The libertarian website Cato Unbound asked me to write an essay on traditionalism for their January issue; what I ended up producing was a little longer, and little more philosophical, and a little less political than I think it needed to be, but they edited it down nicely, and the resulting argument in favor of respecting traditions should produce some interesting debates as the month goes by. (Alert readers will notice that one of the scheduled respondents to my lead essay, John Fea, is a one-time Front Porch Republic contributor.) My basic argument is that many critics of traditions rest content in demonstrating that the knowledge and virtue which many (including, I trust, most FPRers) believe traditions to impart to them is arbitrary, the result of random and ad hoc historical construction. Here is a taste of what I’m responding to:

One of the assertions [of traditionalism’s opponents] is that what appears to adherents of various traditions as morally worthy is really only a subjective perception of such. Tradition is constructed out of nostalgia and is the result of paying undue attention to isolated moments that can be prettified in our memories. Those who don’t live in a fully reactionary environment find themselves put on the spot: if their lives are in any way characterized by pluralism, then they must acknowledge that there is an element of willful construction involved in how a traditional belief or practice comes to include (and exclude) whatever it does. And that, supposedly, undermines the theoretical force of the moral claim made on behalf of traditions. How, the argument runs, could a subjectively experienced and consciously elaborated-upon moment from out of the whole historical sweep of events be construed as truly serving normative personal or public ends? There is no reason to think that the resulting practice or belief is anything but somewhat arbitrary.

To see how I respond to that, read my lead essay–or, perhaps, if you’re a glutton for punishment, read the longer, even more philosophical version here. Either way, follow it along, if the topic intrigues you; John’s and others’ comments are bound to be worth your time.


  1. You could just say that traditions are the lessons of history and we have no choice but to be guided by traditions since we have no Kantian faculty of intuition of apriori universal and necessary moral truths.

    • I could have taken my theorization of traditions in that direction, Empedocles, and I was in fact tempted to. I think there is a lot of truth to simply asserting, contra Kant, that all knowledge is, by definition, situated and historical knowledge, and that there is no rational capacity to respond to that which we know which doesn’t partake of the bearers of that history and those situations….those bearers being, of course, “traditions.” But there is a complication to asserting that as well; it requires you to get deep into what you consider to be “rationality,” or “criticism,” etc. I thought, for this essay, it would be more straightforward, and simpler, to instead say “yes, there is an element of subjective construction to all traditional beliefs and practices…so what?” and let the argument flow from there.

  2. Tradition is not built on nostalgia, but upon experience. It is the collective wisdom about the proper way the live in the world. This knowledge is conveyed to no man or to no moment in its entirety; it is accumulated across the centuries. Built as it is under constant “experiment” under constantly changing conditions, there is nothing more “scientific” than tradition, nor nothing more arrogant than the notion that we can dispense with it and still know how to live the good life.

  3. When has interpretation ever not been involved in our orientation to the world?

    I’d add, as I noted here as well: When has pluralistic encounter with other traditions and communities ever not been a part of human experience? The interlocutors seem to believe that in pre-modern times, communities never encountered different communities; according to that view, this changed in modern times: now we realize other peoples exist and so are threatened by the possibility for choice represented by our knowledge of the existence of other traditions. Accordingly, we have lost a first “naivete” and traditionalists must demand the recovery of a second “naivete” in other to recover tradition.

    But have human communities ever been that naive? With very, very few exceptions, I think not. The sheer existence of war and assimilation throughout the millenia means that people have been aware of the existence of other communities and their traditions as entities that are really different. War, empire, and assimilation necessarily presupposes this knowledge of different communities. The kind of “traditionalism” that has not been aware of pluralistic difference hardly ever existed, even in pre-modern times. The Roman Empire was not culturally and traditionally homogenous; neither was ancient Palestine or even North America before its discovery by Europeans.

    What changed in modern times is our evaluation of other traditions and corresponding appropriate responses to those evaluations. Now, traditions are seen mostly as meaningless and equivalent; therefore, as the argument goes, since these are insufficient grounds to make war/authoritative criticisms, it is wrong to do so. The change wasn’t in the existence of plural societies and awareness of different communities; it was in what exactly those differences meant, if anything, and what to do about them.

  4. Where these discussions become problematic is we no longer live (assuming we ever did which may be a stretch) in small, relatively homogeneous, communities from birth to death with our ancestors buried in the graveyard down the lane. We have become (as perhaps we have been for centuries) a nomadic society. The norm for most of us is to leave home when we come of age to become educated … or enter the military … or go to The Coast with our band … or any of the countless reasons we choose to move on from where we started. We find ourselves working in a career which demands (or at least strongly rewards) our moving to Decatur or Seattle from our home in New England or Chicago to move ahead.

    And so, we find ourselves living somewhere without deep multi-generational roots. We look around and see that there are Sudanese refugees living in that nearby run down “urban renewal project” left over from the 1970’s; there are young tattooed hipsters clustered near the art school; there are aging Franco-Americans in the neighborhood of duplexes built when the now closed factories were operating; there are, in short, dozens of different languages, religions, and ethnicities inhabiting the same city as we are. Some of them have just arrived from another part of the world, others have ties to the city that go back generations.

    And so the questions, which traditions should we praise and perpetuate, which should we ignore or repudiate? Is there only a single set of traditions that should be supported? If we adopt some of the foods, or music, or styles of dress we like from these “others” are we diluting or enriching “tradition”?

  5. Subjectivism as a critique is always a non-starter. Arbitrariness is only a little more interesting. I guess the real point is that our subjectivities are arbitrary and therefore no basis for anything that directs or constrains us. What can you do with that position?

    The most common criticism of tradition is that it constrains, limits, and directs choices. This is not the behavior of an arbitrary construct, unless we’re supposed to believe that it was arbitrarily constructed at one point in time and then very intentionally employed for specific, non-arbitrary purposes afterward. There are no doubt many traditions of which this is close to true, and when people become aware of a tradition that has this status, that is when they tend to reform and revise their traditions.

    There is a humorous poem that comes to mind, about a stubborn midwestern farmer, a Dutch immigrant and a Calvinist, whose politics and religion have been reactionary since the French Revolution. His community plants their corn in perfect rows you can see down diagonally, out of tradition. This leads to an enormous erosion problem the state university ag people try to combat. As in this case, sometimes the outsiders and forces of secular modernity know what they are doing. That possibility is what makes extended thought on this subject worthwhile. In the practical, communal and domestic arena, the “problems” disappear when you have most people focused on cultivating and preparing food and people.

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