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Stout and individual X

April 12, 2016

If Stout’s talk of kinematics suggests a way forward for inquiry, this way will have to be framed in slightly different terms. Important though it may be to understand “how old concepts […] find their niche in a new [environment]”, concepts do not adapt to new environments in and of themselves. For just as “no system of beliefs can change its mind [in that] systems have no minds to change” (FA, p. 266), neither can concepts employ themselves in that concepts have no need to employ themselves. For their application, concepts necessarily pass by the people making use of them, a fact which again brings us round to the position of the individual.

If we are to understand concepts and the vocabularies in which they are employed, it will therefore be necessary to understand the use which particular people qua individuals have made of the former in particular discourses and justifications. This amounts to a need for greater specification in concepts and vocabularies when assessing discourse and justification. To a similar need does Stout draw attention when he writes:

My conclusion will be that we are likely to profit less from sweeping pronouncements, either for or against ‘pluralistic society’ and its characteristic forms of moral language, than from a determined effort to recast our self-descriptions and normative questions in more specific terms (EB, p. 193).

The author practices such a specification when he considers the different ways in which author like Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Bellah and Cornel West come together on certain societal questions when the matter is no longer “pluralistic society” but rather that of “redistribution”, “medical care”, and so on (EB, pp. 277-278). If we can recast descriptions and questions, as Stout does, by setting different individuals in hypothetical dialogue with one another, the same can be more readily achieved by coming back on the conceptual tools which we employ in justification. In particular, discourse and justification stand to gain from loosening the categories by which we describe and evaluate.

To that end, Stout lays out two ways forward in the afterword to Ethics after Babel‘s second edition:

[O]ne aim of my talk about ‘stereoscopic social criticism’ in Chapter 12 is to place ethical-political discussion on the practice side of MacIntyre’s practice-institution distinction, so that democratic individuality, participation, and rationality can emerge in my account as internal goods of a valuable discursive practice (EB, p. 351).

On one hand, we should emphasize practices, and hence individuals, over and against institutions. Indeed, this follows from Stout’s insistence on the ways in which persons push back on conceptual economies and cognitive contexts. On the other, we ought to set descriptive and evaluative terms such as individuality, participation and rationality within narrower bounds, such that these terms’ meanings are specified with regards to the specific practice of democratic reason-giving and deliberation.

Moreover, in the latter do we find an answer to and an extension of the question with which we opened 3.): How do moral language and ethical justification themselves express the need for an understanding of individual qua bearer of a concrete, personal history and resident of an epoch, culture and community? In truth, Ethics after Babel’s presentation of moral language and ethical justification underscores, to a greater extent than even The Flight from Authority, to tie discrete justifications to the persons making them, to the language in which the person makes them. In other words, justificatory focus shifts from the content to the expression as well as the expresser.

In specifying the descriptive and evaluative terms as “democratic”, Stout also bows to his own dictum on which “practical wisdom, in its attempt to determine limits [for acceptable behavior in society], must call upon detailed familiarity with specific social practices” (EB, p. 274). The author’s focus on ethical-political discourse in the form of democratic reason-giving, as undertaken in Democracy and Tradition, will enable the author to paint the position of the individual as the more specific democratic individuality. It is precisely in just such a notion that individual moves from justificatory background to the foreground.

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