Home > Uncategorized > From pragmatism to the practical: reflections on the Stout, Rorty, Hauerwas debate

From pragmatism to the practical: reflections on the Stout, Rorty, Hauerwas debate

What’s interesting to me about Stout’s Democracy and Tradition, and his rebuttals to the critical responses of West, Rorty, and Hauerwas in the panel discussion published in the recent JAAR volume, is not so much his commitment to pragmatism (which is, notably, complicated by his recogntition of the  plurivocity of this term) but rather his evident insistence upon being practical

The former, I take it, has considerable positive content.  Stout and Rorty disagree precisely on whether a preference for secularity is essential to this content.  Stout thinks no strong preference of this kind is entailed.  Rorty–insofar as he remains worried about the authoritarian implications of metaphysical (or metaphysical-like) theories of truth, including Christian, Platonic, Cartesian, and others–continues to argue for the importance of such a preference, even though he interestingly suggests (citing Wolterstorff) that theists can legitimately speak from their own points-of-view in the public square.  

But, as Hauerwas’ line of questioning makes clear, and as Stout himself emphasizes, an account of pragmatism which is less restrictive than Rorty’s is not, for this reason, lacking in certain commitments, which constitute a positive tradition.  The main challenge which Hauerwas poses to Stout, as I see it, is that the compatibility of Stout’s more inclusive but still somewhat positive version of pragmatism with the radical demands of Christian discipleship is not a foregone conclusion.  Stout’s hospitality to the Christian other, however welcome and welcoming it is, however refreshingly different from Rorty’s performatively dogmatic secularism, nevertheless may not be able to embrace this other as such, absolutely, without qualification.  A Stoutian society may still be one in which Christians have got to compromise themselves, to some extent, albeit to a much lesser extent than Rorty would ultimately want.

In the end, the question is this: If one wants to be more than a Christian pragmatist (a position which, thanks to West and others, as Stout contends, need not be construed as oxymoronic) and become, above all else, and without compromise, a Christian simpliciter (a disciple of Christ and not Emerson, James, Dewey, etc.), does this desire commit one to becoming impractical?  To be practical would entail minimally taking seriously in some way or another the pluralistic fact of humanity, because such is the state of the real world in which action is possible, in which alone discipleship can be embodied and not merely envisioned.  This is the challenge which Stout poses to Hauerwas, but also to Christians more generally.  Stout also makes a recommendation, in the form of a (revisionist-)pragmatist account of the practical.  But it seems to me that the space for future dialogue is precisely the practical as such, which includes the given constraints of profound human diversity, but which is not necessarily in every respect identifiable with a pragmatist account of the practical, even of a Stoutian variety. 

The logic of Stout’s work and the intelligibility of Hauerwas’ response to it seem to be pushing in this direction.  Away from pragmatism as the condition of dialogue (though it remains in the dialogue) and toward a more general framework of concern, not structurally positioned (in any respect) against the theological but not explicitly entailing it either: a framework which I’m calling here “the practical.”

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  1. dbarber
    July 25, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    I really appreciated this post. I take it, then, that you’re trying to relativize the various oppositions that are governing this debate in virtue of a concept of the practical — such that “the practical” would be something like the condition of possibility for pragmatism, but also for other options that, while not being pragmatism, would not be the inverse of pragmatism, and so on?

    I suppose (if I’m understanding properly) that I’d wonder how ontological one would have to be here? In other words, if one is to affirm pluralism, then does one have to have a differential ontology, whereby it would be “natural” to affirm pluralism?

    • dbarber
      July 25, 2010 at 4:40 pm

      I guess what I’m trying to imagine here is the “good” of being practical, insofar as the practical is tied to pluralism. There seems to be an intriguing tension of whether plurality is a natural good, and thus we must affirm a practical that is pluralistic, or whether being practical is, as such, good, and then, since there is a fact of pluralism, pluralism, as content of the practical, is good.

  2. andrewlp
    July 26, 2010 at 1:57 am

    Thanks for these questions. They’re really challenging me to think through what I am proposing. Without being able to give a very adequate response, I can say a few things.

    The issue seems to be, not only how much one feels compelled to take a negative stance toward the pluralistic fact of humanity because of a Christian commitment to a monological ontology, but also how any such ontology, which would support such a negative stance, is to be understood as practically normative for those living in a situation which is, as a matter of fact, pluralistic. (A mouthful, I know! Let me see if I can clarify.)

    Speaking as a Christian, I must, at some level, speak monologically, insofar as Christ is the unique and definitive logos of the one and only God. And yet, it seems that there are various degrees and forms of plurality which might be embraced within such a Christological horizon. But what I want to suggest here, in particular, is that a Christian who wants to accept the challenge (posed by Stout) of thinking practically has to consider what constraints the pluralistic situation might place upon the actions which would correspond to such an ontology. So there is a question to be asked concerning how the fact of pluralism might complexify an ontology which is ultimately monological, and must be, because of an orthodox view of Christ. And this may be, in some sense, a practical concern. But my question, for Christians, is primarily how any ontology which they uphold (however negatively it disposes them toward pluralism) becomes actionable in a world that is in fact pluralistic.

    Walking on a city street, in which the person to the left may be Jewish, the person to the right Muslim, the one to the front anti-religious, and the one behind a scientologist, what is to be the Christian pedestrian’s attitude toward this situation? How, exactly, does a Christian ontology guide us to act in such a world? This seems to be the sort of compelling question that Stout’s work raises, without, however, necessarily entailing that we all become card-carrying pragmatists.

  3. dbarber
    July 27, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Thanks for the comments. It really is a fascinating problematic, perhaps especially because of the attempt to evade some of these binaries. At the risk of erecting another, I suppose I wonder whether one could distinguish here between discursive tradition and monological ontology — perhaps commitment to the former does not entail commitment to the latter. If this could be done, then one could see commitment to discursive tradition as part of what drives one to affirm plurality (whereas monological ontology can never do this).

  4. andrewlp
    July 28, 2010 at 12:57 am

    I think that distinction could be helpful, but I’m not sure if it makes things too much easier. It seems to me that the discursive tradition which makes up orthodox Christianity would, although it is pluriform as a linguistically and historically conditioned tradition, nevertheless commit one to something very much like a unified ontology, insofar as it is ultimately monotheistic and constitutively Christological, etc. At the same time, however, the same ontology grounds a respect for plurality (in the doctrines of the Trinity and creation)–and, moreover, thinking less in terms of ontology and more in terms of tradition may help us to appreciate really how much plurality Christianity is capable of.

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