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Self-knowledge and political justification 2

June 12, 2017

II: Stout on self-knowledge and justification: piety, storytelling and inferential commitments

Both the narrow and broad critiques capture the most important aspects of Jeffrey Stout’s understanding of (political) justification and its relation to self-knowledge. In a word, (political) justification proceeds or should proceed with a view to the person’s relation to a context, namely a personal history in the broader historical setting of a given time, place and culture. Insofar as (political) justification is indexed to a given context and successful (political) justification turns on knowledge of that context and a given context includes the person justifying, then (political) justification’s success is indexed to knowledge of the person justifying. When justifying one’s views to another, justification then entails thick self-knowledge (strong and thick version). Hence, Stout’s understanding preserves the Pryorian outline sketched above.

It is this insight that Stout attempts to work out over the course of four books. 2004’s Democracy and Tradition confronts the reader with a view of political deliberation as earnest reason-giving. In short, when engaged in political deliberation, participants thereto should give their real reasons for a given political position, whether those reasons be tied to a political conception of justice or to a comprehensive doctrine, religious, philosophical or moral. It would be epistemologically unreasonable on our part to maintain that persons giving comprehensive reasons for a political position be excluded from deliberation insofar as such reasons can be responsibly held or P-justified (in the sense of in accord with the person’s rational commitments). Nor should we require them to voice reasons other than their own.

Naturally, in order for the person to voice those reasons and to hold them responsibly, she must first know what those reasons are. All of which requires the person’s taking stock thereof. Wherefore Stout’s notion of “democratic piety” for which for some clarification is needed. The author understands this notion as the person’s making an inventory of the different moral and social sources responsible for the shape of her life at a given moment in time and giving appropriate expression thereto (DT, p. 9). In that these intertwine with the person’s life history, they provide her with a horizon of reasons which may justify or fail to justify her political position (distinction 1) and which she may use to justify, successfully or unsuccessfully, her political position (distinction 2). Elsewhere, he further specifies the context as “democratic” and the sub-context as “Emersonian”:

[F]rom a democratic point of view, the only piety worth praising as a virtue is that which concerns itself with just or fitting acknowledgment of the sources of our existence and progress through life […] Imagining or conceiving of those sources and choosing ethically and aesthetically apt expressive means of acknowledging dependence on them are both things for which an Emersonian poet or essayist expects to be held responsible discursively (DT, p. 30).

On several occasions Stout himself practices democratic piety by describing those moral and social sources on which he depends: (97)/(173)

In the days of my adolescent sublime, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the hero of my humanitarian cause, and Jesus was one of three personifications of my loving divinity. Nowadays things have become more complicated, because I have come to know more about these figures of virtue than their hagiographers and publicists wanted me to know […] Love and justice remain virtues […] but now the relation between the persons and the virtues is more complicated. It requires a different, less doctrinal, more improvisational kind of explication. To the extent that King and Jesus exemplify virtues in my imaginative life, they now do so imperfectly and defeasibly. I therefore need an open-ended way to think the relation through, as it were, from both sides at once. Neither doctrine, nor principle, nor system, nor overarching plot, knowable in advance, constrains the course of thinking […] We all have our examples, after all, and we all make something of them sooner of [sic] later. We do not, however, make the same thing of them. Neither do they make the same thing of us (DT, p. 173).

We can see how Stout takes inventory in “critical” fashion: recognizing sources as such; refusing one-sided tendencies to nostalgia, wishful thinking or idealization; introducing between person and sources two-sidedness via reflection, research and questioning. Just such an earnest stocktaking leaves the person ready to advance reasons, be it in the form of structured argument or personal storytelling.

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