Saturday, March 10, 2007

Doctrinal Development IIa: The Tradition

Living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ.

Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that there are three approaches to inquiry:

Encyclopaedic: There is a single, substantive conception of rationality suitable for people in all traditions; this rationality is impersonal, universal, disinterested.

Genealogical: There is a single, substantive conception of rationality overarching people in all traditions; this rationality is hypocritical, pretending to be impersonal, universal, and disinterested, while in reality expressing the will to power of a limited group of interested parties.

Tradition-Constituted: It is (pace the Genealogical approach) possible to have a substantive and universal conception of rationality; but (pace the Encyclopaedic approach) we can approach this rationality only by inquiry that is communal and thus rooted in a particular cooperative agreement on fundamentals. Strictly speaking, this should be called 'tradition-constituted and tradition-constitutive' because it is both constituted by and constitutive of tradition.

MacIntyre notes that Tradition-Constituted inquiry could also be called 'craft-constituted'; the idea being that in TCI inquiry is treated as a sort of apprenticeship into, and expression of, a craft. In a craft, we make new developments by extending the principles of our predecessors to new situations; we justify new developments by showing that they deal with problems faced by our predecessors in ways that those predecessors could recognize as a genuine achievement in the same craft they practiced. The reason this sort of development is possible is that the craft is (so to speak) organized teleologically, which means it can progress and grow, often in startlingly new directions, without ceasing to be the same craft:

Every craft is informed by some conception of a finally perfected work which serves as the shared telos of that craft. And what are actually produced as the best judgments or actions or objects so far are judged so because they stand in some determinate relationship to that telos, which furnishes them with their final cause. So it is within forms of intellectual enquiry, whether theoretical or practical, which issue at any particular stage in their history in types of judgment and activity which are rationally justified as the best so far, in the light of those formulations of the relevant standards of achievement which are rationally justified as the best so far.

[From A. MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry]

Indeed, more than just being able to progress, progress is what a tradition does, and for precisely the reason given. When I am taught in a tradition, I am taught not merely what my predecessors knew; I am (at least tacitly) taught what sort of excellent things my predecessors began, and, apprenticed within the same tradition (and thus following the same telos), I am (again, at least tacitly) taught how to carry further what my predecessors did. I join the community, and begin to be changed by the purpose of the community, insofar as it gives me a direction and goal for progress. Someone taught in a craft tradition, learns the basics of the craft; but, whether he realizes it or not, he also learns the basics of how the craft itself progresses, and part of what makes him a participant in that craft tradition is that he contributes to that progress. An apprentice to a master mason does not merely learn the basics of masonry; he learns, or begins to learn, how to be a master mason himself, not merely repeating the same basic tasks over and over again, but improvising an excellent work of masonry for each task that comes to hand.

But more than this, the apprentice to the master mason can only become a master mason by internalizing a conception, idealized and enticing, of what it is to be a master mason; it is this that makes apprenticeship in a tradition of masonry not merely a rote education but a 'moral and social project', a life of self-improvement and continual striving for excellence (which, again, is guided by the telos of the tradition). The apprentice begins to have good taste as a mason, i.e., begins to be able to think critically, not just in a vague, general sense, but to think critically as a master mason does. So it is with any other tradition. Someone who wishes to become a physicist, for instance, does not merely learn physics equations; he becomes an apprentice of sorts to physicists, a member of a sort of community, which is guided by a general type (subject to many individual variations in individual understandings) of goal for that community; he learns the tools and practices by which that community carries its work forward, and in so doing begins (slowly, and arguably it's a never-ending process in which no good physicist ever stops trying to improve) to internalize a physicist's good taste in matters of physics, i.e., he begins to think critically as a physicist. He develops the habits, the virtues, of a good physicist. That is what it is to be in the tradition, in the craft, of physics.

Thus, I would suggest that there are three basic elements to Tradition-Constituted inquiry. I will call them tribe, telos, and taste. In what follows I'll expand a bit on each of these and discuss how they play out in the distinctive (and in some ways unusual) field of Christian doctrine. Because of the length of my reflection, I'm splitting the discussion into two posts, this one and the next.

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