seem rather to be contributing to a slowing or even reversal of the spread of democracy globally (Diamond 2015; Mounk 2019).

The Populism and Recovery of Intellectual Virtues Project aims to explore the phenomenon of populism in relation to ongoing work on the intellectual virtues and virtue epistemology, epistemic democracy, and deliberative democracy. The late 20thcentury revival of interest in moral virtues contributed to renewed interest in intellectual virtues as a possible solution to existing problems in epistemology (Sosa 1991; Zagzebski 1996; Roberts & Wood 2007; Battaly 2008; Greco 2010). Although elements of this work appears to accord well with empirical psychology and decision-science, the rich literature on cognitive biases, framing, and situational effects raises important questions concerning the reliability and even the existence of intellectual virtues (Stanovich 2011; Frankish 2010; Fairweather & Alfano 2017).  Whether intellectual virtues exist and the extent to which they can be learned or constrained is a central question for justifications of democracy that rely on the claim that democratic forms of governance are superior due to their ability to arrive at better judgments based on the “wisdom of the crowd” (Aristotle 1998, Cohen 1986, Goodin and Spiekerman 2018). Intellectual virtues such as open-mindedness and intellectual humility also stand to play an important role in conceptions of deliberative democracy (Gutman and Thompson 1996, 2004; Samuelson & Church 2015). Although not all justifications or conceptions of democracy depend explicitly on conceptions of intellectual virtues, the ability or inability of societies to influence the cultivation and distribution of intellectual virtues and vices has important implications for the understanding of basic democratic institutions.

On the one hand, there may be particular intellectual virtues associated with particular forms of populism, implying some value in the contrasts that populisms draw between ‘the people’ and perceived opposing forces. On the other, forms of populism may be associated either with the absence of specific intellectual virtues or the presence of specific vices. Such questions are partly empirical and partly normative and conceptual.  The goal of the project is to explore these and related questions in order to support scholarship and public understanding both of populist movements and the possible roles of intellectual virtues in democratic functioning.

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