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Stout and individual XVI

April 25, 2016

With this, we move to the third of the steps outlined above, according to which “the combination of new focus and reconceptualization in turn directs attention to the means by which we come to know those people”. This follows not only from the second argumentative move of characterizing democracy as tradition. In reality, an equally important role is played the virtue of piety in the first move by which Stout placed democracy and tradition in proximity through the lens of character. For the work of resituating tradition and democracy, justice and virtue as ethical sources does not go about itself, and hence the work of framing and responding to those sources, as per Stout’s notion of piety, falls to the person.

As our focus has shifted to the person herself in democratic deliberation, our attention must turn as well to the way in which the forum of democratic deliberation makes room for the person to express herself therein. Among this forum’s most basic characteristics figures its open or public status. Consider that “[w]herever two or three citizens are gathered whom one might address as citizens, as persons jointly responsible for the common good, one is in a potentially public setting” (DT, p. 113). (This passage provides one of the clearest definitions of “citizen” in Stout’s work, perhaps with the exception of Blessed Are the Organized. In a word, citizen is the person as considered under her “public” aspect. Precisely how citizen relates to notions like individual, identity, self, and person will be considered at length in Chapters 3 and 4.) If democratic deliberation is, in this way, open to any whom the person can consider as jointly responsible for a society’s basic institutions and arrangements of justice, then all persons qua participants therein are nominally capable of entering into a discursive practice where reasons can be demanded and responsibility assigned.

Certainly, democratic deliberation’s open or public status allows to situate Stout’s approach with regards to other democratic views. But a second specification proves necessary to set it off from others in the deliberative democratic vein (see Cunningham, Chapter 9, “Deliberative Democracy”, pp. 163-183, as well as Stout’s own discussion: A better way of characterizing my position in relation to contemporary political theory would be to classify it as a pragmatic version of deliberative democracy. Like other proponents of deliberative democracy, I emphasize the discursive dimension of democratic culture. But my pragmatic expressivist model of democratic deliberation differs significantly from the social contract model favored, for example, by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson in Democracy and Disagreement (DT, p. 339, note to p. 297)). Like other deliberative democratic views, Stout identifies democratic society and, by extension, democratic deliberation as being “secular” in character.

Unlike other prominent views in this strand of democratic theory, Stout does not, however, see this as flowing from constraints imposed by a contractarian theory of public discourse, on which the person should only offer to other persons reasons that the latter will find acceptable in some sense. Rather, Stout’s usage of the term “secular” highlights how the person’s discourse is “unbound” precisely due the lack of presuppositions which the person may make as regards others’ beliefs, reasons, etc.:

My account of secularization concerns what can be taken for granted when exchanging reasons in public settings. A setting is public in the relevant sense if it involves no expectation of confidentiality and if it is one in which citizens address one another as citizens […] [Individuals] are free to frame their contributions to [democratic discourse] in whatever vocabulary they please (DT, p. 97).

Far from the lack of shared presuppositions constraining what the person may contribute to public discourse or democratic deliberation, that lack frees the individual from proceeding uniquely according to a set of reasons already in place and more or less institutionalized within a community. More simply, the person is free to offer the reasons which she deems most appropriate for the deliberation in question.

In order to make the point clearer still, Stout appeals to a religious example as a means of showing how both “secular” and “presuppositions” here operate in a manner unlike that most commonly found in everyday speech. To that end, he writes:

Presuppositions in this first sense are either assumptions that individuals self-consciously make when saying certain things or assumptions that must be true if what they are saying is to make sense. Now suppose that a Unitarian addresses an argument about same-sex marriage to someone she knows to be a Catholic bishop. Obviously neither the Unitarian nor her interlocutor can in this case take for granted the details of a common theology. They cannot argue with one another on the basis of that as a given […] Here we are talking about “presuppositions” in a second sense of the term. Saying that the Unitarian is now participating in a discursive exchange that lacks theological presuppositions does not entail anything about what theological commitments she herself has made, how important they are to her in her personal deliberations, whether she is justified in accepting them, or whether she is free to express them […] The theory [of secularized discourse] I offer is an account of what transpires between people engaging in public discourse, not an account of what they believe, assume, or presuppose as individuals (DT, p. 98).

Indeed, this distinction between different species of presupposition reveals itself to be vital if we are to understand just how Stout’s democratic deliberation differs from both rival and sympathetic views. At its root, the difference follows from which participants in deliberation a particular set of “givens” concerns or doesn’t concern. If the set of givens concerns that which all participants take for granted in addressing one another reasons, then the presuppositions in question belong to the second variety. Consequently, their lack renders discourse “secular” in a limited sense.

If, in contrast, the set of givens concerns only that which the person takes for granted in addressing reasons to other participants, then the presuppositions in question belong to the first variety. Yet their lack fails to render discourse secular and may, in fact, prove a structural impossibility in that all reasons set out from some set of presuppositions (as per the person’s cognitive context and conceptual economy). Moreover, as Stout makes clear in the passage’s closing lines, the “secular” character of democratic deliberation in no way constrains what reasons a person may privately, nor what she may openly give as reasons to others.

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