Skip to content

Stout and individual XXI

April 30, 2016

Furthermore, respect properly accorded will place person and audience alike in a situation where they are be more likely to account for the contingencies of cognitive context and conceptual economy informing their position and adapt their context and concepts to each other. For, otherwise situated, a member of the audience would plausibly express reasons and commitments contrary to those which she then holds. The author acknowledges this fact:

[The respect we have for one another] is nourished by our recognition that much of what our neighbors believe is what any reasonable person would believe if situated in exactly the same way they are […] Only as a last resort, when I have taken all situational particulars into account and done my best to interpret them charitably, should I adopt the hypothesis that a given person or group suffers from a “rationality deficit.” Then and only then should I be prepared to explain away my neighbor’s expressed reasons for action and beliefs by invoking the special interpretive tools of critical theory […] But in many cases we ought to be content to explain our differences with them by pointing to differences in context, allowing that they might be justified in believing what they do, and then beginning or continuing the exchange of reasons with them in a charitable and democratic spirit. If all goes well, the discussion will itself alter our respective epistemic contexts in such a way that we can overcome some of our differences, or at least learn to live with them respectfully. Whether we ought to change our minds, at a given point in the democratic exchange of ideas, is something to be decided case by case – by situated selves, reflecting critically on their own experience and on the various traditions and sources of evidence their situation makes available to them (DT, pp. 177-178).

Though impossible to foresee the outcome of any given exchange, much less exchanges across all times and places, Stout’s picture of democratic deliberation remains persuasive in that mutual respect for expressive freedom and self-expression leaves a way out of impasses arising from differences in contexts and concepts. On such a picture, each person at once recognizes the contingency of her position and respects the other’s responsibly holding that position. She and others thereby opens themselves to unforeseen developments in their contexts and concepts, developments which may well bring them nearer for certain points on which their different reasons and commitments now converge. All the same, Stout rightly leaves room for ideological critique in the case that some participants are irrational, mean-spirited, etc. and, hence, their positions irresponsibly held. In any case, the person maintaining the value of respect does not back herself into a discursive corner and different options remain available.

In the end, discursive norms and practices like the expressive freedom and self-expression articulated here prove as much other-regarding norms and practices as they are self-regarding. Yet some readers may worry that self-expression in the form of storytelling and the respect accorded to this form nonetheless leads to a discursive situation where no universal claims can emerge from a given person’s contribution to discourse. For, if those contributions take the form of storytelling and the exposition of a certain person’s cognitive context and conceptual economy, it may well seem that the person disposes of no means to make larger claims, i.e. to apply her reasons and commitments to her audience, respectfully justified in their own positions. Despite sharing a forum for exchange, persons will isolate themselves within, if not theoretically incommensurable, practically incommensurable spheres in that each’s idiom is justified in principle.

In other words, how is the person rightly to issue universal claims while employing only particular warrants? Certainly, people may publicly express and share their vocabularies, but this may leave us in a position where decisions are no more likely to be made. Put another way, though theoretically further along, the reader may worry that no practical advance has been made, leaving room for the specter of anomie and democratic inaction. In reality, this contention trades on confusion over the terms “universal” and “particular”. Stout writes of the possibility of universal obligations that:

An obligation can be universal in the sense of applying (as we see it) to everyone, without requiring a supposedly universal point of view (wholly independent of the ethical life of a people) for its justification. These two senses of universality [i.e. universal reach and universal validity] are in fact distinct […] I am talking about what everybody should refrain from doing. I am saying of everybody that they should refrain from doing something. But I am speaking from my own social perspective, making use of reasons and collateral commitments native to my setting (DT, pp. 195-196).

When critics maintain that universal claims cannot be built out of particular warrants, they elide “reach” and “validity” which are distinct senses of “universal”. (“Reach” is termed “scope” by authors such as Onora O’Neill. See Towards justice and virtue.) As the author argues, a claim or, in this case, obligation can have either universal reach or universal validity without the absence or presence of one necessitating the absence or presence of the other. A claim can, for the person, concern all positions held by the audience without thereby enjoying the demonstration of its validity across all positions. Conversely, a claim can enjoy universal validity but nevertheless remain without universal reach if the person does not make that reach explicit. Most importantly, were universal claims unable to be built out of particular warrants, persons could make no broader claims in virtue of being incapable of abstracting entirely from their cognitive context and conceptual economy. Yet both The Flight from Authority and historical examples, such as abolitionism and suffragism, show that such claims with universal reach can set out from particular warrants.

The force behind the notions of expressive freedom and self-expression leave us in a position to draw still one more conclusion from Stout’s presentation, in which the final step of mapping the position of the individual onto democratic deliberation will issue in a clearer conception of the “democratic individuality” which Stout reprises on multiple occasions.

Stout and individual XX

April 29, 2016

As noted above, Stout himself indulges in such storytelling in passages scattered about Democracy and Tradition. Wherefore the interest of such passages if not to articulate for the audience the outlines of his cognitive context and conceptual economy?

In my case, these sources [of cultural inheritance] included the training I received in Bible school, the traditional stories my grandmother told on Sunday afternoons, and the example of a pastor committed dispassionately to civil rights. But they also included an early exposure to Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau; the art, novels, and music brought into my home by my bohemian older brother; and countless other bits of free-floating cultural material that are not the property of any group. And they included interactions with hundreds of other people whose racial and religious backgrounds differed from mine. It would simply be inaccurate to describe my point of view as that of my family, my co-religionists, or my race. One would fail to show me respect as an individual if one assimilated my point of view to some form of group thinking (DT, pp. 74-75).

Indeed, storytelling enables the audience better to get a grasp on the real horizon of reasons and commitments within which the person is working. In Stout’s case, commitments such as toleration and respect quickly take the fore as key values and provide a conceptual backdrop to the reasons which he elsewhere offers. Moreover, not only must the person’s right to self-expression and storytelling merit respect from the audience; her reasons and commitments, as well as the person herself, deserve our respect, on the condition of being responsibly held. In one instance, it is in such fashion that Stout enjoins the audience to respect both the believer’s right to express and the content of that expression.

Insofar as [those who differ from us religiously] do acknowledge that dependence appropriately, given their own conceptions of the sources of existence and progress through life, they may be said to exhibit an attitude that is worthy of our respect, if not our full endorsement (DT, p. 34).

Provided that the person abides by the virtue of piety and appropriately takes stock of and reflects her context and concepts in deliberation, there proves little reason to dismiss those concepts and context out of hand.

All the more so in that such expression allows the audience to unearth those reasons and commitments leading the person to back a given position. Listening to stories and according respect in its due does not inevitably lead to a mere modus vivendi; indeed, listening and respect put the audience in a position to step away from the listless public discourse present in societies marked by a “live and let live” mentality. Stout suggests as much when he writes:

If [citizens] are discouraged from speaking up in this way, we will remain ignorant of the real reason that many of our fellow citizens have for reaching some of the ethical and political conclusions they do. We will also deprive them of the central democratic good of expressing themselves to the rest of us on matters about which they care deeply. If they do not have this opportunity, we will lose the chance to learn from, and to critically examine, what they say. And they will have good reason to doubt that they are being shown the respect that all of us owe to our fellow citizens as the individuals they are (DT, p. 64).

Far from isolating the audience into hermetic, incommensurable spheres of discourse, respect proves the first stepping stone on the path to critical examination and exchange of reasons and commitments. For without the knowledge afforded by listening and respect, critical examination would otherwise have no object on which to work. And, without materials for examination, no way out of an impasse will present itself to participants in democratic deliberation.

In addition, respect serves a second, more practical purpose. If, by virtue of listening to stories, respect grants knowledge of the person’s real reasons and commitments informing a given position, the practical exercise of this value also makes the person more amenable to the exchange of reasons with the audience which follows. In some important sense, through respect, the audience recognizes the person as a full-fledged member of democratic deliberation and as justified in believing that to which she has just given expression.

Stout and individual XIX

April 28, 2016

With the fourth step in the argumentative progression, Stout brings to light a pivotal normative dimension in his individual-focused version of democratic deliberation. If the audience is to know the person’s vocabulary and, thereby, the individual (in a sense still to be specified), they must hear the person out on her real reasons and commitments. Yet real reasons and commitments can flow from radical, extreme, marginalized or otherwise nonstandard elements, for the expression of which the person may rightly fear institutional or social sanction. Thus, for better or worse, the person must feel secure in giving voice to those reasons and commitments.

To this end, Stout elaborates a discursive norm, “expressive freedom”, a principle for according to which the person’s expression of her reasons or commitments should enjoy certain protections from institutional and social sanction. Indeed, the need for such a norm follows naturally from his expressivist position whereon adherents’ key work consists in finding expression for unexpressed implicits. Expressive freedom can, however, take any number of forms, and the author therefore seeks a more explicit formulation for his own:

[Pragmatic expressivists] see the central problem to be addressed in social and political deliberation as the question of which forms of expressive freedom we, as individuals and as a group, wish to promote and enjoy. There are infinitely many possible forms of expressive freedom […] Emersonians […] are inclined to use the freedoms afforded by the First Amendment as an institutional framework for promoting nonstandard social practices and the forms of spirited individuality they foster (DT, p. 83).

In short, for the author, expressive freedom qua discursive norm should not merely allow for nonstandard practices and their expression in democratic deliberation; rather, this norm must actively make room for persons to develop such practices and themselves.

Though Stout’s own version may seem irremediably parochial, given its North American roots, it could not help but appear so given his position on cognitive context and conceptual economy as historically situated formations. Nor does the reproach of “parochial” limit, in and of itself, the author’s version of expressive freedom to North American democratic society. On the contrary, a view expressed from within a specific framework of cognitive context and conceptual can all the same possess or be thought to possess universal scope (see DT, pp. 195-196). Thus, an Emersonian expressive freedom of universal scope proves consistent with Stout’s theoretical and practical commitments elsewhere.

Though this passage emphasizes the need to develop nonstandard practices, practices cannot develop without the active involvement of persons. So, shortly thereafter, Stout exhorts persons to cultivate themselves in unexpected ways by means of the nonstandard social practices in which they partake:

[My version of pragmatism] combines Hegel’s dialectical normative expressivism with the Emersonian conviction that the most substantial spiritual benefits of expressive freedom are to be found in a form of social life that celebrates democratic individuality as a positive good […] [Commonalities with the new traditionalism] include an emphasis on the importance of self-cultivation as an exercise of expressive freedom and an understanding of the dialectically social basis of norms (DT, p. 84).

Concretely speaking, such self-cultivation can take any number of forms which Stout enumerates here and there throughout the work: religious affiliation, cultural associations, sports, hobbies, political organizations, and so on. Naturally, the list could indefinitely be extended to include any number of cultures or subcultures. Yet norms without visible exercise of the rights thereby afforded will, over time, lose their force and their institutional form weaken. In other words, nonstandard individuality and sociality must achieve expression in the public sphere and democratic deliberation in order to maintain expressive freedom’s normative force and ensure their own perpetuation. 

Thus far, Stout has demonstrated a need for expressive freedom and, more particularly, a Hegelian-Emersonian version thereof predicated on the need for nonstandard persons and practices. The link between persons and self-expression remains, however, vague, and the reader may rightly wonder how the person may, in democratic deliberation, articulate for the audience her vocabulary, reasons and commitments and, by extension, her cognitive context and conceptual economy. Stout’s clearest answer in Democracy and Tradition, expounded at greater length in Blessed are the Organized, lies in the idea that the person should, in democratic deliberation, give voice to their deepest reasons and personal histories. In criticizing both particularist and universalist thinkers, he remarks:

[I]t seems clear that neither [Benhabib nor Hauerwas] has imagined the possibility, let alone of the desirability, of a loosely structured democratic conversation in which variously situated selves tell their own stories on their own terms […] Both back away at a crucial moment from the full significance of their common insight that the different ways in which selves are situated in the world can make a difference for ethics (DT, p. 179).

The only way for commitments and epistemological formations to come to light consists in the person’s telling her own story and development.

Stout and individual XVIII

April 27, 2016

While the person’s cognitive context and conceptual economy naturally act as a limit on the kinds of reasons to which she will likely give voice in deliberation, the same holds true for the kinds of reasons which, firstly, her audience are liable to accept as reasons and which, eventually, secure the person’s respect for or assent with that position. As Stout underscores in the passage to follow, context shapes how reason-exchange develops both from person to audience and from audience to person:

What reasons for doubting P are relevant and what suffices for their elimination […] depends on context, in particular, on the people to whom the justification is addressed. Call the class of such people the justification’s audience. Reasons for doubting P are relevant if they prevent or might prevent an epistemically competent and responsible member of the audience from being justified in believing that P. Relevant reasons for doubting P have been eliminated when everyone in the audience is justified in believing that P (DT, p. 235).

In other words, an audience comprises itself of persons, who, like the person addressing them, bring with them own background of context and concepts. Justification and persuasion cannot succeed independently of such background

Wherefore the caveat under “public” as to the “appropriateness” of the reasons being offered to an audience. If the person is unbound and remains free to give the reasons of her choice, the knowledge that just any reason is unlikely to justify her position and, perhaps, persuade her audience acts as a limit on the reasons which she will reasonably put forth. As the author goes on to explain:

If my analysis is correct, abstraction from context in a theory of justification is bound to end in frustration. Justifications are answers to why-questions of a certain sort. As such, they are dependent on context: first, because conversational context determines the question to which a justification counts as an answer and thus the sort of information being requested; second, because conversational context determines a justification’s audience; and third, because a justification’s success can be appraised only in relation to its audience, including their relevant reasons for doubting and the commitments they are entitled to accept (DT, p. 235).

In sum, when asking for a justification, the audience seeks an answer to a question of the sort “Why should a reason r move me to accept it on the basis of my own cognitive context and conceptual economy?”. Only in responding to this why-question will the person put herself in a position to justify and persuade.

Accordingly, justification and persuasion involve in great part familiarity with the context and concepts of the persons comprising it. For an audience unfamiliar with the context and concepts framing a justification will find little therein which merits their earnest consideration and respect. This need not follow from some prima facie prejudice but, instead, from the person’s practical and structural failure to address the audience in terms which they understand:

Whatever a justification’s intended audience may be, its actual audience cannot extend beyond the class of people who understand the vocabulary in which it is cast and have mastered the patterns of reasoning required to follow it. The limits of an actual audience are not set; they can be expanded by pedagogical means […] We can increase the membership of a justification’s membership only up to a point […] Our proof has no place in their epistemic context (DT, p. 236)

In such a way does Stout also eliminate the need to incorporate hypothetical considerations of perfectly rational, future or otherwise absent interlocutors.

[I]t would be foolish to address our justifications to the audience of all rational agents, regardless of time or place. All we would accomplish by doing that would be to make the success of our justifications impossible to determine, thereby making the question of success pointless. We know from experience that judgments are fallible. To require that they be infallible to count as successful is to misunderstand the indispensable role they play in our lives. Justifications are successful if they eliminate relevant reasons for doubting. The reasons future generations might have for doubting, being necessarily unknown to us, hardly count as relevant in our context (DT, pp. 236-237).

From the above, we see more clearly how the coherentist-contextualist justification laid out in The Flight from Authority maps onto democratic deliberation’s focus on persons, reasons and commitments. Insofar as cognitive context and conceptual economy shape general procedures for justification, so do they impact justification’s particular instantiations in democratic deliberation. Moreover, if justification, more generally, involves the relation of certain context and concepts to a situation in claims of knowledge, justification in democratic deliberation differs in that it necessitates the relation of one person’s context and concepts to another’s own context and concepts. In short, justification takes place between a person and situation; democratic justification holds between two or more persons.

As a result, the latter relation shows greater variability. This leaves us in a position wherein all participants in deliberation have need of greater knowledge of the others’ background of context and concepts. For such, barring longstanding familiarity therewith or rapidly acquired knowledge thereof, coming to know others will require distilling and exposing context and concepts in reasons and commitments. The means thereto lie in the notion of self-expression.

Stout and individual XVII

April 26, 2016

To the first and second characteristics, the author will add a third: social. Again, this term requires some reclamation from its everyday usage. Here, “social” merely denotes that which transpires between persons:

The reasons exchanged in ethical discourse pertain to commitments that individuals undertake and attribute to one another. The commitments pertain to such topics as conduct, character, and community […] Ethical reasoning, when fully expressed, involves claims, questions, arguments, narratives, examples, and various other linguistic units in terms of which ethical topics can be specified […] It is a social practice, first, because the reasons being exchanged pass from one person to another and, second, because each participants needs to keep track of the discursive process in terms of his or her own commitments. By exchanging reasons and requests for reasons with one another, participants in the practice hold one another responsible for their commitments and actions (DT, p. 209).

In light of her own commitments on conduct, character and community, the person provides the audience with her reasons for a given position. On the basis of those reasons, that same person will have certain commitments both implicitly and explicitly ascribed to her by the audience. This ascription can come nearer or farther from the person’s own estimation of her commitments, as revealed in the exercise of piety. At this point, either she may have another opportunity to address reasons to her audience or a member of her audience may have the opportunity to address her as the member of a new audience and resituate the deliberation with regards to his own commitments.

Regardless, deliberation’s back-and-forth character captures the meaning of “social” sketched in the passage above. The person’s commitments are first exposed in the form of reasons communicated. The audience at once take stock of those commitments, either inwardly or outwardly, and ask themselves how these reasons and the commitments expressed thereby fit with their own distinct commitments. In sum, the practice reveals itself doubly social as persons situate themselves with respect to one another and with regards to the process.

In such a way does Stout arrive at idiosyncratic usages of “democratic deliberation” and “public, secular, social practice”: unbound by institutionalized norms, lacking community-wide presuppositions, showing the back-and-forth between persons. The meaning which he lends to each of the terms shows how much his approach differs from other deliberative approaches, notably that of Rawls. As a point in case, we need only consider the author’s treatment of religious reasons.

Whereas other advocates of deliberative democracy see no place for religious reasons in the deliberation, Stout’s deliberation qua unbound and presuppositionless makes room for just such expression in that nothing constrains a believer from giving religious reasons for her various commitments. Moreover, given the back-and-forth character of deliberation, the audience ought to consider earnestly the reasons and the commitments being expressed. In truth, the believer stands to gain from critical examination of those reasons and commitments, both by herself and the audience, as another step in the work of piety. In such fashion can both participant and audience arrive at a charitable understanding of one another:

Members of a religious community can benefit from [reflective] expression by learning about themselves and putting themselves in a position to reflect critically on their commitments. Outsiders can benefit from listening in, so as to gain a better grasp on the premises that our fellow citizens rarely have an opportunity to articulate in full […] When it comes to religious questions, intellectuals in our setting can bring their own commitments, as individuals, into expressive and critical equilibrium. They can perform a similar service for a particular group to which they belong […] But when they do this, there is no point in pretending that they are articulating the implicit commitments and practices of their fellow citizens as a whole (DT, p. 112).

(For a lengthier treatment of the issue, see DT, Chapter 3, “Religious Reasons in Political Argument”, pp. 63-91.) So do the characteristics public, secular and social give initial shape to democratic deliberation. Yet, with the author, we must more closely examine the mechanisms by which the person addresses and persuades her audience, of which only the barest outline has thus far been given. For this, we must see how lessons learned in The Flight from Authority’s treatment of justification map onto the person’s role in democratic deliberation as seen in Democracy and Tradition.

Stout and individual XVI

April 25, 2016

With this, we move to the third of the steps outlined above, according to which “the combination of new focus and reconceptualization in turn directs attention to the means by which we come to know those people”. This follows not only from the second argumentative move of characterizing democracy as tradition. In reality, an equally important role is played the virtue of piety in the first move by which Stout placed democracy and tradition in proximity through the lens of character. For the work of resituating tradition and democracy, justice and virtue as ethical sources does not go about itself, and hence the work of framing and responding to those sources, as per Stout’s notion of piety, falls to the person.

As our focus has shifted to the person herself in democratic deliberation, our attention must turn as well to the way in which the forum of democratic deliberation makes room for the person to express herself therein. Among this forum’s most basic characteristics figures its open or public status. Consider that “[w]herever two or three citizens are gathered whom one might address as citizens, as persons jointly responsible for the common good, one is in a potentially public setting” (DT, p. 113). (This passage provides one of the clearest definitions of “citizen” in Stout’s work, perhaps with the exception of Blessed Are the Organized. In a word, citizen is the person as considered under her “public” aspect. Precisely how citizen relates to notions like individual, identity, self, and person will be considered at length in Chapters 3 and 4.) If democratic deliberation is, in this way, open to any whom the person can consider as jointly responsible for a society’s basic institutions and arrangements of justice, then all persons qua participants therein are nominally capable of entering into a discursive practice where reasons can be demanded and responsibility assigned.

Certainly, democratic deliberation’s open or public status allows to situate Stout’s approach with regards to other democratic views. But a second specification proves necessary to set it off from others in the deliberative democratic vein (see Cunningham, Chapter 9, “Deliberative Democracy”, pp. 163-183, as well as Stout’s own discussion: A better way of characterizing my position in relation to contemporary political theory would be to classify it as a pragmatic version of deliberative democracy. Like other proponents of deliberative democracy, I emphasize the discursive dimension of democratic culture. But my pragmatic expressivist model of democratic deliberation differs significantly from the social contract model favored, for example, by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson in Democracy and Disagreement (DT, p. 339, note to p. 297)). Like other deliberative democratic views, Stout identifies democratic society and, by extension, democratic deliberation as being “secular” in character.

Unlike other prominent views in this strand of democratic theory, Stout does not, however, see this as flowing from constraints imposed by a contractarian theory of public discourse, on which the person should only offer to other persons reasons that the latter will find acceptable in some sense. Rather, Stout’s usage of the term “secular” highlights how the person’s discourse is “unbound” precisely due the lack of presuppositions which the person may make as regards others’ beliefs, reasons, etc.:

My account of secularization concerns what can be taken for granted when exchanging reasons in public settings. A setting is public in the relevant sense if it involves no expectation of confidentiality and if it is one in which citizens address one another as citizens […] [Individuals] are free to frame their contributions to [democratic discourse] in whatever vocabulary they please (DT, p. 97).

Far from the lack of shared presuppositions constraining what the person may contribute to public discourse or democratic deliberation, that lack frees the individual from proceeding uniquely according to a set of reasons already in place and more or less institutionalized within a community. More simply, the person is free to offer the reasons which she deems most appropriate for the deliberation in question.

In order to make the point clearer still, Stout appeals to a religious example as a means of showing how both “secular” and “presuppositions” here operate in a manner unlike that most commonly found in everyday speech. To that end, he writes:

Presuppositions in this first sense are either assumptions that individuals self-consciously make when saying certain things or assumptions that must be true if what they are saying is to make sense. Now suppose that a Unitarian addresses an argument about same-sex marriage to someone she knows to be a Catholic bishop. Obviously neither the Unitarian nor her interlocutor can in this case take for granted the details of a common theology. They cannot argue with one another on the basis of that as a given […] Here we are talking about “presuppositions” in a second sense of the term. Saying that the Unitarian is now participating in a discursive exchange that lacks theological presuppositions does not entail anything about what theological commitments she herself has made, how important they are to her in her personal deliberations, whether she is justified in accepting them, or whether she is free to express them […] The theory [of secularized discourse] I offer is an account of what transpires between people engaging in public discourse, not an account of what they believe, assume, or presuppose as individuals (DT, p. 98).

Indeed, this distinction between different species of presupposition reveals itself to be vital if we are to understand just how Stout’s democratic deliberation differs from both rival and sympathetic views. At its root, the difference follows from which participants in deliberation a particular set of “givens” concerns or doesn’t concern. If the set of givens concerns that which all participants take for granted in addressing one another reasons, then the presuppositions in question belong to the second variety. Consequently, their lack renders discourse “secular” in a limited sense.

If, in contrast, the set of givens concerns only that which the person takes for granted in addressing reasons to other participants, then the presuppositions in question belong to the first variety. Yet their lack fails to render discourse secular and may, in fact, prove a structural impossibility in that all reasons set out from some set of presuppositions (as per the person’s cognitive context and conceptual economy). Moreover, as Stout makes clear in the passage’s closing lines, the “secular” character of democratic deliberation in no way constrains what reasons a person may privately, nor what she may openly give as reasons to others.

Stout and individual XV

April 23, 2016

In what way does democratic society manifest the traits of a “discursive social practice viewed diachronically”? Of our examples above, equality of voice and freedom of expression, we have said that these principles receive different instantiations in different communities or societies. This owes, in one part, to differences in time and place as these define the cognitive context and conceptual economy from which the instantiation is realized. We must nonetheless recall that persons in turn frame cognitive context and conceptual economy when they, first, articulate a principle and its instantiation and, then, confront this principle and its instantiation with other principles. Those involved in articulation and instantiation thus proceed with an eye to reflective equilibrium:

It is the business of reflective practices to make norms explicit in the form of rules and ideals and to achieve reflective equilibrium between them and our other commitments at all levels of generality. The social process in which norms come to be and come to be made explicit is dialectical. It involves movement back and forth between action and reflection as well as interaction among individuals with differing points of view. Because this process takes place in the dimension of time and history, the beliefs and actions one is entitled to depend in large part on what has already transpired within the dialectical process itself (DT, p. 78).

Far from instituting an unchanging set of rules and ideals, democratic society, through renewed deliberation, articulates a principle and an application thereof with the aim of fitting them not only to context, but to the rules and ideals already in place, which are in turn fitted to the principle and application under consideration. From this emerges the elliptical movement between action and reflection, deliberation and contingency, traced by the dialectical process in democratic society.

If the means of articulation rests with the persons who frame and fit said principles and the applications thereof to their own context and broader commitments, we would do well to come down to the level of the person in order better to grasp how the historical aspect of the dialectical process figures in the person’s involvement in democratic deliberation. More simply, the dialectical process necessarily passes through the historically situated person. At this juncture, there reappears something like the position of the individual, i.e. individual qua bearer of a concrete, personal history and resident of an epoch, culture and community. That said, it takes on slightly different guise in the present circumstances:

The principles that one might have reason to reject will depend on one’s dialectical location – on the social practices one has been able to participate in and on the actual history of norm-transformation they have undergone so far (DT, p. 79).

In the notion of dialectical location, we find again the hallmarks of the position of the individual: reference to the social practices which furnish the material for cognitive context and conceptual economy; reference to the social practices’ transformation over time which constrain the future development of cognitive context and conceptual economy. Although it is unclear whether dialectical location represents an advance on the position of the individual which we have here explicated, it nevertheless proves instructive for the present account. On one hand, it represents a high point in Stout’s own elliptical thinking on justification. More importantly, it shows that Stout likewise arrives at a notion like that of the position of the individual qua culmination of previous deliberation and beginning of future deliberation.

In locating the culmination of previous deliberation and the beginning of future in a point within a process, Stout’s notion of dialectical location stresses the historicity of reflective practices, such as are found in democratic deliberation, without thereby locking the person into a fixed cognitive context or conceptual economy. Certainly, the latter frame the starting point for new deliberation. But they can evolve in important ways in response to new situations. To this end, Stout reprises key elements of his theory of justification as elaborated fin The Flight from Authority:

How can we claim to be justified in believing something and also suitably humble in what we claim to know? By saying that being justified is relative to context and that the relevant features of context might change in unexpected ways […] The possibility of a change is not yet a reason to abandon any particular belief. But it is a reason to consider our moral knowledge fallible. If being justified in believing something depends on context, and context can change, perhaps for the better, then we should do our best to remain open to the possibility. Democratic discursive practices are designed to hold themselves open in this way (DT, pp. 233-234).

Far from closing herself in the present cognitive context and conceptual economy or jettisoning them all together, Stout’s coherentist epistemology and contextualist justification necessitate that the person set out from the dialectical location at which she finds herself and this in two distinct ways. On one hand, this straightforwardly follows from practical considerations in justification and deliberation:

[I]f we ceased taking the vast majority of [acculturated beliefs] for granted, far from enhancing the capacity to think scrupulously, we would lose the capacity to think at all. It makes sense to say that we can be justified in accepting a belief acquired through acculturation even in the absence of a justifying argument. It is unreasonable to demand justifying arguments across the board (DT, p. 234).

Contrary to the Cartesian foundationalism formulated in The Flight from Authority, a person having cast off her acculturated beliefs would find great difficulty, if not impossibility, in expressing that which she thinks, speaks or does without reference to the cognitive context and conceptual economy which previously framed her thoughts, speech and deeds.

On the other, the person must set out from her dialectical location in order to articulate for others that which the codified principles fail to capture about her own location. Indeed, codification and deliberation do not often proceed apace:

Another point worth keeping in mind is that the explicit codes and semantic theories officially promulgated in a given community do not always accurately reflect the actual inferential commitments of its members […] [A]ctual inferential commitments are constantly being revised in response to new circumstances, while officially promulgated codes change slowly or not at all […] [T]he inferential, cognitive, and practical commitments of a community can have implications that escape the notice of most or all of its members (DT, p. 285).

As the codified principles themselves only represent one part of the cognitive context and conceptual economy at work in any given deliberation, the person must task herself with bringing the uncodified to expression in her contribution to that deliberation. For, if articulation necessarily passes through the position of the individual and official codes do not accurately reflect the person’s commitments, then we shall have both a structural and a practical reason to hear from the person herself. So do we return to the position of the individual and the role of the person in deliberation.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 213 other followers