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Fr. 689

November 27, 2015

In previous fragments, Onora O’Neill and Jeffrey Stout have been shown to be in agreement on certain issues but far apart on still others. One area where agreement and disagreement both seem in supply is the question of presuppositions in public discourse.

O’Neill proceeds in view of a minimalist constructivism which reduces the number of presuppositions operative in discourse so as to reduce the “entrance requirements”, as it were, to political discussion.  To that end, she prefers something like a rigorist view and abstracts from unjustified presuppositions and collateral commitments. She elaborates:

[This constructivism] differs from the one that Rawls has developed in two ways. In the first place it assumes only an abstract, hence non-idealizing and banal, account of agents and of conditions of action. Secondly, it aims to articulate and to vindicate a conception of practical reasoning without appeal either to unvindicated ideals or to unvindicated particularities (Towards justice and virtue, p. 48).

This constructivism finds its form in a variant of Kantian practical reasoning, one framed in terms of a double modal challenge issued to reasoners. O’Neill notes:

[A]lthough [the Kantian conception of practical reasoning] focuses on principles of action rather than on ends, it does not treat the particularities of the current norms of societies or of the current identity-constituting attachments and commitments of individuals, or their actual perceptions or sensitivities, as elements of practical reason. It demands that practical reasoning follow principles that are thought of as adoptable or followable by all for whom it is to count as reasoning. This account of practical reason is fundamentally and doubly modal: reasons for action must be held capable of being followed or adopted by others. The first modal element states that reason sets requirements: what we deem reasoned must meet certain requirements; what we view as reason sets standards and claims authority. The second modal element explicates these requirements: those who act for reasons must (to the best of their belief) act on principles that are followable or adoptable by others for whom they take their reasons to count (ibid., pp. 56-57).

On this view, individual presuppositions have no role to play in the exchange of reasons governing or girding public discourse. Presuppositions will play neither the role of premise from which an interlocutor might reason nor that of end orienting the interlocutor’s thoughts and speech. O’Neill maintains this with an eye to a maximally inclusive discourse where all are insiders and none outsiders. Indeed, her approach seems reasonable on this count, for controversial presuppositions, which prove difficult for others to accept as premises in reasoning, may well close off discussion before it begins.

Yet Stout would find at least one element of the picture above puzzling and this in the unanalyzed notion of presupposition. For Stout, there are two senses of the term at issue in political discourse:

Presuppositions in this first sense are either assumptions that individuals self-consciously make when saying certain things or assumptions that must be true if what they are saying is to make sense. Now suppose that a Unitarian addresses an argument about same-sex marriage to someone she knows to be a Catholic bishop. Obviously neither the Unitarian nor her interlocutor can in this case take for granted the details of a common theology. They cannot cannot with one another on the basis of that as a given […] Here we are talking about “presuppositions” in a second sense of the term. Saying that the Unitarian is now participating in a discursive exchange that lacks theological presuppositions does not entail anything about what theological commitments she herself has made, how important they are to her in her personal deliberations, whether she is justified in accepting them, or whether she is free to express them […] The theory [of secularized discourse] I offer is an account of what transpires between people engaging in public discourse, not an account of what they believe, assume, or presuppose as individuals (Democracy and Tradition, p. 98).


Stout’s first sense of presupposition might be glossed as “discursive presuppositions” by which we mean the elements of discursive background or cognitive context that interlocutors might hold in common and which would serve to structure their discourse without appearing in the form of claims, premises or conclusions. Such presuppositions can, in reality, range from maximally exclusive to minimally inclusive in function of the audience, but, on O’Neill’s view can only take a maximally inclusive form by being minimal or procedural in content. On this point, Stout is largely in agreement for, practically speaking, it can be difficult to count on common background of this kind.

As to Stout’s second sense, this can be glossed as “individual presuppositions” by which we designate those beliefs, assumptions and collateral commitments brought by the interlocutor to the discussion in the form of explicit claims, premises and conclusions. Whereas, for O’Neill, this second class is wholly excluded from public discourse, Stout sees no reason to do so in that freedom of expression trades precisely on pertinence of an individual’s commitments to discussion. Certainly, he grants that interlocutors should be aware that expression of commitments cannot be counted on to do conceptual heavy lifting before a mixed audience Yet their expression proves vital in understanding the speaker’s true reasons and can weigh with at least part of the audience, as the first step in a piecemeal approach to engaging other parts of the audience.

Wherefore the tension between their approaches. Insofar as O’Neill’s minimal constructivism double modalism envisage a public discourse free of both discursive and individual presuppositions, Stout recognizes the limitations of the former in reasonable pluralism, which thus makes clear one way in which discourse has become secularized, all the while maintaining interlocutors’ right to employ with prudence individual presuppositions in giving their reasons. In the end, while we grant with O’Neill that it is difficult to countenance broadening the discursive presuppositions to be taken as in common, it proves nonetheless difficult to understand why we need feel compelled, more weakly, to narrow the individual presuppositions in discourse or, more strongly, to bracket them entirely.

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