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A philosophical system which makes tradition the supreme criterion and rule of certitude

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Traditionalism, a philosophical system which makes tradition the supreme criterion and rule of certitude.

Exposition.—According to traditionalism, human reason is of itself radically unable to know with certainty any truth or; at least, the fundamental truths of the metaphysical, moral, and religious order. Hence our first act of knowledge must be an act of faith, based on the authority of revelation. This revelation is transmitted to us through society, and its truth is guaranteed by tradition or the general consent of mankind. Such is the philosophical system maintained chiefly, in its absolute form, by the Vicomte de Bonald and F. de Lamennais in their respective works and, with some mitigation, by Bautain, Bonetty, Ventura, Ubaghs, and the school of Louvain.

According to de Bonald, man is essentially a social being. His development comes through society; and the continuity and progress of society have their principle in tradition. Now language is the instrument of sociability, and speech is as natural to man as is his social nature itself. Language could not have been discovered by man, for “man needs signs or words in order to think as well as in order to speak”; that is “man thinks his verbal expression before he verbally expresses his thought”; but originally language, in its fundamental elements together with the thoughts which it expresses, was given him by God, His Creator (cf. Legislation primitive, I, ii). These fundamental truths, absolutely necessary to the intellectual, moral, and religious life of man, must be first accepted by faith. They are communicated through society and education, and warranted by tradition or universal reason of mankind. There is no other basis for certitude and there remains nothing, besides tradition, but human opinions, contradiction, and uncertainty (cf. Recherches philosophiques, i, ix).

The system presented by Lamennais is almost identical with that of de Bonald. Our instruments of knowledge, namely sense, feeling, and reason, he says, are fallible. The rule of certitude therefore can only be external to man, and it can consist only in the control of the individual senses, feelings, and reasoning by the testimony of the senses, feelings, and reason of all other men; their universal agreement is the rule of certitude. Hence, to avoid scepticism, we must begin with an act of faith preceding all reflection, since reflection presupposes the knowledge of some truth. This act of faith must have its criterion and rule in the common consent or agreement of all, in the general reason (la raison genet-ale). “Such is”, Lamennais concludes, “the law of human nature”, outside of which “there is no certitude, no language, no society, no life” (cf. Defense de l’Essai sur l’Indifference, xi).

The Mitigated Traditionalists make a distinction between the order of acquisition (ordo acquisitionis) and the order of demonstration (ordo demonstrationis). The knowledge of metaphysical truths, they say, is absolutely necessary to man in order to act reasonably. It must then be acquired by the child through teaching or tradition before he can use his reason. And this tradition can have its source only in a primitive revelation. Hence, in the order of acquisition, faith precedes science. With these truths, however, received by faith, human reason is able, through reflection, to demonstrate the reasonableness of this act of faith, and thus, in the order of demonstration, science precedes faith (cf. Ubaghs, “Logics seu Philosophiae rationalis elementa”, 6th ed., Louvain, 1860). When replaced in its historical surroundings, Traditionalism clearly appears as a reaction and a protest against the rationalism of the philosophers of the eighteenth century and the anarchic individualism of the French Revolution. Against these errors it pointed out and emphasized the weakness and insufficiency of human reason, the influence of society, education, and tradition on the development of human life and institutions. The reaction was extreme, and landed in the opposite error.

Criticism.—Since Traditionalism, in its fundamental principles, is a kind of Fideism, it falls under the condemnation pronounced by the Church and under the refutation furnished by reason and philosophy against Fideism. We may, however, advance certain criticisms touching the characteristic elements of Traditionalism. It is evident, first of all, that authority, whatever be the way or agency in which it is presented to us, cannot of itself be the supreme criterion or rule of certitude. For, in order to be a rule of certitude, it must first be known as valid, competent, and legitimate, and reason must have ascertained this before it is entitled to our assent (cf. St. Thomas, I—II, Q. ii, a. 1). Without entering upon the psychological problem of the relations between thought and expression, and even admitting with de Bonald that the primitive elements of thought and language were originally given directly by God to man, we are not forced to conclude logically with him that our first act is an act of faith. Our first act should rather be an act of reason, acknowledging, by natural reflection, the credibility of the truths revealed by God. Lamennais’s criterion of universal reason or consent is open to the same objections. First, how could universal consent or general reason, which is nothing more than the collection of individual judgments or of individual reasons, give certitude, when each of these individual judgments is only matter of opinion or each of these individual reasons is declared to be fallible? Again, how could we in practice apply such a criterion; that is, how could we ascertain the universality of such a judgment in the whole human race, even if only moral universality were required? Moreover, what would be in this system, the criterion of truth, concerning matters in which the human mind is not generally interested, or in the scientific problems of which it is generally incompetent? But above all, in order to give a firm and unhesitating assent to the teaching of universal consent, we must first have ascertained the reasonableness and legitimacy of its claims to our assent; that is, reason must ultimately precede faith; otherwise our assent would not be reasonable.

Mitigated or Semi-Traditionalism, in spite of its apparent differences, is substantially identical with pure Traditionalism, and falls under the same criticism, since religious and moral truths are declared to be given to man directly by Revelation and accepted by him antecedently to any act of his reason. Moreover, there is no real foundation for the essential distinction between the orders of invention and demonstration, which is supposed to distinguish Semi-Traditionalism from pure Traditionalism. The difference between these two orders is only accidental. It consists in the fact that it is easier to demonstrate a truth already known than to discover it for the first time; but the faculties and process used in both operations are essentially the same, since to demonstrate a truth already known is simply to reproduce, under the guidance of this knowledge, the operation performed and to take again the path followed in its first discovery (cf. St. Thomas, “De Veritate”, Q. xi, a. 1). Semi-Traditionalism and absolute Traditionalism, then, rest upon the same fundamental error, namely, that ultimately faith precedes reason. Let us point out, however, the partial truth contained in Traditionalism. Against Individualism and Rationalism, it rightly insisted upon the social character of man, and rightly maintained that authority and education play a large part in the intellectual, moral, and religious development of man. Rightly also it recalled to the human mind the necessity of respect for tradition, for the experience and teaching it contains, to secure a true and solid progress. Universal consent may indeed be, in certain conditions, a criterion of truth. In many circumstances, it may furnish suggestion for the discovery of truth or afford confirmation of the truth already discovered; but it can never be the supreme criterion and rule of truth. Unless we admit that our reason is of itself capable of knowing with certainty some fundamental truths, we logically end in scepticism—the ruin of both human knowledge and faith. The true doctrine, as taught by the Catholic Church and confirmed by psychology and history, is that man is physically and practically able to know with certainty some fundamental truths of the natural, moral, and religious order, but that, although he has the physical power, he remains in the conditions of the present life, morally and practically incapable of knowing sufficiently all the truths of the moral and religious order, without the help of Divine Revelation (cf. Vatican Council, Sess. III, cap. ii).


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