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Fr. 756

January 25, 2017

Stout’s unconstrained discourse: Reason-giving all the way down?

If considerable scholarly attention has to this point focused on the content permitted in Jeffrey Stout’s pragmatist-expressivist account of political discourse and justification as reason-giving, set out in 2004’s Democracy and Tradition, little enough has been said on the scope which he envisions therefor. Can time-consuming and intensely individual reason-giving shape institutional and governmental discourse in the same way as it does face-to-face encounters, associational life and broad-based organizing? While one can concede that unconstrained discourse and appeal to an individual standpoint are appropriate to building consensus and legitimacy in the latter forms, as 2011’s Blessed are the Organized purports to show, one may nonetheless harbour doubts whether public officials could likewise engage in the earnest personal narration and exchange of individual perspectives. For, despite the limited number of participants, it remains an open question whether such discourse represents either an appropriate or a practicable way of proceeding in such settings. Indeed, Stout’s own questions, in his 2011 book, as to the efficacy of grassroots groups and broad-based organizing at the state, national or international level, may leave one with the impression that there exists a gap between the individual and associational context and the institutional and governmental. This leaves us with two questions going forwards about unconstrained discourse and the individual standpoint. First, are these different settings sufficiently similar such that Stout’s version of political discourse displaces liberal public reason in institutional and governmental settings? Otherwise, does the former merely complement the latter, contrary to Stout’s assertions? Second, from a systemic point of view, is Stout’s version of public discourse deliberatively net-positive? In other words, as formulated, can it make an important contribution to the balance of the overall deliberative system? If these questions do not admit of an unqualified yes or no, there is reason to suspect that Stout’s account cannot be implemented equally at all levels of political discourse. In the end, we will argue that unconstrained dialogue and the individual standpoint, while salutary, are incomplete in themselves and are best suited to a complementary role in institutional and governmental settings as, at most, one tactic among others.


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