Sunday, August 15, 2010

Organic Truth.

One of the ideas that Jim Kalb puts forward to justify the epistemological validity of tradition, is because traditions are the "organic" products of society, the ideas and habits being shaped over time and modified towards a certain veracity. Ideas, practices and relationships which have stood the test of time must have something going for them if human beings have adopted them for prolonged periods. There must be some truth to them which we shouldn't ignore because these traditions aren't just "ingrained habits" rather practices which are symbiotic with the human condition and therefore true.

I think Mr Kalb is onto something here but where I think he errs is taking the existence of tradition as proof of some kind of truth.

If we take three societies, Pre-Modern Christianity, Islam, and Judaism we find that whilst all three are traditional societies, all three have different ideas on Marriage. The Christian(Catholic) tradition permits marriage but bans divorce. The Judaic, permits marriage but permits divorce and the Islamic permits multiple wives and permits divorce All three traditions have stood the test of time so I suppose that all three conceptions of marriage must be right. Or not.

Tradition here gives us no guide at all as to how to view marriage since the traditional views are competing and mutually exclusive, their only commonality being that marriage is an relationship between husband and wife. And then this comes along.

It seems tradition can't even agree to that simple proposition. Tradition then, as a sort of knowledge which is organically intertwined with the human condition seems to give conflicting views on even some of the most basic human institutions. Tradition seems to provide for multiple "truths".

One thing I do agree with Mr Kalb is that many of the traditions that have developed across the world are indeed more "human" than the modernist ideologies that wish to replace them. The fact that Islam or Hinduism have produced stable cultures that have lasted over a thousand years means that there must be something in them that doesn't rub up against human nature in such a way to assure the self destruction of these societies.

Jim Kalb got unfairly argued with in this exchange over at What's Wrong With the World. I don't think that Mr Kalb was in any way trying to defend or excuse the evils of Islam what he was trying to say that human beings have had a successful and working relationship with Islam for over a 1000 years and therefore the tradition of Islam must, at least, not be against human nature completely. I agree with Mr Kalb.

The problem is though, from a Christian perspective though, is Islam has many faults which are incompatible with Christian truth. And these faults have--like the good traditions--persisted for thousands of years. The fact that limited polygamy has existed in Islam for over a thousand years mean that polygamy is right? Or Sati?

The sad fact is that human beings can at times be a barbarous lot, barbarous for a long period of time and bad customs can become ingrained into a society. The fact that a society is able to function and thrive for a long periods of time with bad traditions does not confer onto the traditions legitimacy rather the fact is that functional societies can operate quite successfully with a certain amount of "non self-destructive evil". The fact that an evil becomes custom or tradition does not make it right. Society's do not self purify over time ,rather what seems to happen is that tend to rot in their own corruption.

Rather, what the "organic truth" model of conservatism confers is not an objecetive knowledge of right or wrong but rather a sort of moral relativism, in which right or wrong is determined relative to the customs of society: It's self-referential.

Tradition, in the end, is not about what is right or wrong, it's about what people are happy to adopt and become accustomed to, so in a sense tradition is naturally co- dependent upon a human dimension, but that human dimension is flawed in its capacity for evil. The result being that the veneration of tradition leads to the same place as modernism-- the measure is man, not right or wrong.


Thursday said...

Who ever said there had to be a one size fits all version of the family for every society? Different societies will have different traditions that work for them. The desire to reduce everything down to a few simple principles is what Oakeshott calls rationalism in politics, of which the various branches form the different kinds of modernism, including liberalism.

Note that the fact that the concept of the family is fairly flexible doesn't mean we can bend the concept of the family to our will.

Thursday said...

that human dimension is flawed in its capacity for evil.

So does is every other human dimension, including naked human reasoning.

Anyway, here Burke explains why we should prefer tradition to our naked reason:

"The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate, but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation, and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions....The science of government...therefore...requires... more experience than any person can gain in his whole life--however sagacious and observing he may be--[and] it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes."

That is the essence of conservatism. The question Mr. Kalb answers, the reason I call him the new Burke, is what to do once a native tradition has been destroyed.

James Kalb said...

How does this work? Newtonian physics and present-day physics are inconsistent. Presumably the physics of the year 2500 will be inconsistent with what we have now. Should we say none of it has anything to do with truth, and it's all pragmatic stopgaps?

Where do we look to for truth if the fact this or that approach has led to error disqualifies it?

In fact, the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim conceptions of marriage have lots in common. They all hold that by nature there are men and there are women, the sexes are complementary, the man is more active and more engaged in public life and the woman more involved with home and children, the sexual union of the two has a special and very important place among human relationships, and the legitimate place for that union is within a more general publicly-acknowledged union of the two parties and their interests that is intended to be enduring and viewed as basic to the social order. Various oddities like the temporary marriages of Shia Islam or your Hindu who married a dog are recognized as concessions or eccentricities or special situations and don't really change the basic understanding.

Robert said...

One Christmas several years ago, I needed a presentation for a Sunday School class, so i decided to do it on the significance of tradition. I was surprised to find tradition roundly demeaned in the Bible. The other side of the coin on tradition is that people can fall into erroneous, mistaken and bad positions and propagate them through tradition.

The Social Pathologist said...

Who ever said there had to be a one size fits all version of the family for every society?

Perhaps there are a few truths that are universally applicable and that societies that venture from these truths are wrong. Take divorce for instance. My faith teaches me that it is wrong, whilst the majority of the world's religions teach that it acceptable. Indeed divorce seems a more "human" institution than the teachings of Catholicism which seem unnecessarily hard. And yet I believe Catholicism teaches the truth. A truth which is applicable to all men.

I'm not aiming to reduce things to a few simple principles, what I'm trying to do is understand reality. For instance,I believe God is real and he doesn't like divorce. I'm personally quite sympathetic to the institution of divorce (to a degree)yet my faith teaches me that my inclinations are wrong. As a conservative my duty is to align my behaviour to reality.

Muslim tradition(on the subject of marriage) points away from reality. Their tradition is not a guide to the truth. Their tradition, which is an outgrowth of their culture and has persisted for centuries was not preserved from error by the passage of time and circumstance. The "organic" nature of Muslim culture has not preserved it from error, that's why I'm not really sympathetic to this theory.

Note that the fact that the concept of the family is fairly flexible doesn't mean we can bend the concept of the family to our will.

The family is the basic building block of society and though it can be modified to a degree, I think any culture which deviates largely from the norm is liable to self destruct. I suppose the great cultures have survived for as long as they have because they haven't pushed the limits on the basic institutions which make up a society.

The Social Pathologist said...


Thanks for the comment.

It's always been my view that the Bible illustrated the opposite view that Mr Kalb is proposing. Namely that society starts off well but over time gradually corrupts so that God always needs to send a prophet to get people to change the ways.

One of the big themes that comes from the Bible is that to earn God's favour men have to live rightly and if that means abandoning their traditions then so be it. On the otherhand if the traditions are good, men should stick to them.

The real problem is understanding what is good and what is evil.

The way we can judge the validity of a tradition is by objective standard of right and wrong. The fact that a tradition exists and that it has existed for a long time does not de-facto render it good.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Jim Kalb:

In fact, the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim conceptions of marriage have lots in common

And yet they are different.

Where do we look to for truth if the fact this or that approach has led to error disqualifies it?


With an understanding of Reason's limitations and strengths.

The problem with the Enlightenment philosophers was in their understanding of the strengths and limits of man capacity to reason from which the modernist errors flowed.

I suppose what we need is an epistemology of conservatism. I want to stress again that tradition, being the product of men, is prone to its errors and while tradition has the benefit of experience it doesn't have the benefits of some modern insights made by modern conservatives.