What Can Philosophers Learn from the Tradition?


On April 30, 2005, the Center co-sponsored a one-day conference entitled “What Can Philosophers Learn from the Tradition?” The event, which took place at the University of Chicago, was organized by the Lumen Christi Institute and co-sponsored by the Committee on Social Thought of the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Divinity School. The main speakers for the day were the Center’s Senior Research Fellow Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor of Northwestern and McGill Universities and Jean-Luc Marion of the University of Chicago and the University of Paris.

The day began with Mass in Rockefeller Chapel celebrated by Cardinal Francis George. In his homily, Cardinal George began the day’s discussion of tradition by reminding those at the Mass that they are never alone, because their participation in the Catholic and more broadly Christian tradition puts them into contact not only with ideas but more importantly with people through the Communion of Saints.

Prof. MacIntyre gave the first lecture, entitled “Rediscovering Tradition from within Modernity,” in which he gave a semi-autobiographical reflection on academia and the place of tradition in philosophical inquiry. MacIntyre recalled that he became an atheist after coming to believe, through his contact with academic philosophy, that there are no arguments that are logically compelling to all rational persons, anytime, anywhere. Thus, arguments such as those for the existence of God need not be believed by every reasonable person. As this realization was contrary to the claims of Thomism as MacIntyre understood them (and as some Thomists presented them) at the time, he rejected Thomism. Eventually, though, he returned both to theism and Thomism as he came to understand the nature of goal-oriented philosophical enquiry, that is, that it presupposes certain types of answers and excludes others. To inquire about the nature of things presupposes that things have a nature, and to inquire at all about the causes of things is to commit oneself to the possibility of a Cause of all things, i.e., God. MacIntyre observed that one particularly attractive feature of Thomistic Aristoteleanism is its ability not only to explain the world but to identify its challengers’ errors and account for them on their own terms.

This lecture was followed by Prof. Taylor, who spoke on “Modern Imaginaries and the Uses of Tradition.” Taylor explored how the social imaginary (that is, how members of a society imagine that society) applies to modernity. Many understand modern society as a system of individuals who are looking to achieve individual goods, and the hope is that we can all find a way to do this without disturbing others, and even in some cases advancing them towards their goals as we pursue our own. This model, Taylor pointed out, tends to rely on an economically centered worldview. He then went on to explore how one can make the Christian tradition, or even the concept of any tradition, available to those in this modern mindset. He suggested that there are two alternatives: bringing back a literal translation of past ideas and practices, or seeing modernity as an altogether different civilization from those of past ages and expressing the truths and ideas of the tradition in a new way in an effort to relate it to modernity. Taylor favored the latter alternative, arguing that tradition must be adapted in order to thrive, and he noted that this adaptation serves as a catalyst for fruitful discussion and self-understanding within the tradition.

After lunch, the conference picked up again with another brief reflection by Cardinal George in which he continued his earlier theme about the Communion of Saints, elucidating it with anecdotes of the papal conclave. He recalled the palpable sense that the cardinals were attended by all the saints and angels as they worked to discern the will of the Holy Spirit in choosing the successor of Peter. He predicted that Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy would likely focus on renewing the Church in Western Europe, going back to the Treaty of Versailles to abrogate secularism as John Paul II went back to Yalta to abrogate communism in Eastern Europe.

After the cardinal’s address, Prof. Marion gave a lecture entitled “On the Edge of Tradition.” One of his central theses was the inescapability of tradition. Even modern philosophers who claim to reject tradition have established a tradition of denying tradition. All ideas are built upon what others have done before, and if one were to try to begin anew, ignoring the work of his predecessors, he would end up only rearticulating their theses, most likely in a less cogent manner. Rather than attempting to work in a vacuum, Marion claimed, “the living should understand what the dead have made of them and for them.” He stressed the importance of understanding tradition as living; it is not simply a restatement of ideas but a practice, a task to transform the world which is passed on. Marion noted that in the Christian tradition, this passing on is most clearly seen in the celebration of the Eucharist.

The day closed with a panel discussion among the three main speakers, chaired by the University of Chicago’s Jean Elshtain. Th e panelists responded to each other’s papers and discussed a wide range of themes, from language to politics, and then took several questions from the audience. The conference was, as expected, a day of scintillating discussion, attended by over 400 participants. Students and scholars came from all over the United States to attend this remarkable scholarly event.

The Center is grateful to the speakers and to the Lumen Christi Institute for their work in organizing the event.