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Self-knowledge and political justification 4

June 14, 2017

Yet a person may not always be in a position to take (thick) stock herself or to draw out what follows from the critical inventory made during the phase of piety and aired out in the phase of storytelling. Accordingly, the person may have need of a spokesperson, be this a philosopher to work out the inferential commitments underlying the reasons for her political position or a community organizer to extract the issue taking shape therein. Hence Stout’s view that public philosophy consists in making explicit and scrutinizing the commitments and norms implicit in political deliberation and reasons: in short, an exercise in “expressive rationality” as per Robert Brandom (5, 12-14). More concretely, this may entail taking norms or reasons, often expressed as material inferences “given that x, I shall y” for which we ordinarily acknowledge the premise x as a legitimate premise for the conclusion y, and working out the premise needed to make them formally valid (188-190). So, to statements like the following: “(a) Going to the store is my only way to get milk for my cereal, so I shall go to the store; (b) I am a lifeguard on the job, so I shall keep close watch over the swimmers under my protection; (c) Ridiculing a child for his limp would humiliate him needlessly, so I shall refrain from doing so”; we would need to append further premises: “(a) a statement expressing my desire to have milk for my cereal; to (b) the conditional that if I am a lifeguard, it is my responsibility to keep a close watch over the swimmers under my protection; or to (c) the principle that one ought not to humiliate people needlessly” (188). (Cf. Brandom 1994, 243-253)

This exercise presents the “advantage of putting the formerly implicit material inferential commitment in the explicit form of a claim, which in turn allows it to be challenged or justified inferentially in light of other considerations” and takes on still greater importance “when conflicts arise among different material inferential commitments that we have undertaken” (189). Certainly, political deliberation and justification may more often involve the strains of practical reasoning at work in (b) and (c) (“institutional” and “unconditional” obligations (Brandom 1994, 252, as cited by Stout 2004, 189)) rather than the desire-based seen in (a). Stout will go on to work out the moral perplexity surrounding the dirty hands problem in drawing on just such a scheme.

More important for our purposes is the way in which working out inferential commitments proves both case and exception to the link between self-knowledge and political justification outlined above. For, if our capacity for self-knowledge may help to secure the justified quality of our political positions by working out the entailments of our beliefs, our cognitive failings may also hinder arriving at (thick) self-knowledge and, hence, P-justified political positions. Such that the person may need to rely upon the public philosopher to arrive indirectly at the thick self-knowledge necessary for a justified political position. Indeed, the person may lack entirely the expressive resources necessary to render those commitments explicit (193). Likewise, those commitments may outstrip the person’s capacity for thin or thick self-knowledge.

How does this impact our main question, i.e. whether self-knowledge advances political justification? We have seen that self-knowledge is an important part of political justification and, if public philosophy advances self-knowledge, then it likewise advances political justification. On the other hand, public philosophy’s advancing self-knowledge hinges on thick other-knowledge and on the person’s taking responsibility for how she forms beliefs before and after the public philosopher’s work. Otherwise, the public philosopher’s work on the raw material of piety and storytelling and on logical entailments of the political positions exposed therein is for nought. (Moreover, it is unclear whether this requirement figures on governmental and institutional political justification as well as on the personal or associational.) Likewise, we may wonder whether public philosophy and its practitioners are themselves capable of articulating thick other-knowledge and thereby advancing indirect self-knowledge, a question to which Brian Leiter has turned his attention in recent years and the subject of our next section.

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