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

July 24, 2010 5 comments

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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