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Fr. 740

November 7, 2016

We saw that Rawls’ position is unable to bring the fundamentalist to the table for two reasons: public reason supposes an equality between parties; public reason proceeds from a notion of autonomy. For this reason, fundamentalists cannot be admitted within the framework of public reason and, hence, are excluded from the public sphere and political discourse.

For his part, Stout sets no such prerequisites for being a party to discourse, either for the basic structure or other matters. His position consists instead in allowing interlocutors to voice their reasons for a given position in the terms of their choice. More simply, a person should give his or her real reasons for holding a certain view. From there, at least as Stout sees it, the fact of exchanging reasons with a human audience will do most of the work. Ideally, being confronted with other groups and reasons will lead the person to moderate his or her view, to explain that view in terms which the other can understand and to critique other views respectfully.

Indeed, this notion of respect requires further fleshing out. For Stout envisions a public sphere in which a different sense of reciprocity is operative than for Rawls. Stout’s reciprocity does not follow from symmetry and necessity but from exchange and contingency. When a person explains his or her view, he or she may begin by offering reasons in terms of his or her own cognitive context and conceptual economy but will, again ideally, come to offer similar reasons in terms of his or her audience’s context and economy. Similarly, when the time comes to critique his or her audience’s view, the person will again proceed from reasons native to the audience’s context and economy.

In all of this, the person speaking is free to offer the reasons of his or her choice, so long as he or she is willing to accept responsibility for that position and to modify, moderate or abandon the position, given sufficient reason. In the end, the idea is that interlocutors will draw nearer in their positions to the point of creating a new shared political understanding. In this way, Stout allows for notions of reciprocity and autonomy distinct from those operative Rawls. Yet it remains to be seen whether these notions are more likely to engage the fundamentalist than were Rawls’. More simply, are they different enough?

Insofar as Stout fixes no prior terms for the public sphere and political discussion, it seems probable that the fundamentalist is more likely to come to discussion. Moreover, provided that the fundamentalist does not see other people as hopelessly lost from the outset and that he or she is forthcoming, it seems that the fundamentalist will be ready to offer his or her real reasons for his or her position, i.e. the epistemological principle of theonomy rather than an appeal to religious liberty. Even if the fact of being faced with other human beings and the work of psychological mirroring do nothing to convince the fundamentalist to modify, moderate or abandon the position, the fact of giving his or her real reasons will have served the purpose of making those presuppositions explicit and available for work and challenge by other interlocutors.

Though Stout’s position offers in this way considerable advantages over Rawls’, it does not seem without its own failings. As mentioned above, the fundamentalist may see others as unequal and thus hopelessly lost. Likewise, he or she may hide his or her real reasons for a given view and instead offer something more palatable to the audience. Additionally, the fundamentalist may recognize that, on Stout’s position, the deck is still stacked against him or her, as Stout seems unable to countenance a society other than the democratic (albeit with good reason). Knowing that Stout deems a democratic institutions and values more or less justified, e.g. principles of equal voice are more or less beyond question, all deserve a fair chance, etc., the fundamentalist may still conclude that there is little to be gained from reason-giving in the public sphere and so abstain from this aspect of political life.

That said, it seems difficult to reproach Stout on this count. For how might a democratic theorist envision public discourse proceeding other than to affirming democratic institutions and values and disavowing or diminishing the illiberal? Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a view on which more room might be left to the fundamentalist while all the same remaining within largely democratic bounds. Still, Stout may find himself confronted with the same decision as Rawls: how to eliminate such views, for which no answer is at the ready. (Elsewhere, in a paper on Rorty, Stout suggests of opponents to gay marriage that it is simply a matter of waiting out a dying demographic.) Otherwise, Stout seems to do somewhat better with regards to Spode’s query than Rawls:


There is nothing at all wrong with questioning core assumptions of the Western intellectual tradition. My concern is that the philosophical views presented by van Til, Rushdoony, North, Swanson, Schaeffer, and others, although profoundly influential, are going unremarked and unchallenged by the allegedly “liberal” (in the historical sense) academy. Or, to put it another way, these batshit crazy ideas are getting a free pass, and the question is: Why?

In response to which Stout can both point to the imaginative failings of academics like Rawls and insisting that such ideas do not similarly get a free pass on his view.

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