In Defense of the Tradition

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been preparing myself for my PhD. At the moment that means a crash course in Philosophy. Almost all the philosophy I know about has been because of a passing intersection with Theology. However, I know enough about Philosophy (and about the direction that my PhD is likely to go in) that I know I don’t know enough for what I want to do. So I’m squaring up to my KNOWN UNKNOWNS and trying to do something about it. All this has led me to develop a “Philosophy Family Tree,” a diagram which I have used to help me visualise the development of the Philosophical Tradition over the last 3,000 years. That diagram will have to be saved for another day because first I want to take a moment to defend the idea of Traditions in and of themselves.

Philosophical ideas (like theological, political, economical and basically all other kinds of ideas) don’t develop in a vacuum, they grow in conversation with the tradition. By the tradition, I mean the body of work which has developed over time and constitutes the chosen field. And by in conversation with I mean the process of engaging (challenging, contradicting, agreeing with, bring new information and new ideas, developing and improvising) with the tradition.

Maybe to some of you, this will sound breathtakingly basic. But I can remember when this was new information to me and maybe it will be new information to you too. We don’t just come up with new ideas about God, life, money, society etc off the top of our heads. Innovation always happens in conversation with the tradition.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your brand new idea is

1) your idea and

2) a brand new idea…

I don’t think this is a particularly popular opinion. As I write this I can hear my peers in the entrepreneurship generation saying: “Don’t stifle my creativity, I’ve got plenty of ideas which are valid and don’t need to be vetted by some gatekeeper institution in the age of distributed communication technologies and the unprecedented democratisation of knowledge.” I hear you! But let me suggest some reasons why idea generation in conversation with the tradition might actually be a good thing:

  • Staying Humble – This is the basis for every other point on this list. Conversation with the tradition, submission to the tradition, is an act of humility. It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your brand new idea is 1) your idea and 2) a brand new idea!! The tradition can become an incredible resource where you might discover that someone more intelligent has already thought what you thought and either found a flaw in it or explored it in exciting ways that you hadn’t considered.
  • Being Sharpened – I remember when I first discovered the concept of a “conversation partner” a book or historic thinker with whom you have a conversation that sharpens you as a thinker. (As an aside this is why I write all over my books, much to my wife’s irritation, because I want the final form of the books in my library to represent the conversations I’ve had with authors throughout history).
  • Helpful Filter – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a brand new amazing idea only to look into it and discover that someone else has already had that idea… they tried it and ended badly. By submitting to the tradition we each have the opportunity to use the history of ideas as a filter for mistakes which have already been made… and let’s face it, once is enough. Of course, let me qualify that by pointing out that contexts can change and ideas may need to be tried again by new people with fresh energy. I’m not advocating for the naysayers clarion call of “we tried that 10 years ago and it didn’t work.”

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All this to say I have really enjoyed developing a better sense of the Philosophical Tradition and I am excited to get into conversation with some of history’s sharpest minds.  I started writing this blog expecting to share with you my attempt and visualising the philosophical family tree which I designed as a crib sheet to help in my discovery of the philosophical tradition. It has turned into a defence of tradition itself and I think that the family tree will have to wait for another blog, but before I go let me suggest a few areas of contemporary conversation which I think might benefit from a better understanding of the tradition:

Liturgy as a Priest in the Church of England I’ll say upfront that I am probably a bit biased on this issue, but Liturgical practice in Church has a long and rich history which the contemporary Church would greatly benefit from engaging with. Jamie KA Smith and his work on liturgy is a great place to start if you want to read something on this issue.

If you walk into the vast majority of thriving Churches in America and the UK you will encounter a service which was designed in the 1960s and gives almost no reference to the last 2,000 years of Church history. I was having coffee with a friend of mine and we were talking about the struggles of being a Christian in our late 20s early 30s in England today. We were talking about wanting to shut out the noise of competing truth claims, which bombard us from Monday to Saturday and needing a simple formula which reminded us of the basics of our faith each week in a concise and clear way. And then it suddenly occurred to us, that already exists and it’s called the Creeds!

Brexit Ok deep breath! I promise I’m not going to stand on that landmine, It’s a much longer conversation for another day. However, I would like to point out that FAR too much for the public discussion happening around Brexit seems to take little or no account of the historical context within which Brexit is taking place. We simplify Brexit to “The People voted now get on with it” to our peril. For example, I found this podcast interview between Steve Baker and Nick Robinson (giving a Brexiter’s account of the historical background for Brexit) to be an illuminating insight into the position of someone with whom I disagree.

Technology And with this final example I am brought full-circle to my PhD and the aims of my work in this area. Modern technology has made some extraordinary developments in recent decades and yet my concern is that the developments and their implications are predominantly being discussed in a historical vacuum. In part, this is because the technologies being developed are so groundbreaking and futuristic. It is often assumed that because no one could have conceived of, for example, the World Wide Web before it was built and so the traditions of theology or philosophy have nothing to teach us on this subject.

As should be clear by this point in the blog post, I am concerned that this approach to modern technology will leave us bereft of significant recourses. Perhaps this will leave us only asking pragmatic or economic questions like “Does it work?” and “Is it productive?” These are the sorts of questions that we, as a society, are good at asking. But questions like “Is it good?” or “How will it shape who we are?” these are the sorts of questions we are not good at asking, or discerning the answers to. Maybe it’s for this second set of questions that we need to turn to the tradition for help with.

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