Cross-post: becoming a traditionalist is only the beginning of thought

My quarrel with the thinking man

In his essay What we think about, G. K. Chesterton relates his perplexity at finding someone  write “Mr. Chesterton does not mean to enlighten us, for all we know he is modernist enough in his own thoughts.”

What the man really meant was this:  “Even poor old Chesterton must think; he can’t have actually left off thinking altogether; there must be some form of cerebral function going forward to fill the empty hours of his misdirected and wasted life; and it is obvious that if a man begins to think, he can only think more or less in the direction of Modernism.”  The Modernists do really think that.  That is the point.  That is the joke.

Now what we have really got to hammer into the heads of all these people, somehow, is that a thinking man can think himself deeper and deeper into Catholicism, but not deeper and deeper into difficulties about Catholicism.  We have got to make them see that conversion is the beginning of an active, fruitful, progressive, and even adventurous life of the intellect.  For that is the thing that they cannot at present bring themselves to believe.  They honestly say to themselves:  “What can he be thinking about, if he is not thinking about the Mistakes of Moses, as discovered by Mr. Miggles of Pudsey, or boldly defying all the terrors of the Inquisition which existed two hundred years ago in Spain?”  We have got to explain somehow that the great mysteries like the Blessed Trinity or the Blessed Sacrament are the starting points for trains of thought far more stimulating, subtle, and even individual, compared with which all that skeptical scratching is as thin, shallow, and dusty as a nasty piece of scandalmongering in a New England village.  Thus, to accept the Logos as a truth is to be in the atmosphere of the absolute, not only with St. John the Evangelist, but with Plato and all the great mystics of the world….To set out to belittle and minimize the Mass, by talking ephemeral back-chat about what it had in common with Mithras or the Mysteries, is to be in altogether a more petty and pedantic mood; not only lower than Catholicism but lower even than Mithraism.

In our day, we are familiar with the “thinking Catholic”.  “Thinking” means that he accepts the modernist consensus without question, and “Catholic” means he insists the Church adjust herself to accommodate his lack of imagination.  Similarly, we all know the “thinking conservative”, the type who only ever thinks about what new concessions we must make to liberalism.  I have pointed out before this asymmetry between the Left and Right, that the intellectual leadership of the Left is expected to be more radical than most Leftist voters, whereas the intellectual leadership of the Right is expected to be more moderate than most Rightist voters.  This is one of our major disadvantages.

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the common man reconciles himself with mortality

I happened to run across a review of philosopher Kieran Setiya’s guide on how to deal with a midlife crisis.  Just the sort of gimmick for a philosopher looking to do a little of what scientists call “outreach”, I would say.  Although Western popular culture has seized on the idea, most people don’t suffer a crisis per se.  Still,

n 2008, the economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald published their paper “Is Well-Being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle?” which suggested that people’s well-being – their subjective sense of how well their life is going – shifts over time. Well-being is high in early adulthood, and high in old age, but it dips in middle age, particularly in the forties and fifties. This U-shaped curve forms the empirical evidence for the existence of the midlife crisis…

How should we characterize the midlife crisis? Setiya notes that it arises in different forms: sometimes it manifests itself in a sense of emptiness about one’s life; sometimes in mourning for the foreclosure of options that were once open to us. For many, it involves a reckoning with death and mortality.

(I’ve peaked at this paper, which wasn’t the first to make the claim of a “U-shaped” well-being curve, but argues that it is still present when cohort effects are controlled for.)  Isn’t it remarkable that this subjective sense of well-being turns up as one passes from midlife to old age?  The foreclosure of options and the approach of death are even more striking then.  And yet somehow most people, average men and women who are not trained philosophers, manage to reconcile themselves to it, thus accomplishing what is supposed to be one of the main aims of philosophy.  A reassuring thought.

the data thugs

I may have to reevaluate my hatred of psychologists.  I like these guys.

The data thugs tend to be portrayed as fringe academics who get their jollies from viciously mocking terrible science. And there is some of that. One evening at the SIPS conference, after sessions had been concluded and beers consumed, a researcher asked Heathers for his opinion of a study that seemed suspicious. When Heathers decided he’d heard enough to render a verdict, he took a few steps back and began to shout.

“Give me a B!”

“B!” the assembled scientists replied.

“Give me a U!”


“Give me an L!”


“Give me an L!”…

There are more sedate ways of declaring your doubts about a study, but few more memorable than spelling out a profanity cheerleader-style.

the common man’s intuition of God

When we find a law with no lawgiver, we call it God’s law.

When we find order without an organizer, we call it creation.

When we find a justice or fittingness in the affairs of men beyond their capacity to engineer, we call it providence.

It is remarkable how naturally our mind recognizes these cases of intelligibility-beyond-intelligence and how difficult it is to devise a metaphysics in which they are at home.

It would not do to identify God as a person from whom creatures and laws are entirely separate.  God’s order for the operation of beings is intrinsic to them, and His laws of righteous conduct are intrinsic to justice, but in each case they seem to transcend their subjects.  At least, this is what our tendency to attribute them to God would suggest.

Nor when we speak of God’s laws, of God’s order of the world of nature and of men, do we just mean that these things appear as if imprinted by divine intelligence.  It may be that these are nothing but appearances, but to say so is not to explain what we mean when we speak of them, but to deny it.

It is remarkable how unsatisfied people are with scientific explanations.  They ask how something with the marks of intelligibility came to be.  Give them an answer deriving it from some general principle–spontaneous symmetry breaking, detailed balance, natural selection, or whateer–and they will be disappointed.  “Oh, so you’re saying it’s an accident.”  In other words, if that’s the explanation, then there is no explanation.  Scientists are proud of general principles that explain many phenomena, but what people are looking for is a single cause that directly imprinted this particular intelligibility.

Remarkable as well that we monotheists at least attribute all of these cases of intelligibility-without-intelligence to the same beyond-intelligence.  One could say that honesty demands that I tell the truth, sobriety demands I avoid drunkenness, patriotism demands that I avoid treason, et cetera.  To say that God demands all of these things is to bring them into relation with each other, that there is something inconsistent about recognizing the authority of some of these demands without recognizing the others.  Similarly, the intuition of God’s created order might be one reason we so often speak of “nature” instead of “natures”, even though if we were good Aristotelians we would definitely prefer the plural.

The historical ubiquity of belief in divinity is a scandal to philosophers, perhaps especially to a believing philosopher.  He does not imagine that the reasons his uneducated co-religionists could give for their beliefs would pass muster with his colleagues.  And yet, he does not want to credit their faith to fortuitous error or over-hastiness.  How can the common man of all ages have gotten so deep into metaphysics so easily? How could he have gotten so much right with such invalid reasoning?

There may well be an inverse relation between the logical strength of arguments for God’s existence and their attraction to the religious mind.  I can’t imagine that any non-believer is troubled by an argument from morality (of the “no law without a Lawgiver” sort); arguments of this sort seem quite weak to me.  But it does that the virtue of addressing God in a way that believers actually conceive and relate to Him, and so no less figures than Newman and Lewis understood its power.

I think the common intuitions are valid, although by themselves they hardly constitute proof, are hardly even clear enough to know what they might be proof of.  I doubt we ever cease to rely on them, at least as a check on our reasoning.

Seeing myself at the movies

I imagine that liberals are able to identify themselves with the heroes in many movies they see.  Movie protagonists are often modeled after a progressive’s self-image.  There’s the nerd who’s smarter and more compassionate than everyone else, the misfit who at first nobody respects but turns out to be better than regular people at everything, the girl who’s prettier and obviously better at everything than everyone else but has to learn self-confidence…  I can’t say that I see myself in any of these characters.  Maybe it’s my reactionary contrarianism.  Maybe it’s my mediocrity being too apparent to deny.

There was once, though, when I could really identify with a movie character.  In Star Wars:  Return of the Jedi, there’s this Imperial soldier who points his blaster at Han Solo and says “You rebel scum.”  Just that once, it really felt like me up there on that screen.  Thank you, George Lucas.  It was exhilarating.

And yet more on the humanities

Benjamin Schmidt puts together a good case that humanities majors are declining because of the impression of poor job prospects.  I appreciate that he defines the humanities “crisis” in a clear and quantitative way.  Talk of a “crisis of the humanities” often conflates several issues.  As for the enduring influence and declining prestige of the humanities, I still say “it’s the politics, stupid“.

the provincialism of the philosophers

Anglo-American philosophers don’t know anything about non-Western philosophy, complains Bryan W. Van Norden in his new book.  He’s probably right.  Norden’s solution is to cry racism and demand multiculturalism.  Even the book’s reviewer, Jonardon Ganeri, is skeptical of this.  I come at the issue from a different perspective, as a Catholic having long heard the scholastics on my team whine about how these same philosophers ignore or disrespect them.  I suspect the provincialism of the philosophers is less geographical and cultural than chronological.  The classics of Indian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese philosophy were written a long time ago, and while often not theistic in the Western sense will no doubt strike contemporary philosophers (a very materialistic bunch) as tainted with religious and mystical concerns.  In other words, “just like those Thomists we hate, but even weirder”.

So the non-Western schools have a tough job ahead of them, since they are not despised like the schoolman but are completely ignored, which may be a worse hole to climb out of.  They can be encouraged by the recognition  neo-Aristotelianism is winning.  The scholastics didn’t get this by complaining.  They got it the old-fashioned way:  by attacking the materialistic consensus, giving arguments why that consensus must be flawed and why Aristotelian ideas fix the problem.

If the non-Westerners take this tack, there is the downside that each different non-Western canon will have to make its case separately.  If somebody proves that Indian philosophy has tools we need, that doesn’t prove we should study Chinese philosophy too.  Multiculturalism, trying to guilt Anglo-Americans into reading non-Westerners, works for everybody at once, although I would prefer that it not work at all.  Norden is an expert on Chinese philosophy, and reviewer Ganeri is an expert on Indian philosophy, and I don’t doubt that China and India have formidable philosophical traditions.  They claim that we Westerners are missing incredible riches by ignoring “philosophical texts and voices from India, Africa, China, Mesoamerica, and Indigenous worlds”.  I know it’s mean to say it, but I suspect these five sources to be of unequal value.