A Glut of Tradition

How many times I have written and rewritten some version of this post, I cannot say. At this point I do not even know what all of my reservations with this post are: that this is self-pitying, perhaps, or self-indulgent, or just a waste of time? I’ll publish this, I think, to keep myself honest, so that if I ever start getting too big for my britches you can link me back to this, say, “So, did you ever solve this problem?” And I’ll publish it so that if you feel the same way you’ll know that you aren’t alone. Not that seeing another person struggle the same struggle has given me any comfort that I can recall, but there are some people who are consoled by the idea. And, hey, I doubt some Silicon Sophia will resurrect us all in her microchips one day, but if it ever happens I suppose she can use this to improve her simulations.

A black and white image of a man standing before library stacks, holding a large number of books along one arm.

“Scene from the State Library” by State Library Victoria Collection

Near the beginning of this blog I had a crisis of sorts: what is the point of having opinions at all, let alone sharing them online, given how little I really know? I am far behind in the game of understanding the world. What makes me think I could ever catch up? I resolved this to some extent at the time and I mostly forgot about the affair. I regained a sense that I might stagger toward some understanding–albeit a limited understanding–and that this process might be instructive for someone or other. A little while later I had so regained my confidence that I tried to explain in a more systematic way the thinking I had been doing. Sure, this was provisional, trying on ideas rather than arguing for them, but that was more than I had been comfortable with previously. Alas, for the last year the sense of futility has returned, powerfully so, and for a more robust, theory-informed reason.

It began, however, with excitement. I had stumbled upon a suite of philosophy blogs into which I fell headlong; Speculum Criticum Traditionis and Digressions & Impressions are two notable examples. The one I’ve already mentioned here, and which prompted me to start reading Alasdair MacIntyre, is Amod Lele’s Love of All Wisdom. Lele is a comparative philosopher of a strongly synthetic bent; although more inclined to analytic philosophy than to Continental philosophy, he has the latter’s interest in putting Western and non-Western philosophical traditions into conversation. If you click through and look at his blog’s marquee you’ll see five representatives of the traditions he in particular is working through: Śāntideva, Aristotle, G. W. F. Hegel, Confucius, and Martha Nussbaum. What I found particularly exciting about his work is what he calls the “methodological MacIntyre,” referring to the way in which Alasdair MacIntyre adapted the work of Thomas Aquinas and, more importantly, Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos to consider how to decide between incommensurable philosophical traditions.

I’ll explain.

One of MacIntyre’s key insights is that all philosophical thinking occurs in a tradition; that philosophical tradition is what supplies the rules a thinker needs in order to think, concerning issues like what logical moves are allowed, what sorts of assumptions are valid, and what sorts of things count as evidence. (Examples of philosophical traditions might be Confucianism, Thomism, or analytic philosophy.) The problem is that there are several such traditions and these traditions are, or can be, incommensurable, which means that a person situated in one tradition will not understand the arguments of a person situated in a different tradition. This poses a problem: how can a person choose, rationally, between philosophical traditions? In order to think rationally at all, I must already be situated in a tradition. But if I am situated in a tradition, I am by definition unable to assess the validity of a tradition that is incommensurable with my own. MacIntyre’s answer is that traditions can become commensurable. This requires a lot of work: one or more thinkers must learn both traditions fluently, so they can think in each tradition’s own terms (even if those terms contradict each other), and then do the work of translating each tradition into the other’s idiom. At this point, one tradition can supercede the other. This happens when members of Tradition A acknowledge that Tradition B addresses certain problems in Tradition A better than Tradition A does. The important thing here is not that Tradition B mounts a critique of Tradition A, because Tradition A is also perfectly capable of mounting a critique of Tradition B and there’s no way to adjudicate between those critiques without already deciding which is the better tradition. No, the important thing is that Tradition B does a better job of solving Tradition A’s problems than Tradition A does, by Tradition A’s own standards. Usually this occurs when there is a crisis of some variety within a tradition which that tradition has failed to resolve.

Lele largely adopts MacIntyre’s idea here, but with a crucial two-fold modification. First, Lele argues that one tradition superceding another is not the only possibility: MacIntyre’s own hero, Thomas Aquinas, synthesized two traditions (Augustinian Christianity and Aristotelianism) that had lately become commensurable. Second, relatedly, Lele disagrees that a thinker can only be located in one tradition. This can’t be correct; among other things, traditions are often domain-specific. MacIntyre does not disavow evolutionary theory just because he is a Thomist: he allows himself to be guided by Charles Darwin in biological inquiry even while he is guided by Thomas Aquinas in metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical inquiry. It is incorrect to depict traditions of inquiry as being always strictly antagonistic (though of course they may often be antagonistic). Therefore Lele speaks of not just choosing a tradition, as MacIntyre might, but choosing a few.

(The Love of All Wisdom posts which I have summarized above are as follows: “Paper on methodology up on Prosblogion,” “The need for substantive standards of rationality,” “The methodological MacIntyre and the substantive MacIntyre,” “Paradigms in Wilber and MacIntyre,” “Choosing a few traditions,” “Belonging rationally to a tradition.”)

As I said, at first pass I found this exciting. For the most part this was because I was immediately convinced. The way MacIntyre and/or Lele had framed the problem of incommensurate traditions of inquiry articulated and reasonably explained what I had long ago intuited as being a real problem with rational discourse, leading to the door of postmodernism. But neither MacIntyre nor Lele end there. I had been looking for some time for whatever comes after postmodernism; although personal epistemology theory strongly suggested to me that such a thing exists, the scholarship on personal epistemology is very light on description about a way forward. (That’s not a failing of the theory; it is descriptive of the stages by which people understand knowledge and knowledge acquisition, not normative about the philosophical justifications or frameworks a person takes at each stage.) Lele’s modification of MacIntyre seems, to me, to be the best way forward I’ve seen so far.

Alas, excitement quickly turned to despair. Of course that despair is possibly just a consequence of my temperament. But it’s not without reason. The “methodological MacIntyre” allows something I thought might be theoretically impossible; it does not prevent it from being practically impossible. Lele alludes to this when discussing his ambition to synthesize all wisdom traditions in “Choosing a few traditions”:

But to offer a dialectical synthesis of all traditions seems pretty close to impossible. There is just too much out there. One can certainly love all wisdom, enjoy it, delight in it. But I don’t think one can actually know all wisdom well enough to put it all together in one lifetime. And one lifetime is all any of us has.

Lele then resolves to choose and attempt to synthesize just two: what he calls Yavanayāna Buddhism and a “modern historicist Aristotelianism,” of which Hegel and MacIntyre would be included. This, too, is the work of a lifetime, but it is the work of a lifetime, in that Lele can reasonably achieve this reduced goal. He could do it. I am not sure I could.

At 31 I am still young in the grand scheme. Nonetheless, I feel far behind. I feel very far behind. In my attempt to learn more about and speak more about the sorts of philosophers and theorists of whom (according to my degrees) I already have some command, I have discovered that I know very little after all. Reading the work of people who do have some grasp on philosophy was enough to disabuse me of the notion that I know much; I don’t even really know what I’m missing.

What’s worse is that I am bad at catching up. There are some external factors: I don’t have access to an academic library and although I signed up for a free JSTOR account, that only lets me see a handful of articles a month. I live in a remote area, so anything I want to get I have to order and have shipped up here. But these limitations are not the real limitations: I do not read academic works fast enough that I’m at any risk of outstripping my current resources. Sloth and distraction and tiredness are problems; they are problems I cannot easily disentangle from depression. I know that disinclination and laziness are not the only issues because sometimes I try to read or to think things through, but can’t focus or make any headway. I’m not going to say they aren’t issues, though.[1]

The problem is that, in order to make a MacIntyrean program of inquiry work, you need to thoroughly and deeply understand a few traditions. A smattering–even an impressive smattering–from a wide variety of traditions is not enough. If things go on as they have for the last year or so, I am never going to achieve this. And even if I will achieve this, it still means that I’m not qualified to have any opinions for a few decades yet. Perhaps that is a good thing, but still: despair.

(I worry this sounds elitist. Of course it is elitist: if I, with my degrees and my extra-curricular reading, am not qualified to have any opinions, where does that leave those who have not had my advantages? I’m sensitive to this. However, at the same time, the very idea of education is that afterwards you know more and think better than you did before; if you think education does any of that at all, you will need to accept some amount of elitism. There are bits of reality that just do take training to better understand, though of course there is room for debate about which bits, how much training, and of what kind.)

So, despairing, I thought I might abandon the project to those more competent than myself. My abandonment would be the retreat of which C. S. Lewis was accused (but of which he was likely innocent): a retreat from logic, philosophy, and discourse into fiction and fantasy. I would give up trying to understand the world demonstratively or dialectically, but instead take what little I know and dramatize it in story and myth. This would not be didactic: I would play with the concepts, show them in various lights, so that others more clever and educated than myself might be able to do something with them. What shape might these fantasies take? I considered–seriously considered, and have not wholly decided against–worldbuilding much like Mark Rosenfelder’s Almea, though I find the thought of this project nearly as daunting: I have even less knowledge of geography and linguistics than I do of philosophy! But at least you can cut corners in worldbuilding without ruining the entire project, which cannot be said of philosophy.

But I do not know that I would be any happier if I did leave philosophy for fantasy. I would know I had surrendered. Philosophy is maybe something I need to tackle, not for my own peace of mind (a lost cause, surely) but at least for… something else. For dignity, maybe. Or because I care, despite myself, that I try to get it right. That is not a justification but a guess at a causal explanation: I do this because it is in my nature to care about pursuing right belief. I would like to say I do it for joy or even for pleasure, but I cannot say that.

So where do I go from here? Well, I think the answer is that I first need to know where “here” is. What are my traditions?

There are two ways of identifying which traditions might be mine: the historical, in which I assess what has influenced me, and the aspirational, in which I which I determine, in MacIntyre’s phrase, “which of these rival modes of moral understanding [I find myself] most adequately explained and accounted for.” I would say my traditions in the historical sense are Christianity, continental philosophy/critical theory, and the social sciences. My Christianity began with Lutheranism, continued with immersion in a very ahistorical evangelical-adjacent low Protestantism (against which I often resisted), and has finally come to some rest in Anglicanism. Continental philosophy/critical theory I learned imperfectly in my undergraduate program, almost through osmosis, and then re-learned somewhat–but barely–more systematically in my own studies and in my first graduate program; although never convinced of the truth of either postmodernism or existentialism, I was heavily influenced by both and remain convinced that they must be taken more seriously (and sometimes as partners, not just as adversaries) than most people are willing to attempt or admit. I don’t know to what extent “social sciences” are a tradition of inquiry, but certainly psychology and religious studies (as a subset of anthropology) have always been part of how I reflect on attempts to pursue the truth, and my library and information studies program impressed upon me the value of mixed-methods research.

But, aspirationally, in which rival modes of moral understanding do I find myself most adequately explained and accounted for? Part of the problem is that I’m not informed enough even to make a decision about this: I just don’t know where to draw the lines! And how can I know if I am choosing the best ones?[2] But I must begin, and so despite my angst I must choose.

I wasn’t wholly convinced by the blurb on the back of A Passionate Balance:

Highlighting their complexity, fallibility, humility but also passion Bartlett suggests that Anglican spirituality and theology are not only resilient enough to survive the present malaise but have the potential to be a most effective ‘post-modern’ expression of the Christian faith.

It was not clear to me at first how Anglicanism really addressed the problems posed by postmodernism. Since reading MacIntyre, though, I see that I can (potentially) answer postmodernism by emphasizing how knowledge production is historically and dialectically situated, and in Bartlett it is clear that Anglican theology conducts its inquiry with marked awareness of how it is situated both historically and dialectically. Furthermore, the Anglican insistence on a reciprocal connection between practice, community, and understanding reflects the way knowledge is embodied and socially embedded. Lastly, Canadian Anglicanism is capacious: it is a place from which one can explore. I think it offers a vantage from which I can attempt those postmodern and existentialist questions… but I also don’t know that it has all the resources I need to answer those questions.

Another tradition of inquiry I think I might need to explore further is what I want to call “social justice work.” I’m not sure where the lines go around this tradition. Perhaps it is not just one tradition, but a chimera fusing incompatible traditions around a common set of topics. I don’t know. But Marxism, gender studies, disability studies, and so on have as far as I can tell produced significant dividends for the people who pursue them, in terms of understanding if not always in terms of material change. Moreover, I have long been able to understand myself in their terms–nothing in my experience seems to contradict them–and they have what I consider to be moral urgency (in that I care about the wellbeing of other people and systemic oppression impacts the wellbeing of many many people). There are serious challenges here: this field is massive and diverse and I am far behind. But in another sense I have lucked out: the work of synthesizing Anglicanism and this cluster of work is already well underway in Anglicanism’s version of progressive Christianity.

The last tradition I should note has even less of a name. I still take seriously the understanding of emergence which I stole from Douglas Hoffstadter and David Deutsch, and which I use to synthesize nominalism and realism. I’m not sure if this is part of some tradition which I must also try to get a handle on or if this is an acceptable case of “spoiling the Egyptians”–taking something from another tradition only to interpret it in your own tradition’s terms, without attempting to make the traditions commensurable. To my knowledge, there has been no real attempt to make this tradition commensurable with Anglicanism, and precious little attention to what it would mean to synthesize it with gender studies, Marxism, etc. But the caveat there–“to my knowledge”–is, again, exactly the issue at stake.

In a sense, if I start here, the rest is logistics: which book do I start with, etc. So, for instance, I have purchased and started reading The Study of Anglicanism, as I’ve already mentioned, and I have cozened Weird Anglican Twitter into giving me other recommendations. But in another sense, starting here has done nothing for me at all: I am still far behind, I still do not know how to decide which book to read next, I still do not really understand the extent or limit of these traditions, I still worry these are not even the right traditions, I am still in a state of despair.

After fussing with this post for several months and finally getting it into a shape I am at all comfortable with, I was hit by a thought which pertains to this, perhaps changes it. I think I have been taking the wrong lesson all along from the people who are my supposed influences. Tillich talks about being willing to discard symbols for God which no longer work; Popper argues for fallibilism, the view that no claim can be certainly justified but only, thus far, not falsified; according to many people, Anglicanism is inherently dialectical, in which any claim is open to further interpretation or revision. Rather than being leery of making claims, should this not encourage me to do so? Knowing that whatever I believe will be incomplete anyway, if not outright wrong, should embolden me so that I do not fear being wrong: it’s inevitable! So why am I still timid?

1. But for what it’s worth I had absolutely no problem reading MacIntyre. I read After Virtue and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry with gusto. In fact, I might need to pin this observation: the problem may not be so much with me but with the fit between me and the texts I’ve been trying to engage.

2. A thought the other night: the upshot of MacIntyre might be that there are no right or wrong traditions absolutely, but rather that there are right traditions for a particular person at a particular time in their life, given what they know at the time. I don’t mean that there is no brute reality, or that we have no access to it at all but. Instead I mean that all you can do, after all, is commit to better understanding those traditions which seem most plausible to you now, so that if they are wrong you will discover their internal crises or discover where their do not cohere with your encounter with the world. But I still have this snaky desire to get it right on the first try.

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