The Two-Fold Challenge of (Post)Modernity

The challenge of (post)modernity is two-fold:

  1. We have recognized that our observation of evidence and the rational thought processes we use to build coherent models of reality are shaped by language, but the language we use is contingent and relative. The language we use is shaped by the communities of which we are a part, which means that our very ability to reason is shaped and formed by our communities.
  2. The radical individualism that arose from the Enlightenment (which, again, was shaped by the language and culture of Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries) has woven itself into the fabric of the way we all experience reality. This means that we think we are individually autonomous, able to personally, individually shape the way we view reality. We think we are not beholden to the communities of which we are a part.

So — our very ability to reason is shaped by social context, but we operate under the assumption that it isn’t. What could possibly go wrong in a situation like this?

Knowing in Ways That We Cannot Articulate

We tend to think that we can only know things if we are able to express them in language. E.g., if I can articulate that the word “square” refers to the shape with four equal sides and each corner of those sides meets at a 90º angle, then I have “knowledge” of that fact. But aren’t there ways of knowing that are inexpressible by or through language? By that I mean, aren’t there things that I know to be true that (even if I cannot empirically verify this fact) I am incapable of saying with words: the feeling I know I’ll feel when I see my hometown again, or the particular melody of a song, or the difference between the way the air feels in summer and winter.

So, then, if language does not comprise our ability to “know” something, what does? Perhaps in some cases it functions that way, but in other ways, language is not only inadequate, but incapable of capturing the various ways in which we know things. And this is probably because language, despite what we have been taught, does not function solely as a representative or referential system — it can do that (poorly, in many cases), but that is not how we use language. Language, instead, is functional, contingent on the context in which we are using it.

Thus, our attempts at objective philosophizing about reality, metaphysics, ethics, and so on, are doomed to failure. We can only do so with language, and language doesn’t do that really well. It cannot name concepts in with pure, one-to-one accuracy. And if that’s the case, then knowledge that we have articulated via language is necessarily contingent — in other words, our knowledge is relative to something (a community, a tradition, a social context).

Morality within the Narratives of Our Lives

MacIntyre’s respect for such philosophers as Kant and Mill reflects this understanding of the philosophical task. Their attempt to develop accounts of morality in the name of some impersonal standard was an understandable response to the loss of shared practices necessary for the discovery of goods in common. Such a project was doomed to failure, however, exactly because no such standards can be sustained when they are abstracted from the practices and descriptions that render our lives intelligible. Modern moral philosophy becomes part of the problem, for its stress on autonomy, like its corresponding attempt to free ethics from history, produces people incapable of living lives that have narrative coherence.

— Stanley Hauerwas, “The Virtues of Alasdair Macintyre”

Maybe Relativism Isn’t That Scary

Modernism and the Enlightenment have been the favorite whipping boys in theology and philosophy for decades now. The notions of objectivity (especially in the sciences, but also in philosophy) and pure reason are rightfully derided as being fairly untenable in the post-modern age, especially after the turn in philosophy toward language.

Of course, the concern when this is granted is always that without a framework where we affirm that our language and thoughts directly link to reality (i.e., realism), “relativism” – especially moral relativism – abounds. This is essentially the fear that, if we cannot say with confidence that our language matches up to reality, the words we use to describe reality cannot be “true” or “real.” This further leads to the question of whether there even is an objective reality outside of the reality that humans make for themselves. And if so, what is to stop us from creating a reality in which pedophilia, racism, and economic exploitation are not only acceptable but good?

I think these fears tend to be overblown. We only latched onto the notion of the possibility of epistemological objectivity in the West because that’s the story that eventually won the day by the 1700s. We miss the fact that this isn’t the story the rest of the world has told about humanity and knowledge and what we can understand about reality. This Western framework might have given us industrialism and technological explosions and the age of information — but did it make us better? In the rush to be purely rational and gain all knowledge possible, we might have made ourselves more like machines, but did we make ourselves better human beings because of it?

Perhaps accepting our contingency and the fact that we are incapable of purely rational thought, perhaps affirming our social contexts and the subjectivity under which we have been placed, and perhaps understanding that our “knowledge” is bent by the lenses through which we evaluate information and rational argument will allow us to embrace humility and help us adopt a posture of openness to realities other than our own. Perhaps, by embracing “relativism,” we can become better humans and better Christians.

Alasdair Macintyre and the Narratives That Shape Rationality

Macintyre on Moral Reasoning:

To make progress in philosophy one must sort through the narratives that inform one’s understanding, struggle with the questions that those narratives raise, and on occasion, reject, replace, or reinterpret portions of those narratives and propose those changes to the rest of one’s community for assessment. Human enquiry is always situated within the history and life of a community. There is no alternative ahistorical, non-traditional way to make progress in human enquiry.

 

If modern morality has been revealed to be “a theater of illusions,” then we must reject it, and this rejection can take two forms. Either we follow Nietzsche and defend the autonomy of the individual against the arbitrary demands of conventional moral reasoning, or we reject both moral autonomy and arbitrary conventional moral reasoning to follow Aristotle and investigate practical reason and the role of moral formation in preparing the human agent to succeed as an independent practical reasoner.

 

MacIntyre rejects individualism and insists that we view human beings as members of communities who bear specific debts and responsibilities because of our social identities. The responsibilities one may inherit as a member of a community include debts to one’s forbearers that one can only repay to people in the present and future. These responsibilities also include debts incurred by the unjust actions of ones’ predecessors.

 

For MacIntyre, there is no moral identity for the abstract individual; “The self has to find its moral identity in and through its membership in communities” (p. 221).

Macintyre on Rationality:

For MacIntyre, “rationality” comprises all the intellectual resources, both formal and substantive, that we use to judge truth and falsity in propositions, and to determine choice-worthiness in courses of action. Rationality in this sense is not universal; it differs from community to community and from person to person, and may both develop and regress over the course of a person’s life or a community’s history.

 

To the extent that a person accepts what is handed down from the moral and intellectual traditions of her or his community in learning to judge truth and falsity, good and evil, that person’s rationality is “tradition-constituted.” Tradition-constituted rationality provides the schemata by which we interpret, understand, and judge the world we live in. The apparent reasonableness of mythical explanations, religious doctrines, scientific theories, and the conflicting demands of the world’s moral codes all depend on the tradition-constituted rationalities of those who judge them.

 

From the subjective standpoint of the human enquirer, MacIntyre finds that theories, concepts, and facts all have histories, and they are all liable to change—for better or for worse. MacIntyre’s philosophy offers a decisive refutation of modern epistemology, even as it maintains philosophy is a quest for truth.

 

Modernity does not see tradition as the key that unlocks moral and political understanding, but as a superfluous accumulation of opinions that tend to prejudice moral and political reasoning.

Although modernity rejects tradition as a method of moral and political enquiry, MacIntyre finds that it nevertheless bears all the characteristics of a moral and political tradition.

 

MacIntyre focuses the critique of modernity on the question of rational justification. Modern epistemology stands or falls on the possibility of Cartesian epistemological first principles. MacIntyre’s history exposes that notion of first principle as a fiction, and at the same time demonstrates that rational enquiry advances (or declines) only through tradition.

All taken from this essay on Alasdair Macintyre’s life and work, by Christopher Stephen Lutz.

Working Thesis

The thesis that I’ll be working on in the spring, I hope, will consider and argue for a singular idea (and this may not be its final form, but this is what I keep kicking around in my head):

When humans evaluate empirical data and rational arguments to make a religious commitment, they are only capable of doing so from a foundation of pre-formed desire (for what they believe is “good” or “true”), which is in turn shaped by experience and habit.

In other words, we are incapable of evaluating reason or evidence objectively, especially as it relates to reason or evidence about religious claims. The evaluation of such information is determined by what we believe is good or beautiful or true about the world. Theologically, I think this might mean that, in order for us to make a decision to become a Christian, something internal must be changed before we are capable of evaluating any information presented about Christian claims and affirm those claims on the basis of the arguments with which we are presented.

That internal change that is required to evaluate the information and make that faith decision is formed by a complex web of factors, including social and political contexts, individual experience, and the habits (or cultural/religious liturgies) in which we participate.

I’m going to attempt to prove this idea with a range of philosophical/theological ideas, and I’m hoping to also discuss the implications of the idea as well (i.e., How do we deal with this? How do our current cultural habits and practices [materialism, constant political news consumption, the ubiquity of porn, etc.] shape our lived reality?)

This idea is really intriguing to me. I had already been thinking about it internally for a while, when I was discussing with a friend of mine what my thesis would be about. Initially, I thought I would be doing working on the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, but I couldn’t nail down exactly what I wanted to write about. During the conversation, we began talking about life and why Kierkegaard is interesting to me, and he suggested that, instead of doing some extended survey on Kierkegaard’s work, I should use the thesis to attempt to prove an idea, specifically this idea.

When I returned to faith, I found that it was not solely arguments for the rationality of faith, nor could any amount of evidence have purely convinced me that Christianity was true. For me, I needed an internal shift, a new way of seeing the world. I was convinced by authors that wrote about the crucifixion as the true standard of beauty in the world, and the notion that there is an underlying goodness at the heart of reality. Those things are not provable, but when I began to internalize those ideas, making a new religious commitment to Christianity again seemed not only plausible, but right.