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Stout and individual II

March 1, 2016

2. To flee or to embrace the individual

We stated above that the question of justification fuels, to a greater or lesser extent, the inquiry carried out in The Flight from Authority. If over each of Stout’s book-length works hangs a theoretico-practical specter, that specter takes shape here as the fate of justification and certainty after authority and appeals thereto lose their unquestioned status. In other words, the question becomes one of what the person can avail herself in justifying her claims to others both within a discursive community and without.

In the book’s explicitly epistemological first part, Stout outlines the transformation that certainty undergoes at the hands of Descartes and the general problem of justification resulting therefrom in philosophy, be this in epistemology, ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of language, etc. This transformation gives way to two distinct formations, Cartesian and anti-Cartesian in inspiration, to which Stout gives considerable attention not just in The Flight from Authority, but in later works as well. The more Cartesian of the formations resolves itself into a transcendent effort to break free of history and tradition and thereby attain a timeless universal standpoint with regards to justification; Descartes prepares the way by suggesting how we rid ourselves of presuppositions in order to set out from an incontrovertible truth by which to order and to measure the whole of our beliefs. Put crudely, the rules for justification are set in advance, independently of a given discursive community. In this, we can see more simply the universalist or anti-traditionalist programs to which Stout will turn his attention in later works.

In contrast, the more anti-Cartesian of the formations gains further definition and clarity in the different particularist (in the sense given by Onora O’Neill in Towards justice and virtue) or traditionalist responses which the author will treat at greater length in Democracy and Tradition. Their efforts often center on a redefinition of justification and rationality within the bounds of a given, concrete rational tradition, a redefinition for which Descartes similarly prepared the way by the thoroughness of his own efforts to extirpate appeals to authority and traditionalist elements from justification and rational disputation.

Whatever their apparent differences, the two formations agree with one another on the need to set the rules for justification ahead of discourse. On this admittedly crude picture, they would differ only on whether those rules need be set with reference to a specific discursive community. Yet, in a strange turn, both formations occlude the position of the individual therein by erecting a monolithic discursive entity against which justifications are to be measured: in one case, against universal reason; in the other, against an existing discursive community. (Certainly, the latter leaves, in theory and in practice, more room for discursive excellence and innovation within the framework of an evolving community and tradition, it can, in practice, erect authoritative texts, interpretations and rules in face of which neither tradition nor community can evolve beyond a certain point.)

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