Academic journal article Humanitas

Tradition, Habit, and Social Interaction: A Response to Mark Bevir. (Dialogue on Tradition)

Academic journal article Humanitas

Tradition, Habit, and Social Interaction: A Response to Mark Bevir. (Dialogue on Tradition)

Article excerpt

Tradition constitutes the inescapable background to human life. Historians construct particular traditions out of the general flux of tradition by tracing the temporal and conceptual connections that flow out of the particular object or objects that they want to explain.

Thus Mark Bevir characterizes the putative subject of his highly interesting essay "On Tradition." (1) I say "putative" because Bevir is not primarily concerned with tradition as such. His central focus is on tradition as an explanatory device, as a way of examining "the social context within which individuals reason and act" (29). Traditions are useful, according to Bevir, to the extent that historians are able to construct and reconstruct them to "illustrate the process by which individuals inherited beliefs and practices from their communities" (49).

I wish to take issue with Bevir's treatment of tradition precisely because it is so utilitarian. It reduces a social reality to an amorphous material with no meaning or purpose of its own; to mere clay properly molded to suit the needs of intellectuals seeking to examine objects that interest them. Unchallenged, Bevir's reading of tradition would further reduce the already narrow focus of most academics on the relationship between individuals and abstract, ideological categories, whether the epistemes and paradigms Bevir explicitly discusses or the race, class, gender, and other constructs so prevalent in current intellectual discourse. And this narrow field of inquiry excludes the primary focus of most actual lives: the constitutive, corporate groups of family, church, and local association, and the modes of conduct their members take as their own.

Bevir is no simplistic atomist. He takes issue with the assertion that individuals are "able to transcend totally the influence of tradition" (29). Likewise he rejects the simple determinism of structuralists who see beliefs as "the products of the internal relations of self-sufficient languages or paradigms" (31). This rejection of anti-social extremes would seem to put Bevir in sympathy with the early sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, who urged scholars to recognize "the actual field of interpersonal interaction as the primary source of social organization." (2) But Bevir is not concerned with interpersonal interaction. He is concerned with the prototypically individualist question "how do I develop my beliefs in relation to the beliefs other people already hold?" (31). With the focus so narrowly set on the individual Bevir cannot see tradition as anything more than a background against which individuals construct their own realities.

Bevir's argument entails three assertions regarding tradition with which I will take issue here; first that the content of any given tradition is primarily intellectual; second that traditions are manipulable in the short term through individual application of reason; and third that traditions are constituted by individuals acting qua individuals. In response to these assertions I will argue that traditions are important subjects of study in their own right because they are concrete, social realities. Traditions are constituted primarily by habits--both intellectual and practical--that go qualitatively beyond the status of any background understanding. They are framed and effect behavior over time and thus require sustained assault from many sources before giving way to significant change. They combine social groups and practices, adding to them purpose and inner logic that cohere over time. They shape human character and conduct. By minimizing their reality we minimize our own social nature and reduce oursel ves to contentless, choice-making monads with no purpose.

The Content of Tradition

In rejecting atomism's empiricist basis, Bevir argues that "because we cannot have pure experiences, we must necessarily construe our personal experiences in terms of a prior bundle of theories" (30). …

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