Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Remembering and forgetting, Part III: Tradition

In my last post, I wrote about the way we carry the things we learn forward in our individual lives. In this post, I want to talk about how we can pass these discoveries on to other people.

My habits, powers, and abilities live in my body, and they will die with me unless I somehow transmit them to other people. We do this by teaching and parenting, educating others into the powers we’ve developed and the world as we see it.

I discussed in my previous post how the very nature of developed powers makes them difficult to pass on, because they tend to be invisible to those who possess them. An important part of teaching is going through the difficult work of reflecting on our own abilities and gaining some degree of explicit understanding of how we do what we do. However, even with such an explicit understanding, the task of transmission remains an intrinsically difficult one.

A teacher cannot simply pass on her hard-won insights directly to the student, the way I could give to you an object I had spent a long time creating. Rather, the student must go through something like the same process of development that the teacher went through. To teach someone is to initiate them into a new domain of sense. However, precisely because this domain is new to the student, her first steps into it will necessarily be blind. She is not yet privy to the logic of this realm—its intelligibility is not yet accessible to her. Thus, the teacher’s instructions must initially appear as arbitrary rules to be learned by rote. We saw this already, in the case of the child being initiated into her community’s way of life. As students, we have to “fake it ‘till we make it”: we must begin by imitating our teachers without understanding what we’re doing, or why we’re doing it.

This initial stage of learning is necessary and unavoidable. However, it carries with it an intrinsic risk. As students, we may remain at the level of external imitation, never grasping the inner intelligibility of our teacher’s actions. To an uneducated observer, our practice may be indistinguishable from that of our teacher. However, a crucial loss of meaning has occurred. What was an intelligent practice has become a ritual, whose actions are no longer self-justifying, no longer genuine responses to the demands of our situation.

There was once a very high-ranking Japanese martial artist who taught in Boston. This teacher wore his hair long, and often had to move it out of his eyes with a toss of his head as he practiced. The story goes that if you watch his senior students, many of them now high-ranking teachers in their own right, you can see them tossing their heads in the characteristic manner of their teacher, even though they have no hair to clear from their eyes. What was an intelligent response for the teacher has become an empty ritual in his students.

The students in this story may seem a little foolish. But in fact, we are all like them. Probably the majority of our habits are not our own, for we begin the project of imitation when we are children, long before we could be reflectively aware that this is what we’re doing. Our lives are full of empty rituals inherited from our families and communities, gestures we are barely aware of making, and whose intelligibility has been lost.

I’ve argued that in habits, the power to build on earlier developments carries with it the risk that once-meaningful responses may descend into mere repetition, responding to a past that is no longer present. We've now seen that tradition has a similar structure. Tradition, the power to pass on our insights and abilities to others, allows us to build on the accomplishments of those who have come before us, and this offers an enormous extension of our own potentials. However, with this power again comes the risk that the accomplishments of the past will be passed down as mere rituals, empty imitations of once-meaningful activities.