Tradition's Paradox--Laying Foundations of Rationality
By John von Heyking, August 25, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?

See previous posts here, here, and here

In an age of perpetual innovation – frequently identified with the very core of modernity – it can be difficult to defend tradition as a depository of wisdom.  However, Brann proposes to take what is strong and weak of the modern republic’s lax attitude toward tradition, and use them to illuminate the advantages of liberal education for the republic.

The paradox of a modern republic’s love of innovation is that it makes citizens neglectful of its own founding.  Having forgotten the alternative to freedom, citizens neglect to guard freedom. 

The same goes for science and learning.  Having forgotten why Galileo thought to transmogrify time and place into “mere magnitudes capable of entering into a ratio, and how those magnitudes have in turn been transformed into quantities able to constitute a rational number,” scientists go on to publish textbooks whose “first” principles are actually secondary; that is, said textbooks begin with velocity (110-111).  Neglect of origins undermines that original achievement.  Premises become an article of unexamined faith instead of science, and soon become dogma.  This is a common story that gets retold in various forms in today’s debates on the moral and political implications of science.

In response to this paradox, Brann suggests how liberal education, which draws upon tradition, can be defended.  In contrast to the republic’s love of thinking new things (which are never new anyway), she suggests thinking things anew.  Instead of treating the contents of the tradition as the entire scope of one’s learning, she suggests it should be treated as laying the foundation for any reasonable person to know.

Brann thus treats tradition not as a traditionalist but as one who regards the texts of the tradition as a depository of great thoughts and conversations regarding the human good.  It is necessary not only to understand them, but also to converse with them and, in order to do that, one must enter into the original thoughts that generated them.  Only by entering into the “radical originating power of thought” does one preserve the wonder that constitutes the beginning and proper end of liberal education.  This way too one avoids the sedimentation of “mere words” that traditionalism falls into, and against which the founders of the republic (and of modernity) railed.

The bulk of Brann’s elaboration of this principle involves sifting through some of the sedimentation that has accumulated over the primacy of science and technology in our culture.  Go back and read Galileo, Descartes, Vico (who objected to the modern method), Bacon, and so forth.  Behind them, of course, are the medieval and ancient thinkers.  Re-discover what Galileo thought objectionable in Euclid, and rediscover why Plato regarded mathematics, with its subject area about pure realities, one step away from philosophy:  “Let no one ungeometrical enter here” was purportedly the Pythagorean inscription on the gate of Plato’s Academy (112). One gets the sense that Brann’s recipe for pressing the rewind button on the tradition is also a way to uncover the ontological roots of that tradition.  If so, then one needs to go even further and elucidate not only the “originating thoughts” but also the originating experiences, which include the meaning of wonder and periagoge (conversion), as described in Plato’s Republic. What causes wonder? Me? You? The god?

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Thaddeus Kozinski on Aug 26, 2010 at 10:49 am

Great stuff. I wonder if we couldn't go more radical than Brann and try to uncover and appropriate the original experiences from which the original ideas derived. This would require something more than just an archaeological dig at the original site of Tradition. I am not sure what it would require actually. It seems we would have to engage in something pre-philosophical, pre-ideological. Learning, not just a "second-language," but a "second-experience." Existential archaeology?

John von Heyking on Aug 26, 2010 at 7:14 pm

I agree. I allude to such a move at the end of the post. In my view, Eric Voegelin has probably done the most to alert readers to the originating experiences of learning, classically expressed as - eros, philia, agathon, periagoge, etc.

about the author

John von Heyking
John von Heyking

I teach political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, as well as religion and politics. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1999.

My publications include Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Missouri, 2001), Civil Religion in Political Thought:  Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America (coeditor; published by CUA Press, 2010), Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (coeditor, published with U. of Notre Dame Press, 2008), two edited volumes of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 2003), as well as articles on Aristotle and friendship, political representation, citizenship, republicanism, just war, Islamic politics, politics and prophecy, leadership, the place of America in contemporary political thought, religious liberty under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the political philosophy of rodeo. I am also at work on a book-length study on the relationship between friendship and political order. My editorials have appeared in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Calgary Herald, C2C: Canada’s Journal of Ideas, and the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. I am currently Associate Editor for History, Theory, and Law of the journal, Politics and Religion, published by Cambridge University Press. His work has been translated into Italian, German, and Chinese. I have delivered invited lectures to audiences throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Russia.