In this wide-ranging interview, Jeffrey Stout reflects upon some of the themes of his 2004 book Democracy and Tradition. He also describes the personal and biographical motivations that have shaped his intellectual orientation, one he describes as “Emersonian Perfectionism,” including the impact that such writers as Emerson and Thoreau had upon his early thought. Stout’s reflections on Walden suggest that its discussion of “sleepers” had the same awakening effect on his young mind as the Clash’s hit rock song “Clampdown” had on mine. When the Clash sang, “The men in the factory are old and cunning / You don’t owe nothing, so boy get running! / It’s the best years of your life they want to steal!” I was brought to life, and we see this same exhiliration in Stout. Even today, Stout describes describes the bright hope he places in the ever-present political potential for sleepers to awaken, challenge the status quo, and imagine and achieve more edifying possibilities for our future life together. Moreover, he calls us to a form of political and ethical responsibility that demands sensitivity, careful discernment of possible consequences (both good and ill), and a willingness to see past our differences and work together in pursuit of social justice. See Part I of the interview here.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Throughout your work, you display a strong ethical sensitivity to the urgency for pluralistic democratic societies to locate or achieve sources of solidarity. In Democracy and Tradition, you are especially concerned with building bridges between secular and religious camps. How hopeful are you about the prospects of such bridge-building? What achievements in this area, however halting, give you encouragement? What sorts of initiatives do you think would be particularly helpful in this area?
Jeffrey Stout (JS): There’s a lot of productive bridge-building going on. For the last several years, I have been conversing with people involved in broad-based organizing in a region that extends from Louisiana to California. The citizens’ organizations I’m looking at are all part of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the network created by Saul Alinsky in 1940 or so. The supervisor of the network I’m looking at is Ernesto Cortés. The book I’m working on, Blessed Are the Organized, is full of stories about practices of organizing, bridge-building, and accountability at the grassroots level. Some of the stories are very encouraging. Others help set those in relief by showing what doesn’t work.
Most of the institutions involved in these citizens’ organizations are churches, but there are also synagogues, labor unions, PTAs, and so on. And there are intellectuals like me involved, too, because Ernie draws us in to help educate the organizers and community leaders. Each organization has to hammer out a way of relating across lines of difference. If it doesn’t, it never builds a strong enough power base to have a major impact. There’s a lot to be said about how it all works, but the good news is that there are excellent models of bridge-building out there, below the radar screen of the media.
The bad news is that the economic power now held and exercised by the wealthiest corporate executives is both much greater than it used to be and much easier to translate into political power. So ordinary citizens have to do a lot more organizing even to have a fighting chance of holding the most powerful office holders accountable. The imbalance of power has brought us to the verge of plutocracy. Globalization has also pushed a lot of power above the level where nation-states can easily regulate it. And several decades of Reaganism have left the regulatory capacities of nation-states in tatters.
The current financial crisis is an opportunity to reorient our politics, but the Obama administration appears to be squandering the chance. The president speaks eloquently about the need for bottom-up change on the evening news, but the next morning he’s gathering the usual suspects around the bargaining table. Ordinary people are still out in the cold.
What all this means is that organizing efforts will have to be redoubled, and networks of accountability and information-sharing will have to be extended to the state, national, and international levels. The gap between the powers that be and democratic counterpower is now disturbingly wide. I get hope from the people fighting the good fight on the ground, but the basic power discrepancy is bad enough to tempt me to despair. Of course, if the situation didn’t have something like that structure, hope wouldn’t be necessary.
One big moral of my book will be that if you took religious institutions out of the picture, grassroots democracy in the United States wouldn’t be up to this challenge. That’s my most important reason for thinking that secularism in politics is a bad idea.
TOJ: I’d like to ask you about pragmatism’s understanding of human finitude, as you understand it. On the one hand, pragmatism’s critique of epistemological foundationalism can be read as an embrace of human finitude, a foreswearing of the philosophical desire to achieve certainty and rational mastery by transcending the human. Is there a potential tension between this embrace of finitude and the Emersonian spirit of self-reliance? I’m thinking in particular of where this spirit has taken Roberto Unger in his recent The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound, especially the book’s “First Digression,” which is entitled “Nature in Its Place.” I couldn’t help but read that part of the book as taking the pragmatist spirit of self-reliance to a place that refuses to countenance any finite understanding of what Wendell Berry would call “the human definition.” Would you agree with that reading? As a pragmatist, what do you think is the appropriate way to approach the matter of human finitude?
JS: “Nature in Its Place” imagines a future in which humanity’s capacity to reinvent itself and reshape its natural surroundings rises perpetually in a sublime crescendo of freedom. Unger warns against “trying to subordinate Prometheanism to piety.” He’s assuming that the alternative is to subordinate piety to Prometheanism. Why not try to balance them out?
It is the future, not the past, he says, to which we ought to attribute authority. And the future’s prophetic voice advises us, above all else, not to cramp its style: “We have no greater interest than in so arranging society and culture that they leave the future open and invite their own revision.” It all sounds thrilling, but it’s so indeterminate as to be completely lacking in substance. That, it seems to me, is more dangerous than it sounds.
Hegel was right to associate such indeterminacy not only with Romanticism’s vacuous intuition of the Absolute but also with the Terror that followed the French Revolution. The future, when imagined in this empty way, sometimes ends up opening the floodgates to a sea of blood. Where nothing is ruled out, everything is possible, but that includes everything horrendous, as well as everything worth hoping for. Hegel had something very much like Unger’s Prometheanism in mind when he wrote the Phenomenology of Spirit. Unger combines the political and poetic-prophetic dimensions of Prometheanism and raises them to the nth degree. Unger is running so hard away from the past that he is liable to crash into almost anything in his path. But Hegel has his number.
Authority resides in the past, the present, and the future. If we didn’t inherit a tradition in which the most important concepts had already been applied to thousands of situations, our norms wouldn’t have content, and our thinking would be so open that our brains would fall out. It is our responsibility to adjust our concepts to new combinations, our own days, acknowledging the defeasible authority of what our predecessors have done, but also looking forward in the expectation that our descendants will hold us accountable for our applications of concepts and our inferences.
Whitman had it right when he wrote, “Of course, the old undying elements remain. The task is, to successfully adjust them to new combinations, our own days.” The part of this dialectic that Unger brings into focus is the revisionary aspect, which is very important. But he so overemphasizes this aspect at the expense of tradition that he empties the norms of content. Rightly conceived, authority plays out over time. It goes hand in hand with responsibility. The norms we inherit have to have some substance for our revision of them to have content.
Unger’s discussion proceeds at such a high level of abstraction that one can almost be tricked into thinking that a kind of freedom worth having is being defended. But the kind of freedom people were struggling for when they deposed kings and installed republics, or when they abolished slavery, or when they permitted women to vote and ended Jim Crow was security against domination. To stand in the tradition constituted by these accomplishments is to engage in a continuing struggle to make the notion of domination and the contrasting notion of freedom increasingly determinate.
To dominate other persons or groups is to be in a position to exercise power arbitrarily over them. The master’s relation to the slave is the paradigmatic instance. There will continue to be struggles over what counts as an arbitrary exercise of power, but we aren’t going to discover reasons in favor of making the exercise of power arbitrary in the sense that the master’s exercise of power over the slave is arbitrary. Freedom progresses by becoming more determinate, not by becoming more open. Freedom worth caring about is substantial freedom. It closes off some pathways decisively. To open up those pathways again would be catastrophic. So the future isn’t completely open, as far as substantial freedom is concerned.
I’m responding to the same deficiencies in his position that you are. Human beings are finite, yes. There are limits to what we can reasonably count as happiness, freedom, or justice. On the other hand, we often make wrong guesses about what the limits are. Unger is at his best when he rails against what he calls false necessity. Human beings have often defended the status quo by declaring certain features of it natural, inescapable, or divinely authorized. Most of those defenses now look like rationalizations. Culture and society are more malleable than premoderns ever thought. It is also true, as Unger emphasizes, that we are responsible for the arrangements, norms, and concepts we fashion for ourselves. They are not so fixed that we cannot change them. That’s the truth in Promethean politics.
Hegel understood this. However, he also understood the previous point about substantial freedom, so he tried to figure out how to get determinate norms and appropriately flexible revision of them into the same vision of rationality and social change. Unger, as far as I can tell, gives only the Promethean truth. As a result, he invites us to put social experience into such continuous flux that nothing, including the paradigmatic instances of domination, can be ruled out with any confidence.
TOJ: On June 8, 2007, your friend Richard Rorty, one of this century’s truly great philosophers—and someone who has also been extremely important to my own intellectual journey—died from pancreatic cancer. Shortly before his death, he wrote an extraordinarily touching reflection in Poetry magazine called “The Fire of Life.” In it, he speaks about the pragmatist’s embrace of human finitude in terms of a rejection of the Platonic attempt “to acquire non-linguistic access to the really real.” For Rorty, to acknowledge our finitude in this way meant “to admit that we shall never be in touch with something greater than ourselves.” I sometimes wonder if this was the necessary conclusion for Rorty to draw from his rejection of Platonism, insofar as it seems to equate “non-linguistic access to the really real” with simply being “in touch.” What is your reading of this? Do you think there might be nonplatonic ways of being in touch with something larger than ourselves? Is there a problem with the word “larger”?
JS: The universe is obviously a good deal larger than all of us put together. So when Dick referred to “something greater than ourselves,” he must have meant something much better than we are, something ideal, as well as something extremely powerful. He was probably making a point like the one I made earlier about powers and ideals. There are beings and forces that are much more powerful than we are, but they aren’t greater in the sense of embodying the ideal. They aren’t just, wise, or loving. Some human beings are relatively just, wise, and loving, and so are some groups. By using these good examples and extending them imaginatively, we can project idealized versions of the real. But the projected idealizations aren’t actualized. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had to dream them up.
We Feuerbachians try to keep our views of the actual powers and our imaginative projections of the ideal from running together in a way that leaves us bowing and scraping before projections of our own making. On the other hand, those of us inspired by the concluding line in Emerson’s “Experience” take it to be our task to transform our ideals into practical power. That’s the ideal way of bringing ideals and powers together.
Rorty saw Platonism and theism as responsible for fostering confusions of powers and ideals, confusions that often tend to distract people from the celebration of human imagination and from the transformation of democratic ideals into practical power. Perhaps Platonists and their descendents, including some latter-day theists, are hoping for unmediated contact with something both Real and Ideal. If so, they would be well advised to consult the opening chapters of Hegel’s Phenomenology. But we shouldn’t read too much into Rorty’s little essay. He wasn’t trying to state his views precisely, and his main point didn’t have much to do with the difference between linguistic and nonlinguistic contact with the real.
TOJ: In “The Fire of Life” Rorty also reflects how, when faced with his own death, he found a significant measure of comfort and solace in poetry, and he quotes passages from Algernon Charles Swinburne and Walter Savage Landor that, to my ear, strike precisely the sort of nondeferentially pious tone you describe near the beginning of Democracy and Tradition. This tells me that, although explicitly disavowing the idea of being in touch with something greater than ourselves, Rorty deeply felt the spiritual importance of gratitude and of making a fitting and just response to the sources of our existence and progress through life. Would you agree with that assessment? Is there a tension between Rorty’s rejection of being in touch with something greater than ourselves and his pious recognition of his dependence on the sources of life that sustained him? If so, do you see it as a problematic or as a healthy tension?
JS: Once, when visiting the Rortys in Virginia, I mentioned to Dick that I was thinking of writing a book on natural piety. It would collect my thoughts on Edmund Burke and William Wordsworth, Socrates and Virgil, Emerson and Thoreau, and Stevens and Ammons. He seemed to like what I was saying. But, as “The Fire of Life” makes clear, he wasn’t much of a reader of poetry. So this side of his thinking wasn’t very fully developed. His knowledge of Romantic and modernist poetry for the most part came secondhand, through Harold Bloom.
I often found myself quarreling with Dick’s way of summarizing his positions. Especially when addressing an audience outside of professional philosophy, he often exaggerated the motifs in his work that chime with Nietzschean Prometheanism. I have always gravitated instead toward the arguments that link Dick to Hegel, Dewey’s democratic translation of Hegelianism, and Sellars on the Myth of the Given. The Nietzschean strand of Rorty does mesh better with the more extreme forms of Prometheanism than with self-reliant piety. To resolve the apparent tension, one need only undertake a modest shift in vocabulary, as Hegel did. The result, though less exhilarating, is more sensible. In politics, that’s usually a good trade-off.
Please read Part I of our interview with Jeffrey Stout here.
1. See Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press in association with Hebrew Union College Press, 2004).
2. Roberto Unger, The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 251.
3. Ibid., 242.
4. See G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit , trans. A. V. Miller with analysis of the text and foreword by J. N. Findlay (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1977).
5. Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas (New York, NY: The Liberal Arts Press, 1949 ), 42.
6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience,” Essays: Second Series (Philadelphia, PA: Henry Altemus, 1894 ), 76: “We dress our garden, eat our dinners, discuss the household with our wives, and these things make no impression, are forgotten next week; but in the solitude to which every man is always returning, he has a sanity and revelations, which in his passage into new worlds he will carry with him. Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart!—it seems to say,—there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.”