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Fr. 620

April 30, 2015

Although Stout does not typically say much forthright in the way of exposition of self, tantalizing clues lie scattered throughout his work, of which the most telling are frequently negative or critical in intent. From these hints we can begin to reverse-engineer in some way Stout’s notion of self, identity and individuality by first determining what this notion is not. His discussion of unconstrained inner movement is an important step in this direction:

I am also suspicious of Rorty’s apparent suggestion that freedom – the creation of, and choice between, vocabularies – is something we exhibit outside one of those vocabularies. Whatever Rorty means to suggest in this passage, I suggest that our inability to secure an ultimate language of rational commensuration shouldn’t induce us to think of our decisions to invent or employ a vocabulary as ultimately unconstrained, as taking place, by necessity, outside of and epistemically prior to the adoption of any vocabulary. On the picture I call existentialist, beneath our all “normal” choices which are carried out within the logical space of one or another vocabulary and governed by its “objective constraints, lie our ultimate choices, which are carried out, perhaps unconsciously in the terrible vacuum of perfect freedom, where unconstrained will is governed by nothing but its own inner movement. Anyone who accepts this existentialist picture in the name of pragmatism will finally be unable to reclaim ethics as a full-fledged cognitive endeavor. “Truth” and “objectivity” in ethics will remain but a mask for arbitrary will. (Ethics After Babel, pp. 263-264)

Although Stout here seeks to limit the existentialist tendencies in Rorty’s writings, the assertion that all thought, speech and action remain subject to possible elaboration in a given vocabulary finds broader application and confirmation in Stout’s work. We need only remember the considerable role played by the dissolution of such distinctions as fact/interpretation, description/theory, etc. In addition, being constrained in terms of a given vocabulary dovetails with Stout’s historicist claims to the effect that there is no transcending our embeddedness, i.e. our physical embodiment in a concrete, historical society, place and time as speakers of a certain language. In short, there can be no self outside that framework which might make it evolve from without, no matter how minimal.

This stipulation comes with two wider reaching consequences for our research project if we are to accept Stout’s broader pragmatic and historicist conclusions. Indeed, if we are to apply them with any consistency, we must take seriously and lend serious thought to how they interact with what we might introduce in the way of notions foreign to Stout’s work. More simply, how do these notions hang together with Stout’s?

First, given Stout’s negative appraisal of unconstrained, inner movement, it becomes to sustain an earlier critique that we had offered in Frs. 292 and 293 of MacIntyre and his presentation of traditions. Therein, we maintained that a tradition’s evolution cannot be understood simply in terms of subjective rights and traditional communities:

Yet might there be something beyond this simplistic dualism? Something other than the strong, rational, atomistic agent that MacIntyre so deplores? Something other than community, something rather more like deeper-seated individuality? It is precisely this quality that comes out when closer mind is paid to MacIntyre’s depiction of the relationship between subject and tradition. For, if individuals can have different affiliations with their respective traditions, the question remains why there can be opposition or modification of a tradition. Is tradition through the nature of interpretation naturally given to internal divergence? If, in time, certain texts and interpretations come to have authority over the forms of reasoning, this does not, however, seem to foster or kindle the sort of internal tension that the author posits. In other words, what makes a tradition evolve? Unless the tradition is conceived of as a total machine, there must be an outside to which it relates, and this outside is precisely that of the individual. In sum, it is entirely plausible that an interplay of individual and tradition underlies the evolution of traditions.

With hindsight, it seems that our postulation of individuality behind traditions proves difficult to square with Stout’s critique of inner movement. Is there a way to accommodate these views without robbing Stout’s view of its wider grounding in pragmatism and historicism?

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