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Fr. 658

August 5, 2015

To the possibility of transforming one’s moral language(s), Stout has thus given a twofold response. Transformation must result from a process of perspicuous contrast, and all positions are in principle open to transformation, regardless of their nominally critical or traditional orientation. That said, questions remain, of which the most pressing is: how do we get to a position where perspicuous contrast is possible? More simply, what methods and techniques must be in play?

If Stout will devote greater treatment to these questions in Democracy and Tradition where he identifies the importance of reason-giving, epistemic responsibility and keeping score, Ethics After Babel provides some few hints as well in the form of his discussion on social criticism (Chapter 11) and passing comments on how the fragments of moral language fit together. From Stout’s account, it might prove possible to assemble a collection of tropes against which to measure the various kinds of moral language fragments and arrive at a more and more precise understanding of the elements at issue.

Yet Stout himself moves, if not to eliminate, at least to limit any such endeavor:

We need no exhaustive typology of tropes, and the technical terms can be safely ignored for present purposes. My claim is simply that how the various fragments of moral language are related to each other and to the whole can be every bit as important as which parts are selected for retention or available for use in the first place (p. 75).

Behind this move undoubtedly lay various reasons. First, the passage cited above makes clear that the relations that spring up between the different elements of moral language, and which naturally can only develop after their selection, is as essential to the development of a moral language as the elements selected. Indeed, this owes to the fact of being unable to foresee their precise development once processes of chance and human agency begin their work on these fragments. Similarly, if we can see in his insistence a certain reluctance to elaborate, whether out of pessimism over “manysided objects” or other attitudes, this likely owes just as much to his conviction that it is impossible to posit models of universal import without first passing by experience and the needs posed by present purposes.

Accordingly, the need to pose such limits makes itself felt directly in proportion to the lack of precision from which abstract or general positions, such as that being laid out, necessarily set out. Without the constraints imposed by present purposes, elaborating a typology of tropes serves no end, for they must be made to order, as it were. Therefore, posing such a limit does not proscribe the development of tropes or their broad outlines but serves as a reminder of the need to hitch such tropes to the situations from which they must naturally arise and to which they must return. In simpler terms, the abstract will require fleshing out. Until then, with moral language as with self and identity, it is possible to lay out the terrain in broad strokes and work from there.

In order to drive this point home, i.e. that the abstraction of tropes must be tied to the realities of contingency, Stout recalls a few pages on a passage from Rorty

[…] what Rorty has said of our language in general applies to our moral language in particular: it is “as much a contingency, as much a result of a thousand small mutations finding niches (and a million others finding no niche)” […] (p. 81).

It is precisely with these mutations in mind, particularly in the relations that develop between elements, that Stout’s warning takes on it full force. If perspicuous contrast requires that we wrestle with the diverse manifold that is radical contingency, then no pre-prepared grid exists that we might simply lay over that manifold. The grid, although betraying certain central lines of organization, will have to be made to fit on each occasion.

Far from distancing moral language from self and identity, the limits imposed by radical contingency likewise suggest just how closely these are linked. For in the vicissitudes of life and organism, between nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, upbringing, etc., we find all the same unforeseen developments that complicate the becoming of language.

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