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Fr. 655

July 24, 2015

Tempting though it is to pursue this line of questioning immediately, it is important to consider, first, just how Stout proposes to go about individuating languages. When holding one up to another, just what in the association allows him to either set them nearer to or further from one another? And to what does this association amount?

Before tackling these thorny questions, Stout takes care to delimit the field of inquiry with regards to those objects meeting the criteria for association:

We could, of course, let any discourse on any topic count as moral discourse, but that would make the notion useless, not richer. A broader conception is richer only if it allows us to tell better stories of how we got to be where we are, to engage in more fruitful dialogue with other cultures, and to make sense of all extant moral languages as members of a single family connected by intelligible relations of family resemblance (p. 70).

In short, Stout considers it necessary to set out moral from amoral discourse in order to see in what precisely different moral languages differ. For admitting amoral objects into the association would obscure just that which the association would bring to the fore. These common objects underlie any claim to similarity or difference along family lines.

This stipulation made, Stout elaborates the nature of the association in calling upon a term of art from Charles Taylor’s work:

Modernity’s ethnographers can employ what Charles Taylor calls a ‘language of perspicuous contrast.’ Possessing such a language allows us to view our moral discourse and that of another culture ‘as alternative possibilities in relation to some human constants at work in both. It would be a language in which the possible human variations would be so formulated that both our form of life and theirs could be perspicuously described as alternative such variations. Such a language of contrast might show their language of understanding to be distorted or inadequate in some respects, or it might show ours to be so (in which case, we might find that understanding them leads to an alteration of our self-understanding, and hence or form of life – a far from unknown process in history); or it might show both to be so.’ […] Each is an alternative possible variety of moral language (p. 71).

As we can see, by drawing on Taylor’s “language of perspicuous contrast”, Stout allows both for closer study of a moral language’s evolution up to its current states and for its continued evolution following the results of that study. This makes clearer in what way Stout intends to individuate languages without identifying them to their contents. Namely, it is possible to posit similarities in structure between moral languages (“constants”, such as we might find in social and cultural psychology) which maintain a distinction in kind between moral languages and moral propositions and, hence, avoid reducing one to the other. After all, as Stout briefly recalls, moral languages can evolve in a way that moral propositions do not.

All of the above allows for an illuminating contrast between moral languages as different composite forms. Indeed, qua composite forms working from constants, moral languages again conceal a link with self and identity. Insofar as the interplay between these constants and environmental relativity is constitutive of the peculiar form that a language offers to perspicuous contrast and provides the basis for comparison and evolution, another entity demonstrating the same constitutive relationship between constants and environmental relativity could plausibly appeal to a similar method of contrast. Given the play between more abstract constants in self, identity and individual (e.g. language, nationality, ethnicity, religion, upbringing, etc.) and the environmental variance at play in their instantiation, self seems just such another object of perspicuous contrast from which similarly instructive insight and evolution could be gained.

As to finding objects proper to self which would then enter into the contrast, we need only take those that we have already set out above: factors owing to language, nationality, ethnicity, religion, upbringing, etc., are just that which should be considered proper to self, identity and individuality as here defined. By comparing (in dialogue) the constitutive elements of identity, examining their interrelation, and provoking changes in this formation, perspicuous contrast proves just as suitable to approaches to self and identity as it does to moral languages. In this way, Stout’s appropriation of Taylor’s term of art brings his work closer to that which we have elsewhere termed a “grammar of identity”: a loose set of rules for understanding the formation and transformation of identity, remaining at the level of abstraction but giving insight nonetheless into the distinction of parallel though divergent forms of identity.

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