Intellectual Custom, Pt. 2: The Truth of All Things

Intellectual Custom, Pt. 2: The Truth of All Things June 2, 2016

The Young Cicero Reading | Vincenzo Foppa [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Young Cicero Reading | Vincenzo Foppa [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


So, intellectual blind spots exist in all of us, largely due to intellectual custom, as we were talking about earlier. Dr. Ron McArthur, whose exploration of intellectual custom has been the foundational to my exploration of this, offered the following definition of intellectual custom in his post-humanus article Intellectual Custom and the Study of St. Thomas. He defines intellectual custom as:

 A natural or quasi-natural inclination of the intellect, of which the will is the principle, in dependence upon the time and custom within which it exists.

To gain the full force of his argument, I recommend reading the article. For the tl/dr crowd: we accept things as true because when we are habituated to hearing certain things as true, and to hearing such things presented in a specific way, we see similar things as also good, and the will moves the intellect to go with it.

This is something like driving on the right or left side of the road: it’s isn’t actually natural to us, but do it long enough one way or the other, and it is just weird to do otherwise. A closer example is the one Dr. McArthur gave: the modern custom  of conducting our political and social life, not to mention ethical analysis, in terms of rights and values. Another even more modern case is the use of “data” as our justification for the facticity and prudential action. As Nick Barrowman wrote a while back in The New Atlantis:

“It has become widely accepted in a host of diverse fields, such as business management, economics, education, and medicine, that decisions should be “evidence-based” — that knowledge of outcomes, gathered from scientific studies and other empirical sources, should inform our choices, and we expect that these choices will cause the desired results.”

So all of us in the course of living, picked up some modes of thinking and acting that feel so natural, and yet, are more properly custom than anything else.

Dr. McArthur further elucidates the idea of intellectual custom, explaining that

“By constantly hearing something said over and over, the intelligence tends to accept it as true, whether or not it is true, and the will inclines towards what it hears. Custom, generally, leads us to judge by what we are used to hearing, are in the habit of hearing.”

You are more likely to accept the further conclusions of the speaker who affirms you, both in terms of premises and in terms of argumentative form. This is why you might present the most tightly syllogized natural law argument, or the most humanly compelling image of emotion, and still someone with a different intellectual custom from you will, to all observation, remain unmoved. In part, this is due to making judgments based on habituated intellectual customs, the will presenting what is familiar to the intellect as good. We confuse the “truth” of things with how they appeal to our intellectual appetite.

Now, this practice isn’t necessarily a bad one: accepting what others say is first of all necessary to beginning our lives, intellectual and otherwise. In elementary school, I accepted that the square on the two legs of the triangle, when added together, are equal to the square on the hypotenuse of the triangle long before working my way in college through Euclid’s 47th proposition in Book I of his Elements. A favorite high school teacher once described his task as “telling you guys stuff and asking you to believe long enough, in hopes that one day you will know enough to start asking why, and then you can try to figure out for yourself if  what I said is true.” The thing is, this account isn’t wrong- we have to gain the basics: first principles, order of learning, etc. Even if we do pure observation, at some point we all learn to read and count (hopefully).

Secondly,  accepting what others say can help make things easier when it comes to proceeding in the intellectual life. I don’t need to study fifteen languages to accept a linguistic scholars analysis of word origins, allowing me to further my own practice of literary analysis. I don’t need to understand the entire intellectual scaffolding of the scientific method in originators and exhaustive detail to explain how a speaker works. In fact, there are times where it is completely acceptable to take on a kind of “faith” the word of the wise, at least, until you are able to puzzle it out. Relying on Dr. McArthur’s definition and exposition of intellectual custom, which itself relies on the thoughts of St. Thomas, Aristotle, and the like, is an example of how this may happen.

But, there is still the question of truth. How can we know how our intellectual custom influences us, and consequently whether it influences us to the True or the merely apparently-True? At least in the order of nature there are a few steps we can take. Firstly, we can open our eyes and gain the sense impressions of nature to make reasonable abstractions. I can know fire is hot and that I don’t want to touch it without intellectual custom telling me not to do so- I simply have to put my hand on the stove, and I find I warm up to the idea.

Secondly, the more time we spend in any particular science (or art, though that is a somewhat different issue), the more we come to see there are better or worse ways of proceeding in that science. In fact, the things we want to know through that science will determine how we proceed to knowing them. For a simple example, physics requires a great deal more matter, and as such is determined by material reality, than pure mathematics does (though creating models can of course be helpful in math). But, it is easier to recognize the truth outside our intellectual custom when the order imposed by the object we want to know is followed. The proper method can certainly be difficult to ascertain at times, but there do tend to be general notions among those all would call wise as to how to go about it. Such methods, at the very least, would not make for a terrible beginning. And this leads into the final point I want to make.

At some point we have to accept that it is possible perhaps that we are not the origin of all things, and this doesn’t defeat the project of seeking causes. Pater Edumund Waldstein, over at Sancrucensis lays out Elliot Milco’s explanation of this phenomena in the following terms:

“There is a circularity to the project of philosophy: it begins with the essence of a thing confusedly grasped, and then proceeds by investigation and comparison to return to the essence of the thing now more distinctly grasped.”

Taking up that man is a rational and social animal, it makes sense that the whole project of coming to know reality engages the whole of us- as we are in our own minds and as we are influenced by the minds of others. Coming to know isn’t a one-way street. It’s an oscillating undertaking, where we allow ourselves to be guided, and return to self-reflection. Ultimately, when it comes to finding truth,we can take three approaches: 1) Things are, I am, and I can come to know myself and things in some way as they are; 2) Things are, I am, and I can know me and make some solid guesses at knowing me; 3) Nihilism (which is generally a pretty bad answer). The questions of truth and how we know ourselves and things are key determining factors in philosophy, and to fully explore them would exceed my space here. But, if you are still unsatisfied, you want to know more specifically if and how you can know the truth, I suppose I can offer you only the following advice: “Begin at the beginning, and when you get to the end stop” meaning probably stat with the pre-Socratic thinkers, and end circa now. I can’t give you a crash course in philosophy in a single blog post, but hopefully this allows the discussion some kind of starting point to begin asking questions.

I’m going to pick up here and look more deeply at this question of truth, and specifically what that means in the educational realm in the next part of this exploration. You can find Part 1 here.


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