Theory of dediscoursification as a part of republican theory

Theory of dediscoursification as a part of republican theory

TransConflict is pleased to present extracts from Dražen Pehar’s book, ‘Dediscoursification – how discursive attitudes cause wars’, the key contention of which is that the attitude to language should be theorized as one of the major causes of war.

 Suggested Reading Collaborate GCCT

By Dražen Pehar

In Chapter One we have seen that the relationship between the dediscoursifying and the dediscoursified agent can be modeled after the “master-slave” relationship. The master does not, and cannot, view the slave as a discursive being who uses discourse in accordance with its moral standards. Taney, in relation to Dred Scott, figures as one who enjoys the right of delivery of “the ultimate word,” one who has no duty to offer some plausible reasons in support of his ruling; Dred Scott and the northern states, on the other hand, are in Taney’s world those who do not enjoy the right of offering some reasons against Taney’s decision. Eteocles, in relation to Polinices, is one who even enjoys the right to violate his own promises as such a violation guarantees to him the enjoyment of the ultimate value of “Rule/Tyranny;” this in Polinices generates a justified impression that his brother treats him as a slave dispossessed of the right to free expression (parrhesia), as one who has to “bear the incompetence of those who hold power.”

Hence, in relation to the slave, the master deems himself a being not bound by discourse, a being not adhering to the moral matrix of discourse because it would imply that he accepted a superior institutional structure that places limitations on his verbal and non-verbal acting upon the slave, which cannot be. Chapter One has also corroborated the thesis that the state of war between the master and the slave is simply extended into the specific discursive relationship, which opens no space to moral standards in the use of discourse between the two. In other words, the specific discursive relationship is one which preserves the state of war between the master and the slave, which means that the relationship between the warring parties is a foundation for the understanding of the “master-slave” relationship.

There is only one branch of political theorizing that gives full consideration to the master-slave relationship in the sense of a discursive interaction and attitude. It is the tradition of republican political theory that can be traced back to classical Greece and Rome, including Aristotle,[1] Cicero, Sallust, and Livy; that is then taken over and further developed in Machiavelli, De La Boetie, Harrington, Milton, and English revolutionaries-republicans of 17th century, as well as American republicans of 18th century; and is finally revived and elaborated in the contemporary framework in the works by Skinner, Pettit, Viroli, Honohan, and Maynor, among others. Hence, in a political sense, the theory of dediscoursification can present itself only and exclusively as a part, or a necessary component, of the republican tradition. The purpose of this section is simply to emphasize the key components, or aspects, of the theory of dediscoursification that embed it in republican tradition, and to present those aspects of republicanism that can be elucidated only through the key terms of the theory of dediscoursification. Viewed either way, the key conclusion of this section is in a simple thesis put as follows: to exemplify the negative part of republican political model,[2] and to be an engine of dediscoursification, is the same condition, one that interrupts dialogue and generates conditions for an outbreak of war. This immediately implies that, within a political context, the positive part of republican model, and the use of discourse that is in accordance with the moral-discursive matrix, both act as antipodes to the negative tendencies; hence the two serve as movements for dialogue and against war.

The master-slave relationship is a key element of the negative part of republican model, or the element that, according to republicans, one should avoid or transcend in political relations. How does the tradition of republican political theory view the notion of slave in explicit terms? Following the Digest of the Roman Law, chapter De statu hominis, the slave is one who lives sub potestate domini (in the power of a dominus or master); a free man, in contrast, is one who is sui iuris (according to one’s own right or law) (Skinner 2002a, 9). This, however, does not mean much; we need to specify in more detail what sub potestate domini, in contrast to sui iuris, means. Republican thinkers early realized that this definition depends on the notion and meaning of “law” (ius in Latin). In other words, a free man is not simply a law to himself. He is a law to himself in the sense of the laws that the free men choose for themselves as the laws applying universally and justifiably to everyone, with the exception of slave (Honohan 2002, 36-37).

The slave is removed from such a relationship in the following sense: he lives sub potestate domini, because, to him, it is not a universal law which applies; it is one which his master decides to apply arbitrarily, and only, to him. In other words, it is a law as an arbitrary statement, or word, by the master, which applies exclusively to the slave, marking sharply the area from which all other freemen are excluded. Hence, the arbitrary master’s word pertains to the slave as a law, but it is a law whose authority is self-validating simply due to its status of a master’s word.

It is here already that we recognize the sense in which the master-slave relationship can be understood only in terms of a special kind of discursive relationship: the master’s discourse offers no reason to the slave; its purpose is not to respect the boundaries of truth; and the master cannot bind himself by his words in relation to the slave. Summarily, neither reasons, nor truths, nor promises have the status of a discursive value within the master’s discourse vis-à-vis the slave. In such a sense, in relation to the slave, the master’s discourse has no commitment to the moral matrix of discourse, and therefore it is bound to dediscoursify the slave naturally and persistently.

What does this fact entail? There are two consequences that necessarily follow: the relationship concerned is not, and cannot be, a stable moral relationship. It is a relationship which corrupts both parties in a moral sense. General or public good, moral integrity, or moral responsibility, cannot play a part in such a relationship. Secondly, the relationship is inherently dehumanized primarily because the master deems the slave a non-human–the latter is either a property, or a ware, or a master’s tool, an animal domesticated or disciplined by the master according to the latter’s whim, cattle…Also, despite the benefits that such a relationship brings to the master, he himself is inherently dehumanized, or animalized, in his relationship to the slave.

Philip Pettit describes the relationship as follows:

“Think of how you feel when your welfare depends on the decision of others and you have no come-back against that decision. You are in a position where you will sink or swim, depending on their say-so. And you have no physical or legal recourse, no recourse even in a network of mutual friends, against them. You are in their hands. In any case of this kind you will be dominated by others, being in a position where those others have the power of interfering in your life in a certain way: and this, more or less arbitrarily; more or less at will and with impunity. If you do escape ill treatment, then, that will be by the grace or favour of the powerful, or by your own good fortune in being able to stay out of their way or keep them sweet. And even if you are lucky enough to escape such treatment, you will still live under the mastery of those others: they will occupy the position of a dominus–the Latin word for master–in your life.” (Pettit 2003)

This means that, according to Pettit, the key negative part of republican model is found in “domination,” un-freedom, in the sense of an agent’s arbitrary interference in the choices of some other agent. This also means that a non-arbitrary interference, as explained below, is excluded from the concept of domination. Some types of interference may be non-arbitrary in the sense that, despite their limiting effect on the individual’s freedom, they safeguard the freedom of the other community members based on the word of law. All of this gives us the basic skeleton of republican theory that roughly consists of the following four factors: both dominating and arbitrary interference; both non-dominating and non-arbitrary interference; both dominating and arbitrary non-interference; and both non-dominating and non-arbitrary non-interference (Pettit 1999, 51-66; Lovett 2014).

The first kind of relationship includes a direct master-slave relationship (for instance, the master’s order or threat to the slave); the second includes acting upon some agent through the frame of a non-arbitrary law; the third includes “a benevolent master,” the cases of arbitrary application of law including, for example, the decision not to apply the law to some violators of the law; the fourth includes primarily the condition of non-acting in relationship to those who conduct their affairs in accordance with the laws safeguarding the freedom of all. The first and the third kind form the negative part of republican model, whereas the second and the fourth form the model’s positive part.

As Pettit put them, the components of the model straightforwardly imply that freedom, and un-freedom in the sense of domination, cannot be illuminated adequately without the notion of discourse. First, the very adjective “arbitrary” (in the Roman Law Digest this condition is marked by the emphasis that one can be a slave only “contra naturam,” against nature; see Skinner 2002a, 9) cannot be understood at all without the notion of a discursive relation. The adjective concerns primarily a proposition, or a decision, that is not reliably supported by some convincing public reason of a social or political kind. Within the context of political theory, it concerns primarily a kind of conduct that cannot be justified, or reconciled, with the law as a proposition that the whole community deems critically important for the integrity and freedom of all its members.[3]

Secondly, the third component entails plainly that the law does not apply, or enforce, itself, and that the sheer presence of the law does not by itself prevent domination from undermining a community–many stories are told about the lawmen, the prosecutors, or the judiciary, who close their eye before injustice, or are bribed, which results in suspension, or prevention, of the law’s proper application, and enables the villains to walk free. This means that the republican freedom may be secured only through a special attitude toward a special discourse, which embodies the laws in the sense of collective promises the fulfillment of which depends on an active effort and deliberate care by a majority of, and ideally by the entire, population.

That is why republican political theory and practice insist on the notion that the competing traditions of political thought rarely, if ever, employ: “civic virtue,” or the morality that is required for a community to remain secure and undivided, i.e. for a general care for the rule of law to prevail throughout community. In other words, the rule of law depends not only on the efforts of those paid to implement justice, but also on a general care for justice by the entire adult population of a state or political entity (Bobbio and Viroli 2003, 41-3). Most importantly, civic virtue is a notion that, conceptually, cannot be separated from the moral matrix of discourse. At the earliest stages of life, we are taught the ways of honesty, determination, reliability, and responsibility primarily through the experience, and the uses, of discourse: we are taught that we need to prefer true over untrue utterances, to buttress our propositions with a credible argument, and to perform the actions we have projected through our promises.

Specific propositions of republican theory confirm this point in unmistakable terms. They plainly assign a critical role to the discursive virtue that secures one’s discursive status in the sense of the upholding of moral-discursive standards. For instance, Honohan cites three components of civic virtue: awareness, self-restraint, and deliberative engagement (Honohan 2002, 160-162). The first refers basically to the seeking and dissemination of information concerning political relationships, which implies the discursive value of truth; the second refers to the preference of common good, and a long term strategy of its promotion, over some short-term interests or agendas; the third refers to discussion and debate in the sense of a reasoned and reason-supported discourse with, and about, others. As Honohan further points out, the perspective of “civic virtue” also enables us to adopt a wider perspective on corruption:

“…just as civic virtue goes beyond formally obeying laws, corruption is not found only in illegal activities, but in engaging in political interaction to realize only individual or sectional interests in wealth, power or status; in ignoring political and social affairs, or refusing to take account of, or deliberate with the views of others. It is exemplified by those who turn a blind eye to political wrongdoing, leaving it to others to report or protest against it.” (Honohan 2002, 162)

Such a kind of corruption, in which dediscoursification, i.e. the disrespect for the moral matrix of discourse, and the negative part of the republican model, i.e. domination in the sense of the master-slave relationship, form a single blend, had been recognized long time ago. We have seen Polynices emphasizing that, while being like a slave to his host, a benevolent dominus Adrastus, he suffered the lack of “freedom of expression,” but had to endure in such a condition for some short-term gains. In the essays by Seneca we find a special Latin term that refers to intellectual corruption of a slavish mind, “stultus”–one who suffers from a particular vice, stultitia; it is an intellectual malady of those who change their views rapidly and erratically in order to gratify some short-term impulses: for instance, to please those who can either give them money or make them feel occasionally important. Stultus is simply one who violates the standard of coherence as a part of the parameter of truth, or one who sacrifices completely one’s moral-discursive integrity, due to one’s desire to survive intact in the midst of unjust social/political conditions (Foucault 2005, 130-135).

One of the best republican depictions of a servile and non-discursive mind can be found in Milton (in Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth), which Skinner reproduces in the following way:

“There are deeply reprehensible forms of conduct, he [Milton] first observes, that those living in slavery find it almost impossible to avoid. Not knowing what may happen to them, and desperate to avoid the tyrant’s rage, they tend to behave in appeasing and ingratiating ways, becoming ‘a servile crew’, engaging in ‘flatteries and prostrations,’ displaying ‘the perpetual bowings and cringings of an abject people.’ At the same time, there are various lines of conduct that they find it almost impossible to pursue. We can never expect from them any ‘noble words or actions’, any willingness to speak truth to power, any readiness to offer frank judgments and be prepared to act on them.” (Skinner 2008b, 93)

The last two sentences enable us to understand fully the key aspect of the positive part of the republican political model. Apart from being the only political philosophy that considers fully the master-slave relationship in terms of both political and discursive attitude, republicanism is the only political philosophy that also fully considers the status of the human being as ens loquens, a being marked by a viable and moral kind of discourse. Republican philosophy presents such a status as a condition with rich and substantive preconditions and implications. Consequently, republicanism insists on the view that the human use of rational/moral discourse should have a key role in political relations. Furthermore, it backs up such a view with emphasizing the potential of such a discourse to affirm some moral premises, or a moral frame, upon which a stable and viable community can be designed. Hence, republicanism fully endorses the thesis that the notion of a free community composed of free citizens, who relate to each other in a non-dominating mode, cannot be separated from the notion of discourse as a generator of a discursive-collective body; such a body involves and affirms the moral-discursive standards as defining, and effectively restraining, the relationships between individuals as the community members.

In Pettit’s key philosophical presentation of the tenets of republicanism (Pettit 2004), the aforementioned connection is conceptualized through the notion of “discourse-friendly relationships (and influences)” (see also Pettit 2001, 66-72). In other words, some uses of discourse support discursive relationships and confirm discursive status of those involved in discursive interactions; in contrast, some “discourse-unfriendly” influences inflict harm on a discursive relationship and violate discursive status of those involved in discursive interactions. As to the latter, Pettit refers to the example of “coercive threats” (reminding us immediately of Kelman’s typology of attitude-change) and “denying information” (Pettit 2004, 77). According to Pettit, the key thesis of the republican theory reads that a discourse-friendly kind of discourse-use provides the paradigm of the notion of liberty as non-domination. This means that, to Pettit, a discourse that coheres with, and supports, the moral matrix of discourse suggests “discourse-theoretic view of human being”: one who can articulate his or her beliefs and desires according to a theory of decision-making; one who can see as such the reasons for such beliefs and desires; and one who can influence another human being through public presentation of such reasons in discourse (Pettit 2004, 74).

Such a view also supports the view of the moral matrix of discourse as presented in chapters 2 and 3 of this book. The view accords well with the factors of both metalinguality and meta-cognition, and it affords ample room to reasons and truths as well. Additionally, the parameter of promise-giving finds its place naturally in such a view: one of the key purposes of a common use of discourse is to enable us to arrive at an agreement to the implementation of which we should be publicly committed in exactly the same way as we are committed to our promises. Collective promising depends on a discourse being viewed as a justified proposition to which we jointly adapt our public acting. Since non-domination, or the republican freedom, as an ideal, implies a discourse that supports the moral matrix of discourse, such non-domination needs to take such a matrix too as an ideal. Republicans are a distinctive club primarily because, due to their endorsement of the “discourse-theoretic” image of the human being as both relevant and adequate in a political sense, they also view both ideals as achievable, realistic, and, the point I press later, even necessary.

Pettit emphasizes also that such an image of the human being supports the “hard” republican line on “arbitrary (dominating) interference,” and the “soft” one on “non-arbitrary (non-dominating) interference” (Pettit 2004, 80). To illustrate more revealingly the connection between the republican notion of freedom and the moral matrix of discourse, here is how Pettit elucidates the relationship between non-arbitrary interference, on the one hand, and the confirmation of a person’s discursive status in light of the moral matrix of discourse, on the other:

“…it should be clear that wherever someone’s interference in a person’s life is non-arbitrary, that interference does not take from the person’s discursive status. It will leave their ratiocinative capacity unimpaired, of course, and more importantly it will do nothing to reduce their power in relation to others: in particular, their power of entering discursive relations with others, while remaining proof against discourse-unfriendly influences. Whatever happens to the person in the course of non-arbitrary interference happens in a way that they can discursively challenge, say on the grounds that the interference does not answer to a pattern they authorise, and so it does not take in any way from their status as subjects capable of commanding a discursive hearing in relationships with other parties.” (Pettit 2004, 79)

To put it in a vocabulary perhaps simpler than Pettit’s, liberty, as a relationship between individual members of a political community, can be safeguarded and promoted only if three preconditions are met: a clear conceptual distinction is drawn between discourse, on the one hand, and force, on the other; secondly, discourse is to a largest degree possible freed from the factor and considerations of (arbitrary) force/power; thirdly, and finally, the human relations are envisaged as mediated by the discourse that satisfies the first two criteria, according to our needs, the stage of our technological development, our scientific competence, and the complexity of our community. This is the entire wisdom of the positive part of republican political model. Such wisdom was voiced long time ago among Greek rhetoricians, such as Isocrates and Aristides, and it persisted throughout the long tradition of classical and Renaissance humanism. This book too is written in the spirit of the tradition which relies considerably on the notion of “dialogical reason,” which Pettit (1999, 189) put in Skinner’s terms as follows:

“Quentin Skinner (1996, 15-16) supports Sunstein’s reading of traditional republicanism. He has argued that one of the central themes of the classical and Renaissance humanism in which republican ideas were nurtured was a belief in dialogical reason: ‘our watchword ought to be audi alteram partem, always listen to the other side.’ ‘The appropriate model,’ he says, ‘will always be that of a dialogue, the appropriate stance a willingness to negotiate over rival intuitions concerning the applicability of evaluative terms. We strive to reach understanding and resolve disputes in a conversational way.’”

Pettit then adds his own comment as follows: “This dialogical model was warmly embraced by those legislators who saw themselves as exemplifying the republican ideal in the late eighteenth century. In particular, it was used to defend an image of the legislative representative, not as a deputy under instructions from their constituents, but as someone charged to deliberate with the interests of the citizenry at heart” (see also Maynor 2003, 54).

Dražen Pehar has a PhD in politics and international relations from Keele University (SPIRE 2006), holds an assistant professorship (BiH) in the philosophy of law and in politics with sociology. Dražen is a DiploFoundation Associate, and previously served as Chief of Staff to the BiH Federation President (1996) and as a media analyst to the OHR (1999/2000). Dražen is also part of the Institute for Social and Political Research (IDPI), a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


  1. I lay emphasis on Aristotle (1959, 1282b 1-6) and Aristotle (1996, 1134a 35-1134b 8).
  2. To avoid misunderstanding, “negative part of republican model” here denotes those political phenomena, relations, institutions, and processes that republicanism considers as undesirable and modifiable; “positive part” denotes those political phenomena, relations, institutions, and processes that republicanism views as desirable and generally conducive to the human liberty.
  3. In this aspect I slightly deviate from Pettit’s concept of arbitrariness as proposed in Pettit (1999, 55).