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Fr. 572

October 13, 2014

Having completed our survey of Leiter’s account, we can now turn our attention to what his understanding of public philosophy means for a grammar of identity and the (self-)articulation between subject and individual. This grammar turns on the interlocutors’ being able to analyze critically the genesis of self and their sense of self in such a way as to isolate those contingent elements which block mutual understanding on issues of moral and political urgency. In short, interlocutors must come to a clear vision of the reasons behind their positions, precisely the kind of vision that Leiter’s account calls into question in the public sphere. How can we avoid the pitfalls that he so clearly outlines?

Before all, it is necessary to bring back into view Leiter’s paradoxes so as to identify that which proves most problematic for our account, which seeks to empower interlocutors in public discourse. Recall for a moment Leiter’s diagnosis:

The two constituent paradoxes of public philosophy’s troubles are as follows. On one hand, public philosophers have no hard and fast, substantive conclusions on the right or good to hand on to the public. At best, they could only agree on very modest claims. Yet consensus of this kind seems to be a prerequisite for a claim that demands public assent. On the other, we might be led to believe following this first conclusion that, if not a content-ful claim, philosophers might still be able to offer something in the way of a method or way of thinking about contested normative claims.

Indeed, after some reflection, it becomes apparent that the first problem is not inherently an issue for our own account in the sense that we do not presume any special substantive knowledge that philosophy might afford. Far from leaving a grammar of identity dead from the start, the first paradox proves a powerful suggestion of the reasons why the need for this grammar makes itself felt.

On the contrary, the second paradox proves something more of an issue in the sense our position recognizes that, at least for a time, interlocutors may prove deficient in using such a grammar to target the more troublesome elements of identity formation, all of which supposes the need for a class of discursive specialists. Ideally, this class would guide, intervene in or stimulate discussion with the aim of identifying the sticking points in discussion and the ways in which these owe to contingent milieus. These identified, participants in discussion could find ways to “translate” their views and attempt to secure at least mutual comprehension through an appeal to the specific conceptual and discursive background of their audience.

If this class could provisionally be filled by philosophers, these could be replaced in time by some other group. This would lend itself to a reading of our position on which, like Leiter’s, philosophers practice discursive hygiene with regards to everyday discourse in hopes of teasing out entailments, bringing to light background assumptions, and enabling greater synthesis. In this way, our account would encounter those same problems which figure prominently in Leiter’s diagnosis: emotivism and tribalism. For our account would bring nothing new to discursive hygiene’s inventory such that it might bypass the role of sentiment in judgment formation and expand humanity’s capacity for sympathy with others. Certainly, the latter remains an end for this account, but much the same could be said for Leiter’s.

In sum, by invoking discursive hygiene, we would find ourselves in the very same imbroglio. Yet this is to miss the point of our account, at least to some extent. Without a doubt, we want to prompt others to engage in reflection, but this reflection does not necessarily align with the kind put forward by Leiter’s discursive hygiene insofar as we recognize and accept emotivism’s role in judgment formation and self-articulation. In fact, by accepting actual conditions for discourse, less restricted values for discourse, we accept discourse (in large part) as it is already to be found in public discussion. Hence, we gain something of an edge over Leiter’s account in doing away with the unwieldy distinction between private discursive hygiene and public rhetoric, which is, as we have shown, a source of considerable difficulties for a two-language account.

In other words, when we appeal to that which is already latent in actual discourse, we bring the practical and theoretical closer and acknowledge, like Leiter, the considerable work done by rhetoric independent of discursive hygiene. But, rather than subordinate or sever discursive hygiene and rhetoric, private and public discussion by positing the existence of two languages, we seek a way in which reflexive structures can become part of discourse without isolating one from the other. Instead, we place rhetoric at the fore and develop a method for furthering rhetoric in two ways: first, by encouraging individuals to continue and refine rhetoric in their own terms, and, second, by opening up new paths for rhetoric without stipulating its conclusions.

In reality, this can be seen in certain grounding elements of our account, namely, Jeffrey Stout’s emphasis on widening the conditions for legitimate discourse in the face of John Rawls’ attempts to limit acceptable justifications for public action. If Rawls holds that arguments on constitutional matters can only be advanced from a common basis, i.e. for reasons that all individuals would acceptable because independent of any comprehensive doctrine, Stout signals how little such a view is grounded in the reality of public discourse. Therein, participants offer all manner of private reasons which explain their commitment to some position or other. Moreover, Stout is right to point out how wrongheaded it would be to require these participants to advance a publicly acceptable reason for their views, which is not in fact the true reason behind those same views. In granting Rawls’ conditions on discourse a merely regulative role, Stout anticipates to a great extent the shortcomings that plague public philosophy and discursive hygiene on a view like Leiter’s.

To the extent that our view aligns with Stout’s understanding of discourse (all the while trying to integrate some greater measure of universality), the paradoxes of public philosophy fall away. More simply, Leiter’s paradoxes of public philosophy prove false problems for a view like our own. What this means for our broader project is therefore not its impossibility, but, instead, its very necessity, a point brought out by the confusion surrounding the articulation between private philosophy and public rhetoric in the two-language account.


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