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Stout and individual XXIV

May 4, 2016

Nevertheless, this leaves Stout room in which to flesh out a more positive vision of democratic individuality and thereby hint at its potential contents:

Ideally, [a democratic ethical community] also invites its members to resist their own absorption into the social mass and to cultivate whatever virtues are required to foster the development of novel forms of action, speech, association, and selfhood. Whitman calls this the “principle of individuality.” A self-consciously democratic ethical community is aware of itself as a community of individuals: each of whom has evaluating to do that no one else can do on his or her behalf; each of whom stands in a potential relation of dialogical exchange with each other; […] and each of whom is ultimately responsible not only for actions taken and commitments undertaken, but also for the self he or she has become through the exercise or neglect of expressive freedom. It is no less a “we” for that (DT, p. 282).

To “resistance” and “self-cultivation”, we might thus add a third term: novelty. As ultimately responsible for her thought, speech and deed, the person is thereby partially responsible for the state of democratic deliberation and society. If her thought, speech and deed do not manifest the novelty necessary to, at least, encourage institutional experiments and leaving room for “nonstandard social practices” (DT, p. 83), the person exercises no pressure on the state of democratic deliberation and society, conceived in Stout’s terms, and consequently makes no contributions thereto. 

In truth, just such pressure via democratic individuality is required to redress democratic mass society’s more integrative trends. Moreover, exercising such pressure proves the condition of its own possibility. For without present exercise, the democratic state will see little reason to protect, much less promote, its future exercise.

The state’s proper role is in large part to protect the marginalized and unpopular from harm […] Emersonians expect the expressive freedom actively cultivated by poets and artists to place constant pressure on the conservative, integrative tendencies of established institutions. Small pockets of intense individuality and spiritual aspiration proliferate constantly in a democratic culture. They may take the form of consciousness-raising groups, sects, political uprisings, or avant-garde artistic communities, but they are always in danger of provoking retaliation from a society anxious to maintain the silence and docility – as well as the virtue – of its members (DT, pp. 337-338, note to p. 282).

Yet such talk of resistance, self-cultivation and novelty may leave the reader with a false impression of democratic individuality as a highly modernist individualism, both theoretically unsound and practically out-of-touch with contemporary democratic society. Wherefore the importance of recalling that the person and democratic individual remain situated social formations. Stout argues in favor of just such a perspective when he writes:

[Democracy’s] ideals can achieve political expression only when people learn to think of themselves as individuals while identifying with a broader ethical inheritance and political community […] Theorists have given individuality a bad name by misconstruing it as essentially atomistic and possessive. The democratic ideal of individuality is not a fiction of complete independence from influence. It is a set of interlocking virtues – including courage and self-trust – that are required to resist conformity to socially mandated types. The only way to acquire such virtues is to participate in social practices of a kind that direct one’s attention to intrinsically valuable goods and away from goods that can be selfishly pursued and hoarded […] If we fail to protect [social practices directed toward excellence] and the modes of identity-formation, self-transcendence, and reason-exchange they sustain, it is foolhardy to expect concerted democratic action to remain possible for long. A nation of selfish conformists – entirely uncommitted to the self-enlarging, other-regarding, excellence-oriented demands of individuality – would be a nation inherently incapable of citizenship (DT, p. 293).

Though a particular formation of the person, individuality and democratic individuality pass through social practices and the social goods elaborated therein. Certainly, the person remains in a position to help determine or change the inferential content and significance of those practices and goods through work on their signs, terms and means. But the process of determining or changing those nonetheless passes through a social medium. For the author, it cannot be a question of an individual free from influence in that the individual of resistance, self-cultivation and novelty “is no less a ‘we’ for that (DT, p. 282).

From the above, we arrive at the landmarks of Stoutian individuality. The first section on The Flight from Authority has shown in what way the person necessarily justifies from the position of the individual qua bearer of a concrete, personal history and resident of an epoch, culture and community. In the second section, we have demonstrated, with Stout and Ethics after Babel, that justification, ethical and otherwise, proceeds through the medium of a language and vocabulary at least in part specific to the person qua individual. Lastly, the third section on Democracy and Tradition has yielded a specifically democratic notion of the person as individual on which the discursive norm of expression and the ethical norms of resistance and cultivation enjoin the person to develop novel, nonstandard practices and to give voice thereto. Yet we may ask what precise political relations, if any, establish themselves between persons conceived as democratic individuals. In what way do they remain citizens, and are they citizens on Rawls’ sense?

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