Intellectual Traditions as Sites of Tension

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Carrying on an intellectual tradition is a Janus-faced enterprise. Like Janus, the Roman god of transitions, one must look both forward and backward. To start, a tradition must have a causal continuity with its past. The texts and debates from its crucial figures must be carefully preserved and interpreted; distinctive themes must be kept alive, insights appreciated, habits and approaches refined, and founding arguments clarified.  Yet living intellectual traditions are not museum pieces. A viable tradition must be applicable to contemporary circumstances. Contemporary practitioners must demonstrate the relevance of their tradition by importing its characteristic principles, practices, and arguments into the fray of current debate. Naturally, this will occasion new challenges and problems for the tradition. Contemporary critics of the tradition will have innovative lines of objection, and material arrangements will change in ways that the founders did not anticipate.

Thus, a tradition’s distinctive insights will need updating and revision. Sometimes, more drastic measures are necessary. Given that any tradition will have internal debates at its founding or in its early development, those who seek to carry on that tradition must be open to the possibility that there are errors in the tradition’s inception – if the tradition’s founders disagreed, at least one was wrong; and maybe all were.  The formative moments of a tradition are animated by debates over how the program’s most worthy insights can be developed and perfected. And what can be discarded. Accordingly, those who seek to keep a tradition alive must engage those debates anew, by answering challenges from external critics and by addressing internal disputes among fellow practitioners. Without this forward-looking face, one open to transitions and revisions, the tradition degrades into dead dogma.

Those who carry on traditions must look both ways, as the Janus rule runs. But this occasions a difficulty, in line with what philosophers sometimes call the problem of vagueness. Although small modifications do not undo a tradition, small changes can aggregate into significant deviations. For example, if someone is tall, then if they were a half a millimeter shorter, they would still be tall. A minor change is minor. But these small changes can aggregate – say, if we aggregate 400 of those small changes with our tall person, that’s now 20 centimeters lost and our once tall person isn’t quite so. But if each change didn’t make a significant difference, then what happened? Or take the famous Ship of Theseus problem from Plutarch. It runs that a museum has replaced elements of Theseus’s ship over time as they’ve rotted. Replacing an oar or plank is only a minor change, but because all the pieces eventually rot and are replaced, a problem arises: Is the ship now Theseus’s ship?

One way out of the vagueness problem is to deny the initial premise that small changes do not make a significant difference. So, if a single plank is replaced, the ship isn’t Theseus’s ship. That may have some plausibility with the ship’s identity in a very strict sense, but it seems implausible with other concepts, since surely there is room for half a millimeter to not make a significant difference as to whether someone’s tall. And so, the question lingers: what does it take to continue an intellectual tradition, and when do adjustments and deviations constitute its abonnement?

The temptation is to retrench the tradition’s classic or canonical expressions, to go originalist. This is what drives the intuition behind rejecting tolerance for replacing even a single oar on Theseus’s ship – if it’s Theseus’s ship, then we need all and only Theseus’s oars and planks. Not only is there some plausibility to the retrenchment strategy, it provides a kind of clarity that brings consequent institutional power. Retrenchers function not only as those who demarcate, they also serve as gatekeepers. They interpret the founding documents and then judge whether contemporary expressions are in line.

The other strategy is to take is to embrace a ‘big tent’ conception of the tradition, one that accepts that the ripples from the founding need not move us now. There is a causal continuity, and some similarities, between the new and the old, and that’s enough for the tradition to persevere. So long as the tradition is current and relevant, that’s what matters.  If the views of the founders are no longer relevant or have needed massive revision, so be it.

The trouble is that both strategies seem incomplete. For the retrenchers, the canonical views become dead dogma; for the big-tenters, it’s not entirely clear what tradition is being preserved. The former holds the tradition in place, which dooms it to irrelevance; the latter strives to keep the tradition vital but loses what is distinctive about it.

In our current academic work, we have seen the problem close up. We try to live by the Janus rule in our work on pragmatism; we feel the tug of the two trends. The pragmatist tradition traces its lineage to the work of three philosophers at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century – the ‘classical pragmatists,’ Charles S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Their works are the founding documents of that tradition. But successful cultural movements extend well beyond control of the founders (or gatekeepers). In the vernacular, ‘pragmatism’ has come to refer to any practical frame of mind. And, in academic philosophy, trends inspired by classical pragmatism have interacted with other traditions and approaches, often altering both. So, there’s ‘analytic pragmatism,’ various combinations of pragmatism and phenomenology, mashups of pragmatism and post-structuralism, and much more.

Retrenchers often refuse to call these new extensions of the tradition legitimate – they are, instead, regarded as abuses or hijackings. But that takes the tradition out of circulation. Meanwhile, the big-tenters struggle to discern what is distinctive about being a pragmatist.

The tension, we think, is endemic to carrying on any tradition. It’s, again, a special instance of the problem of vagueness, which is a problem that admits of no happy solution.  However, there are ways to mitigate the problem. One is that we can look both ways, but we can do it only by alternating when and where we look. We are not Janus, since we can look only one way at a time. So, we must alternate between, on the one hand, seeing the debates evolve in the founding texts and strive to interpret them well, and on the other hand, finding ways to bring the spirit of that tradition to contemporary application. We can’t do both at the same time, since quoting Dewey in the midst of a debate with non-pragmatists will do no good, nor will bringing up a puzzle of current epistemology help interpret James’s view on metaphilosophy.

The lesson applies to any living tradition. In a way, we can’t look both ways, but in another way, we can. The key, of course, is to manage alternating in a way that can provide a unified vision. It’s unlikely that one ever achieves that unity (just as one cannot solve the problem of vagueness), but there are more effective ways to mitigate the disunity we risk.