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Democracy and Tradition. By Jeffrey Stout. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 368 Pages.

William James, the founder of American pragmatism, once remarked that “whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it: that factor is attitude.” It might be said that modern American democracy is defined by precisely this dilemma: the new wave of conservative traditionalism has gained ground on traditional liberal secularism, and, consequently, the two sides seem to be engaged in an irreversible deadlock. According to those on the front lines of the ‘culture war’, in the end there can only be one. But in the midst this often heated exchange, Jeffrey Stout has contributed a rather new kind of colloquialism: namely, “cooler heads will prevail.” For Stout, the traditions of “Democracy” and “Traditionalism” are precisely that: traditions. No way-of-life, no matter how modern, can be thoroughly ahistoricist or a-contextual. Therefore, committed democrats must acknowledge the prevalence of the features of tradition in their liberalism (e.g the fathers, the stories, the norms, etc.). The traditionalists don’t get off scot free, however. In addition to the traditionalizing of the democratic attitude, Stout calls the new traditionalists to the democratizing of their traditionalisms. For Stout, no realm of authority should be left unchecked – dialogue is always necessary. In this way, the reader can see that Stout’s vision of a dialogically driven, heterogeneous society admits the properly dialectical relationship between Democracy and Tradition.

In Part One, The Question of Character, Stout begins his foray into this relationship by revealing his cards. No thinker arrives from a purely neutral standpoint; all are situated in some historical setting, and for Stout this setting is the American school of Pragmatist thought. This first section name-checks Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman as its principle progenitors. For Stout, the perfectionism of Emerson and the individualism of Whitman represent the best of the American tradition. For example, Emersonian piety cannot but be located in the terms of a tradition, but “…from a democratic point of view, the only piety worth praising as a virtue is that which concerns itself with just or fitting acknowledgement of the sources of our existence and progress through life.”[1] For Stout, American democrats shouldn’t understand themselves as lacking something that the new traditionalists have to offer. Democracy itself is a tradition. As he himself remarks, “…my purpose… is to remind America that this tradition exists.”[2]

In Part Two, Religious Voices in a Secular Society, Stout begins the dialogue between traditional religion and liberalism with a critique of Rawls’ notion of justice. For Rawls, religious belief cannot be considered under public discussion as there is no way of deliberating between contradictory viewpoints. Religious belief, therefore, must be “left at home”, so to speak. Only a “veil of ignorance” that covers over all particularities, especially any religious notion of “the good”, is able to allow equal standing amongst citizens in a pluralist state. In sum, “the… Rawlsian view is that the religious reasons are to contractarian reasons as IOUs are to legal tender.”[3] Much like Kant, Rawls’ vision of justice only allows for a motivational religion.

Over against Rawls and much of traditional liberalism, Stout wants “to explore the possibility that a person can be a reasonable (socially-cooperative) citizen without believing in or appealing to a free-standing conception of justice.”[4] All religious belief should be allowed to the table of public discussion. If America has learned anything in its tumultuous history, it is that religious belief can often be a spur for radical change; just witness the speeches of Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln. But how does this political hetero-dynamism work exactly? For Stout, a dialogical politics works through the tool of immanent criticism. This form of internal critique either tries “to show that their opponents’ religious views are incoherent, or they try to argue positively from their opponents’ religious premises to the conclusion that the proposal is acceptable. What they do not do is argue from a purportedly common basis of reasons in Rawls’ sense.”[5] This admittedly ‘expressivist’ vision of political discourse shows respect for the particular beliefs and practices of its components. True liberal democracy, then, admits to its inherent plurality; if anything, its prides itself on this fact, and names it as its tradition.

With this tradition of democratic pragmatism in view, Stout begins his critique of the ‘subtraction theories’ of three prominent traditionalists: John Milbank, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Stanley Hauerwas. For Stout, the problem with the new traditionalism is that it regards ‘the secular’ as some kind of attempt at a hegemonic, meta-rationality, rather than something akin to Stout’s modest pragmatism. When this straw-man version of democracy is built in their work, the polemics are piled on and the only answer becomes ‘withdrawal’ – subtraction from the totalitarian public sphere altogether. As long as secularism continues to engage in its anti-traditionalist quest for political dominance, according to these theorists, believers must remain on the sidelines.

Stout’s defense of the liberal tradition is worth quoting at length: “Once tradition is identified with traditionalist practice (and the hierarchical institutional structure that goes along with it), it becomes possible to argue that modern democracy, because its ethical discourse is obviously not governed by a tradition in this sense, is nothing more than a scene of conceptual fragmentation. Yet once the ambiguity of the term “tradition” is made plain, it becomes obvious that the debate over the new traditionalism is best construed not as a debate between traditional and modern varieties of ethical discourse, but rather as a debate involving at least two traditions or strands of ethical discourse: a tradition dedicated to a very narrow conception of how traditions ought ideally to operate and a tradition dedicated to the project of loosening up that conception democratically and dialogically.”[6] For Stout, there is no reason to think that opposed conceptions of the good cannot eventually come into some form of agreement when both sides are fully engaged in the dialogical democratic process.

In Part Three, A Conditioned Rectitude, Stout presents the positive philosophy of his democratic tradition. Over against the new traditionalists criticized in the previous section, he argues for 1) the ideal of a common morality set in a contextualist account of epistemic justification (yet within a nonrelativist account of moral truth), and 2) an ethics without a necessary metaphysical substructure. According to Stout, these are the preeminent features of a “modest pragmatism.”

The most striking feature of Stout’s concept of epistemic justification and moral truth is his combination of contextualism in regards to justification and nonrelativism in regards to moral truth. For Stout, the pragmatic tradition was right in affirming contextualism when confronting the quandary of epistemic justification (an epistemic humility, one might say), but some of its proponents were misguided in assuming this contextualism went “all the way down.” “Contextualist epistemology is compatible with the idea that there is a moral law in this sense: an infinitely large set consisting of all the true moral claims but not a single falsehood or contradiction.”[7] However, since this set of truths is not within human grasp, Stout appeals to his concept of “imaginative projection” – the ideal of a humbled ethical subject who is always willing to admit that a better state can still be achieved. “The point of the present exercise is to imagine the full-range of possible improvements not yet actualized, while remaining agnostic about the details.”[8] The reason for this chastened, yet imaginative, epistemology is that it “…makes room for conscientious objection… It underscores the need for social criticism. It assures us that a lonely dissenter or critic, taking a stand against the crowd or the powers that be, might be right.”[9]

Substantively, concepts utilizing terminology such as “imagination” and “projection” usually don’t leave much room for classical metaphysics. Suffice it to say, Stout continues in this pragmatic tradition by presenting a vision of “ethics without metaphysics”. For Stout, the use of the term “truth” in language is of much more importance than any alternative metaphysical account: “I am happy to say that truth is absolute if this is understood strictly as a remark about how the word “true” behaves in our language. But I still hold that defining truth as correspondence has no explanatory value.”[10] As with Wittgenstein, Stout’s concept of truth, moral and otherwise, is inherently a function of its linguistic use. Therefore, if a society is to progress down the ethical road towards perfectionism (in the Emersonian sense), then it must be attuned to its own words. In this way, focus and context are king. Deducing moral truth isn’t a matter of rational procedurism, but carefully judging the particularities of a moral situation. Relativism is never the answer, however, as Stout’s call for an objective notion of “excellence” (something valued for its own sake, often against utility) makes clear.

Ultimately, Stout’s call for a tradition of democracy is a naming of associations against hegemonic identities. We can have competing claims to truth and justice in a pluralist society while engaging each other in the public sphere. If anything, this is precisely what American democracy has always been. Clearly, those who advocate a new traditionalism need to be reminded of this historical fact. The world is simply not driven solely by incommensurable notions of ‘the good’. It is, for example, possible for a scientifically-oriented materialist to agree with an evangelical Christian about what is and what is not a just war – these kinds of things happen all the time, and they occur dialogically, not metaphysically. A healthy democratic respect for the beliefs of others will indeed go a long way in developing the public relationships between different interest groups. Without a doubt, a strong emphasis on the character and virtue of an individual democrat, along with the development of the skill of ‘immanent criticism’, is (and has been) a very promising way of moving forward in this regard. However, one must wonder if Stout’s appeals to the particular tradition of American pragmatism and individualism will be enough to secure this utopian future.

In the conclusion of Democracy and Tradition, Stout locates this promising future squarely within the bounds of modern American itself: “…we should not imagine the life-giving sources on which we depend as something essentially alien to American democratic modernity. That stream is in us and of us when we engage in our democratic practices. Democracy, then, is misconceived when considered to be a desert landscape hostile to whatever life-giving waters of culture and tradition might still flow through it. Democracy is better construed as the name appropriate to the currents themselves in this particular time and place.”[11] There is no doubt that a healthy revival of American individualism (in the affirmative sense) would do wonders for public life. But one must wonder whether or not Stout’s harkening back to the times of Emerson and Whitman is itself a qualified version of the romanticized visions of the past that he criticizes in the new traditionalisms. Is there much pragmatic sense is calling modern America back to these heroes of the faith, or has their time past? Perhaps the lesson that should be learned from the fathers of American intellectualism is one of form and not of content. These thinkers worked at developing an entirely new tradition for an entirely new time in history. Their belief was that the new world finally claimed a hundred years earlier had forever altered the story of modern life, and that they were charged with re-configuring the annals of history anew. Perhaps this attitude, one of humble acknowledgment of the leaders of the past along with a strong sense of the novelty of the present and the contingency of the future, should be the functional basis of the convergence of traditions called American democracy. Beyond William James, we might say that this is the attitude that will ultimately deepen the relationships between otherwise antagonized peoples: an unqualified, unconditional love for one’s neighbor regardless of particularities. It seems as though this would clearly be within the spirit of Stout’s universal address, and that, with this in mind, cooler heads will ultimately prevail.


[1] Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 30.

[2] Ibid., 19.

[3] Ibid., 69.

[4] Ibid., 68.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 136.

[7] Ibid., 240.

[8] Ibid., 242.

[9] Ibid., 244.

[10] Ibid., 248.

[11] Ibid., 308.

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