Monday, October 24, 2016
A Thought For Michael on Tradition and Reason
Thanks to Rick and Michael for their posts about our gathering this past weekend. It is certainly my and Mark's hope that the conference will produce fruitful reflection about the various ways in which tradition can be conceptualized and about how it interacts with law and politics.
Just one brief thought in reaction to Michael's fine post about tradition and reason. I agree with him that the pitting of reason and tradition against one another is a mistake, but a very common one. The more difficult question is how best to describe the relationship between them. Here's something I wrote on this question a while back (in preparation for the conference, and for just the question Michael poses), but which is much more in the nature of a speculation than an answer:
If I dress with a coat and tie every time I teach a class, that is not enough for my sartorial selections to be traditional. It is still not enough if it can be shown empirically that others before and after me have made the same choices. What makes the choice traditional is the social or cultural meaning of my dressing this way. The choice of dress evinces a social awareness of continuity with the past and is pursued intentionally, because of some normative power within the long-standing practice (because dressing with a coat and tie is neat, or because it is professional, or because it is elegant, or because predecessors whom I admire dressed in this fashion, and so on [MOD edit: or because the choice signals something to students about the authority of those past choices]). I dress in this way intentionally to retransmit the past to the present because I believe there is value both in the choices of the past and in their continuity. This self-consciously and normatively chronic quality is probably not the only element comprising the traditionalist view; but it is an important one.
Some might say that the existence of any substantive reasons deprives the practice of dressing with a coat and tie of its traditionalism, because traditionalism implies that a belief or practice is transmitted mindlessly or without any reason. But this strikes me as altogether wrong. In an old essay, Samuel Coleman once gave the following example:
Turkish farmers leave the stones on their cultivated fields. When asked why, they say that is the way it has always been done and that it is better that way. In point of fact, it is. When U.N. agronomists, after considerable exhortation, persuaded some young Turks to remove the stones from their fields, their crops suffered. Apparently the stones help condense and retain the dew in the arid climate, but this was unknown. It may have been known to the originators of the custom, for there is evidence that it was known in biblical times. This apparent fact had been forgotten, while the practice persisted.
Was the practice of laying stones not a tradition when the reason for it was known and passed on? Did it become a tradition only when the reason was forgotten? Is it now no longer a tradition because of the adventitious intervention of the U.N.? The practice itself, as understood by the practitioners of it, is unchanged. No, says Coleman, “we would avoid all sorts of muddle if we did not speak of traditions being transmuted into non-traditions by confirmation of the proposition believed or the practice followed.” There can be, and often is, reason in tradition.