Academic journal article Humanitas

On Tradition

Academic journal article Humanitas

On Tradition

Article excerpt

Tradition can be a highly evaluative concept. Conservatives often evoke the idea of tradition to express reverence for continuity and the past. Tradition can act as an anti-theoretical concept deployed to question the role of doctrine and reason within social life. [1] Traditions allegedly validate social practices by providing an immanent guide to how one should behave. Any abstract doctrine or reason informing such a guide is best--or perhaps of necessity--left unarticulated since such abstractions are inherently destructive in their effects on social order. The ability of traditions to confer legitimacy on social practices helps to explain why cultural nationalists, states, and even radical movements have tried to invigorate their political projects by inventing appropriate traditions, symbols, and rituals. [2]

Tradition integral to understanding of human condition.

Yet whilst tradition can be an evaluative moral and political concept, it also plays a vital role as an ontological and explanatory one. Historians often explain features of works, actions, and practices by locating them in the context of a particular tradition. Even when scholars explicitly reject the concept of tradition, they typically adopt a related concept to indicate the importance of social and historical contexts for a proper understanding of particular works, actions, and practices. It appears that a concept such as tradition, structure, heritage, or paradigm is integral to our understanding of the human condition. One argument for believing this to be so--the one I will adopt--derives from meaning holism. What is more, this argument encourages us to unpack the relationship of individuals to their social and historical contexts in a way that suggests the concept of a tradition is preferable to that of a structure or paradigm. Finally, because the ontological and explanatory notions of tradition cle arly overlap with one another, we can use the ontological concept thus derived from semantic holism to say something about, first, the idealization procedures by which historians should construct traditions to explain a particular object, and, second, the nature and limits of such explanations.

The Necessity of Tradition

Analyses of the forms of explanation that historians should adopt with respect to works, actions, and practices typically revolve around two sets of concepts. The first set includes concepts such as tradition, structure, and paradigm. These concepts embody attempts both to specify how we should analyse the social context in which individuals reason and act, and to indicate how much weight we should give to the social context as a factor in their reasoning and acting. The second set includes concepts such as anomaly, reason, and agency. These concepts embody attempts to specify how we should analyse the processes by which beliefs and practices change, and, more especially, the role played by particular individuals in these processes. Within both sets of concepts, there are, of course, numerous further debates over how we should unpack the relevant concepts. Scholars debate, for example, the respective weights we should ascribe to economic and political factors within the social context, or the extent to which the unconscious, desire, and reason affect the individual performance. Nonetheless, these two sets of concepts are clearly vital ones for a study of tradition since they concern the relationship of the individual to his social inheritance.

There are philosophers who appear to believe that the individual is wholly autonomous, that is, able to transcend totally the influence of tradition. [3] A faith in such autonomy often draws support, explicitly or implicitly, from a strong empiricism.

Meaning holism renders strong empiricism implausible.

Empiricists generally argue that people arrive at webs of belief as a result of pure experiences. This would suggest that the historian can explain why people held the beliefs they did by reference to their experiences alone: the historian needs to consider only the circumstances in which people find themselves, not the ways in which they construct or interpret their circumstances through the traditions they inherit. …

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