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Stout and individual XIX

April 28, 2016

With the fourth step in the argumentative progression, Stout brings to light a pivotal normative dimension in his individual-focused version of democratic deliberation. If the audience is to know the person’s vocabulary and, thereby, the individual (in a sense still to be specified), they must hear the person out on her real reasons and commitments. Yet real reasons and commitments can flow from radical, extreme, marginalized or otherwise nonstandard elements, for the expression of which the person may rightly fear institutional or social sanction. Thus, for better or worse, the person must feel secure in giving voice to those reasons and commitments.

To this end, Stout elaborates a discursive norm, “expressive freedom”, a principle for according to which the person’s expression of her reasons or commitments should enjoy certain protections from institutional and social sanction. Indeed, the need for such a norm follows naturally from his expressivist position whereon adherents’ key work consists in finding expression for unexpressed implicits. Expressive freedom can, however, take any number of forms, and the author therefore seeks a more explicit formulation for his own:

[Pragmatic expressivists] see the central problem to be addressed in social and political deliberation as the question of which forms of expressive freedom we, as individuals and as a group, wish to promote and enjoy. There are infinitely many possible forms of expressive freedom […] Emersonians […] are inclined to use the freedoms afforded by the First Amendment as an institutional framework for promoting nonstandard social practices and the forms of spirited individuality they foster (DT, p. 83).

In short, for the author, expressive freedom qua discursive norm should not merely allow for nonstandard practices and their expression in democratic deliberation; rather, this norm must actively make room for persons to develop such practices and themselves.

Though Stout’s own version may seem irremediably parochial, given its North American roots, it could not help but appear so given his position on cognitive context and conceptual economy as historically situated formations. Nor does the reproach of “parochial” limit, in and of itself, the author’s version of expressive freedom to North American democratic society. On the contrary, a view expressed from within a specific framework of cognitive context and conceptual can all the same possess or be thought to possess universal scope (see DT, pp. 195-196). Thus, an Emersonian expressive freedom of universal scope proves consistent with Stout’s theoretical and practical commitments elsewhere.

Though this passage emphasizes the need to develop nonstandard practices, practices cannot develop without the active involvement of persons. So, shortly thereafter, Stout exhorts persons to cultivate themselves in unexpected ways by means of the nonstandard social practices in which they partake:

[My version of pragmatism] combines Hegel’s dialectical normative expressivism with the Emersonian conviction that the most substantial spiritual benefits of expressive freedom are to be found in a form of social life that celebrates democratic individuality as a positive good […] [Commonalities with the new traditionalism] include an emphasis on the importance of self-cultivation as an exercise of expressive freedom and an understanding of the dialectically social basis of norms (DT, p. 84).

Concretely speaking, such self-cultivation can take any number of forms which Stout enumerates here and there throughout the work: religious affiliation, cultural associations, sports, hobbies, political organizations, and so on. Naturally, the list could indefinitely be extended to include any number of cultures or subcultures. Yet norms without visible exercise of the rights thereby afforded will, over time, lose their force and their institutional form weaken. In other words, nonstandard individuality and sociality must achieve expression in the public sphere and democratic deliberation in order to maintain expressive freedom’s normative force and ensure their own perpetuation. 

Thus far, Stout has demonstrated a need for expressive freedom and, more particularly, a Hegelian-Emersonian version thereof predicated on the need for nonstandard persons and practices. The link between persons and self-expression remains, however, vague, and the reader may rightly wonder how the person may, in democratic deliberation, articulate for the audience her vocabulary, reasons and commitments and, by extension, her cognitive context and conceptual economy. Stout’s clearest answer in Democracy and Tradition, expounded at greater length in Blessed are the Organized, lies in the idea that the person should, in democratic deliberation, give voice to their deepest reasons and personal histories. In criticizing both particularist and universalist thinkers, he remarks:

[I]t seems clear that neither [Benhabib nor Hauerwas] has imagined the possibility, let alone of the desirability, of a loosely structured democratic conversation in which variously situated selves tell their own stories on their own terms […] Both back away at a crucial moment from the full significance of their common insight that the different ways in which selves are situated in the world can make a difference for ethics (DT, p. 179).

The only way for commitments and epistemological formations to come to light consists in the person’s telling her own story and development.

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