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Fr. 422

October 25, 2013

Moreover, both halves of this distinction can be found to have natural correlates in the field of political philosophy. Indeed, if Rawls proves rather close to the position of the sender, one thinker who can be seen as endorsing something like the position of the receiver on Jameson’s view might be Jeffrey Stout, for whom questions of sympathy, understanding and recognition are of the utmost importance in political discussion and reason-giving. Stout confronts Rawls’ standard for reasonableness, namely, the willingness to posit a consensus and elaborate commonly held standards for argumentation and rationality, with this view’s shortcomings. On one hand, he challenges Rawls’ consigning certain people to the category of unreasonable on the grounds of this epistemically dubious claim, as there are indeed eminently reasonable people who find just such a consensus on the rules of argumentation untenable. On the other, Stout reminds the reader that, practically speaking, individuals in discussion do not proceed in view of any common ground that they might hold, but this does not stop them from working towards such a ground on a case-by-case, piecemeal basis, in view of the composition of one’s audience. It is this case-by-case or piecemeal approach that also brings out the extent to which such discussion proceeds from the perspective of holism. Namely, an individual’s beliefs can be justified only by reference to his or her particular social and historical context, and all justifications-to must proceed in view of this specific context in an attempt to appeal to the particular worldview of the individual in question.

None of the above involves appeal to and justification from a common basis to which all parties in the discussion would be subject. Indeed, Stout esteems that this is neither how discussions works nor how it should work. So it is that the unreasonable on Rawls’ view, those who were unwilling to lay aside their comprehensive doctrines in favor of a common basis, are welcomed back into the fold of the reasonable as those whose reason or unreason is to be judged on the basis of their coherence from the perspective of the receiver.

Accordingly, Stout subverts the sort of reason-unreason dichotomy prevalent in both the philosophical tradition and the work of Rawls by undermining the strict or narrow sense of reason that the latter put forth. In moving from reason’s senders to its receiver, Stout fulfills, at least to some extent, certain of Jameson’s more prophetic claims:

“Indeed, it seems possible to accommodate these newer modes of interpretation by way of the conceptuality of a somewhat different tradition than the one in which the only opposite number to Reason is the Irrational itself in all its demonic forms” (Late Marxism, p. 236).

“The problem with the concept of Reason is therefore not reason itself but its opposite number, the private term of the irrational, or irrationalism, which is now enlarged to become the dumping ground for anything that one wishes to exclude” (Late Marxism, p. 236).

Although somewhat coarse in their manner of framing the issue, these passages are capture something fundamental about Rawls’ position, as well as unmodified public reason positions in general: that which cannot be accounted for within the narrow definition of Reason is to be excluded or cast out as Unreason. In fact, it is quite evident that, in Rawls and elsewhere, there is significant demonization of religion and other “unreasonable” sources of beliefs or convictions. Certainly, some of this process might be justified in its manner of going about things. It is, however, difficult to countenance its wholesale and total banishing of the religious from the public sphere, given that the religious is not about to disappear in the near future.

Even if one grants all the conclusions that are to be drawn from the foregoing exposition, it should be made clear that identifying reason or reasonableness with the position of the sender brings with it its own risks. Specifically, it encounters epistemological and normative difficulties in that the notion of “reasons for” becomes much more permissive than on the  “sender” position. In fact, whereas the “sender” position proves to be overly restrictive in the matter of “reasons for” thought, speech and action, the “receiver” position might itself prove overly permissive. Jameson himself underscores such a possibility when he writes:

“As for exposing the ‘reasons’ in language, for the purpose of Kantian universality tests, I fear that in the era of ‘cynical reason’ even the most ‘irrational’ will be willing to tell you in great detail why they feel like doing what they propose to do” (Late Marxism, pp. 236-237).

In other words, positions like Stout are bound to face normative difficulties in that they do not provide a clear way of determining just which interlocutors in the discussion might be said to have a moral core, promoting such values as respect, tolerance, justice and love. If there exists no clear criterion for assessing such things, then it follows that a party to the discussion might well accord respect to those who do not merit such respect, harboring as they do various forms of hatred and injustice as beliefs fundamental to their worldviews. In short, it is unclear precisely how one is to pick out the newly “rational” from the truly “irrational”. In the end, everyone’s normative claims would be epistemically justified from the position of the sender, and one might argue that it would simply be more efficient to proceed on the old lines of Reason and Unreason.

That said, at least in Stout’s case, he is not unaware of such difficulties. In his “Rorty on Religion and Politics”, no small part of his discussion is dedicated to showing which uses of religion as “reasons for” are and are not permissible. In his examples, he goes on to such that scripture supporting extended anti-poverty measures are found to be in line with basic societal values such as justice and love. Moreover, such scripture promotes understanding, acceptance and respect of those holding a lower position in the social sphere. On the contrary, scripture denouncing homosexuality is not considered as meeting this baseline test insofar as it undermines peaceful cooperation and living together and foments hatred and unjust behavior and policies. In sum, if Stout’s position does not dissolve these epistemic and normative difficulties, but it does sketch a way forward all the while advancing beyond the Rawlsian dualist picture of Reason and Unreason.

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