‘An “essentially contested concept” just implies that there is no concept to speak about at all.’ Evaluate Gallie’s idea of essentially contested concepts with respect to a key concept in political theory.

University of Essex
Department of Government 2006-07
Course: GV 908
Tutor: Dr David Howarth
Student: Mujib Rahman Rahimi
Essay: 1

The idea of Essentially Contested Concept, which was presented by Gallie in 1956 amidst the confusion and variety of interpretations of concepts in social science, especially in political science, considered to be a major step toward finding a reasonable solution or explanation for the endless contests over some important normative concepts.

In answering the question, raised in the title of the essay, I try to illustrate or explain the idea of Essentially Contested Concept, as it was presented by Gallie, in the post analytical tradition, then I focus on the criterias laid by Gallie for a concept to qualify as essentially contested. Afterward, I mention some of the criticisms have been levelled against Gallie’s framework, followed by the arguments of optimists who consider Gallie’s contribution as a major step in resolving the issue of contested concepts. At the end of first part of the essay, I argue that, the idea of essentially contested concepts, dose not lead to relativism in science, but it opens a new space for adversaries to contest for their interpretation of the normative concepts.

In the second part of the essay, I choose “democracy” as a key concept in political theory, and argue, of course employing the Gallie’s framework, that it is an essentially contested concept and meets the criteria of a concept to be qualified as an essentially contested. In my conclusion, I argue for the validity and vividness of the framework in the contemporary world, and consider it a better way for positive competition and accepting the others point of view.

Walter Bryce Gallie (1912 – 1998)[1] in a lecture titled “Essentially Contested Concepts”, delivered to the meeting of the Aristotelian Society at 21, Bedford Square, London, on March 12th 1956, at 7:30 p.m, introduced one of the most influential and controversial frameworks in the sphere of conceptual confusion in social science.

This article has been published in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol.56, in 1956 in 32 pages and contains the following sub articles:


The Artificial Example

The Conditions of Essential Contestedness

Some Live Examples

Outstanding Questions

Concluding Remarks

In his introduction, he lays out the philosophical foundation of the essentially contested concepts, in the artificial examples, in order to illustrate his approach, he comes with the concept of championship or the champions, and explains the essential contestability of the concept in a game played between the different teams to get the title of the champions. In the conditions of a concept to be regarded as essentially contested, he explains his seven criterias. Then he chooses the concepts of Art, Democracy, Christian Doctrine and Social Justice as live examples of essentially contested concepts. Then he moves on to raise some fundamental questions, may be asked by the opponents to his thesis, the same as appears in the title of this essay, and tries to answer them. He finally concludes his essay by answering some criticisms and emphasises on his contribution.

Reasons for the Emerge of Essentially Contested Concepts:
Conceptual confusion, and variety of interpretation of some concepts in social and political science has been well known in the history of science. People of different cultures and backgrounds have their own ways of understanding and interpreting the normative concepts. On the basis of religions, ideologies, beliefs, perspectives, development and backwardness, people define the same concept or the components of a given concept differently and value their definitions and understandings against their rivals.

According to Collier the; ‘conceptual confusion in the social sciences—and certainly in political science—is a major source of difficulty in both theory and empirical analysis. The literature is replete with concepts that are applied inconsistently. This in turn influences the coherence of research and the cumulation of findings in the study of politics.’ (Collier D: 2006: 211)

Again, according to him, ‘beyond this question of conceptual confusion, another issue must be addressed, i.e., conceptual contestation. The strong normative valence associated with some concepts, often combined with other considerations, motivates users to strongly prefer a particular meaning. They may energetically defend their own usage, whereas others will contend that an alternative usage is correct—hence the idea of a contested concept. Examples of such concepts are democracy, justice, rule of law, citizenship, war, genocide, abortion, rape, and hate crime.’ (Collier D: 2006: 212)

What is an Essentially Contested Concept?
It was in the middle of this dilemma that, Gallie, came with the idea of “essentially contested concepts”, saying that some of the concepts are essentially contested, and every party will value its own way of understanding of it. Among these concepts he refers to democracy, Christian doctrine, art and social justice. ‘Any particular use of any concept of commonsense or of the natural sciences is liable to be contested for reasons better or worse.’ Gallie: 1956: 167) ‘I have no wish to deny that endless disputes may be due to psychological causes on the one hand or to metaphysical afflictions on the other; but I want to show that there are apparently endless disputes, centred on the concepts which I have just mentioned, which are perfectly genuine: which, although not resolvable by argument of any kind, are nevertheless sustained by perfectly respectable arguments and evidence. This is what I mean by saying that there are concepts which are essentially contested, concepts that proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users.’  (Gallie: 1956: 169)

In the words of Swaton; ‘Essential contestedness theorists believe that an essentially contested concept is not vague or ambiguous; there is just one concept which is itself essentially contested. According to these theorists, one can consistently believe that there is one concept of x and that there are rival “conceptions” of x or, in W.B Gallie’s terms, “uses” of the concept of x.’ (Swaton: 1985: 811)

Connolly, while explaining the wisdom behind the contestability of concepts points out that; ‘People committed to partly discrepant assumptions and ideas are likely to construe shared concepts in rather different ways as well. They will share these concepts in the sense that in a number of situations they would agree in calling a particular set of practices a ‘democracy’, a ‘Christian doctrine’, or a ‘work of arte’, but in other situations one party might deny that, say, the concept of democracy applies while the other affirms its proper application, or the contesting parties might disagree about the extent to which the concept applies to the situation at hand’. (Connolly: 1993: 10)

Kahan, while mentioning the importance of essentially contested concepts to political theory, states that; ‘the idea of ‘essentially contested concepts’ is central to contemporary political theory. An evaluative concept can be deemed essentially contested when it is sufficiently complex and open‑textured to sustain multiple reasonable interpretations of what the concept values. Such concepts give rise to ‘endless disputes about their proper uses,’ in which all sides are able to support their positions with ‘perfectly respectable arguments and evidence.’ ‘Liberty,’ ‘power,’ and ‘rule of law’ are all essentially contested concepts in this sense.’ (Kahan: 1999. 3)

Gallie’s Objective:
From what we pointed out, it become clear that, there are confusions in understanding certain concepts due to their normative and complex nature, and this would cause an endless contestation between rivals.

Gallie in his essay in 1956, tried to find a scientific explanation for this phenomenon, a brief and quick overview of his essay reveals his goal and ambition for the idea of essentially contested concepts.

Gallie is quiet explicit in defining his main gaol in his article. ‘He seeks to construct a more coherent and rational foundation for the discussion of complex concepts.’ (Collier D: 2006: 213)

 Definition of Essentially Contested Concepts:
‘there are concepts which are essentially contested, concepts that proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users.’  (Gallie: 1956: 169)

 Hypothesis or a framework:
Gallie, in his essay refers to his idea of “essentially contested concepts” as “explanatory hypothesis”, which could be proven right or wrong. According to Collier, the idea of hypothesis or explanation may be relevant, because all elements of Gallie’s frame work can not be correct all the time, but on the other hand, it may be misleading because it implies that over all the whole approach is either right or wrong, therefore, he prefers, to ‘label Gallie’s set of ideas as an analytic framework—i.e., a set of interrelated criteria that serve to illuminate important problems in understanding and analyzing concepts. Gallie elsewhere adopts similar terminology by calling his approach a set of “semi-formal conditions” and a “schematization”.  Like any framework or schematization, it should probably be judged by its overall utility, and not by whether one element or another appears to be correct—as would be suggested by the idea of a hypothesis. (Collier D: 2006: 215)

‘Gallie delimits the domain of his concerns, arguing that his discussion is focused on the role of essentially contested concepts in philosophical and scholarly thinking, and not in real-world politics.’ (Collier D: 2006: 215) But some have argued that the framework should be extended to the real political world.


The Seven Conditions of Essentially Contested Concepts

According to Gallie, for a concept to be qualified, as essentially contested concept, it must meet the following seven criteria or conditions.

  1. Appraisiveness:

According to Gallie, an essentially contested concept ‘must be appraisive in the sense that it signify or accredits some kind of valued achievement.’ (Gallie: 1956: 171) The use of the word “valued achievement” in Gallie’s definition of appraisive character of a concept, in the words of Collier; ‘is highly plausible that the positive normative valence attached to these concepts is important in spurring debates over their meaning.’ (Collier D: 2006: 216)

However, one could add that the appraisive or normative value or judgement, could be negative, despite the fact that, it this negative aspect, has not been mentioned by Gallie, but it dose not seem to contradict his definition.

  1. Internal Complexity:

The second condition Gallie puts for a concept to be recognized as essentially contested is, internal complexity, ‘this achievement must be of an internally complex character for all that its worth is attributed to it as a whole.’ (Gallie: 1956: 171) The internal complexity of a concept means, it has got possibly a variety of components or features, which paves the way for different users of the concept to describe its meanings on their own ways.

  1. Diverse Describability:

In Gallie’s word, ‘any explanation of worth must therefore include reference to the respective contributions of its various parts or features; yet prior to experimentation there is nothing absurd or contradictory in any one of a number of possible rival description of its total worth… the accredited achievement is initially variously describable.’ (Gallie: 1956: 172) In the word of Collier; ‘diverse describability may involve an exclusive emphasis on one or another facet of the concept. Alternatively, as Gallie points out, different facets may be emphasized to varying degrees, involving contrasting relative importance.’ (Collier D: 2006: 217)

  1. Openness:

The other condition of the Essentially Contested Concept, according to Gallie, is its open character. ‘The accredited achievement must be of a kind that admits of considerable modification in the light of changing circumstances; and such modification can not be prescribed or predicted in advance. For convenience I shall call the concept of any such achievement “open” in character.’ (Gallie: 1956: 172)

It means that, there is no final or comprehensive definition of a normative concept. Any concept could be changed over time and under new circumstances, and pave the way for new contestations.

  1. Reciprocal Recognition or Aggressive and Defensive use:

Another criteria for any concept to qualify for being recognized as essentially contested is; ‘that each party recognizes the fact that its won use of it is contested by those of other parties, and that each party must have at least some of other parties, and that each party must have at least some appreciation of the different criteria in the light of which the other parties claim to be applying the concept in question. More simply, to use an essentially contested concept means to use it against other uses and to recognize that one’s own use of it has to be maintained against those other uses. Still more simply, to use an essentially contested concept means to use it both aggressively and defensively.’ (Gallie: 1956: 172)

‘This criterion presumes that contending parties acknowledge the concept’s contested character. To some extent, they recognize their adversaries’ use of the different facets of the concept … that guide their respective applications. (Collier D: 2006: 219)

  1. Exemplar:

The achievement must derive from an acknowledged exemplar, or in Gallie’s word; ‘the derivation of any such concept from an original exemplar whose authority is acknowledged by all the contested users of the concept’ (Gallie: 1956: 180)

Collier points out, that Gallie has tow understandings of “exemplar”, a narrow understanding and a broader understanding.  ‘In Gallie’s narrower understanding of exemplar, the contested concept is seen as anchored in an original exemplar whose “authority is acknowledged by all the contestant users…”.  The link to the original exemplar plays a crucial role in allowing analysts to distinguish between essentially contested concepts and confused concepts. Confused concepts involve disagreements in which the same term refers to two different ideas. The original exemplar anchors the concept, and the issue is therefore not a simple matter of confusion, but rather contestation over the same concept. This idea of a specific exemplar is reinforced by his use of the singular article—i.e., ‘an’ exemplar—as if it were indeed one instance; and also by his specific reference to the French Revolution.

Gallie also presents a broader understanding of exemplars. He notes the “internally complex and variously describable” nature of the exemplar, arguing “it is natural that different features in it should be differently weighted by different appraisers”. And to this he adds that ‘acceptance of the exemplar’s achievement must have that ‘open’ character which we have ascribed to every essentially contested concept’.  Thus, according to Gallie, an exemplar can assume many different forms, including “a number of historically independent but sufficiently similar traditions”, and he makes clear that “the vagueness of this tradition in no way affects its influence as an exemplar”. (Collier D: 2006: 220)

  1. Progressive Competition:

The last and final condition or criteria of Gallie for a concept to be recognized as essentially contested concept, is “progressive competition”. He believes that; “the probability or plausibility, in appropriate senses of these terms, of the claim that the continuous competition for acknowledgement as between the contested users of the concept enables the original exemplar’s achievement to be sustained and/or developed in optimum fashion.’ (Gallie: 1956: 180)

He ‘argues that a consequence of ongoing conceptual disputes “might be expected to be a marked raising of the level of quality of arguments in the disputes of the contestant parties”. In fact, as with the role of exemplars just discussed, Gallie offers a narrower and a broader understanding of progressive competition. In the narrower version, this criterion specifically involves achieving more complete agreement about the original exemplar. He thus focuses on whether “continuous competition . . . between contestant users of the concept . . . enables the original exemplar’s achievement to be sustained and/or developed in optimal fashion”. Given the issues just raised about the original exemplar, the meaning of this stipulation is ambiguous.

The broader framing, which omits reference to the original exemplar, appears more promising. Gallie admits that “a general principle may be unobtainable for deciding, in a manner that would or might conceivably win ultimate agreement, which of a number of contested uses of a given concept is its ‘best use’.…” Nonetheless, “it may yet be possible to explain or show the rationality of a given individual’s continued use (or in the more dramatic case of conversion, his change of use) of the concept in question”. (Collier D: 2006: 220)

 Overview of Gallie’s framework:
Gallie’s idea of essentially contested concepts, as other theories and hypotheses in social sciences has been the subject of enormous controversy and debates among the scholars and researchers. One could find a substantial body of articles and research in this field since 1956, especially in the last decade[2]. On one hand, some have appreciated the contribution of Gallie as a major step in solving the problem of conceptual disputes, a way forward for mutual understanding and tolerance for variety of interpretations, on the other hand, some have rejected the very idea of contested concepts on the assumption that there would be ‘no concept to speak about at all’, and raised the question that, this framework will lead to conceptual relativism in science.

In this section of the essay, first I will mention briefly the main criticisms have been levelled against Gallie’s framework of “Essentially Contested Concepts”, then I will move to focus on the ideas expressed in support of Gallie’s framework. At the end of this section, I will refer to the question, which has been raised in the title of the Essay; ‘An “essentially contested concept” just implies that there is no concept to speak about at all’, and try to explain the aim of Gallie in support of his framework, which ‘argues for mutual awareness among adversaries that some of their shared concepts are subject to essential disputes contributes to the intellectual development of all protagonists.’ (Connolly: 1993: 11)

However, I have to mention that some of the critics of Gallie’s idea of Essentially Contested Concepts, have not rejected his idea as a whole, but some parts of his framework or his conditions have been rejected or amended by them, in this part of the essay, as I mentioned above, I will list all the criticism generally rather than particularly.

New Obscurantism:
Gallie was the first one who raised the possibility of a dispute over his framework, but he hoped, that his aim for creating a positive competition among adversaries for a better understanding of each other and finding a good meaning for a concept, should avoid such a misinterpretations. ‘It may be complained that despite all its references to “reasonableness” to the “logic of conversion”, etc., this paper is only a disguised betrayal of reason, a further contribution to what Mr. Hampshire has so aptly called “the new obscurantism”. (Gallie: 1956: 196)

Barry Clarke believes that; ‘…the notion of an essentially contested concept is radically mistaken….It is possible to make sense of the notion of an essentially contestable concept, but only at the cost of introducing a radical relativism into all discourse using such disputable concepts. Consequently any one idiosyncratic usage of an essentially contestable concept would be as valid as any alternative idiosyncratic usage.’ (Collier D: 2006: 221)

 The Doctrine is Internally Contradictory:
W. E. Connolly, in his book, the Terms of Political Discourse, mentions some of the charges, have been levelled against Gallie, the firs charge according to him claims that; ‘it is contradictory to say first that a concept is essentially contestable and second that the particular reading one endorses is superior.’ (Connolly: 1993: 226)[3]

The Doctrine of Essentially Contested Concepts is Essentially Contestable by its Own:
the second main charge according to him is; ‘the doctrine of essential contestability is by its own premises to be essentially contestable. The doctrine is therefore alleged to be self-refuting.’ (Connolly: 1993: 226)

‘John N. Gray’s criticism is harsh: “It follows that any strong variant of an essential contestability thesis must precipitate its proponents into a radical (and probably self-defeating) skeptical nihilism”… Gray expresses concern about the “moral relativism” and “conceptual relativism” of Gallie’s approach.’ (Collier D: 2006: 221)

Gray points out that; ‘it is not at all evident how we are to distinguish concepts which are simply radically confused or general words whose uses conceal a diversity of distinguishable concepts from general word which really denote an essentially contested concept. What is clear is that the study of essentially contested concept is inseparable from the study of the various dimensions (linguistic and conceptual, for example) of social change itself.

To identify a concept as essentially contested is to say a great deal about the kind of society in which its users live. If it is the case, for example, that most of the concepts of our social and political thought –power, freedom, justice, coercion, and responsibility, for example- have and essentially contested character, then this can only be so in virtue of the fact that our social and political thought occurs in a social environment marked by profound diversity and normal individualism.’ (Gray: 1977:337)

On the utility of Essential Contestability he says: “… none of my investigations has yield an account of essential contestability which is without serious internal difficulties or damaging sceptical implications, the outcome of my argument is disappointingly negative.’ (Gray: 1977:344)

Swanton claims: ‘the essential Contestedness views are incoherent … this would imply that there is no point to contests, for not only can no consensus on a best conception of x emerge, but no conception of x can be rejected on the grounds that some other conceptions of x is better than it. (Swanton: 1985: 815) Further more, he questions the defendability of Gallie’s hypothesis; ‘attractive though the essential contestedness hypothesis is as a solution to the problem of intractable dispute in political and moral theory, the hypothesis has not yet been adequately defended.’  (Swanton: 1985: 827)

 Endless Conceptual Debates:
‘Ian Shapiro, while implicitly rejecting Gallie’s overall approach, does point to an avenue for the progressive clarification of concepts. Shapiro is concerned that Gallie’s framework can only produce endless conceptual debates. The focus should instead be on “substantive interdisciplinary knowledge” of the domains to which the concepts apply. For example, the concept of “freedom” must refer concretely to “enabling and restraining conditions” that shape the degree of latitude, or freedom, that individuals experience in their lives. Correspondingly, “many, if not most, of the politically charged questions about freedom” will be substantive, empirical ones that cannot be resolved without this interdisciplinary knowledge”. (Collier D: 2006: 221)

Conceptual Disputes can not lead to an Improved Quality of Argumentation:
Some ‘scholars strongly question Gallie’s claim that conceptual disputes can lead to an improved quality of argumentation. They express concern that opposing positions may be poorly argued and outside the bounds of reasonable discussion. Eugene Garver writes that “there are some—perhaps too many—cases in which dignifying one’s opponent by treating opposition as competition over an essentially contested concept would be foolish. Charity in interpretation is not an unconditional duty”. E.Garver goes on to quote Aristotle’s argument that addressing such opponents “can only result in a debased kind of discussion”. Similarly, Freeden maintains that conceptual debates may be of poor quality and they may impoverish rather than enrich the contested concepts. Hence, these debates may be regressive and part of the concept’s meaning may be lost or abandoned. (Collier D: 2006: 221)

On the other hand, we find a group well established scholars, who have praised Gallie’s framework, and considered it as a positive step to the right direction in resolving the issue of conceptual disputes in social sciences. They not only have rejected the claims of the opponents, but also developed the idea by adding to it their own findings and contributions.

As we noticed, relativism, internal contradictory, essentially contestable by its own, nihilism, incoherent, endless conceptual debates and conceptual disputes can not lead to an improved quality of argumentation were some of the main charges against Gallie’s framework in dealing with the question of essentially contested concepts.

Before going to the arguments of scholars in favour of Gallie’s framework, and dealing with the above mentioned criticisms, it is right to acknowledge that, the very idea of “essentially contested concepts” owes its origin to Gallie, and has been praised for this noble attempt to solve the issue of conceptual disputes.

On the question of relativism, which is the serious of all charges, Collier and his colleagues, in their recent research on Gallie’s work, argue that; ‘in our view, this concern with relativism is reasonable if concept analysis has the prescriptive goal of establishing unambiguous meanings. However, if the goal is to give a realistic account of complex concepts and their dynamic patterns of change, Gallie’s framework remains a benchmark in the development of alternative approaches to analyzing concepts.’ (Collier D: 2006: 234)

On the same issue of relativism, Connolly, by rejecting the claim of opponents, stress that, to claim that a concept is contestable, dose not mean necessarily, that we are affirming radical relativism. He says; ‘to say that a concept is essential is not necessarily to affirm the radical relativism several critics have read into the thesis. It may be to contend, as I have done explicitly, that the universal criteria of rationality available to us limit and inform such debates but are insufficient to resolve them determinately. “It is partly because we share the pertinent norms of responsibility imperfectly that contests arise with respect to such political concepts, and it is because we share these norms imperfectly that we are provided with some common leverage for limiting the range within which these contests can rationally proceed”.’ Connolly: 1993: 230)

Connolly, by summarising the most charges levelled against Gallie, under the title of internal contradictory and essentially contestable by its own, rejects these charges in details. On the question of internal contradiction, he claims; ‘it dose not include the latter claim; it dos not pretend to show that the reading it prefers is demonstrably superior to every other reading it oppose. The thesis claims (1) that a conceptual contest involves rival parties who accept some elements of the concept in common; (2) that the common resources of reason and evidence available can illuminate these debates but are insufficient to reduce the number of interpretations rationally defensible to on; (3) that a strong case can sometimes by made within this remaining area of contestability in support of a particular reading. One argues for one’s reading within this space but dose not claim to demonstrate its validity. One the points in emphasizing the contestability of concepts which enter into way of life is to establish rational space fro debate over the terms of discourse.’ (Connolly: 1993: 227)

In answering the second charge; “the essential contestability of the framework by its own”, he argues; ‘the affirmation of essential contestability is not self refuting because it is not presented as a necessary or demonstrable truth. It dose not even claim that its counter thesis can not pursued.’ (Connolly: 1993: 229)

The subsequent contributions of scholars to the idea of essentially contested concepts, clear understanding of conditions laid down by Gallie for a concept to be recognized as essentially contested concept, the right understanding and implying of the framework leave no space for the validity of other charges.

Newton Garver, while praising Gallie for his outstanding work, comments; “Gallie means to counter the prejudice, easily engendered by a simplistic empirical or scientific outlook, that any concept which cannot be clearly and unambiguously applied is bound to be confused. Essentially contested concepts are neither.” Rather, through his analysis, Gallie “seeks to provide order and structure to a particular sort of adversarial discourse” (Collier D: 2006: 221)

Connolly, as one of the promoters of the idea of essentially contested concepts, has come with the idea of “descriptive” and “normative” concepts, in support of Gallie framework. Connolly claims, Gallie ‘dos not distinguish sharply enough between neutral, “descriptive” concepts, about which intersubjective agreement can be attained, and those “normative” concepts that are open-ended and controversial in the way Gallie assert.’ (Connolly: 1993: 11) By this, he means the descriptive concepts with common definitions across different ideologies and cultures, which are needed operationally in the field science to communicate with one another.

According to Connolly, essentially contested concepts are appraisive, to call some thing a work of art or democracy, is to describe it and ascribe a value to it or express a commitment with respect to it. When a concept is used for a moral or normative view then it could be subject to debate and different interpretations.

Connolly also introduces the idea of a “cluster concept”, which means a concept is not only internally complex with a broad and variable set of criteria but each criterion itself relatively complex and open and each dimension of it refer to a new concept, so to use such a concept you must display its complex relations with other concepts. (Connolly: 1993: 14)

While ‘Alasdair MacIntyre views openness or “essential incompleteness” as a key factor that produces essential contestability… Norman S. Care points to the possibility of “practical closure”, or “temporary closure” that may be achieved even in the absence of absolute, objective solutions to debates about concepts that are essentially contested. Even if practical closure does not preclude periodic revisions, it nevertheless suggests that “at least for a time,” openness can be partially overcome. Indeed, without such closure, we cannot “answer for ourselves certain of the basic questions about the character of our institutions and practices.’ (Collier D: 2006: 218)

In the same manner, Freeden, offers the idea of “decontestation”, according to Collier, he; ‘offers a valuable perspective on openness. Just as concepts can be contested, they can also be decontested, in that they achieve a stable meaning within a given framework. Freeden introduces this idea of decontestation in his analysis of “ideologies,” which can be understood both as constellations of ideas that are ideologies as conventionally understood in the real world of politics, and also as interrelated systems of meaning that are the conceptual frames of scholarly usage. Freeden carefully presents the idea of decontestation as an element within his approach to analyzing ideologies.’ (Collier D: 2006: 218)

I hope, it have been clear now that, the idea of essentially contested concepts, dose not lead to nihilism, incoherent, endless conceptual debates and unimproved quality of argumentation, but opposite to all, it paves the way for a positive adversary and respect for others believe and understandings of a concept due to its normative and complex nature.

On the other hand, if we accept the framework, it will help us to avoid imposing our believes and understanding as the only possible and transcendental meaning of a qualified concept as essentially contested, on others or use coercive means to force them to follow our interpretations.

Dose Democracy as a key concept in political theory fits in Gallie’s framework of Essentially Contested Concepts?

 Democracy as a key and vague concept in political theory:
In this part of the essay, I will try to focus on “democracy” as a key concept in political theory, and find out either, it fits the framework of Gallie as an essentially contested concept or not? I will start this part of the essay with a brief overview of democracy and its diverse and vague nature, which would help us consequently in our discussion of it as an essentially contested concept.

One could find a large body of research and scholarship on democracy in political theory or comparative politics, it has been the focus of studies of thinkers and philosophers since centuries, either as negative system of  government or a positive one, and has continued to be the main them of contemporary research and studies.

Hyewood, in his book the “Politics”, refers to the development and popularity of democracy as the most significant event in the history of politics; ‘the mass conversion of politicians and political thinkers to the cause of democracy has been one of the most dramatic, and significant, events in political history. Even in Ancient Greece, often thought of as the cradle of the democratic idea, democracy tended to be viewed in negative terms. Thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, for example, viewed democracy as a system of rule by the masses at the expense of wisdom and property. Well into the nineteenth century, the term continued to have pejorative implications, suggesting a system of ‘mob rule’. Now, however, we are all democrats. Liberals, conservatives, socialists, communists, anarchists, and even fascists are eager to proclaim the virtues of democracy and do demonstrate their own democratic credentials. Indeed, as the major ideological system had faltered and collapsed in the late twentieth century, the flame of democracy has appeared to burn yet more strongly.’ Heywood: 1997: 65-70)

Russell, in his article about democracy and conceptual changes throughout the history, adopts the same pattern, and points out to some of the most fundamental conceptual changes in the history of the democracy, with particular reference to the American experience.  He urges, ‘until the middle of the nineteenth century, or perhaps even later, democracy was regarded as a dangerous and unstable form of politics. Since then, the odious connotations of democracy have gradually receded. They have been replaced by new and quiet positive, associations with popular sovereignty and political equality. In the process democracy became a concept without peer in modern politics.’ (Russell: 1989: 68)

The origin of “democracy” could be traced back to ancient Greece, which meant the rule by many, the people or the poor, or according Plato ‘a state in which the poor, gaining the upper hand, kill some and banish others, and then divide the offices among the remaining citizens, usually by lot’ (Russell:1989: 68-71)

But according to Hywood, ‘the simple notion of ‘rule by people’ dose not get us very far.’ The problem with democracy and its diverse meaning, according to him is; ‘its very popularity, a popularity that has threatened the term’s undoing as a meaningful political concept. In being almost universally regarded as a ‘good thing’, democracy has come to be used as little more than a ‘Hurrah! Word’, implying approval of particular set of ideas of system of rule. In Bernard Crick’s (1993) words, ‘democracy is perhaps the most promiscuous word in the world of public affairs’. A term that can mean anything to anyone is in danger of meaning nothing at all. Among the meanings that have been attached to the word ‘democracy’ are the following:

  • A system of rule by the poor and disadvantaged
  • A form of government in which the people rule themselves directly and continuously, without the need for professional politicians or public officials
  • A society based on equal opportunity and individual merit, rather than hierarchy and privilege
  • A system of welfare and redistribution aimed at the narrowing social inequalities
  • A system of decision making based on the principle of majority rule
  • A system of rule that secures the rights and interests of minorities by placing checks upon the power of majority
  • A means of filling public offices through a competitive struggle for the popular vote
  • A system of government that serves the interests of the people regardless of their participation in political life.’ (Heywood: 1997: 65-70)

Russell also stresses that by the development and popularity of democracy, its meaning enters a new round of vagueness contests; ‘as the value of democracy became transcendent, its meaning was lost in the cacophony of competing interpretations of democracy.’ (Russell: 1989: 68-71)

As to the models of democracy, Hywood, figures the followings; Classical democracy, Protective democracy, Developmental democracy and the People’s democracy.

As we noticed, freedom, equality, majority rule, public participation and equal opportunity have been considered the fundamental principles of democracy. Direct democracy, representative democracy, liberal democracy, social democracy and deliberative ones have been practiced and debated by countries and scholars throughout the world.

This brief description of democracy, illustrates that the concept is contested, has not one single meaning, it is open for interpretations, and has multiple characters.

Fitting the Definition; Democracy as Essentially Contested Concept:
Gallie has provided a good account of democracy in his essay, pointing out its main features, appraisive nature and complex internal dimensions, which qualify a given concept to be recognised as essentially contested concept.

Connolly, referring to this point says; ‘According to Gallie, ‘democracy’ is such a concept, at least as it used in western industrial societies. It is an achievement valued by most. Commonly accepted criteria of its application are weighted differently by opposing parties, and certain criteria viewed as central by one party are rejected as inappropriate or marginal by others. Finally, arguments about its proper use turn on fundamental issues about which reasoned argument is possible but full and definitive resolution often unlikely. Thus, for some the central criterion of a democracy is the power of citizens to choose their government through competitive elections; for others this factors is less important than equality of opportunity for all citizen in attaining positions of political leadership; for still others both of these criteria pale insignificance if the continuous participation of citizen at various levels of political life is not attained. These disagreements proliferate further when we see that concepts used to express them, such as “power”, “political”, “equality”, and “participation”, require elucidation also, a process likely to expose further disagreements among those contesting the concept of democracy.’ (Connolly: 1993: 10-11)

In the word of Collier, no one seems to disagree with Gallie’s definition of democracy as essentially contested concept; ‘Gallie’s own discussion of democracy certainly suggests that it fits the category of an essentially contested concept, and there would appear to be little disagreement on this point.’ (Collier D: 2006: 222)

  1. Appraisiveness:

Gallie describes democracy as; “the appraisive political concept par excellence” (Gallie: 1956: 184). One could urge that people of different faiths and cultures, taking into account their ideological perspectives, believes, traditions and level of development and backwardness, judge democracy on the basis of their values and normatively, Collier says; ‘Major works on democracy by Robert Dahl and Giovanni Sart ori, as well as Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, begin with strong statements that a central motivation in studying democracy derives from its positive normative valence. But the appraisal is not always positive. Huntington and Rosanvallon have convincingly traced the varying normative assessment of democracy, pointing to a negative valuation in the West during important parts of the 19th century, and at key points in the 20th century.’ (Collier D: 2006: 223)

  1. Internal Complexity:

Democracy as a concept is internally complex, and has multiple internal dimensions. Gallie points out that, power of majority, equality of citizens and the continues participation of citizens, could be seen as some of the main dimensions of democracy, but at the same time each of them could be valued differently as condition for a regime to be considered democratic.

Collier also finds out that, in the comparative politics literature, democracy meets this criterion. He argues that ‘the complexity of the concept comes out clearly, for example, in O’Donnell and Schmitter’s four dimensions of liberalization, encompassing (1) civil liberties; (2) democratization, in the specific sense of meaningful electoral competition with universal suffrage, and fair and open elections; (3) democratization of social institutions and economic processes; and (4) democratization in the sense of the extension to citizens of substantive benefits and entitlements.’ (Collier D: 2006: 223)

  1. Diverse Describability:

Once we accept that a concept is internally complex, and has different components, then the possibility of diverse describability naturally come into existence.

The concept of democracy, as it was mentioned above, has different components, and some of them could be considered more important then others or some of the components could be more or less relevant in a particular situation or context.

In O’Donnell and Schmitter’s components and dimension of democracy mentioned above, one could describe them with the following labels; political democracy, limited political democracy, popular democracy, social democracy, and socialist democracy.

But all these complexities and diverse describability have been conceptualized as facets of democracy, as the mother or main concept.

  1. Openness:

Gallie argues; ‘the concept of democracy which we are discussing is “open” in character. Politics being the art of the possible, democratic targets will be raised or lowered as circumstances alter, and democratic achievements are always judged in the light of such alterations.’ (Gallie: 1956: 186)

This condition of Gallie seems to be vivid and conceivable in the history of democracy and the conceptual changes it has gone through.

A cording to Collier; ‘a central aspect of openness is change over time in the political, economic, and social systems being compared. The fundamental shifts in the meanings and normative valence of democracy in the West, traced by Rosanvallon and Huntington through the 19th and 20th centuries, are substantially linked to the emergence over many decades of a middle class, the rise of industrial society, and the appearance of the working class as a major political actor. In the second half of the 19th century, for example, the term democracy was commonly used in characterizing regimes that maintained property requirements for voting, that did not encompass the working class in the electoral arena, and that—given exclusion of women from voting—certainly lacked universal suffrage.’ (Collier D: 2006: 224)

Another example of openness in the nature of democracy would be the conceptual changes in perception of democracy in the late 19th century and the latter part of the 20th century. (Russell: 1989)

Collier points to the same changes when he refers to ‘the working class role in democratic transitions, and in Bruce Russett’s study of the democratic peace hypothesis, undertake comparisons of democracies and democratic transitions in the two eras. By the standard of the late 20th century, there were no democracies in Europe in the late 19th century—in part due to the limited suffrage in the earlier period. Yet these scholars identify cases in this earlier period that are appropriate to include in the comparison, given the frameworks employed by these analysts. Rather than apply the same standard for democracy in both periods, these authors focus on whether a country is democratic by the norms of that historical period. Recognizing that empirically democracy has a different meaning in the two eras, and they adapt their comparison accordingly.’ (Collier D: 2006: 224)

Another example of openness could be the disputes over a regime or a country, either it is democratic or not, on the bases of the changing circumstances in meeting the democratic targets.

  1. Reciprocal Recognition or Aggressive and Defensive use:

This criterion is relevant in considering democracy as essentially contested concept. Gallie points out that, the concept of democracy is both used aggressively and defensively. In practical politics, one could refer to the use of democracy by the Western countries and the communist block during the cold war and some other Asian and African states at the present time, as who is more democratic and who is not.

Or one could present the arguments between some governments and the opposition, on the question of either a particular regime in a given period of time was/is democratic or not, and who was/is applying to the correct use of democracy?

‘In the sphere of scholarship, reciprocal recognition may be found in a context as obvious as book reviews. Reviews of O’Donnell and Schmitter’s volume debated their use of a procedural definition of democracy. This approach was directly discussed in reviews of their book. Arthur MacEwan raises standard concerns about alternative meanings of democracy, arguing that it is essential to develop a more complete conceptualization and analysis of the interconnections between political democrac, on the one hand, and economic and social democracy, on the other. Daniel Levine points to similar themes, and further argues that the procedural conceptualization of democracy is too much influenced by a concern with promoting transitions to democracy, and insufficiently concerned with recognizing that the meaning of democracy depends centrally on the ideals and struggles of those who promote it. Revisiting the O’Donnell-Schmitter text, it is evident that they had considered these alternative conceptualizations, but chose not to adopt them. Thus, rather than talking past one another, these analysts are to some degree making choices among a mutually recognized set of alternatives.’ (Collier D: 2006: 225)

  1. Exemplar:

In discussing the concept of democracy in conjunction with the role of an exemplar, Gallie, says; ‘these uses claim the authority of and exemplar i.e., of a long tradition (perhaps a number of historically independent but sufficiently similar traditions) of demands, aspirations, revolts and reforms of a common anti-inegalitarian character.’ (Gallie: 1956: 186)

As we pointed out in discussing the seven criterions of Gallie, it was made clear, that Gallie has a narrow and a broad understanding of exemplar. Collier in his narrow version of exemplar presents the example of Athenian Democracy which was evoked in the New England town meeting, the debate about the deliberative democracy in the United States, and the role of Athenian democracy in the evolution of French political thought.

In the broader understanding of exemplar in our contemporary politics, one could give the example of the US presidential system, and the British Parliamentary system, for presidential and parliamentary systems around the world, or as it was followed in the Latina America, and in the British colonies. The example of a successful transition state to a democracy or development could be also followed by other states in their search for democratization or development, as exemplar.

  1. Progressive Competition:

Progressive competition in democracy in the word of Gallie means; ‘continues competition for acknowledgement between rival uses of the popular concept of democracy seems likely to lead to an optimum development of the vague aims and confused achievements of the democratic tradition.’ (Gallie: 1956: 186)

 Democracy, certainly, qualifies for this criterion, politically and scholarly, as we pointed out the details of this criterion in discussing Gallie’s conditions, and provided the ideas of Connolly, in this regard.

 Politically, it will pave the way for more co operations and understandings among nations/states, and scholarly, it could lead to the process of decontestation or agreeing on new trajectory procedural definition of democracy or new conceptualizations as a precise alternative for the term democracy or a better form of democracy, such as polyarchy and deliberative democracy.

As it become evident from above discussion, democracy as a key concept, fits Gallie’s framework as essentially contested concept, and meets all the seven conditions.

Gallie in his framework, provide a better order for social and political scientists to argue with reason while dealing with complex normative concepts. He calls for rational and positive competition between adversaries in the field of science for finding a better meaning and developing the intellectual awareness to its optimum point.

Gallie’s framework, calls for plurality and tolerance, the realization that others have reasons to contest, will lead to politics of tolerance and mutual understandings.

In the contemporary world, I would argue, that Gallie’s idea calls for dialogue and cooperation among nations and civilizations. The framework, if accepted, calls for accepting the verity of interpretations and respecting the religion, culture and values of other nations, and rejects the use of force for the purpose of imposing a specific way of life or interpretation on others.

The framework, as I understood it, refers to an important principle in the nature of human beings, and that is; their natural differences in looking and understanding things in this world, due to their cultural and other differences.

The framework also connotes that; empirical researchers must consider the normative aspects of concepts seriously in their social and comparative studies, an aspect which could not be understood empirically.

Finally, I would like to conclude by quoting  for Connolly, who states rightly; ‘central to politics, as I understand it, is the ambiguous and relatively open-ended interaction of persons and groups who share a range of concepts, but share them imperfectly and incompletely. Politics involves a form of interaction in which agents adjust, extend, resolves accommodate, and transcend initial differences within a context of partly shared assumptions, concepts, and commitments. On this reading, conceptual contests are central to politics; they provide the space for political interaction. Connolly: 1993:


Clarke B., ‘Eccentrically Contested Concepts’, British Journal of Political Science, 9 (1979), pp. 122–6, pp. 125–6.

Collier D. Hidalgo F. D. and Maciuceanu A. O., (2006) Essentially Contested Concepts: Debates and Applications. Journal of Political Ideologies 11, No. 3 (October 2006).

Connolly W. E (1993) The Terms of Political Discourse, third edition, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford UK.

Dan M. Kahan, (1999), Democracy as an Essentially Contested Concept, 20 Cardozo Law Review. Vol. 795.

Gallie, W.B.(1956a), “Essentially Contested Concepts”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol.56, (1956), pp.167-198.

Gray N. John, On the Contestability of Social and Political Concepts, Political Theory, Vol. 5, No. 3. (August, 1977), pp.331-348.

Heywood A. (1997), Politics, London: Macmillan Press ltd.

Russell; (1989), Democracy in Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, edited James Farr and Russell L. Hanson, Terence Ball, Cambridge University Press.

Swanton W., On the “Essential Contestedness” of Political Concepts, Ethics, Vol. 95, No. 4. (July 1985), pp 811-827. published by the University of Chicago Press.

[1] . Walter Bryce Gallie (1912 – 1998) was a British social theorist, political theorist and philosopher.

Gallie grew up in a British boarding school and later published his memoirs of this in the book: ‘An English School’. He taught at University College, North Staffordshire, where he published (among other things) “Explanations in History and the Genetic Sciences” (Mind, Vol. 64, No. 254 [Apr. 1955], pp. 160–180). His other well-known works include Philosophy and the Historical Understanding, (1964), Philosophers of War and Peace (1978) by Oxford University Press, and Wanted: A Philosophy of International Relations (1979).
His paper on ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’ (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 56, 1956, pp. 167-198) is a seminal statement in the philosophy of the social sciences. Here, Gallie argued that it is impossible to conclusively define key appraisive concepts such as ‘social justice,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘Christian life’, ‘art’, ‘moral goodness’ and ‘duty’, although it is possible and rational to discuss one’s justifications for holding one interpretation over competing ones. Clarification of such concepts involves not the examination of predictive relations (as is the case for most scientific concepts), but rather, consideration of how the concept has been used by different parties throughout its history.

He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1970 to 1971. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._B._Gallie)

[2] . Just to notice the importance of the literature and the amount of work has been don in this field, to enter “essentially contested concepts” in the Google search engine, which has started in the last decade, it produces over 1,060,000 hits. (Viewed January 2007)

[3] . W.E. Connolly, in his end note, briefly summarises the efforts and researches have been done in this area, and divides the opponents and defenders of the idea by saying: ‘while Lukes, Motefiore, Gutmann, and Shapiro have generally sought to develop this thesis and explore its implications for political discourse, Gray, Barry, Macdonald, Frohock and Clarcke have contested it (the latter eccentrically) in one way or another.’ Connolly: 1993: 245)

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