In our reading of Stout’s Ethics After Babel, we have often mused that, from Stout’s discussion of language, we might work out something like a picture of self, identity and Stoutian individuality. For certain passages evoke the possibility of just such an assimilation:
The existentialist’s freedom is too sublime and vacuous to be worth having. Thinking that such freedom lies beneath our “normal” choices misdescribes the moral life as we know it. So, at any rate, says the modest pragmatist, for whom the choice of a language for choosing itself must be couched in some language. It may not necessarily be a language we choose, of course, and it is perhaps only rarely a language we employ self-consciously. It may simply be one we find ourselves speaking, the only language at our disposal under the circumstances, or the only one a sane person could use for present purposes. And while we do not choose the circumstances in which we initially find ourselves – the age in which we live, the conceptual resources at hand, the traditions and problems impinging on us in our particular time and place – we can, if we have the requisite virtues and avoid being crushed by the secret police, choose to criticize received doctrines, repudiate specific authorities, and foment change in hope of serving justice and making things better. If we do not so choose, if we allow the discovery of our particularity to insulate the established order from criticism, what began as unchosen contingency becomes complicity in that order’s injustice (pp. 264-265).
With an eye to describing identity and individuality in our strict sense, it proves quite tempting to use Stoutian moral language as a gloss for these terms in the sense that an account of language dovetails with their own description. In the way of evidence, we note that identities are not always those “we choose” or “employ self-consciously” in presenting ourselves to others. At times, a given identity may be the only one “at our disposal” in a given situation, social setting or community. Likewise, many contingent factors enter into the shaping of identities: “the age in which we live, the conceptual resources at hand, the traditions and problems impinging on us in our particular time and place”. These factors are not subject to change by merely willing them away. If we can impact them in the hope of altering our identities, they resist our efforts, which are necessarily piecemeal, and give way only slowly. Finally, we can either exercise criticism or complacency with regards to identity, in order to “criticize”, “repudiate” or “foment change” in its constituent elements or to insulate it from changes to the environment.
For all of these reasons, we could propose an account of self, identity and Stoutian individuality which takes his presentation of moral languages as its baseline. Moreover, modest pragmatism would seem best suited to support and further such a view of self, identity and individuality, in contrast with more Kantian or Rawlsianism foundationalism and subjectivity. This link between language and identity would accrue the further advantage of filling out our picture of the relation between justification and individuality sketched elsewhere. If justification requires a concrete historical individual to whom a proposition can be ascribed and in relation to whom a cognitive context can be determined, then language would stand as the means by and the horizons within which the individual furnishes a proposition and carries out the justification thereof. The picture thus proposed would possess conceptual neatness, each term completing the others.
Are there any problems with the picture as presented above?