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Stout and individual XV

April 23, 2016

In what way does democratic society manifest the traits of a “discursive social practice viewed diachronically”? Of our examples above, equality of voice and freedom of expression, we have said that these principles receive different instantiations in different communities or societies. This owes, in one part, to differences in time and place as these define the cognitive context and conceptual economy from which the instantiation is realized. We must nonetheless recall that persons in turn frame cognitive context and conceptual economy when they, first, articulate a principle and its instantiation and, then, confront this principle and its instantiation with other principles. Those involved in articulation and instantiation thus proceed with an eye to reflective equilibrium:

It is the business of reflective practices to make norms explicit in the form of rules and ideals and to achieve reflective equilibrium between them and our other commitments at all levels of generality. The social process in which norms come to be and come to be made explicit is dialectical. It involves movement back and forth between action and reflection as well as interaction among individuals with differing points of view. Because this process takes place in the dimension of time and history, the beliefs and actions one is entitled to depend in large part on what has already transpired within the dialectical process itself (DT, p. 78).

Far from instituting an unchanging set of rules and ideals, democratic society, through renewed deliberation, articulates a principle and an application thereof with the aim of fitting them not only to context, but to the rules and ideals already in place, which are in turn fitted to the principle and application under consideration. From this emerges the elliptical movement between action and reflection, deliberation and contingency, traced by the dialectical process in democratic society.

If the means of articulation rests with the persons who frame and fit said principles and the applications thereof to their own context and broader commitments, we would do well to come down to the level of the person in order better to grasp how the historical aspect of the dialectical process figures in the person’s involvement in democratic deliberation. More simply, the dialectical process necessarily passes through the historically situated person. At this juncture, there reappears something like the position of the individual, i.e. individual qua bearer of a concrete, personal history and resident of an epoch, culture and community. That said, it takes on slightly different guise in the present circumstances:

The principles that one might have reason to reject will depend on one’s dialectical location – on the social practices one has been able to participate in and on the actual history of norm-transformation they have undergone so far (DT, p. 79).

In the notion of dialectical location, we find again the hallmarks of the position of the individual: reference to the social practices which furnish the material for cognitive context and conceptual economy; reference to the social practices’ transformation over time which constrain the future development of cognitive context and conceptual economy. Although it is unclear whether dialectical location represents an advance on the position of the individual which we have here explicated, it nevertheless proves instructive for the present account. On one hand, it represents a high point in Stout’s own elliptical thinking on justification. More importantly, it shows that Stout likewise arrives at a notion like that of the position of the individual qua culmination of previous deliberation and beginning of future deliberation.

In locating the culmination of previous deliberation and the beginning of future in a point within a process, Stout’s notion of dialectical location stresses the historicity of reflective practices, such as are found in democratic deliberation, without thereby locking the person into a fixed cognitive context or conceptual economy. Certainly, the latter frame the starting point for new deliberation. But they can evolve in important ways in response to new situations. To this end, Stout reprises key elements of his theory of justification as elaborated fin The Flight from Authority:

How can we claim to be justified in believing something and also suitably humble in what we claim to know? By saying that being justified is relative to context and that the relevant features of context might change in unexpected ways […] The possibility of a change is not yet a reason to abandon any particular belief. But it is a reason to consider our moral knowledge fallible. If being justified in believing something depends on context, and context can change, perhaps for the better, then we should do our best to remain open to the possibility. Democratic discursive practices are designed to hold themselves open in this way (DT, pp. 233-234).

Far from closing herself in the present cognitive context and conceptual economy or jettisoning them all together, Stout’s coherentist epistemology and contextualist justification necessitate that the person set out from the dialectical location at which she finds herself and this in two distinct ways. On one hand, this straightforwardly follows from practical considerations in justification and deliberation:

[I]f we ceased taking the vast majority of [acculturated beliefs] for granted, far from enhancing the capacity to think scrupulously, we would lose the capacity to think at all. It makes sense to say that we can be justified in accepting a belief acquired through acculturation even in the absence of a justifying argument. It is unreasonable to demand justifying arguments across the board (DT, p. 234).

Contrary to the Cartesian foundationalism formulated in The Flight from Authority, a person having cast off her acculturated beliefs would find great difficulty, if not impossibility, in expressing that which she thinks, speaks or does without reference to the cognitive context and conceptual economy which previously framed her thoughts, speech and deeds.

On the other, the person must set out from her dialectical location in order to articulate for others that which the codified principles fail to capture about her own location. Indeed, codification and deliberation do not often proceed apace:

Another point worth keeping in mind is that the explicit codes and semantic theories officially promulgated in a given community do not always accurately reflect the actual inferential commitments of its members […] [A]ctual inferential commitments are constantly being revised in response to new circumstances, while officially promulgated codes change slowly or not at all […] [T]he inferential, cognitive, and practical commitments of a community can have implications that escape the notice of most or all of its members (DT, p. 285).

As the codified principles themselves only represent one part of the cognitive context and conceptual economy at work in any given deliberation, the person must task herself with bringing the uncodified to expression in her contribution to that deliberation. For, if articulation necessarily passes through the position of the individual and official codes do not accurately reflect the person’s commitments, then we shall have both a structural and a practical reason to hear from the person herself. So do we return to the position of the individual and the role of the person in deliberation.

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