Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Evening Note for Wednesday, October 6

 Thought for the Evening: Reason and Tradition

Frederick Will's 1983 article, "Reason and Tradition" [The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol 17 No 4 (Winter 1983) pp. 91-105], based on an earlier Distinguished Humanities Lecture, begins with a central point: "All of us members of civilized societies are, individually and collectively, the legatees of a vast and complex cultural heritage in which a great variety of strands -- scientific, technological, religious, moral, political, artistic, and so on -- are interwoven" (p. 91). This cultural heritage includes customary ways of thinking and acting that which we call 'tradition'. They have arisen over generations as each generation receives its cultural heritage and adapts it and passes it on to the next. Members of civilized society also have another resource available to them, which we call 'reason', and a common pattern one finds is arguments for the modification of tradition on the basis of reason. So what shall we make of this pattern of thought?

One common view is that reason is a resource with special features: it is universal and independent of tradition, and we have access to it that in some way is other than cultural inheritance. What Will argues is that this can't be right because it can't fit actual practice, in which rational authority is unavoidable more contestable and locally bound than this suggests. One of the results of the popularity this theory of reason is a tendency to attribute authority to clear conviction; what seems obvious to me is what is taken as true, independent of matters of tradition. On the basis of these kinds of clear convictions, people try to remove traditional safeguards, which they take to be corruptions. Will gives two opposed examples. The first is someone who, from the obvious wrong of killing, assumes immediately that anything that allows people to kill in, say, war or abortion, is wholly to be quashed. The second is someone who, from the obvious good of privacy concludes that there is no limit to what one may do with one's body, whether consensual violence or abortion or whatever else, regardless of what traditional limits might be in place. These two may have opposed conclusions, but the manner of proceeding is the same: From something deemed luminously obvious, both try to push out of the way safeguards that tradition has put up to prevent private judgements like these from definitively dominating everything. In this sense, Will says, 'reason' is being used to refer to what is actually a fallacy of accident, taking the qualified for the unqualified.

When reason is referred to as an authoritative source, it is generally treated as "an identical resource residing in individuals" (p. 94). Community might be taken to help stimulate it, and we might attribute reason to community as a sort of extended sense, but the fundamental sense of something intrinsically individualistic. It is supposed to be an authoritative source because everybody has it, everybody has it fully, and you have only to look within, not without, to recognize what is to be done. Will takes the popularity of this to be tied as well with a number of other individualisms, in epistemology, in politics, in religion, and so forth; they all reinforce each other in various ways. Reason is also taken to be something with an inherent connection to acceptability, and the form of its acceptability is tied to the individualism with which it is conceived: reason is the same in each, so the judgment of each should be the same for each. "Each individual, in the rational governance of thought and action, harmonizes with other individuals" (p. 96). The difficulty arises in how one can guarantee this; the answer given by Descartes was 'method', but this implies that we need ancillary means to reason aright. Will holds that these ancillary means, these methodological helps that keep us on the right path, are a distorted but clear derivation from the impossibility of rational activity without tradition, custom, and the like. Minds must be trained to a method; to engage in rational activities, they must be able already to function in a highly sophisticated and complex way that it simply cannot invent out of itself whole cloth.

As Will puts it in other terms, the point is that reason is supposed to be the same in all, a common gift; but rational judgments are certainly not the same in all, so there needs to be a way to sort out contesting judgments. This can only come from other resources, and, what is more, among those are included some resources that we cannot have without public institutions and practices. "The contribution of our native endowments to the constitution of reason cannot be isolated from the contribution of individual experience, practice, and custom, and the communal version of these in tradition" (p. 98). Reason and tradition are not appropriately opposed; tradition is a constitutive component of reason. Attempting to resolve contests of rational judgments based on reason alone is seen in practice to increase contests and confusion, not reduce them. If someone is mistaking an unclear conception for a clear one, someone's individual mind is not working as it should, at least here, and requires the correction of others. This is indeed how we respond to such situations. Since we require the help of others all the time in other situations, this is not surprising, despite the fact that it should be on the standard theories of authoritative reason. It's as if people were always expected to judge their own case by being advocate, judge, and jury simultaneously; this could not possibly function as a real trial. 

A true account of reason, then, will be one that is not purely individualistic and that does not introduce a false opposition between reason and tradition. The first thing to recognize is that tradition plays the major role in determining what most of us find clear or obvious most of the time. In a contest of clear intuitions, we do not have to say that one is really not clear; they may both be clear, each arising in the context of some traditional divergence. And this is in fact what we often find in intellectual history; the Greek mathematicians discovering irrational numbers were faced with two clear ideas in opposition, one that numbers must be based on whole numbers, and one that geometrical distances have a numerical magnitude. This is a normal feature of intellectual life, not just in mathematics and in science, but also in education, morals, law, and politics. We can draw, then, a general conclusion:

In every great divisive controversy, within academic disciplines and in wider communities, there are basic generating causes in our tradition. Communities of scholars and scientists, and moral, political, and religious communities, find themselves collectively at loss as to how to think and act; and individuals in their more private lives find themselves similarly at a loss because for a variety of reasons in different cases their tradition provides them with no single clear guide. In many situations different components of their tradition point in different and contrary directions. (p. 103).
The alternative of thinking this way is the tendency, common in argument, of trying to force one's views across as in some way or another obvious while stubbornly refusing to regard the possibility that another person may not only not find it obvious, they may find the opposing view obvious. This ends up approaching Ambrose Bierce's sarcastic comment on self-evidence: The self-evident is that which is evident only to yourself. In reality, we should be expecting the opposition of clear ideas; the "abrasion" between them is how tradition develops and adapts. This does sometimes give tradition a bit of a rambling feel, but it's precisely this that makes it possible for it to contribute those elements of itself on which reason crucially depends.

Various Links of Interest

* Yitzhak Melamed, Spinoza and Some of His Medieval Predecessors on the Summum Bonum (PDF)

* Marcus Hunt, Noble Animals, Brutish Animals (PDF)

* Milena Ivanova, Scientific Progress and Aesthetic Values (PDF)

* An interesting discussion of some of the complications associated with lab-grown meat

* Unhistorize, a blog on late pagan Neoplatonism

* Trent Pomplun, John Duns Scotus in the History of Medieval Philosophy from the Sixteenth Century to Etienne Gilson, discusses precisely what the title says: how Scotus is treated in works on the history of philosophy in that period. Thomists are often blamed for many of the characterizations of Scotus one gets, but as Pomplun shows, many of them are Protestant or secular in origin, and Thomists often started echoing them only relatively late when they had already become pervasive. 

* Neil Dalal, Shankara, at the SEP

* Cody Moran, What Is a Smartphone? A Thomistic Analysis

* An interactive map of the world's submarine cables

Currently Reading

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Isaac Asimov, Prelude to Foundation
Vladimir Soloviev, The Justification of the Good
J. R. R. Tolkien (Hofstetter, ed.), The Nature of Middle Earth