Judgment and Democracy

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2013

University of Miami
Miami, Florida


In the early 20th century, Albert Einstein commented that, “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”1 Surely, understanding in any field requires mastery of facts. However, as the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, points out, the aptitude to apply facts to the world in an innovative fashion, whether in the arts or sciences, relies on judgment. Judgment ‘cannot be learned from [traditional or digital] textbooks.’ It is nurtured by the liberal arts, specifically philosophy, which ‘[train] the mind’ not only to memorize facts but first and foremost to synthesize them from a critical perspective and thereby channel thinking. An exploration of judgment will guide us “to rethink and reshape the liberal arts.”

Part I

We need only turn to Plato for virulent admonition against neglect of education, as well as a rousing endorsement of the enlightening role of philosophical inquiry. Despite the obvious threat to his life that Socrates’ trial represents, when the Socrates of Plato’s Apology bequeaths the legacy of critical inquiry to western civilization, he does not flinch from his resolve that the old guard who slander him is far more ominous than the youthful prosecutors who mount the trial against him. The former shirk their responsibility to educate the next generation to think critically. Plato ultimately blames the egalitarian principles of the Athenian democracy, in which governance is shared by all male citizens, for its failure to qualify citizens for this role. His harsh rejection of the democracy that sentenced to death Socrates culminates in a utopian meritocracy. The social hierarchy in Plato’s Republic divides citizens into three classes based on natural ability: leaders who rule, soldiers who guard society, and workers who facilitate daily life. Education is geared to the role each group plays in the social order. Equal opportunity so basic to democracy is completely absent. And philosophical training is the privilege of the leadership class alone, from which the ultimate ruler, the philosopher-king, emerges. What may appear to our egalitarian mindset as a repressive system, which guards against any social stratification not based on natural ability alone, relies on the redemptive role of the philosopher-king, whose ethical training staves off any abuse of power.

Democracy, however, is only sustained if the citizens are empowered by education. “…[G]overnment of the people, by the people, for the people …”2 unravels if ‘the people’ cannot think for themselves to formulate informed judgments. Judgment, however, is not synonymous with thinking.3 Much as warm-up exercises condition our muscles to excel but do not ensure athletic prowess, thinking critically conditions mental acuity but does not guarantee sound judgment. Whereas the rules by which we can acquire understanding and learn to think critically can be taught, the application of these rules in judgment is mastered through practice.4 Kant emphasizes the difference between understanding and judgment when he comments that, “A physician therefore, a judge, or a statesman, can have many fine pathological, juridical, or political rules in his head, of which he can even be a thorough teacher, and yet can easily stumble in their application…”5 The master of a vast body of facts may still lack judgment.

Judgment cultivates one’s aptitude to evaluate any situation or object of thought and thereby carve out a direction for action. Consequently, Jerome Groopman, the Harvard Medical School author of How Doctors Think, comments that July is not an optimal month to be admitted to a hospital emergency room since it coincides with the beginning of rotations for new interns who lack sufficient judgment.6 They may have mastered the medical facts, but are not experienced at their application to the task at hand.

Without a citizenry habituated not only to think, but first and foremost to think critically and judge, the scaffolding of our democratic political system totters precariously. The political theorist of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, points out the risks involved, when the intellectual climate ceases to cultivate critical debate grounded in judgment.

If somebody then should show up who, for whatever reasons and purposes, wishes to abolish the old ‘values’ or virtues, he will find it easy enough provided he offers a new code, and he will need no force and no persuasion—no proof that the new values are better than the old ones—to establish it.7

We would like to believe that we have embedded safeguards against this kind of brainwashing into our own education system. It would be comforting to assume that the mind-numbing patterns, which Arendt unearths in any totalitarian system, are completely alien to our own democracy. But could someone impose a ‘new code’ on us and find little resistance? Are we immune to the threats that shattered the cultural peaks of Mozart and Einstein in Nazi Germany? Democracy can only succeed as a protective political structure to ward off such threats, if higher education is grounded in those practices that cultivate autonomy and nurture judgment.

Part II

In Not for Profit—Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum introduces “the narrative imagination” to argue that participation in democracy hinges on “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself…”8 She points out that “[t]he cultivation of sympathy has been a key part of the best modern ideas of democratic education, in both Western and non-Western nations.”9 In the late 18th century, Kant argues that envisioning oneself in the ‘shoes’ of another does more than cultivate sympathy. The possibility of enlightening one’s judgment by looking at the world from the perspective of others, which Kant addresses in his discussion of the sensus communis, is a prerequisite to even think for oneself. Consequently it qualifies one’s participation in democracy.

The Kantian sensus communis serves as a safeguard against coercion and is central to the autonomy inherent in the democratic mindset. One cannot “think for oneself,” Kant asserts, unless one “thinks in [from] the position of everyone else” to broaden one’s outlook and assume a universal standpoint. An individual’s point of view is enlarged and becomes universal when one is required to evaluate it from the vantage point of another. The sensus communis thereby enables one to be an enlightened master of one’s own fate, rather than a subject open to control by others.

Formation of a critical attitude is grounded by Kant in an aesthetic judgment of taste rather than a cognitive judgment. Kant specifies that “…the issue here is not the faculty of cognition, but the way of thinking needed to make a purposive use of it…”11 Purposive use addresses the formulation of a goal-oriented practice separately from its content. It regulates our attitudes about the world whereas cognitive judgments constitute the components of the world. Kant distinguishes the self-regulating quality of an aesthetic response from the conceptual constraints imposed by concepts to delineate facts. Taste, Kant argues, engenders reflective pleasure due to its freedom from cognition.12 It is precisely this independence from any cognitive rule that imbues taste with the freedom to generate the purposive response that formulates a reflective perspective.

A key component of any critical attitude, Kant argues, is reflective pleasure. When we experience beauty in a judgment of taste, the imagination is motivated to actively play freely. The reflective free play inherent in the Kantian sensus communis nurtures a multifaceted, open-minded outlook which counters prejudice and superstition. Contrary to the passive enjoyment of couch potatoes, and the restrictiveness of rational contemplation that is bound cognitively, reflection animates our imagination to formulate a stance on the world. Reflection guides the goal-oriented direction of our thinking, separately from its content. This turn of mind first awakens the understanding, which in the case of cognition is necessarily legislated by concepts, and frees it from those strictures. Then the imagination engages the understanding in a free play to enliven an order that is not subject to determinate rules given by concepts. The imagination bears the critical role of transposing the understanding into a state in which its signature organizational function can play freely. This formulation of judgments is distinct from their content. Consequently Kant thinks that the pleasure of “mere reflection” frees us from cognitive restrictions and liberates us to respond to the world from a critical perspective.

Part III

Reflective pleasure is not typically listed as an outcome measurement on assessment charts of learning outcomes. Nor does it fit readily as a measurement of faculty productivity or student retention which might be considered in the allocation of funds for higher education. Yet Einstein would agree with Kant that reflective pleasure is fundamental to learning. Einstein employs analogous language to speak of “a longing for knowledge and understanding, and an appreciation for intellectual values, whether they be artistic, scientific, or moral.”13 Although Google can surpass the greatest minds in the accumulation of facts, the task of figuring out how to make use of those facts falls to human judgment. To re-envision liberal education, we need to heed this challenge and cultivate the habit of reflective pleasure that nurtures judgment.

If we succeed in teaching students not simply to think critically but first and foremost to take pleasure in reflective judgment, we will have met Einstein’s goal of a liberal arts college which ‘is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.’ We must dedicate ourselves anew to education which is intended to transform individuals from value-free repositories of facts to human beings who are competent to judge how to use facts judiciously to transform the world.

Public policy regarding education that fixates on math and science alone, though well-intentioned, is short-sighted. Innovation, whether technological or of any other kind, arises out of a critical attitude that harnesses the free play of the imagination and steers it in a purposive fashion. Such an enlarged perspective of learning is enlightening precisely because it teaches us to take pleasure in the creative process itself, not just in the outcomes. Much like the Kantian judgment of taste that elicits reflective pleasure in the face of the beautiful, higher education should not just assure the mastery of a skill set but should also cultivate a mindset that animates one to reflect. In this way the liberal arts in general and philosophy in particular, empower citizens to judge for themselves in order to participate in democracy.


1 The Ultimate Quotable Einstein (UOA), ed. Alice Calaprice. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011, 100.

2Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address,” www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm

3We are reminded by the 20th century political theorist of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, that judgment is distinct from critical thinking. The Life of the Mind. San Diego/NY/London: Harcourt: 1978, 215.
“…judgments are not arrived at by either deduction or induction; in short they have nothing in common with logical operations—as when we say: All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, hence, Socrates is mortal.”

4See Immanuel Kant’s discussion of judgment as “a special talent that cannot be taught but only practiced” in the Critique of Pure Reason, trans. & ed. Paul Guyer & Allen W. Wood. Cambridge & NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998, A133/B172.

5Ibid., A134/B173.

6See Jerome Groopman’s artice, “Mental Malpractice, in the New York Times,July 7, 2007. www.nytimes.com/2007/07/07/opinion/07groopman.html?pagewanted=print

7Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” in Responsibility and Judgment, NY: Schocken, 2003, 178.

8Martha C. Nussbaum. Not for Profit—Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. 95-96.

9Ibid., 96.

10See Immanuel Kant’s, Critique of the Power of Judgment, §40,ed., Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer & Eric Matthews, Cambridge/NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000.



13UOA, ed. Alice Calaprice. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011. 101.

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Spring 2014: Reinventing Liberal Education