Brad Kallenberg on "Tradition-Based Rationality"
Dr. Brad Kallenberg has recently written a glossary item for us on “tradition-based rationality,” a term derived from Alasdair MacIntyre. Kallenberg begins the essay by explaining the sense in which conceptual language is shaped and shared by communities. The explanation assumes a view of the “makeup” of humanity by which the embodied practices and immersion in a way of life develops the vocabulary of the community that shares in the given way of life. The vocabulary of conceptual language is not vacuous, in other words; it does not “correspond” to things and concepts that are “out there” somewhere. Rather, as embodied and desiring creatures aimed at an end (a telos), our conceptual vocabulary is shaped by the desire for the internal goods of the community aimed at these ends. When I played collegiate baseball, one goal (telos) of playing was to bring college students together, and winning often helped achieve that end. But winning was not an end in itself. An internal good of this team (a community) was the friendship of college students, so the conceptual language of “victory” meant something different to us than it would for teams that thought winning was an end in itself. As an example of the acquisition of conceptual language, Kallenberg says that one “comes to read music with comprehension while learning to play an instrument (or sing in a choir) with other musicians.” The “language” of music is acquired in, through, and by the whole choir or the whole group of musicians. The same is the case for the language of theology, says Kallenberg: "By participating with others in those activities in which the word “God” is at home – activities such as praying, confessing, thanking, evangelizing, worshipping – one will slowly become fluent in the language of God." Indeed, theological language is not something we can learn about merely from good books (although that’s important, too!). We must also immerse ourselves in the kind of practices that make such language intelligible in the first place. For example, when I’m immersed in the liturgical rituals that teach me that “freedom” is being rightfully constrained as a slave to Christ, the broader culture’s association of “freedom” with the freedom from constraint becomes unintelligible to me. In both cases there are embodied practices that determine the meaning of the word “freedom,” and they are quite different. The communities in which this conceptual language is formed are shaped over time, and they constitute “traditions.” As Kallenberg points out, MacIntyre defines a tradition as “an historically extended, socially embodied argument.” The argument, he says, is the ongoing discussion over the meaning of the vocabulary used in these communities. The understanding of this vocabulary is shown “by the way that [the adherents] talk and live with each other.” "For example, Christians understand “Good News” to entail daily acts of forgiveness. Christians’ forgiveness of each other ought thus to be regular enough to outsiders to recognize it in the pattern of Christian interactions. (Likeness, Christian communities that are devoid of such daily acts of forgiveness display that their concept of forgiveness is empty.)" Given all of this, Kallenberg says that human reasoning is both tradition-constitutive and tradition-constituted. It’s tradition-constitutive because “the entire web of conversations across time… comprises or constitutes a living tradition.” It’s tradition-constituted because it is always “located within some tradition or other.” This is quite a different understanding of rationality than what’s been offered by the Enlightenment!