Thursday, July 28, 2005

Tradition and Reason

Policy Review has an interesting article by Lee Harris entitled "The Future of Tradition," the main question of which is,

"But is it possible to defend tradition with the help of reason? Can a particular tradition be justified by reason? And what if our traditional belief conflicts with reason — can we rationally justify keeping it? "

The article is interesting, but it is founded on a false premise: that tradition and reason are potentially competing modes of thought, and that reason itself may potentially be a superior mode of thinking than submission to tradition.

Harris misses this point (or perhaps pretends to): Reason itself as he is using it refers to the Western rational tradition. In other words, reason is itself a tradition, a particular disciplined mode of thinking that may or may not be superior to other modes of thinking. Why, in his examples, do cultural fights between reason and tradition end in disaster? Because if reason wins, it undermines its very traditional foundation, and if tradition wins, it destroys the very reason it birthed.

Allow me to explain it this way: What if I attack Western rationalism as a system of thought? How can you defend it? If you defend it through reasoned argumentation, you are creating a very small circle of logic, no larger than when someone asserts "The Bible is true because it says so." Instead, one must do what Harris feels compelled to do every time he brings up the Sophists -- justify reason according to intellectual tradition. In fact, Harris's article has the great virtue of acting as performance art in that it justifies tradition by appealing to reason on the surface, but beneath the surface is really justifying reason by appealing to tradition.

I'm not sure whether he avoids saying so directly because he is missing this point, or if he is only pretending to in order to avoid alienating his apparent intended audience of reason-partisans.


  1. I came over here from The Evangelical Outpost. Great post, and great blog you have here.

    I look forward to coming back.

  2. Tradition and reason are themselves defined by scripture. Jesus himself in speaking of the application of the law concerning parents pointed out that by our own traditions we make the law null and void. The law is clear that above all else comes the law of love, or rather the 1st and 2nd commandments. A tradition that breaks these commandments makes the law null and void.

    Just my own ignorant and inconsequential two cents.

    Nice blog! and discussion of faith wasn't my intent in coming here.