Skip to content

Fr. 657

August 4, 2015

Does Stout count too much on the possibility of transformation with regards to the person’s moral language and, by extension, identity? In the way of skepticism, we need only cite such cases as empirical research into decision-making and reason-giving as well as critical examinations of the role of traditions, religious or otherwise. Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” stands as a quintessential example of the latter, as this short text attempts to link societal progress to public uses of reason (uses independent of institutions or constraining circumstances) and, in turn, societal stagnation to private uses of reason (uses dependent on institutions or constraining circumstances). This results in a view of public discourse on which only arguments and reasoning independent of established powers, such as government, religion or cultural practices, can make society progress in conformity with Enlightenment standards. Cultural traditions of all stripes would, thus, represent the end of critique and, thus, of transformation.

Through the intermediary of Rawls, Stout has elsewhere called this line of reasoning into question by obscuring the strict boundaries between reasons public and private. Yet his tack in Ethics After Babel differs. In reality, he aims not just at showing that cultural traditions are living and capable of evolution, but, more importantly, that positions attaining to public uses of reasons, loosely defined, draw from the same sources as those captured in cultural traditions. Hence, tradition and critique do not occupy either end of a spectrum:

To find oneself in a cultural tradition is the beginning, not the end, of critical thought. There is no simple opposition between tradition and critical reason or between conservatism and reform. Our task is not simply to bring as many possibilities into view as we can but also to judge what is worth preserving, what requires reformulation, and what must be left behind (p. 73).

Indeed, as Stout is here keen to point out, perspicuous contrast implies more than merely setting out the different, possible ways of life; it calls, moreover, for a selection as to what will be kept, changed and abandoned. Transformations of this sort are rarely radical and, by dint of the structure of language, never total. Yet even local transformations, limited in scope, can amount over the course of years to considerable evolution in a moral language, a way of life or a cultural tradition.

Strikingly, this same analysis of continuous processes of evolution can apply just as well to self and identity insofar as these represent, on one hand, a living process which is embodied or manifests itself at different levels and, on the other, the selection or coming together of diverse elements of identity. Much like a moral language, self and identity are continually in the process of shedding the old and taking on the new as the formations encounter challenges, weather crises, tool reactions and extend new findings.

For the reasons above, reservations towards traditions stemming from the perspective of critique fall short of their mark on two counts. 1.) Traditions demonstrate significant evolution and capacity for evolution in their unfolding. And, 2.), perspectives from critical reason are subject to the same constraints of embeddedness and selection as traditions. Stout comes to this very conclusion when he notes of the Enlightenment’s moral undertakings:

Any version of moral Esperanto is itself a product of a process in which one begins with bits and pieces of traditional linguistic material, arranges some of them into a structured whole, leaves others to the side, and ends with a moral language ready to use, possibly a quite novel one (p. 74).

Thus, even those critical positions which attempt to reduce the influence of traditions and begin anew are subject to the same conditions of elaboration as that from which they set themselves apart. All of which goes to show that which separates critical and traditional formations proves less a gap than a degree. Taking this rapprochement to its logical conclusion would extend this status to all formations with the requisite criteria: embeddedness, communication, selection, evolution.

Unsurprisingly, this conclusion likewise has consequences for self and identity in that these formations meet the above criteria. In other words, between strong and weak (or even negative) images of self or identity there is more in common than we might otherwise believe. For weak conceptions of self have started from the same pool of resources as the strong; they have simply made different choices as what to make of this pool.

(A short methodological note: we have made great use of Stout’s contentions about language in crossapplying his analsyis to the field of self and identity. This has permitted us to greatly expand on what he has to say on the matter all the while drawing on his own conclusions. Is there something of Deleuze’s “historical interpretation” in all of this?)

Fr. 656

August 3, 2015

Still, we might ask of what use such a language is in everyday life. More pointedly, what point is there in seeking out the shape of moral languages for that matter?

The answer to this question, even coming from Stout, may seem rather facile. Indeed, the point of such inquiry owes entirely to the manner in which that language is translated, in one form or another, willingly or no, into the structures that we actualize and manifest in everyday life.

It matters also because the moral language we use in daily life has much to do with what that life is like, with what we are like. To belong to a society in which the language of honor is dominant and the language of human rights has no place is to be a certain sort of person (p. 71).

As is a common theme in hermeneutics and philosophy of language, language itself is not so much that which we use but that which we live. What we say and how we say it comes out in our actions and behavior towards others.

Again, we find here ready parallels to questions of self and identity, and this for two reasons. On one hand, we have already shown with reference to previous passages how language is, more weakly, analogous to identity and, more strongly, constitutive of identity in some way. On the other, we can easily sketch out how self and identity entertain similar relations to everyday life. Simply, knowledge and beliefs about the self and the kind of person one is or is not likewise translate in one form or another, willingly or no, into the structures that we actualize and manifest in actions and behavior towards others. If this analogy comes with a caveat, namely that Stout’s analysis bears before all on discourse and language rather than self and identity, this in no way changes the striking parallels that one can trace between one case and the other with a little imagination.

The link between moral language and everyday life made, Stout is keen to show still further that the connection proves as dynamic as the moral language with which one approaches everyday life. Transformation, of local if not the radical variety, remains possible:

The next culture heard from or the latest wrinkle in our own form of life can yield new candidates for truth and falsehood, ways of living in the world we hadn’t anticipated, and quite possibly new kinds of people for us to be (p. 72).

Put syllogistically, if moral languages have a bearing on everyday life and moral languages are capable of evolution, then everyday language is capable of evolution through the same processes which move moral languages to evolution. Wherefore the importance of communication and contrast for Stout. Only with these can we come to individuate moral languages, entertain new propositions and thereby provoke evolution in our own moral language and, by extension, its translation into everyday life at the level of actions and behaviors. In this way, culture as dialogue acts through language on the kind of person who we are.

Strikingly, it is not merely different moral propositions that the communication and contrast bring to light for interlocutors but, just as importantly, different ways of life. Through these ways of life we find ourselves again confronted with questions of language, nationality, ethnicity, religion, upbringing, etc., i.e. so many factors and formations at play in the sense of self and the development of identity. These again lead us to posit the proximity between language, self and identity. Yet are Stout’s views on the possibility of transformation too rosy?

Travelogue F15

July 31, 2015


Acadia National Park proved rather different from what I had pictured and what had been pictured to me. Where I had expected an island paradise, I found instead considerable human build-up to the point that, when looking at the map, park land marked in green, public land in white, I had the distinct impression of two opposed forces whose territories change hands as one advances and the other withdraws in the face of hostility more implacable than that found in war. The retreating green has given way to private drives, and the strand is often absent from view. In its place, I found stands of trees, an ever deserted visitor center, homes, hotels and outbuildings of all sorts. When the strand did come into view, it seemed no closer, as it was a mere tangle of weedy shallows and tidal pools. In the harbor towns at the island’s farflung corners, the wild felt as distant as in Maine’s more populated areas for I could not help but note the way in which all had been painted and primped for the summer season’s crowds. Far from mind were the deserted mounts which Champlain had come upon and the fog-wreathed autumn peaks shown in the insets of the park map.

At one place where the strand drew near, I prompted my companion to stop to inspect a series of natural jetties. The formations , jutting as they do into the tidal shallows, are strangely rectilinear in appearance. I attributed this to the stone’s natural cleavage. The seabreeze whipped past as I inspected the pools of water remaining at lowtide, unable to drain away via the rectangular spillways cut through the rock. In them I found everything that the sea had thrown ashore and left as an unwitting wonder cabinet for the curious: hardened plant formations studded with purple clam shells, verdant and unfurling kelp, crabshells eaten out from within and now inhabited by seasnails or juvenile shrimp, green bulbs sprouting from bright fronds. Over it all lay, or so I imagined, a palpable unpurposiveness, likely a reflex from lost years spent in Kant’s company. Thankfully, my companion called me away from my cataloguing to regard a black-sailed boat plying the waters in the distance.

Strewn about the island’s roadways were small woodsheds, open on one side and proposing wood bundles to visiting motorists. These sheds had a strange sense of the voluntary and the obligatory about them, much as one might experience before a shrine: voluntary in that one does not have to stop and could well avoid making an offering; obligatory in that, should one want a fire for the evening Maine chill, wood can come from these places alone, for no foreign wood is permitted on the island. For the outsider might unthinkingly introduce insect species to the isolated Acadian biome. Yet there seems bound up with all this a purity concern as well, the attempt to keep the setting unadulterated and apart. And so it gives to wonder as to the set-up of this wood economy, as to who sets prices and determines shed locations and mediates disputes, and, by extension, to whom the non-park land belongs.

Travelogue F14

July 30, 2015

On the way down, the question briefly arose whether the stones which make up the path were brought in by by the trail clearers or instead merely underground and revealed by subsequent erosion. It was a question to which we returned no few times in that week and which weighed upon us, most often while descending. I pulled my companion to one side to examine more closely the moss carpet extending out in all directions through the underbrush. I had read that the northern woods were, even in dry periods, damp through and through, and in the moss I found something in the way of proof.

Looking up the slope, I picked out the runnel by which the water collected above this patch, pooling and entering the green coating a drop at a time. From there, the drop filtered through the moss network over the course of I know not how many days. In places, the carpet seems uneven, and I saw drops form and fall onto the next stretch below and there soak in. In the end, the water reaches the moss edge bordering the path and, pooling within much as it first did without, only escapes with a final drop to the streamlet running concurrently with the path. I cannot help but think that, while not purified, the water will have, in its transit, taken on something of the moss’ slow-motion relentlessness.

My walks are often punctuated with small activities with which to busy myself, and this hike was true to form. When not merely watching, I took a stick in hand, stripped the twigs from its length and checked its suitability as a walking staff: height, spring, forks, species, ease of the cut. At times, I took from the dead wood at the forest edges; at others, I sought among the branches overhead for a green limb, twisted or broken by wind or a fall. These searches led, on occasion, to my carving a few runes in a tree before giving up, whether from the lack of purpose or uncertainty as to the message that it might leave. Elsewhere, I felt less concerned by this uncertainty and, at the edge of one escarpment, piled twigs about one another, a few leaves at their center, and left this small structure, as if to convey via ambiguous form the unambiguous message that a human had this way passed.

Farther on, though still within the park’s bounds, my companion and I set out for a cave, of sorts, a little off the road. The path proved less trying than the ridge trail before, which led my thoughts in turn to the necessity of different materials for different surroundings. Indeed, when first making these paths, there can be thought of little else: through where will the path lead and from what I am to make it? The examples might be multiplied to infinity, but consider only these few: the level forest path of beaten earth; the hill path of packed-earth steps given shape by cut logs; the makeshift stair climbing a steep slope, the stones stacked upon themselves; the climb across a high rock scramble or face, facilitated by ropes, rails, rungs; the stream crossing with a bridge of logs held together by a few shanks. In each of these do we find distinct approaches to the surroundings and materials at hand.

I have an inkling that much the same can be said for thought. For, when approaching new fields of inquiry, thought faces much the same challenges as trailmakers to determine the lay of the land, where best to cut through, and of what different techniques, resources and materials to avail themselves in the trailmaking. Though rough, perhaps cursory, the first paths through a new wilderness meet with considerable enthusiasm from fellow adventurers. Soon, new auxiliary paths come to link once unknown path with unknown path, unknown with known, even known with known, such that from little an entire network has sprung up. Yet, in time, these unknown paths become as familiar as their forebears. They require little more than maintenance, in part assured by the endless passing of the masses. So it is that the trailmakers move on to new challenges, new paths, ever in search of the new. Making paths is not for everyone, and it might prove to our credit to recognize this.

I was still attempting to work out how to translate the high rock scramble, complete with ropes, rails and rungs, into the realm of thought, that is to find a system of thought which reproduced this experience in some way, when we came at last to a gorge, some mile in length, at the base of a granite outcropping looming. Its water eats away at the outcropping, as does the freeze and thaw cycle. Across its face, I could track the advancing fractures, the convergence of which had prompted one section to fall away entirely into the gorge below, leaving a squareish opening into the rock face and which rather gave off the appearance of a cave. So it was that we found ourselves before the promised Moose Cave, its namesake having disappeared with the rock, a simultaneous victim to the fracture and the fall. Alone, we inspected the negative mass as the water thundered on below.

Travelogue F13

July 29, 2015

Some time later, we came upon Grafton Notch State Park, just the opposite side of the New Hampshire-Maine border, and its assortment of trails. At one trailhead, we discovered that a toll of sorts had been set up on park visitors and relied upon a variant of the honor system: in exchange for using the trails, visitors were asked to have purchased a day pass at a shelter farther on. Unaware that such a system is widely established in the northern New England’s parks, my companion and I debated for a time the merits of contributing, as well as the different ways of getting around the policy and the likelihood of its enforcement.

Ashamed but underway on a ridge trail, I found myself, not but a few minutes up, circling a solid stone cube in a small hollow to one side of the path. A foot of water bounded it on each side, a dappled altar beneath the treetops. Naturally, I asked myself whose shrine it might be and to what end and could only guess at the denizens present in these woods.

On these trails, it is less a question walking than of mounting the stairs formed from roots and stone. The way is littered with upended trees in the roots of which spruce and fir sheddings and loose stones have packed down with the years and rain and, which matted as they are, remain caught therein as might a length of carpet pulled up and exposed to the air. When given a thump, they shudder but otherwise prove quite solid.

My attention returned to my footing, and I followed the narrow stairway on up, ignoring installed cables and poles and bolted rungs. This led us in time past escarpments and through birch stands. Pausing for a moment, I noted that the bark came off easily with little work from my fingers. I held a scrap and turned it over, observing first the white outside with black flecks and streaks and then the rose inside, lined with shallow grooves. While my companion took a drink of water, it occurred to me that, lacking anything better, I might fashion books from birch bark and fill nature’s pages with my ramblings.

As we returned to the trail, I altered the conditions of my would-be thought experiment and pictured instead a madman lost in these woods and whose existence would be discovered only years later by the hundreds of tomes which he had left behind, carved, scrawled, what have you, on the boles of the birch stand through which I passed, if, indeed, they had not been washed away with changing seasons. Or perhaps instead, the trees would have found themselves reborn as smoking paraphernalia, much as did a section of birch bark fashioned into a pipe on one of Thoreau’s Maine wilderness outings.

Near the summit, I spied a discarded bottle from afar and sent my companion after it. No more than half an hour later, tired of lugging the thing about, he attempted to pass the bottle to me, so as to free a hand. Yet his pass became rather a toss and then a miss. I could only watch, a feeling of absurdity weighing upon me, as it careened along the rockface, over the lip and disappeared into the trees below.

Travelogue F12

July 28, 2015

The bridge itself is remarkable in that it was built and maintained not by the state or a city but by a family, in 1890, to provide access to their farmlands across the river. Following a flood in the 1920’s, the bridge before me became the only remaining member of this class, of which more signs are to be found  in its narrow height and hidden cattlegate, now pinned back to one side. On reading of its rebuilding in 2009, I am reminded again of the impossibility of such a task, no matter how unintrusive the method. Planks were still removed, and steel rods added. If Martin Bridge indeed survived the flood, can it still be said to exist?

Just before the New Hampshire-Maine border sits Lake Umbagog at the center of a small state park. My companion pulled off the road for a time to cool his heels and take in the waters. From the shore, I could just make out the bottom, tinged red, perhaps even crimson, as one might see in a tub of water where one has left leaves to rot and dissolve, vegetal flesh permeating the water. I followed his silhouette on the pontoon, against the mountain backdrop, and reflected that, although some eat their way through a place, he swam his way through them and that, in the deepest pores, the reddish residues from this lake would add themselves to those from earlier bodies of water, fresh and salt. All this in the unseen nooks of his skin.

In a town just down the road, we stopped in at a general store to have something in the way of food for the afternoon. I marveled for a time at the mere fact of finding myself in a general store, which have all but disappeared from other areas. As I padded through the different aisles and considered sandwich toppings, I mentally transposed the store to my native plains and found myself blocked at every attempt. Even leaving the woods out of the equation, I could not translate the clean, wooden structure, high ceilings and neat rows of products, national brands though they were, into more familiar settings.

Travelogue F11

July 27, 2015

Our week began as previous weeks had begun with my travelling companion: mishap as the pounding Burlington rain passed through lining and curled the edges of my passport; confrontation as a Vermont driver stepping out of his car at a light to lecture my companion on his driving; exhaustion as the words to “Loveshack” repeated to infinity; fascination as the perfect expression machine that he is emptied itself out and seemingly paraded its entire being before me. All of this washed over me as we followed the Winooski upriver. Although we stopped for the night in a small New Hampshire border town, the machine did not, and, over dinner, I played a captive audience to the elaboration of how one divvies up booths in a restaurant.

We set off in no hurry the following day, with neither departure nor arrival time, and proceeded to discover the countryside in much the same way that I approach cities. One such detour led us to a Martin Bridge, north of Berlin. Far off the main road, this covered bridge spans the Winooski’s narrow upper reaches, which only many miles farther on spill into Lake Champlain. From the shore, a bird caught in lost fishing line was pointed out to me, as well as the way its trailing wings broke the surface. Once across, we found grackles above and their younglings in the grass below, freshly cut. I turned back to the river’s roiling water, flush with the previous day’s rain, and the eddies which developed, held spinning form, unfurled and at last dissolved in the brown water before passing beneath the planks.

Again on the river’s northern shore, I examined more closely the documentation that a local historical society had provided the site with. Remarkable not just for its relative remoteness, but also its preservation, the bridge had been recently restored after a considerable “fallow” period during which it had been removed from its banks and left in a bordering field for five years. Now back in place, it again spans an important section of the Winooski for wildlife, being situated on a swift-flowing stretch with a bed of boulders, cobble and gravel, home to fish, insects and freshwater mussels. Among the latter figures prominently the Eastern pearlshell, then unknown to me, but of which I was soon to learn more.

This rare freshwater mussel can live to over a hundred years, it seems, yet relies on a peculiar reproductive cycle to attain such longevity. In summer, so I read, the male fertilizes the water column with sperm, which is then siphoned by the female, incubated until such a time as larvae form, which are themselves then ejected into the gills of a brook trout drawn by the lure of the mussel’s fleshy flap. The larvae remain with the trout through winter only to drop off come spring and, at last, anchor themselves to the riverbed with a tongue-like mussel called, of all things, a foot. The entire process, which I have only with difficulty been able to picture in my mind’s eye, seems neither wholly left to chance nor planned out with the forethought of a creator, but simply what results from letting a handful of pieces fall together as they will.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 181 other followers