Albena Azmanova


On her book The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment

Cover Interview of March 28, 2012

The wide angle

My thinking on judgment as a faculty triggered by a sense (or rather, a sensation) of injustice was first prompted by my involvement with the struggle against the communist regime in my native Bulgaria.

I was raised as a conscientious communist—which meant a commitment to human dignity and a readiness to sacrifice convenience and self-interest in the name of a higher justice.  This led me to join, as a first-year university student, a human rights committee whose goal was to stop the extreme damages to the health of people living in a city on the Danube river, caused by a heavily polluting factory.  I signed the petition one evening, after classes. On the very next morning my dean summoned me to say that this committee did not have the blessing of the Party and therefore I would be expelled from the university should I refuse to withdraw my signature.  I felt I did not really have a choice: one does not withdraw one’s support to human rights.

There was no place for calculus, not even of fear, as I was not facing a dilemma. We might not know what is Right, or Just, but the sense that something is wrong (and this is a physical sensation, rather than a mental calculus) has an immense motivational power.

To this first experience of the compelling power of the sense of injustice that points to the right thing to do added my experience of moving to New York in the early 1990s.  I went to study for my doctoral degree at the New School for Social Research.  Freshly emerged from the turbulence of a revolution, albeit a largely peaceful one, I felt bewildered by the debates on justice in the West.  Preoccupation with economic redistribution, gender, cultural diversity, and action against sexual harassment, appeared all too smug to me when set against the multiple frustrations of life under political oppression and bankrupt economic system—both under communism and its aftermath.

Added to my stupefaction at the self-indulgence of the West was my puzzlement at the intellectual authority, at the time, of theories of communicative action and deliberative democracy.  I could not understand how serious people, without a trace of irony or cynicism, would rely on “talking” to set right injustice.

Over time, the two sources of dissatisfaction became strands of analysis.  How are our judgments of justice affected by what we consider to be relevant experiences of injustice? How can public debate make its participants aware of the deep social structures that generate injustice?

The answers to these questions became the foundation of a theory of political judgment. Although I elaborated the theory conceptually in the late 1990s (as doctoral dissertation), I did not want to publish it without providing empirical evidence to what I feared was too bold a model.  Now this is done and the book is here.