Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Intelligibility of Human Custom

Since the beginning of my philosophical life, I have been interested in the the question of whether individuals are intelligible in and of themselves. You might think they aren't, and, if you thought this, you'd be in good company. You might think that when you get to know an individual, you know it only by considering it through various universal concepts--that is, concepts that apply to many things. You might think, for example, when you get to know another person, you come to know him not as intelligible in and of himself, as this unique individual, but inasmuch as he is kind, is intelligent, loves Indian food, is tall, is a reader of Jane Austen, etc. The uniqueness one sees in him is just the unique combination of these (potentially infinitely) many attributes.

I don't think that view is right, but it's hard to articulate why. I've tried to do so in some of my professional writings, arguing, for example, that we see the unique intelligibility--where we understand some individual in and of itself, not just as an instance of a kind--in an individual's beauty or its relations to others or in experiences of friendship. But I'm trying to build up a more complete case.

Why is it important to me that individuals as such (not just persons, but any individual whatsoever) be seen as intelligible? I think this is how the world shows up for us in our actual experience: when I really know a person, or an artwork, or a place, I come to know it not as an instance of a kind or as having certain repeatable attributes, but as unique in itself, with a uniqueness irreducible to anything repeatable. I can express this understood uniqueness, not just in proper names, but in literary genres like poetry, or in a biography, or a cultural analysis--though at the end of the day, all such expression sounds inadequate; uniqueness is something that I can grasp, that can strike my deeply, but that I cannot fully say in words. And I think that to fail to experience this uniqueness is to miss features of things that must be recognized for an adequate morality, and for an adequate politics.

I really do think that a humane, reasonable, life-affirming politics requires an awareness of the uniqueness not only of individual persons, but of circumstances, cultural forms, ways of life. One political approach that captured this to some extent was the English tradition of custom and common law. We discover how the members of our nation ought to act, in particular and uniquely, through the education of a long tradition. As Burke puts it, while the individual and the mass of men living at any time is foolish, the species, eternal society, is wise. We cannot give reasons in many cases as to why a custom is right--why one should, say, have the right to pasture one's livestock on certain common land and not others, or why one can marry certain cousins and not others--except that this is the prescription we have received from time immemorial, and that we have been so shaped by our tradition, given our very outlook on all things by it, that we are bound to live by it.

Over the last few weeks, I've been reading at times from J.G.A. Pocock's remarkable book The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. I'm reading this text both because I want to understand better the origins of American political thinking, especially in the classical and Italian republican tradition, and because this sort of political thinking is itself an attempt to understand the particular. How can we understand the particularities of history? How can we understand who we are as citizens in a really rational way?

Pocock opens the book with a critique of the English approach to custom, through an examination of Sir John Fortescue, the 15th century Chief Justice of England, who wrote the important legal text De laudibus legum angliae. (I haven't read Fortescue myself yet, but I'm an avid and frequent reader of Sir William Blackstone's 18th century Commentary on the Laws of England.) Fortescue has a difficult time trying to defend the customary and common laws of England, on Pocock's reading, for he tries to do so in terms of Aristotelian deductions from the precepts of the natural law. But those are universal laws, and the particular laws of the English nation cannot be derived from them. At best, one can show how particular laws and customs do not contradict the precepts of the natural law.

Pocock reasons, rightly, that this state of affairs is reached because, on the Aristotelian view, only universal principles are intelligible; particular states of affairs are just grasped by sensory experience (and the internal power capable of this, the cogitative power). So custom on this view is unintelligible. It can't be the basis for a real understanding of who we are, as members or citizens of this nation, or as existing at this point in history. In response to this, Pocock (and the people of the Florentine Renaissance) turned away from custom to the notion of the republic in order to make (secular) sense of their place in history.

But to my mind that's not good enough. We do come to really understand who we are through our place in tradition. A politics based solely in the universality of natural law, important as it is, is inadequate to a vital, thriving culture. A politics based just in the universal becomes, I contend, eventually totalitarian, making the individual but a member of a totality, or (which is perhaps the same thing), libertarian, making the individual but an individual, instantiating universal laws for himself.

We need a basis in a philosophy of the human person and the metaphysics of the individual for the intelligibility of particular custom. To have a rich range of customs as the soil out of which one grows, and which guarantee one's place in a rich and varied society, is to be able to live as a free man. It is to be given an identity by one's culture, but not a constraining identity, as in a mechanistic society, but an organic identity, capable of growth and development, for customs and traditions live, and so grow. We must attend to the ways in which particular customs present themselves as genuinely intelligible, imparting meaning to our lives. This is necessary, I think, if we who have lost a traditionary life, a life based in custom, are to recover that.


  1. "But those are universal laws, and the particular laws of the English nation cannot be derived from them. At best, one can show how particular laws and customs do not contradict the precepts of the natural law."
    What do you see the role of prudence to be in a society in light of the apparent dichotomy between custom and natural law?

    To add to your last paragraph, I would maintain that in addition to a proper philosophical understanding we need a proper religious sense of things. I would maintain that only a society that retains a habitual understanding of natural religion or of Religion is able to give proper respect to custom. The habit of honoring what has come before and seeing oneself as a participant in the context of a whole can only thrive in a worldview that holds that there are sacred things and that they are due a special respect. This of course can be abused, but without it, tradition's value becomes much less comprehensible apart from a utilitarian view. The value of upholding custom is much more than simply the necessity to put up with the way things are, to tolerate current forms for the sake of some future good that will also remedy the irrational mess of custom. Custom ought to be seen as something both human and pointing beyond humans, something to be venerated for the sake of what is true, good, and beautiful in it, and therefore, something lovable.

    1. I entirely agree with your last paragraph. I would go even further: we need not only a philosophical understanding and a religious sense, we need what Scheler calls a "vital sense" of things--that is, a sense of human life and vitality, such as it was captured in traditions like the tradition of knighthood in the Christian middle ages, or in the varioius traditions of working with one's hands. Custom should be seen as determinative of what we do and as loveable on all human levels: bodily, mental, and spiritual.

      Prudence is, I think, the virtue that can mediate between the natural law and custom--but not in such a way that we rationalistically take the content of the natural law and determine what customs to adopt. Rather, prudence can help us see a few things. First, it can help us see how the customs we receive help us to live by the natural law. Second, it can lead us to see when we should abandon or suspend certain customs in light of the natural law. Third, it can lead the political authority e.g. the king to know what to do in extraordinary situations that are not covered by custom (Pocock has an interesting discussion of that application of prudence), or the judge in adjudicating among apparently conflicting customs or in refining custom and so setting precedent, and thus establishing new customs. There are probably other roles for prudence as well, in the individual's life, to know how to apply both custom and natural law to particular situations.