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Fr. 624

May 8, 2015

Two key questions remain to be answered. First, how does Stout go about providing “balanced descriptions” of the sort alluded to? Secondly, if undermining dualisms stands as at least part of the answer, how should we go about breaking them down?

As to the first question, we find something of an answer in Stout’s attempt to triangulate the common ground between three thinkers with (seemingly) wildly divergent views. He does so in order to go beyond terms stipulated by the liberal-communitarian dualism, its manner of divvying up the conceptual field, and to arrive at a more particular formulation of their positions. He elaborates:

Consider Richard Rorty, who describes himself as liberal, and two authors sometimes described as communitarians: Cornel West, who identifies both with Afro-American Christianity and humanistic Marxism, and Robert Bellah, who aims to revive biblical and civic republican traditions. West and Bellah detest Stalinism and intolerance of religious diversity no less than Rorty does. Rorty detests racism, sexism, the behavior of multinational corporations in the Third World, and insensitivity to the plight of the underclass no less than West and Bellah do. All three favor some form of mixed economy more nearly socialist than we have now, and would rejoice if the neoconservatives and Reaganites were deposed by a new wave of egalitarian social democrats (Ethics After Babel, p. 277).

Important though it is to take into consideration the outlooks with which parties to discussion identify, a certain level of abstraction proves all the more important in finding the throughlines connecting their outlooks. The labels which we apply to these positions frequently do the particularities of an individual position significant disservice in that they obscure such throughlines. Differences overtake commonalities, and we find ourselves at an impasse. Stout likewise warns:

[Richard Rorty, Cornel West, and Robert Bellah] have significant differences, but surely we further political paralysis rather than understanding when we use terms such as “liberal” and “communitarian” to divide them. Now recall Alasdair MacIntyre, perhaps the last one here who would be expected to join an unruly assembly of social democrats in political experimentation and social amelioration. Yet, despite his distinctive arguments and preferred terminology, does he not in fact share most or all of the sentiments listed in the preceding paragraph? […] he does not preclude searching out interim agreements and alliances that would make possible experimentation and amelioration, at least on a modest scale (Ethics After Babel, pp. 277-278).

If between these four thinkers, Stout can elaborate a substantive common ground of the sort seen above, it proves the first step in confirming the possibility of “balanced descriptions”, in which both abstraction and attention to context have significant roles to play. Indeed, these concerns aim at much the same end: the overturning of dualisms which hide real commonalities or, perhaps more accurately, preclude the possibility of opening up common spaces. For, so long as parties neither make room for nor call attention to commonalities, these cannot exercise any influence on public discussion and the parties thereto and, thus, effectively do not exist. In short, commonalities are as much made as found. If we must also invent, it is not enough merely to recognize the extant.

Certainly, these findings are preliminary, and there are perhaps important qualifications to be made, particularly as regards the way of breaking down dualisms. Consider that Stout elsewhere speaks highly of Rorty and other thinkers who make use of immanent criticism and irony to break down dualisms and dualistic outlooks from within. Specifically, these thinkers would have the merit of showing the extent to which such outlooks, given proper extension, emit judgments in contradiction with extant judgments or basic principles and, in the end, fall to the reductio ad absurdum.

Yet we might suspect that in his own balanced description Stout trades on a second dualism in surpassing the first, e.g. as when he speaks of social democrats who can be situated on a political spectrum operating at least partly in terms of dualisms. What good to substitute surreptitiously one dualism for another? The charge proves, however, less damning than it might seem insofar as it enables us to resituate interlocutors on a plane outside of that on which they otherwise interact, all of which serves to dispel for a time the obscurity brought on the initial dualism. If the terms of the new dualism are not allowed to harden, then the change in framing remains fruitful provided that movement between dualistic schemes is documented.

In the end, Stout’s overall aims and particular methods find their home in his peculiar vision of social criticism as crucible. Through balanced description, concrete proposal and setting aside of dualisms, he describes just how we might get at more local, individual understandings so as to avoid paralysis in public discussion. Such a vision dovetails with the stated goals of our project: to promote local understandings of individuals and discussion between individuals and to furnish just enough abstraction to overcome paralysis in the public sphere. If at a global level, we seek to undo dichotomies through immanent criticism, turning them against themselves, we must simultaneously target the character of individuality and individuals in a more thoroughgoing notion of self, which provides different rubrics for different situations.

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