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Networks, Deliberation, and an Open Public Sphere

By Sarah Connell

No conference on the public sphere would be complete without theorizing about the nature of the public sphere itself, and Tufts’ Peter Levine closed out the conference with a thoughtful keynote on deliberation (slides). What does it mean for the public sphere to be open? Is it sufficient? Levine moves from the group-level notion to the individual: an open, thriving public sphere consists of open-minded people sharing ideas with each other.

Levine, like many of the conference participants, is interested in networks, and he presents a rich theory of networked discussion and deliberation. In discussion we invoke various concepts that are more or less connected to each other; we can model these as networks. Individuals have their own time-varying concept networks, with edges activating or deactivating through deliberation. This networked approach is a break from both historical philosophical models of deliberation and from models in moral psychology.

The nice thing about taking a networked approach is that we can distinguish ideal types through analysis of these network structures. Fixation on one concept to rule them all can be modeled as hierarchically structured concept maps, and someone who can’t draw connections between concepts has an overly sparse network.

Normative commitments can flow from this model of deliberation. We can say that certain network structures are preferable to others, and examination of one’s own network can serve as a guide for self-improvement. A networked conception of deliberation also updates Rawls’s oversocialized notion of a reflective equilibrium. Levine’s work is preliminary but very exciting and we thank him for sharing his thoughts with us.

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