Tradition is a subject that has long interested me, so when Val and I got in a debate about it in the comment thread of a recent post ("The Cartesian Gambit": I was taking the side of Cartesian rationalism this time, with Val on the traditionalist side, though in the past I have undertaken the defense of tradition), and I realized how little I understood the issue, I decided to take a look at one of my favorite philosophers, Alasdair MacIntyre, in particular Chapter 15 of After Virtue, entitled "The Virtues, the Unity of a Life and the Concept of a Tradition." I realized as I began to read that this was not the first time. I had come back to this chapter before, in hopes of illuminating the same question, what is tradition? Apparently it hadn't enlightened me the first time, since I was still in the dark. But no harm tryin again.
MacIntyre starts by problematizing the theory of action, in passages that, among other virtues, are very funny:
A course of human events is then seen as a complex sequence of individual actions, and a natural question is: How do we individuate human actions? Now there are contexts in which such notions are at home. In the recipes of a cookery book for instance actions are individuated in just the way that some analytical philosophers have supposed to be possible of all actions. 'Take six eggs. Then break them into a bowl. Add flour, salt, sugar, etc.' But the point about such sequences is that each element in them is intelligible as an action only as a-possible-element-in-a-sequence. Moreover even such a sequence requires a context to be intelligible. If in the middle of my lecture on Kant's ethics I suddenly broke six eggs into a bowl and added flour and sugar, proceeding all the while with my Kantian exegesis, I have not, simply in virtue of the fact that I was following a sequence prescribed by Fanny Farmer, performed an intelligible action. (After Virtue, p. 209)
I love philosophy! But the joke has a point:
To this it might be retorted that I certainly performed an action or a set of actions, if not an intelligible action. But to this I want to reply that the concept of an intelligible action is a more fundamental than the concept of an action as such. Unintelligible actions are failed candidates for the status of intelligible action; and to lump unintelligible actions and intelligible actions together in a single class of actions and then to characterize actions in terms of what items of both sets have in common is to make the mistake of ignoring this. [my emphasis]
One more illustrative joke*:
I am standing waiting for a bus and the young man standing to me suddenly says: 'The name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.' There is no problem as to the meaning of the sentence he uttered: the problem is, how to answer the question, what was he doing in uttering it? Suppose he just uttered such sentences at random intervals; this would be one possible form of madness. We would render his action of utterance intelligible if one of the following turned out to be true. He has mistaken me for someone who yesterday had approached him in the library and asked: 'Do you by any chance know the Latin name of the common wild duck?' Or he has just come from a session with his psychotherapist who has urged him to break down his shyness by talking to strangers. Or he is a Soviet spy waiting at a prearranged rendez-vous and uttering the ill-chosen code sentence which will identify him to his contact...(p. 210)
The lesson that MacIntyre draws from this is that life has an inescapably narrative character, that if we want to characterize it at all we can only characterize it as stories within stories. Later he arrives at this:
A central thesis then begins to emerge: man is in his actions and practice, as well in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?' We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters -- roles into which we have been drafted -- and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. (After Virtue, p. 216)
Very wise here. One reason for tradition is that it solves coordination problems. If that sounds trivial, it's not. If you take marriage, for example, two people have to make a commitment of tremendous life importance, and much misery can result if they don't understand that commitment in the same way. A similar dynamic applies to relations between brothers and sisters, friends, employers and employees, authors and readers, etc. And it is reinforced by this haunting detail:
When someone complains -- as do some of those who attempt or commit suicide -- that his or her life is meaningless, he or she is often and perhaps characteristically complaining that the narrative of their life has become unintelligible to them, that it lacks any point, any movement towards a climax or a telos. Hence the point of doing any one thing rather than another at crucial junctures in their lives seems to such persons to have been lost. (After Virtue, p. 217)
But when the time comes for MacIntyre to articulate the content of that telos, he becomes strangely vacuous:
It is now possible to return to the question from which this enquiry into the nature of human action and identity started: In what does the unity of a human life consist? The answer is that its unity is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life. To ask, 'What is the good life for me?' is to ask how best I might live out that unity and bring it to completion. to ask 'What is the good for man?' is to ask what all answers to the former question must have in common. (p. 219)
... which questions lead to the chapter's anticlimax...
We have then arrived at a provisional conclusion about the good life for man: the good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man...
That can't be right! MacIntyre doesn't seem to be aware that the statement is a sort of paradox. Or rather, it is like a set of Russian matryushka dolls, with each doll representing the question "What is the good life for man?" But what is the good life for man? MacIntyre never gives a more specific answer, but he does tell us this:
I am never able to seek for the good or exercise the virtues only qua individual... What the good life is for a fifth-century Athenian general will not be the same as what it was for a medieval nun or a seventeenth-century farmer. But it is not just that different individuals live in different social circumstances; it is also that we all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone's son or daughter, someone else's cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession, I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. (After Virtue, p. 220)
There is wisdom in this. But it is of course too abstract to be of much practical help, for better or worse. One must mediate it through one's own understanding of what one's inherited obligations are. Also, it seems to contain a troubling tendency towards relativism. Suppose a fifth-century Athenian general was praised for razing enemy cities to the ground and massacring the inhabitants. Is it wrong to judge him by the standards of our times, and condemning his cruelty? Would MacIntyre say that that was the good life for him, even if it would not be for us? Should we seek, then, merely to be praised rather than blamed in the eyes of those around us?
Finally, MacIntyre arrives at the "concept of a tradition." Interestingly, he sees himself as an opponent of Burke:
What I am, therefore, is in key part what I inherit, a specific past that is present to some degree in my present. I find myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of a tradition... What constitutes such traditions?
We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in constrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic...
Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is already dead...
A living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. (p. 221-222)
The matryushka dolls again. After Virtue is an excellent book, most famous for its demolition of post-Enlightenment ethical theory in the first nine chapters. But here the argument seems to collapse in self-defeating circularity. Ethics requires telos, but the only telos MacIntyre can offer is to look for a telos. In any case, I can't glean much insight from this about the epistemology of tradition, which is perhaps not surprising since this is a book about ethics. Maybe I was barking up the wrong tree. How depressing.
* I am perhaps doing MacIntyre no favors by labeling passages as jokes which he introduces with serious intentions, and any humorous aspect is superfluous to his main object. Readers who do not find them funny may blame my eccentric sense of humor and not MacIntyre.