Philosophy Democracy
Thom Brooks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0161


Democracy is widely understood to be the best form of government. This is where agreement ends. There remains much disagreement about several substantive issues, such as the justification for democracy and how democracy is best realized through political institutions. This article surveys the literature on normative democracy theory, with a focus on the philosophical debates about democracy rather than mere descriptive analyses. Generally speaking, democracy is a method of collective decision making by political equals. This definition is contested in several respects, concerning the method of democracy; the kinds of collectives to serve as the subject for democracy; and how we should understand political equality, along with the institutions that connect these normative considerations to practice. This article examines several general domains to highlight the leading work available in each. The article covers such topics as voting, the relationship between democracy and justice (including democratic authority), democracy and epistemology, democratic equality, deliberative democracy, democracy and pragmatism, and critics of democracy.

General Overviews

There are several general overviews on normative democratic theory. Christiano 2008 presents an informative online overview of democratic theory that offers an excellent first look at this subject. Perhaps the best classic text and one that has played a major role in debates about democratic theory since its first publication is Dahl 2006. A useful, brief introduction to the subject can be found in Crick 2002. Dunn 2005 provides a rich analysis of democracy’s historical and theoretical development. Harrison 1993 develops a historical and theoretical general overview of democracy covered through themes, such as autonomy and equality.

  • Christiano, Tom. “Democracy.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2008.

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    An informative online survey of democratic theory that offers an excellent first look at the subject.

  • Crick, Bernard. Democracy: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    A useful, brief introduction, with a focus on the historical development of democratic thought.

  • Dahl, Robert A. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Rev. ed. Charles. R. Walgreen Foundation Lectures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

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    A classic text that has figured prominently in debates since its publication.

  • Dunn, John. Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy. London: Atlantic, 2005.

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    A well-crafted, thorough analysis of democracy’s development in terms of its theoretical and political foundations.

  • Harrison, Ross. Democracy. Problems of Democracy. London: Routledge, 1993.

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    Develops a historical and theoretical general overview of democracy covered through themes, such as autonomy and equality.

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