Featured image is Work, by Fox Madox Brown.
Our practices can be understood as games which have an existence surpassing the subjectivity of the players. But how are these games played? I believe, with Hans-Georg Gadamer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Charles Taylor, that to understand the nature of our practices, we need to direct our attention to the nature of language. In the discussion that follows, I will be drawing heavily on Charles Taylor’s recent book, The Language Animal.
Intelligibility and Articulation
I think we may find a hint in Gadamer’s strange phrase, “Being that can be understood is language.” If I understand Gadamer correctly, he means that language and intelligibility are one and the same phenomena. The boundaries of language mark the boundaries of what is intelligible.
This lends significance to Charles Taylor’s assertion that intelligibility goes all the way to the ground, so to speak, in human behavior. He uses the example of a biker, whose way of carrying himself contains a sort of non-verbal vocabulary, with a sense of “rightness” to it. Referencing work by Pierre Bourdieu, he refers to this as a “habitus”:
The habitus is a “system of durable and transposable dispositions”; that means, dispositions to bodily comportment, say, to act, or to hold oneself, or to gesture in a certain way. A bodily disposition is a habitus when it encodes a certain cultural understanding. The habitus in this sense always has an expressive dimension. It gives expression to certain meanings that things and people have for us, and it is precisely by giving such expression that it makes these meanings exist for us.
This expressive dimension is embodied in what we do and how we behave; in Taylor’s vocabulary it is at the level of enactment. The lowest level of human behavior, though non-verbal, is still comfortably inside of our language capability.
Practice is also ordered around an implicit sense of the good; a notion Taylor developed largely in a previous work and in which he was directly inspired by Alasdair MacIntyre. We can see this most clearly if we return to the notion of practice as game.
In volleyball, there’s a sense of what a good player is. But more importantly, there’s a sense of what a good game is; one in which two teams made up of good players with skill on par with each other play at their best. For sports like volleyball, the good which the practice is ordered around is best understood narratively—a close match with a dramatic late defeat, or a one-sided match that ends with a dramatic reversal. The sense of the good at a factory, on the other hand, lacks this sort of dramatic structure. A car factory is ordered around its output, with ethically thick roles played by all participants in the process.
We use verbal language to attempt to articulate these goods, which will here be referred to as constitutive goods. Taylor speaks broadly of two rungs of articulation. The lowest rung, just above enactment, involves naming aspects of what is enacted, possibly naming the enactment and practice itself. This level has often been mistaken for being parallel to the enframing function of language—that is, seeing things in nature and giving them names. This function does indeed exist and Taylor has a very sophisticated discussion of the history of theories explaining it with their strengths and pitfalls.
But it’s an error to apply that logic here—when naming is involved in articulating a practice, it has an irreducibly creative dimension. In naming some things and not others, we elevate their significance and influence how the practice is carried out moving forward. We shed some light, though still largely implicitly, on the nature of the practice’s constitutive goods.
We also facilitate the process of moving up to the highest rung of articulation. At this level, articulation is highly abstracted from the particulars of a given practice; generality is maximized. This could involve formal logic and mathematics, as we see in modern analytic philosophy and economics. Or it could simply be theory in the style of Aristotle, Augustine, Montesquieu, and Hume—systematic analysis in relatively natural language.
These articulations are always flawed and partial compared to the unspoken multitudes concealed in our enacted practice. Theories and lower level articulation can unconceal aspects of the goods around which our practices are ordered, but necessarily conceal other aspects in doing so. Perhaps a different theory would shed more light on the latter aspects, or perhaps those aspects were better understood before anyone attempted a higher level articulation at all.
Articulating the constitutive goods of a practice does not mean approving of them. We can articulate them through a theory of why they are bad just as easily as we can with a theory which justifies them. Even justification can influence the course of the practice, however. A defense of the constitutive goods of a practice provides a specific understanding of what exactly they are, which in turn gives us the means to understand how existing practice has deviated from them, and may need to be corrected. It may even help us conceive of an utterly untried approach that would suit those constitutive goods better than the status quo or precedents.
Because articulation is always partial, practice can resist theoretically motivated change even when practitioners can’t articulate why they are resisting. This may seem irrational, and indeed even the defenders of inarticulate practice view it that way. But they are still behaving intelligibly, and responding expressively; they are still acting in response to “being that can be understood.” They are simply responding at the level of enactment, through the language of habitus, rather than verbal, articulated language.
20th century Marxism provides a good example of this. Marxists had tremendous influence on practice through their involvement in labor unions, politics, and government. But the changes never seemed to follow the Marxist script of how history was supposed to unfold. In extreme cases, rather than facilitating the movement towards a classless society, nations like the USSR simply created a new aristocracy centered around the internal hierarchy and politics of The Party. Theory was the basis of the actions they took, but in the end their framework concealed too many vital aspects of human practices. They therefore failed to accurately see the limitations to what they could accomplish, or how practice would resist and circumvent their intentions.
The Creative Power of Language
The relationship between the three rungs of enactment, naming, and theory, is not a simple back and forth, but a complex interpenetration with many points of tension. And speaking in terms of rungs is of course metaphorical; practice and articulation exist on a spectrum across the rungs. And this relationship grows even more complex when artistic portrayal is taken into consideration.
A painting or novel can be as bottomless a well of meaning as a practice. In struggling to unconceal aspects of the work through articulation, the art or literary critic performs a task similar to the social scientist’s or moral philosopher’s. Because articulation is flawed and partial relative to the multitudes contained in artistic portrayal, the critic’s successes frustrate the possibility of complete success; unconcealing some aspect of the work necessarily entails concealing some other aspect. And so critics can make meaningful commentary on a single work for thousands of years without running out of insightful things to say or completing the task of pure illumination. It should go without saying that the amount of worthless commentary is even more unbounded.
But most importantly, artistic portrayal is capable of shedding light on the constitutive goods of our practices. A painting, a novel, even instrumental music are capable of revealing to us aspects of these goods, but in a very different way from verbal articulation. It is even possible for art to be critical of these goods, by shedding light on the dark side of practices which strive after them. Many theorists might hesitate to admit it, but often time theoretical articulation is motivated by an understanding that came primarily from art, rather than direct observation of practice.
With art the creative powers of language come to the fore. In a novel, we may depict a society that has never existed, which may inspire new practices in the real world. In music, we may deepen our sense of the range of human emotions. In a photograph, we may recognize a way of being in the world we had not noticed before, or perhaps a sense of dignity in a group we had not previously thought worthy of it. Images have their own rhetoric, after all.
But the creative powers exist in language from the bottom to the top. Just as the way a sport is played may change over time without any amendments to formal rules, the many games we play can be changed at the level of enactment as well. It is possible, in short, to create new possibilities at the level of inarticulate practice—Hayek and many others saw this clearly. But articulation by its nature creates new possibilities. As I said above, a theory of the constitutive good of a practice may help us imagine an entirely new practice that better serve that good. Or, in a critical theory, an alternate good not yet served by any practice may be offered up in comparison to the good of the practice being criticized.
The games which Wittgenstein and Gadamer spoke of are participated in through a patchwork of our language capability—enacted, articulated, and portrayed. A nation such as the United States has many explicit and implicit creeds that preserve its existence as an entity of joint participation. It is constituted by a series of interlocking games—that is, practices—in which we make moves that are themselves patchworks of the different levels and types of language.
This ontology of practice helps to illustrate, once again, that tradition is not something static, nor is it irrational. Tradition is the practices, articulations, and art that are handed down to us—it is the games that we find ourselves thrown into as part of a community.
These games contain multitudes, and playing them is always a creative process.