What's your position?

“But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” The face of God must not be looked upon. The curtain must not be drawn back to reveal the wizard.

If a tradition is to endure then its core assumptions must never be questioned. Every tradition contains such a set of truths, and they are always a matter of faith. Dig deep enough and instead of bedrock you will find an abyss. This is the terrifying realisation that postmodern turn faced us with.

Rational argument - analysis, or critique - is useful for stress-testing a position, but it can never establish the 'rational acceptability' of the position itself. When a range of equally compelling and rational positions are on the table, it can never say tell us how or why to choose between them. 

In the absence of a rational basis for securing agreement we instead revert to emotional means. In the marketplace of ideas, rhetoric takes precedence over logic.

We’re constantly told to follow the science, that this or that political decision or mandate is not in fact political but is mandated by science. 

At best this is the naive proposition of people who are unaware of their own frame, unaware of what motivates their actions. 

At worst it is a new form of moralising, which wants to pretend that it’s moral stances are as self-evident and as provable as two plus two equals four. 

[Jonathan Pageau]
‘The Blindness of "Following the Science”’

A position is a simple predictive statement which influences all of the individual's transactions; in the long run it determines his destiny and often that of his descendants as well. A position may be more or less absolute.

Positions are taken and become fixed surprisingly early, from the second or even the first year to the seventh year of life - in any case long before the individual is competent or experienced enough to make such a serious commitment.

It is not difficult to deduce from an individual's position the kind of childhood he must have had. 

Unless something or somebody intervenes, he spends the rest of his life stabilizing his position and dealing with situations that threaten it: by avoiding them, warding off certain elements or manipulating them provocatively so that they are transformed from threats into justifications.

[Eric Berne]
Games People Play, p.42

[…] objectivity requires that all observers should stand at the same point of view and abstract from their individual differences.

But this kind of abstraction simply cannot be used when we are talking about human affairs. There is no way in which we can collect facts about any significant aspect of human life without looking at them from some particular angle. We have to guide our selection by means of some value-judgement about what matters in it and what does not.

And these judgements inevitably arise out of each enquirer's moral position. When such judgements raise difficulties, they need to be justified morally by explaining that position, not by ignoring it.

Social and psychological theorists who claim to be operating in a value-free vacuum outside morality are notoriously deceiving themselves. They simply haven't noticed their own biases.

The behaviourist idea that, in order to be scientific, psychologists should study people objectively in the sense of ignoring their subjective point of view and treating them solely as physical objects was not value-free. It was not just a proposal for a new scientific method.

It was a demand for a new and very peculiar moral attitude.

[Mary Midgley]
Science and Poetry, p. 205-6

MacIntyre says that the failure of dialogue is connected to a failure of the Enlightenment thinkers to achieve their ambition of arriving at consensus in truth via the use of reason.

The Encyclopaedists in 18th-century France, who were among the founders of the Enlightenment, cherished the belief that through the use of reason alone, human beings could agree on the truth about the way things really were by taking an objective viewpoint freed from tradition and prejudice.

Irreducibly differing frameworks, such as Nietzscheanism and Aristotelianism, may marginally share the same rationality and logical procedure, may be able to identify each other’s presuppositions and methods, may be able to point out that those presuppositions and methods are not very credible in their eyes, but they cannot touch them with reasoned arguments that the other will accept.

This is because their presuppositions and methods (just like those of Empiricists and Rationalists 300 years ago about the correct foundations for knowledge) are derived from extrarational sources, from what Wittgenstein called a ‘form of life’ and from what MacIntyre calls a ‘tradition’.

Although the arguments and views derived from your tradition might appear weird and confused from the viewpoint of my tradition, it does not at all follow that they will do so to you or that our minimal shared rationality is strong enough to shift either of us from our own position.

MacIntyre stresses that there is no philosophical position that is not bound up in a tradition. It is by belonging to a tradition, by participating in it, and being changed by it (as well perhaps as changing it) that a person forms a moral position. There is no other way, according to MacIntyre.

It is an illusion to think one can be a pure individual or possess a traditionless, timeless moral reason.

[Mike Fuller]
‘Alasdair MacIntyre’, Philosophy Now, Issue 13

The experiment asks a precise kind of question, one that assumes only a limited number of possible answers. In other words, the very context in which the experiment is devised presupposes to some extent the range of answers that will be given, each of these answers having meaning within the current scientific context.

[…] In other words, observations, experiments, and interpretations are always made from within the confines of a particular paradigm.

And while a crucial experiment may help science to decide between two rival theories within that particular paradigm, it will never be able, by itself, to overturn that paradigm. An experiment can never do this because the very motivation to do the experiment in the first place and the language in which its results will be discussed are all aspects of the paradigm itself.


This book has already questioned the dubious claim that Western science is involved in the dispassionate and objective search for "truth." A more realistic statement would be that much of what Western scientists do flows from their particular paradigms, worldviews, and belief systems.

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.100, 247

What salient characteristics do these debates and disagreements share? They are of three kinds.

The first is what I shall call, adapting an expression from the philosophy of science, the conceptual incommensurability of the rival arguments in each of the three debates. Every one of the arguments is logically valid or can be easily expanded so as to be made so; the conclusions do indeed follow from the premises. But the rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against another.

For each premise employs some quite different normative or evaluative concept from the others, so that the claims made upon us are of quite different kinds. In the first argument, for example, premises which invoke justice and innocence are at odds with premises which invoke success and survival; in the second, premises which invoke rights are at odds with those which invoke universalizability; in the third it is the claim of equality that is matched against that of liberty.

It is precisely because there is in our society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable.

From our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion. Hence perhaps the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.9

The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestors can never lose an argument either.

Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors' premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves.

This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.85

David Lewis has written: 'Philosophical theories are never refuted conclusively. (Or hardly ever, Godel and Gettier may have done it.) The theory survives its refutation - at a price .... Our “intuitions" are simply opinions; our philosophical theories are the same ... a reasonable task for the philosopher is to bring them into equilibrium. Our common task is to find out what equilibria there are that can withstand examination, but it remains for each of us to come to rest in one or another of them .... Once the menu of well-worked out theories is before us, philosophy is a matter of opinion ...' (Philosophical Papers, Volume I, Oxford, 1983, pp. x-xi).

Analytic philosophy, that is to say, can very occasionally produce practically conclusive results of a negative kind. It can show in a few cases that just too much incoherence and inconsistency is involved in some position for any reasonable person to continue to hold it.

But it can never establish the rational acceptability of any particular position in cases where each of the alternative rival positions available has sufficient range and scope and the adherents of each are willing to pay the price necessary to secure coherence and consistency.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.310-11

Related posts:-
Assume a position
Don't commit to it
Construct it differently
Status Quo
Do Not Disturb
Shedding Skin 
Sailing the Turbulent Seas
Challenging Art 
Incursions of the unknown 
Testing new opinions and courting new impressions 
Hold it Still