From the “pen” of Robert Shields

February 21, 2008

See, here’s the reason Mac’s notion of practices won’t work:  There is no way to get to there.

Although it is easy to point to practices of the required level of complexity, and of sufficient depth and breadth to allow for the play of ontological and ethical content, and to retain a distinct continuity within development to allow for the establishment of  tradition projected upon the reproduction of its activities, values, ends, etc. in successive generations, it is difficult to see how such traditions might come to be (short of being lowered from an ideal realm), that is to say, how would a group of human beings decide they needed such a practice, plan such a practice, and then step inside such a practice.

That sentence is way to long (although if you add some swearing, it might give you an idea of how thoughts run through my mind before I edit myself).

Let’s talk stories:

In After Virtue, Mac speculates about a child taught to play chess through positive reinforcement. Each time the child makes a good move, he or she is given a piece of candy. To become a full practitioner (rather than what Lave would call a Legitimate Peripheral Participant, I suppose), the child eventually moves beyond playing for candy, and adopts the values internal to the game of chess.

Not a bad story, but it doesn’t entirely work. For a child approaching the game for the first time, chess is not like a Chinese box experiment. IT’s clear that a child has to be taught what each piece can do, and how one would win the game. However, the child does not have to be conditioned to consider pieces of wood or ivory to be Knights, Bishops, Kings and Queens; that is what children do. A child might have to be rewarded to convince him or her to stay with this game rather than just running off after 3 minutes, but the child does not have to be conditioned to accept the ontology of the game board and the pieces, or conditioned to understand the ends internal to a game. Children pick up games easily. Although these games are not as complex as chess–they do not, in other words, meet MacIntyre’s standards for practices–they do, in their primitive ways–do the things which chess does. Even the simple games of a child involve putting oneself into the game, accepting the internal logic, ontology and structure of each game, even if it is just accepting that stuffed animals are conscious and that one must feed them with mud pies. Ultimately, one can teach a child to play chess because playing games comes naturally for a child. Chess is simply a matter of developing that natural tendency in a different direction.

It is possible that we are just talking about a semantic difference here, and that Mac just means a specific level of practice that can ground the sort of moral discussion he is interested in. However, it seems that his account should, if it is to be considered complete, be able to provide a generating account–an examination of how practices come to be, and of how we come to be members of a practice. Even more importantly, his account raises the possibility that there could be cultures that do not have any social practices that meet the standards of being MacIntyrian Practices; would this imply that these cultures do not have the capacity for virtue, or merely that they–like Tic-tack-toe players–have an understanding of excellence, but no ability to theorize about it?

We human beings are creatures given to social practices in the same way we are creatures given to language. This does not directly contradict the core of what Mac is trying to say, but his refusal to accept primitive or simple practices puts him in a strange position. If humans did not naturally take to simple and proto-practices, they would not have the capacity for complex traditional practices. It seems that humans not only take to practices from the earliest stages of development, but that from these practices we also acquire the ability to distinguish excellence in practices, and to extrapolate from that excellence of life–what we would call virtue.


Ain’t it funny…

February 3, 2008

…how time slips away. I was shocked to realize that I hadn’t written here for a full month. School starting and getting ready for a job interview have proven more distracting than I realized.

My esteemed co-author and I have been talking more over the last ten days or so about our article (ah, and that was another slowing factor: we didn’t get into the Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable, but have decided to soldier on with this project nonetheless), and making some headway. What we’ve got, really, are some argumentative moments that I think we could stitch together now into a coherent piece. I think we’ll try to do that over the next couple of months, with the expectation (such has been our experience) that the project will change substantially another time or two in the process. Basically, in exploring each issue we find ourselves driven back into more fundamental concerns. Seems like philosophy probably should work that way, though it can be a little confusing even to the authors at times. So in this case, what began as a contribution to the naturalist vs. normativist debate on whether the concept of a norm has anything to contribute to social science and the philosophy of social science is turning into a disquisition on the relationship between how things make sense to human beings and how their behavior fits into the causal nexus of the physical universe, and further how social science and philosophy ought to make sense of that relationship. As I said, we’ll get some thoughts up sometime here in February.