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Fr. 657

August 4, 2015

Does Stout count too much on the possibility of transformation with regards to the person’s moral language and, by extension, identity? In the way of skepticism, we need only cite such cases as empirical research into decision-making and reason-giving as well as critical examinations of the role of traditions, religious or otherwise. Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” stands as a quintessential example of the latter, as this short text attempts to link societal progress to public uses of reason (uses independent of institutions or constraining circumstances) and, in turn, societal stagnation to private uses of reason (uses dependent on institutions or constraining circumstances). This results in a view of public discourse on which only arguments and reasoning independent of established powers, such as government, religion or cultural practices, can make society progress in conformity with Enlightenment standards. Cultural traditions of all stripes would, thus, represent the end of critique and, thus, of transformation.

Through the intermediary of Rawls, Stout has elsewhere called this line of reasoning into question by obscuring the strict boundaries between reasons public and private. Yet his tack in Ethics After Babel differs. In reality, he aims not just at showing that cultural traditions are living and capable of evolution, but, more importantly, that positions attaining to public uses of reasons, loosely defined, draw from the same sources as those captured in cultural traditions. Hence, tradition and critique do not occupy either end of a spectrum:

To find oneself in a cultural tradition is the beginning, not the end, of critical thought. There is no simple opposition between tradition and critical reason or between conservatism and reform. Our task is not simply to bring as many possibilities into view as we can but also to judge what is worth preserving, what requires reformulation, and what must be left behind (p. 73).

Indeed, as Stout is here keen to point out, perspicuous contrast implies more than merely setting out the different, possible ways of life; it calls, moreover, for a selection as to what will be kept, changed and abandoned. Transformations of this sort are rarely radical and, by dint of the structure of language, never total. Yet even local transformations, limited in scope, can amount over the course of years to considerable evolution in a moral language, a way of life or a cultural tradition.

Strikingly, this same analysis of continuous processes of evolution can apply just as well to self and identity insofar as these represent, on one hand, a living process which is embodied or manifests itself at different levels and, on the other, the selection or coming together of diverse elements of identity. Much like a moral language, self and identity are continually in the process of shedding the old and taking on the new as the formations encounter challenges, weather crises, tool reactions and extend new findings.

For the reasons above, reservations towards traditions stemming from the perspective of critique fall short of their mark on two counts. 1.) Traditions demonstrate significant evolution and capacity for evolution in their unfolding. And, 2.), perspectives from critical reason are subject to the same constraints of embeddedness and selection as traditions. Stout comes to this very conclusion when he notes of the Enlightenment’s moral undertakings:

Any version of moral Esperanto is itself a product of a process in which one begins with bits and pieces of traditional linguistic material, arranges some of them into a structured whole, leaves others to the side, and ends with a moral language ready to use, possibly a quite novel one (p. 74).

Thus, even those critical positions which attempt to reduce the influence of traditions and begin anew are subject to the same conditions of elaboration as that from which they set themselves apart. All of which goes to show that which separates critical and traditional formations proves less a gap than a degree. Taking this rapprochement to its logical conclusion would extend this status to all formations with the requisite criteria: embeddedness, communication, selection, evolution.

Unsurprisingly, this conclusion likewise has consequences for self and identity in that these formations meet the above criteria. In other words, between strong and weak (or even negative) images of self or identity there is more in common than we might otherwise believe. For weak conceptions of self have started from the same pool of resources as the strong; they have simply made different choices as what to make of this pool.

(A short methodological note: we have made great use of Stout’s contentions about language in crossapplying his analsyis to the field of self and identity. This has permitted us to greatly expand on what he has to say on the matter all the while drawing on his own conclusions. Is there something of Deleuze’s “historical interpretation” in all of this?)

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