Legitimacy in Context

Legitimacy in Context: Normativity between Descriptions and Independent Values

Convenors: Ilaria Cozzaglio, Chiara Destri, Greta Favara (University of Milan)

How could something as contingent as the real circumstances of political action determine what ideal politics would require to do? Despite at a first sight puzzling, in the last few years a heterogeneous methodological movement – what we broadly call “the Contextualist approach” – has gained attention and support, by claiming that the time and place in which a political action takes place fundamentally determine which political ideals can be justifiable – not merely applicable – in said circumstances. Versions of this methodological thesis can be found, most notably, in the Practice-Dependent literature (Banai et al. 2011, James 2012, Sangiovanni 2008) and in the debate around Political Realism (Geuss 2008, Williams 2005).

Given this project, Contextualism must escape from two opposite critiques. On the one hand, Contextualist theories, despite their intentions, cannot avoid relying on context-independent normative commitments (Larmore 2013). On the other, since in Contextualism circumstances determine the content of normative judgments, such approach might be excessively status quo biased (Finlayson 2015). In both cases, the critiques aim at demonstrating the impossibility of construing a political theory both sound and coherent with Contextualist requirements. Similar worries are indeed understandable. In fact, so far little has been done to translate the Contextualist methodological requirements into substantive normative proposals.

This is particularly striking when we look at the realists’ endeavour to address the concept of legitimacy. While the methodological discussion has received many contributions, substantive proposals are incomparably less (Jubb 2015, Sleat 2013, Williams 2001) and they still fail to meet a number of theoretical worries close to the above criticisms (for which see ensuing questions). Rather than being just a de facto description of the conferment of legitimacy, said realist concept ought to be a normative tool to criticise power, while being attentive to individuals’ understanding of their political practices and values.

So articulated, we believe that such analysis would also be compelling and novel with respect to democratic theory. While most defences of democracy assume an idealistic perspective (Christiano 2008, Estlund 2008), we wonder if a defence can be elaborated from a Contextualist perspective as well, given its recognition of the circumstantial value of democratic practices, of pluralism, and citizens’ beliefs and motivation.


We encourage contributions on, but not reduced to, the following questions:


  • Is there a non-moral way to conceive of normativity and are realistic proposals convincing in that respect?
  • How would a realist critique of the status quo look like, and is it possible?
  • Is it possible to describe political contexts without relying on implicit value-judgments?
  • What is the relation between normativity and individuals’ beliefs?
  • Is the realist concept of legitimacy sufficient to allow us to compare alternative states of affairs?
  • Is it possible to construct a realist theory of legitimacy that maintains its metaethical commitments while providing a convincing justification of liberal democracy?
  • How would the Contextualist approach apply in other areas of political theory? How do contextual theories interact?

If you are interested in submitting a paper, please send an abstract (up to 500 words) to legitimacy.mancept2017@gmail.com  by 1st June 2017.

Notifica tion of acceptance will be by 10th June 2017, allowing graduate students and retirees who have been accepted to apply to the organisers for a bursary (the deadline for which is 16th June 2017).
To apply for a bursary, please visit the MANCEPT 2017 website: http://www.mancept.com/mancept-workshops/mancept-workshops-2017/