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Fr. 909

July 5, 2019

Is the ideal of Stoutian democratic individuality – with its triple calls to excellence, novelty and resistance – oppressive? Is there not the risk that this ideal is itself a form of cultural dominance for those who find it burdensome or a danger to their psychic integrity? Are there grounds to hold it up either as an exclusive or even a preferred reading of personal democratic cultural values? One can only answer such questions in scrutinizing Stout’s reasoning for such individuality.

In Democracy and Tradition, that reasoning may be seen as developing in five steps: 1.) the individual standpoint focuses the social critic’s attention on the kinds of people we have become and are becoming; 2.) the processual nature of this becoming forces us to reconceptualize democracy as tradition rather than immutable essence; 3.) the combination of new focus and reconceptualization in turn directs attention to the means by which we come to know those persons; 4.) we grasp persons under the means of self-expression in which they give voice to their deepest reasons and personal histories; 5.) this self-expression itself gives voice to that which individuates persons from one another as well as from social types writ large. In this way, the democratic individual is the bearer of a concrete, personal history and resident of an epoch, culture and community: contemporary Western liberal-democratic political society under an advanced economy. Yet there seems room for disagreement over both the exclusivity and adequacy of this interpretation of democratic practice.

In his Gifford Lectures, the author develops a similar conception of individuality through the lens of ethical religion. Ethical religion in combination with democracy bring the person to rise above her conformist self following another’s provocation and shame of her present self. That individuality consists not in a freedom from influence but in response to a divinely disruptive gift, and the person democratic individual is called into self-responsibility as a response to a form of influence. Forms of influence are many: adolescence, acculturation, instinctive imitation, slavishness. Democratic individuality requires not that one do away with such influences in order to exist as a sort of monad. Rather, the person as democratic individual takes it upon herself to become a locus of influence and mutual responsibility.

More particularity, this entails acting out thoughts which the person may have repressed out of the pressures of conformity, so that she might genuinely stand before the other and offer herself as an example thereto. This is a way of showing what ideals she stands for and how, and making her life embody democratic ideals is a form of power. The influence which she seeks to exercise over others is that of treating them as self-responsible loci of authority. While not all may be callers to self-responsibility, all may be called. This does not reduce to a form of mobocracy or levelling, for their is no lack of excellence. Perhaps one might even go so far as to speak of an aristocracy so long as it is forgotten that no one is inherently a herd member. When it comes to their translation into practical power, unrealized ideals are spectral wrongs.

Although domination is insidious and democratic morality may mask dominations, the ideal of democratic individuality is not itself a form of domination on Stout’s reading. That which propels one towards the unattained self, on his pragmatist reading of Emerson, is not a true self, for there is no access to such a formation. In terms of Emerson’s stair analogy, persons as democratic individuals may be on different stairs, heeding different callings. Therefore, there is room for disagreement in democratic individuality, and callers and callings, witnesses and witnessings are plural in number. Consequently, democratic individuality neither threatens the person’s psychic integrity nor pretends to exclusivity in that it allows always for contestation of its paradigm.


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