Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Dialectic with Tradition

A few posts ago, I recommended Matthew Crawford's book, The World Outside Your Head. To convince MOJers to pick it up, I wanted to offer an excerpt. From the book's final chapter, in a section called "The Dialectic with Tradition," I pull here the lessons from Crawford's study of organ-makers. (This is transcribed from the audio, so excuse formatting or other mistakes.) 

We moderns have inherited a view that pits the technical spirit versus tradition. Partisans of the first will say it embodies reason and that the latter amounts to little more than inherited prejudice. For their part, partisans of tradition often see in technology a spirit of vandalism that can only destroy meaningful human activity. But to be in conversation with a tradition is a kind of rationality, a mode of thinking that helps us get at the truth about things....

 

The dialectic between tradition and innovation allows the organ-maker to understand his own inventiveness as a going-further in a trajectory he has inherited. This is very different from the modern concept of creativity which seems to be a crypto-theological concept: creation ex nihilo. For us, the self plays the role of God and every eruption of creativity is understood to be like a miniature Big Bang coming out of nowhere. This way of understanding inventiveness cannot connect us to others or the past. It also falsifies the experience to which we give the name creativity by conceiving it to be something irrational, incommunicable, unteachable.... 

 

According to the Enlightenment concept of knowledge we explored [earlier in the book], the exemplary sort of knower is a solitary figure and his knowing happens always in the present tense. He is not encumbered by the past nor does he recognize the kind of authority that operates in communities. His arguments are demonstrative... they float free of any particular historical circumstances or set of lived experiences. Tradition is thus disqualified as a guide to practice. Tradition may convey some truths, it will be conceded. But to be ratified as such, the truths in question must be scrutinized by a mode of reasoning that is independent of what came before. To be rational is to think for oneself. For the most part, this Enlightenment understanding views tradition as a darkness that grips men's minds and a habit of inflexibility to be rooted out. But this view gets a lot wrong.

 

As we saw also in the case of scientific apprenticeship [earlier in the book], in the development of any real competence, we don't judge everything for ourselves, starting from scratch each morning. Rather we have to begin by taking a lot on faith, submitting to the authority of our teachers, who learn from their teachers. The individualist conceit that we do otherwise - and the corresponding discredit that falls on tradition - makes people feel isolated. As we learned from Tocqueville, this isolation brings with it a certain anxiety which we try to relieve by looking around to see what others - our contemporaries - are thinking and feeling. The rugged individualist becomes the statistical self....

In the book, Crawford dives deep again and again into various sorts of expertise (e.g., short order cook, hockey player, glass-maker, motorcyclist, engineer) to show, among other lessons, the reality of the human person as a situated, embodied self who develops competency and independent judgment within the tradition within which he or she works, "going-forward from" but always dependent upon it.  In a word, we are only capable of independent judgment - of thinking for ourselves and innovating anew- when we've appropriated the traditions from which we come. Only then can we look back with reasoned critique. But in making our critique, we best be wary of tearing out root and branch that which has given us the capacity to do so.

[Sept 24 update: Thanks to a reader, original typo corrected.]

http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2017/09/the-dialectic-with-tradition.html

Bachiochi, Erika | Permalink