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Stout and individual XIV

April 22, 2016

Given the pains which the author takes to relate tradition and democracy, at odds in the contemporary literature, it may surprise the reader at least somewhat to see talk of democracy as tradition. More simply, if tradition and democracy only admit of an interrelation with difficulty, we may have prima facie reason to doubt that they admit of a relation of identity. In what way might democracy then be a tradition?

Certainly, part of the problem stems from the modes under which we consider democratic society and democratic deliberation. It can be all too easy to slip into a mode of thinking on which persons with substantive commitments from different ethical spheres bring those commitments to the neutral sphere of democratic deliberation where they then exchange them. On such a picture, although substantive commitments are exchanged and reasons given, the persons’ commitments and reasons arise from the particular communities to which they belong, not from the neutral sphere of exchange, i.e. democratic deliberation. In short, democratic deliberation would remain an ethical wasteland, were it not for the contributions from particular communities.

Such a view proves, however, overly simplistic to do justice to the way in which standards for democratic deliberation structure the exchange of commitments and reasons. Standards, such as equality of voice and freedom of expression, are not merely procedural; these constitute substantive commitments in themselves. For Stout, we must not lose such commitments from sight when striving better to understand democracy:

[Democratic normative] commitments are substantive. They guide the discussion, but they are also constantly in dispute, subject to revision, and not fully determinate. They are initially implicit in our reasoning, rather than fully explicit in the form of philosophically articulated propositions. So we must be careful not to reduce them to a determinate system of rules or principles. Because they evolve, we need the historical category of “tradition” to bring them into focus (DT, p. 5).

Unsurprisingly, Stout’s remarks hold true of the two examples previously cited, i.e. equality of voice and freedom of expression. If both are action-guiding in democratic deliberation, their application lacks a definitive instantiation and takes on different forms in different contexts and times. Accordingly, we cannot so much speak of them as set rules or principles, but as sources for orienting thought, speech and deed. Yet it is precisely in their role as sources receiving ever new instantiations that we can trace, through those instantiations, their evolution across time and place. Wherefore the need for a historical category of tradition in understanding democratic society, as opposed to a neutral conception.

Nevertheless, critics may charge that the historical category of tradition seen here sharply diverges from the concrete, particular communities, practices and institutions explored in the first part. Moreover, using the same term to designate both would only serve to muddle the issue between historicist category and historical community. That said, Stout is ready to concede this point and join the critics on the precise grounds that criticisms of democratic rationality put forward by certain traditionalist works, most notably those by MacIntyre (see DT, Chapter 6), hinge on just such a confusion of terms.

Generally, this criticism runs as follows. In fact, particular traditions alone can develop coherent. Insofar as discursive rationality and democratic society does not exhibit the marks of a particular tradition, democratic society, consequently, cannot develop coherent, discursive rationality. As a result, democratic deliberation would under the shadow of a particularly democratic specter of justification, alluded to above: anomie.

In truth, this criticism stands or falls with our understanding of the word “tradition” as either particular historical community, general historicist category of diachronic discursive practice, or both. If we load the term “tradition” with both meanings, we naturally arrive at the same conclusion as the traditionalists. If, in contrast, we unpack the term “tradition”, we can see that the claim lacks the warrant which we might otherwise attribute it. For, though not a particular historical community, democracy does exhibit the characteristics of a diachronic discursive practice and, thus, belies the conclusion which only follows from the conflation of distinct uses of “tradition”.

With regards to this semantic overcharge, Stout takes care to distinguish the sense of “tradition” at work in his characterization of democracy:

All I mean by the term “tradition” in this context is a discursive practice considered in the dimension of history. No general criterion for individuating traditions is assumed in this way of speaking, and so I shall offer none. I am content to let pragmatic considerations settle the question of individuation on a case-by-case basis (DT, p. 135).

He adds, more pointedly, that “[he is] proposing that the second sense [of tradition] be explicated in terms of the concept of a discursive social practice viewed diachronically (DT, p. 136). Once this distinction made, the author finds himself in a position to maintain that democracy is a tradition in the relevant sense. As such, democratic society and deliberation present substantive commitments capable of being articulated and situated within the context of a historical discursive practice. Such articulation falls to the reflective practices in which we engage.

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