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Stout and individual V

March 4, 2016

In other words, a historicist approach to justification necessitates a binocular approach. For individual cannot be considered alone a bearer of a concrete, personal history; individual must stand also as a resident of an epoch, culture and community. To maintain otherwise would seriously mislead as to the historicist challenge which Stout sets both us and himself: to resist closure in either universal reason or particular discursive communities, to hold open justification through the position of the individual.

This last effort comes to the same thing as holding conceptual economy, cognitive economy and monolithic systems open in that these are not frozen formations. Indeed, they evolve, often by leaps and bounds, over time. Yet impersonal formations do not evolve on their own but only through the participation of persons. Stout recalls of rational discourse and rational persuasion:

For if rational persuasion is not conflated with neutral adjudication, then to understand the former we shall have to abandon the transcendental perspective associated with the latter. We must try to think as concretely as possible about rational persuasion, recalling that reason-giving is something people do, under historically specific circumstances, in conversation with their contemporaries […] When we imagine disagreements of the kind that might seem inherently beyond the pale of rational resolution, we tend to leave the people out of the picture. We focus instead on systems of beliefs abstracted from the conditions of human life, and ask which of these systems might be justified […] Yet no system of beliefs can change its mind; systems have no minds to change (FA, p. 266).

(Another passage (EB, p. 278) serves much the same warning when it notes that, whatever the differences between the abstract systems they may represent, such thinkers as Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Robert Bellah and Alasdair MacIntyre are closer to agreement than they might initially seem, in part because people evolve over time and exist between spaces in ways that systems do not.)

The passage above underscores that the best way of holding both impersonal formations and individual open lies in lending closer attention to just those ways in which a person works on the former. This displaces the focal point of justification and thereby makes the position of the individual the locus of historicism. Such is the grand moral of The Flight from Authority: the elaboration of individual as a corollary to justification. Finally, this displacement prepares the way for Stout’s “solution” to the twofold specter of authority and certainty; we dissolve the general problem of justification, in accordance with Quine’s notion of “explication”, by changing how we conceptualize justification (FA, p. 86).

If we can now consider, with Stout, the general problem dissolved, this does not in and of itself dismiss its different manifestations in other fields. In reality, annex problems to persistent theoretical problems of this sort do not merely give way before deduction; for each of the problem’s subspecies, we must take care to show how, when seen from the position of the individual, the subspecies goes wrong. From the genera to the subspecies must Stout follow and extend the cascading effects of this paradigm shift to justification as theorized in the practical domains of ethics and politics.

The position of the individual grounds this undertaking through the notion of language. When speaking of justification in Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, Stout remarks that:

The problem with allowing the contractors to know and use a specific language during their deliberations is that meanings of expressions in this language will already be determined in part by generally accepted and deeply entrenched beliefs. To know and use a language is already to accept a great many beliefs (FA, p. 221).

The broader point, i.e. that justification necessarily proceeds through language and language through horizons of belief, holds independently of whether Rawls himself is guilty of such an error. Insofar as language stands as that in which conceptual economy and cognitive context intertwine with personal history, we need pay closer attention to those languages employed by the person in justification. Therein shall be more lengthily revealed the position of the individual qua bearer of a concrete, personal history and resident of an epoch, culture and community.

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