Siri Sylvan: Toward a New Democratic Theory of Expertise

  • Datum: 30 augusti 2024, kl. 13.15
  • Plats: Brusewitzsalen, Gamla torget 6, Uppsala
  • Typ: Disputation
  • Respondent: Siri Sylvan
  • Opponent: Christian Rostbøll
  • Handledare: Sofia Näsström, Paula Blomqvist
  • Forskningsämne: Statskunskap
  • DiVA


In contemporary society, citizens have access to an unprecedented amount of expertise. However, the tremendous growth of scientific knowledge in late modernity has not translated into greater certainty. Instead, citizens are under pressure to become experts themselves, “experts on experts”. How should we understand the democratic problem reflected in the present crisis of expertise, and what could it mean to respond constructively to it? This thesis addresses this overarching question by critically examining the existing normative approaches to expertise in democracy, and by developing a new approach, drawing on the political thought of Hannah Arendt. 

Scientific knowledge has often been regarded as apolitical and serving a purely functional role in democratic politics. This assumption no longer appears tenable, given the insights from Science and Technology Studies (STS). In this dissertation, I take the theoretical challenge from STS as my starting point to examine existing normative perspectives on the relationship between expertise and democracy. The two predominant approaches, termed ‘the instrumental’ and ‘the procedural approach’, both embody a Kantian notion of public reason as the foundation of universal legitimacy. However, in my critical examination, I find both approaches insufficient, as they overlook the more existential dimension of the relationship between knowledge and politics. 

To develop a new approach, I turn to the political thought of the 20th-century thinker Hannah Arendt. By unpacking Arendt’s notion of world alienation, I develop a new interpretation of the democratic problem reflected in the contemporary crisis of expertise. According to this interpretation, the fundamental issue is not that citizens could fail in their new role as experts on experts, but rather that they could resign from it completely. 

In response to this predicament, I examine three of Arendt’s central concepts – authority, the public, and judgment – and show how they can be utilized to construct a new normative approach to expertise. According to this approach, which I call ‘existential’, experts play a crucial role in democracy as world-builders, constructing public spaces for making sense of knowledge. In their role as world-builders, the experts support public judgment – not by providing citizens a critical standard for rationally adjudicating between competing claims, but by constructing the public contexts where the burden of judgment can be experienced as meaningful and tolerable.