Theory and Practice Reconciled

There is a tension between theory and practice, but it is not as insurmountable as the classical philosophers believed.

The tension arises from the original embodiment of right and wrong in social practice. For example, our belief in gravity is not, in the first instance, some kind of mental state containing propositional content. Rather, it’s implicit in our unwillingness to step off the edge of a cliff, or in our daily interactions which take the pull of the earth for granted.

But there’s a twist. As talkative creatures, we have the capacity to reconstruct and articulate our reasons for acting. These speech acts take what was originally tacit or implicit and converts it into something explicit, so it can be shared and transformed. This is the origin of theory, Mankind’s most precious yet volatile invention.

The flexibility of language allows theory to take something immanent in practice and simplify, synthesize, depersonalize, express and extrapolate it; to take pragmatic truths embodied in particular acts and discuss them in relation to far away quantities. Think of the legendary apple that dropped on Newton’s head—inspiring, in an instant, his model of universal gravitation.

The classics recognized this power of theory was not limited to metaphysics. The same discursive filter that caused Newton to extrapolate the forces affecting earth to heavenly bodies, or Democritus to propose the atomic unity of matter, is just as liable to extend and unify the dignity of masters to their slaves, or of the elite to the hoi polloi.

The cognoscenti of every bygone age thus had a personal incentive to treat theory like yellowcake—an ingredient with such transcendental implications that, while indispensable to those with self-control, would be unwise to have proliferate. Hence the double-doctrine—the concealment of radical thought in recapitulated conventional wisdom.

Recall, it was same Democritus who first declared that “equality is everywhere noble,” and yet made (ostensible) exceptions for women and serfs. Evidently, the strength of prevailing social practice made the equal dignity of all people more controversial than his equally egalitarian theory of matter. And so one reads between the lines.

With the Enlightenment this art of esotericism was mostly lost. Scientific and social revolutions occurred in tandem, pointing at a natural harmony between theory and practice. Marx declared that the purpose of philosophy was not to interpret the world, but to change it. The tragedies of mass “social experiments” notwithstanding, this harmony has stood the test of time.

The fears of classical philosophers and other esoteric writers were thus overwrought. Avoiding the persecution of the state, church or media are contingent factors of history, and do not prove their view that theory and practice are inherently irreconcilable. Indeed, the very business of theory is reconciliation. Theory abhors the contradictions and antagonisms of prevailing practices, and therefore generates an imperative within the self-conscious practitioner to squelch her own dissonance, and communicate to others the need to do the same. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards coherence.

Of course, one may resist these urges given sufficient training in mental compartmentalization. But these days normative and epistemic incoherence, once called out, rarely survives a generation. Indeed, our norms are evolving at an unprecedented pace, leading to a revival of the classical concerns with a slight but important modification.

Rather than view the conflict as one between poet and philosopher, immanent and transcendent, the modern view seems more concerned about the conflict between two broad types of expressive rationality: epistemic and instrumental. In other words, it questions whether our commitment to both truth and happiness is sustainable in the long run. Perhaps all religions are technically false, for example, and yet essential for organizing a robust civilization.

I view this as a mistake, a conflation of assertion with imperative. It is perfectly reasonable, if not inevitable, to adopt categorical imperatives that step outside instrumental calculus. However, in the past these imperatives have been tied together with assertions or truth claims, be it about God or some other property of nature. By diligently (and correctly) separating facts from values, is from ought, the Enlightenment made the first big push to untangle the imperative for solidarity from the epistemic burden of superstition. As Hume wrote, “this small attention [to the fact-value distinction] would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”

This process is by no means over, as if all the vulgarities of our moral system have been fully excised. Nonetheless, history does have an arrow, a tendency for progress, insofar as language—as the medium for cultural reproduction—imposes a structural and universalizing coherence on our practices over time.

In the past this process took place over centuries, with paradigms shifts achieved through either dialectical unanimity or violent revolution. Today, however, a plurality can and do sink shibboleths before such consensus is achieved, and with enthusiasm. For those left in the lurch, there is a tendency to sense that the rational has become, as it were, far too real. Yet the reconciliation of theory and practice subsists.

In resisting the cultural under-toe, there then arises a temptation to reject, not the direction of the tides (for they cannot be disputed), but instead the pretence of coherence more generally. Thus the reaction to embrace the incoherent, irrational and the obscure; to double down on superstition and occult mysticism; to castigate global theory for local practice—a vain last breathe before the zeitgeist submerges them, too.

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Tradition, Authority, and Reason

When I started reading up on the virtues and following the trails through philosophy that I found along the way two years ago, I was pretty sure that I was a Burkean traditionalist of some sort. It was Alasdair MacIntyre who began to throw a wrench in this when he pointed out that Burke treated tradition as a sort of black box—something that actual adherents to traditions do not do. Moreover, Burke somehow did this while remaining an economic liberal for his day, something very much not traditional to his nation.

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 contrasting 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. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

MacIntyre presents a different sort of traditionalism from Burke, one more like Michael Oakeshott’s. There is reason and reasoning but these are only made coherent by the traditions they are situated within.

Continue reading “Tradition, Authority, and Reason”

Sacred and Profane Reasons

One way to think about the sacred and profane distinction is in terms of types of reasons. “Do not trespass on the Holy of Holies,” says the Elder, “for it is sacred.” As far as practical reasons go, sacredness suffices. It has to suffice. Otherwise practical rationality enters an infinite regress, leading to decision paralysis in lieu of an epistemic foundation that simply does not exist. Put differently, the whole point of a good reason is that it provides a stopping rule in the game of giving and asking for reasons.

In the context of decision making, sacred reasons are categorical. That is, we feel duty-bound to respect valid claims of sanctity, where validity is a function of its coherence within the body of reasons we already take for granted (i.e. are presupposed) as implicit in existing social practices. Conversely, violations of sacred objects or spaces is socially deviant, even blasphemous.

The sacred, it seems, is the byproduct of an imperative. When questioning the imperative “do not kill,” an appropriate and argument-ending reply is “because life is sacred.” The question naturally arises as to why we do not simply issue the imperative, full-stop?

Well, some do. In the Mayan language of Sakapultek norms of every kind are conveyed with the underlying imperative, their equivalent of “do” and “do not”, or indirectly through irony. As one would expect, this severely constrains the ways a norm can be expressed. For instance, they lack the ability to say “you ought to do x because y.” By having terms like “ought,” “right” and “wrong,” English speakers have a much easier time expressing and univeralizing imperatives across domains.

This view is an up-shot of taking Wittgenstein’s private language argument and meaning as use claim seriously. The alternative, meaning as reference, leads down a host of dead ends outside of the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, thinking of “rightness” outside the context of use (as in doings, social practices, or deontic constraints over a choice set) leads to the search for a referent somewhere in the universe.

In other words, sacredness is not “out there” like some sort of metaphysical substance, but is rather a stand-in part of speech, a general predicate, that aides in the expression of certain types of imperatives. Rather than having to explicitly declare “do not kill __” in every discrete case, saying “killing is wrong” harnesses our existing competency with verbs and predicates to establish the general case.

While “right” and “wrong” are used to modify actions, “sacred” more usually seems to modify objects, like sacred places, items or institutions. It’s immediately obvious how this can expand our expressive capacity that much more. We have the option of expressing identical imperatives against adultery, or example, either by declaring the act to be wrong, or by declaring the indirect object, marriage, to be sacred.

Sacredness so often attaches to rituals like marriage because rituals require us to overcome our self-interest, such as the temptation of infidelity. Likewise, the categorical nature of a sacred imperative is essential for sustaining collective action, or group rituals, and for legitimating sanctions against defectors. Moreover, sacred imperatives (as opposed to more prosaic ones) tend to be accompanied by feelings of sublimity that group practices are uniquely able to elicit.

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Consecration Meets Convenience: Sacred or Profane?

In contrast, consider profane reasons. A profane reason to marry someone is in the expectation to save resources through economies of scale. As economists are want to point out, this is undoubtedly among the fortuitous consequences of marriage, and perhaps in some non-teleological way part of the “ultimate” explanation for the ubiquity of marriage practices. But these profane patterns are distinct from the proximate and sacred reasons proffered by the wedded themselves. If instrumental reasons were all their were, a green card marriage would be celebrated with the same enthusiasm as any other.

This is why its nonsense to claim to be (at least without debilitating cognitive dissonance) “religious but not spiritual” — i.e. To adopt ritual and other religious practices, up to and including prayer and congregational attendance, without endorsing the sacred character of one’s own actions. As soon as one takes a purely instrumental stance towards ritual, its power begins to wane.

The notion of “effective” here is what is problematic, as effectiveness is endogenous to the degree of sacredness, while sacredness rests on a cognitive disinterest in being effective!

Thus we may find ourselves subject to the counsels of prudence, climbing a ladder of instrumental reasons that, rung by rung, persuade us that ritual practice is an effective means for reaching our ends, namely well-being, group cohesion, and so on and so forth. Yet one will never reach the highest height until the ladder has been kicked away, and the practice left to stand on its own sacred terms. This is not to embrace the non-rational. On the contrary, it is to recognize instead a higher type of reason, a reason that cannot be circumvented.

That modernity has had a rationalizing tendency is what led Habermas to remark that all traditionalism has become neo-traditionalism. By that he meant that, whereas true traditionalists saw tradition as a valid source of authority as such, neo-traditionalists have revealed themselves to be indirect rationalists, offering up great reasons for obeying tradition that go beyond presupposition: Tradition is stress-tested wisdom, or a product of smarter-than-thou spontaneous order, and so on. To simply accept tradition as a “good reason” in and of itself is, to most moderns, absurd, and rightly so.

So it appears instrumental rationality has a great power to crowd out more communicative and categorical types of reasons over time, as our shared presuppositions are torn asunder by critical self-reflection and re-conceived as anachronistic husks around a fundamentally profane kernel. We are still clearly in the thralls of this rationalization process, which has progressed sporadically and unevenly, and which has never once reversed. Recall, Prisoner’s Dilemmas by design preclude any communicative action. But once strategic maximizing becomes the norm, it’s cooperation that’s heretic. As the only remaining disposition that we may will that it should become a universal law, this destines cynicism to be our last and most endearing mode of communion.