Thursday, June 07, 2007

MacIntyre on the Rationality of a Craft Tradition

To become adept in a has to learn how to apply two kinds of distinction, that between what as activity or product merely seems to me good and what really is good, a distinction always applied retrospectively as part of learning from one's earlier mistakes and surpassing one's earlier limitations, and that between what is good for me to do here and now given the limitations of my present state of education into the craft and what is good and best as such, unqualifiedly. But the way in which these distinctions are to be applied within some particular craft is rarely fixed onece and for all. Every craft has a history and characteristically a history not yet completed. And during that history differences in the materials to which that craft gives form, differences in the means by which form is imposed upon matter, and differences in the conceptions of the forms to be achieved not only require new ways of applying these distinctions but htemselves sometiems are the outcome of new ways in which these distinctions are applied. So learning how to make these distinctions adequately involves learning how to go on learning how to apply them. One has to acquire a certain kind of knowing how which enables one to move from the achievements of the past, which depended upon the making of these distinctions in one way, to the possibility of new achievements, which will depend upon making them in what may be some very different way. It is the possession and transmission of this kind of ability to recognize in the past what is and what is not a guide to the future which is at the core of any adequately embodied tradition. A craft in good order has to be embodied in a tradition in good order.

[Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition. Duckworth (London: 1990) pp. 127-128.]

This seems about right, and is, as MacIntyre intends it to be, entirely generalizable to other traditions, like traditions of inquiry. Learning the tradition as a participant in it involves learning how to go on learning how to make the basic distinctions between apparent good and true good and between good under the circumstances and good simply speaking. A historian, as opposed to someone who merely dabbles in history on occasion, has to learn not only how to make a distinction between apparently good historical work and truly good historical work; she has to learn how to learn how to make these distinctions when new areas open up, or new approaches are put forward. And she needs not only to learn the difference between what's good given our limitations and what's good in itself, but also to learn how to learn this anew when limitations shift and change. And so it is across the board.

There are further issues about what what is going on in the distinction between good under the circumstances and good in itself, but I won't raise them here.

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