First Principles

There is an interesting post up on the Future Primeval site on the epistemic value of tradition, and its comparability to Bayesian inference. The post caught my eye because it matches with other things I have been reading, specifically Aristotle and the concept of Endoxa as utilized by Alistair MacIntyre for his conception of tradition. As his entry on the IEP page helpfully explains:

MacIntyre holds that his historicist, particularist critique of modernity is consistent with Thomism because of the way that he understands the acquisition of first principles. In chapter 10 (pp. 164-182), MacIntyre compares Thomas Aquinas’s account of the acquisition of first principles with those of Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Bentham, and Kant. MacIntyre explains that according to Thomas Aquinas, individuals reach first principles through “a work of dialectical construction” (p. 174). For Thomas Aquinas, by questioning and examining one’s experience, one may eventually arrive at first principles, which one may then apply to the understanding of one’s questions and experience. Descartes and his successors, by contrast, along with certain “notable Thomists of the last hundred years” (p. 175), have proposed that philosophy begins from knowledge of some “set of necessarily true first principles which any truly rational person is able to evaluate as true” (p. 175). Thus for the moderns, philosophy is a technical rather than moral endeavor, while for the Thomist, whether one might recognize first principles or be able to apply them depends in part on one’s moral development (pp. 186-182).

The modern account of first principles justifies an approach to philosophy that rejects tradition. The modern liberal individualist approach is anti-traditional. It denies that our understanding is tradition-constituted and it denies that different cultures may differ in their standards of rationality and justice:

The standpoint of traditions is necessarily at odds with one of the central characteristics of cosmopolitan modernity: the confident belief that all cultural phenomena must be potentially translucent to understanding, that all texts must be capable of being translated into the language which the adherents of modernity speak to one another (p. 327)

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 identifies the peculiar standards of the liberal tradition in the latter part of chapter 17, and summarizes the story of the liberal tradition at the outset of chapter 18:

Liberalism, beginning as a repudiation of tradition in the name of abstract, universal principles of reason, turned itself into a politically embodied power, whose inability to bring its debates on the nature and context of those universal principles to a conclusion has had the unintended effect of transforming liberalism into a tradition (p. 349).

From MacIntyre’s perspective, there is no question of deciding whether or not to work within a tradition; everyone who struggles with practical, moral, and political questions simply does.

Can we not replace this “moral” development with the “prior experience” of the future primeval post, and arrive at the same conclusions – experience is vital in all fields for the individual to really understand, be this scientific or ethical, this experience can either be personal experience, or experience passed down through tradition/ Bayesian priors. But if we do this, then we find that we are working from an Aristotelian framework in which Phronesis is key, and we are directly rejecting modern philosophy. Also, is it not very clear from this that the (I love science!) scientific method and modern philosophy are egalitarianism at core? The character of the actor employing the tools is assumed to be irrelevant, as is their experience and knowledge, because they/ we are assumed to be able to see those first principles without tradition.

This tradition from the MacIntyre angle is fundamentally Aristotlean endoxa. A reasoning from generally accepted opinions, which is what traditions are, are they not? There are no magical first principles, nor any magical objective points of departure. You start from a set of experiences and established points, and then build from there, and reach Thomistic first principles. How did these generally accepted principals, these “priors” come about? Who knows, and who cares, you work with what you have and proceed from there. There are no magic universals which are the stock and trade of the Enlightenment ™ and modernity here.

(Bonus: Bayesian Marxism)

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