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Fr. 618

April 27, 2015

Yet this picture runs up against its own problems in that it muddies the waters surrounding self, identity and individuality. If our thinking is that language and individuality can be mapped onto one another, then it is unclear how we might call upon them to operate distinct functions within the three-part picture previously presented. In short, just how far can we take the assimilation of individuality to (Stoutian moral) language?

If language links justification to a concrete, historical individual, we might see the relationship as purely one of means. Yet language both frames and furnishes the specific terms of justification and structures to some extent the cognitive context of the individual qua historically bounded language speaker. For this reason, the three-part model (justification, language, individual) can collapse in places. Linguistic considerations account for some but not all of the individual’s cognitive context; there is significant but partial overlap. Likewise, non-linguistic factors of cognitive context can frame and furnish some terms present in the proposition and make certain justificatory moves more likely than others. In sum, the terms of the three-part model only partially run into one another.

Consider the related though slightly different case of identity, language and individual. If non-linguistic factors can enter into the determination of identity in the form of contingent environmental influences, the exploration of how these influences hang together is nonetheless carried out in terms of language. Those influences therefore take on a linguistic gloss or form, as it were, and are further held together by the unifying terms of linguistic narrative. Accordingly, we might rightly hold language up as being constitutive of identity as content and frame. Again, we see that it is possible to assign homologous functions to the elements all the while being cognizant of how these distinctions fall apart. For identity cannot entirely be said to consist in inwardly directed linguistic being.

The second difficulty owes to the relation of individual and language to practices and goods. If we consider that individuality coincides with language and language and practices enter into a relation of mutual determination in the refinement of specific goods, it would seem to follow, as per the assimilation, that individuality likewise exists in this relation of mutual determination. The goods professed by the individual seem, however, to derive more often than not from the practice itself rather than individual determination thereof. Stout’s presentation suggest a loose priority of this sort:

[A] stereoscopic account of of our society […] can show generosity in its construals of individual lives and motivations precisely because it keeps one eye trained on goods internal to social practices (p. 281).

Our ability to make sense of individual lives and the evolution thereof owes in part to our ability to identify the goods held up by the social practices in which they are involved. The goods inherent to these practices do not stem directly from individual involvement (although they may respond to pressure of this kind over time). Rather, the practice itself sets goods of these kind for the individual due to the practice’s social nature. In sum, the language constitutive of this practice and good can be social in a way that the individual strictly cannot.

In other words, the goods that are constitutive of individual lives and motivations are internal to the social practices in which those same individuals engage; they are not themselves primarily internal to the individual. If this does not strain the believability of our proposal, it acts at the very least as a limit to our assimilation of individuality to language. Although goods, practically speaking, are sought by individuals, they are first embodied in practices which both stem from and define the moral fragments spoken by the individual and in terms of which the individual comes to self-understanding in the examination of identity. Put simply, the goods are not goods because the individual seeks them, but because the language has made them so.

In the end, any assimilation of individuality to moral language must proceed carefully in avoiding overly general statements. We must take care to distinguish the different functions in language to be assimilated to individuality to avoid confusions of the sort seen above.


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