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A Democratic Theory of Judgment

In this sweeping look at political and philosophical history, Linda M. G. Zerilli unpacks the tightly woven core of Hannah Arendt’s unfinished work on a tenacious modern problem: how to judge critically in the wake of the collapse of inherited criteria of judgment. Engaging a remarkable breadth of thinkers, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Leo Strauss, Immanuel Kant, Frederick Douglass, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, and many others, Zerilli clears a hopeful path between an untenable universalism and a cultural relativism that forever defers the possibility of judging at all.
Zerilli deftly outlines the limitations of existing debates, both those that concern themselves with the impossibility of judging across cultures and those that try to find transcendental, rational values to anchor judgment. Looking at Kant through the lens of Arendt, Zerilli develops the notion of a public conception of truth, and from there she explores relativism, historicism, and universalism as they shape feminist approaches to judgment. Following Arendt even further, Zerilli arrives at a hopeful new pathway—seeing the collapse of philosophical criteria for judgment not as a problem but a way to practice judgment anew as a world-building activity of democratic citizens. The result is an astonishing theoretical argument that travels through—and goes beyond—some of the most important political thought of the modern period.

400 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Philosophy: Philosophy of Society

Political Science: Political and Social Theory

Women's Studies


"Zerilli offers a tightly argued, provocative study of judgment in a democratic, pluralistic society. She surveys some of the prominent thinkers in Western theory of the 20th century, such as Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls. In tackling her subject, Zerilli examines various schools of thought and finds most have something to contribute but fall short of the goals she has set for them. In her examination of Leo Strauss, for example, she provides readers with trenchant observations that Straussian scholars have often overlooked, and she grasps some essential arguments of Strauss that help her clarify her own position. But Hannah Arendt is whom the author finds most helpful in developing the argument that democrats must acknowledge plurality and action. The book will stimulate an important debate among theorists of democracy and modern political thought. Highly recommended."


“What is democratic political judgment? Does it require a standpoint of neutrality about normative truths? In this monumental work, Zerilli, combining both continental and analytic traditions in philosophy, gives a powerful case for the role of truth and objectivity in democratic political judgment, one attuned to the irreducible plurality of democratic societies. It is a vital contribution to what is arguably the central question of democratic political philosophy: What is democratic reasoning?”

Jason Stanley, Yale University

“Zerilli has presented an original and meticulous scholarly argument about the nature and possibilities of democratic judgment as well as about what might be construed as authentically political judgment in the context of a plural society. Her argument is lucidly and eloquently articulated, and it offers a pointed challenge to some of the dominant contemporary trends in the literature on democratic theory, particularly to the arguments about public reason that have been advanced by individuals such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. Drawing creatively on the work of Kant and Arendt, Zerilli speaks to anyone concerned with the peculiarities of democratic deliberation and action, whether it takes place in formal institutional settings or in other dimensions of social life.”

John G. Gunnell, State University of New York at Albany

“An elegant, beautifully written, and intelligent attempt to answer the fundamental question of fair evaluative judgments in a democratic polity. Zerilli argues that judgment that aims at fairness in a pluralist society does not need to be rendered as a merely procedural guide for adjudication among irreconcilable values. And she also argues that to make judgment a politically creative and reflecting function of evaluation does not necessarily entail falling into the trap of relativism or the identification of rationality with the reasons set forth by the winners in the game of politics. To solve these entrenched problems, Zerilli takes inspiration from Hannah Arendt, whose work guides her through a journey of interpretation and theoretical analysis that is absolutely brilliant.”

Nadia Urbinati, Columbia University

Table of Contents

1          Democracy and the Problem of Judgment
2          Judging at the “End of Reasons”: Rethinking the Aesthetic Turn
3          Historicism, Judgment, and the Limits of Liberalism: The Case of Leo Strauss
4          Objectivity, Judgment, and Freedom: Rereading Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”
5          Value Pluralism and the “Burdens of Judgment”: John Rawls’s Political Liberalism
6          Relativism and the New Universalism: Feminists Claim the Right to Judge            
7          From Willing to Judging: Arendt, Habermas, and the Question of ’68
8          What on Earth Is a “Form of Life”? Judging “Alien” Cultures According to Peter Winch
9          The Turn to Affect and the Problem of Judgment: Making Political Sense of the Nonconceptual
Conclusion: Judging as a Democratic World-Building Practice
List of Abbreviations

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