Some of T.S. Eliot’s remarks in Tradition and the Individual Talent look strikingly similar to my previous comments on the role in culture, and on the value of culture, of categorisation and organisation: ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.’ Eliot was writing in explicitly æsthetic-historical terms, but perhaps I should be taking a greater interest in possible links between tradition and moral value.
Indeed, there are several reasons why traditions get my particular interest, besides being noteworthy as forms of cultural practice generally. Firstly, they bring out the temporal aspect in intellectual practice, and as such they potentially show how my thoughts about the value of categories might be brought into association with transgenerational ethics. Among our contemporaries, I think, we tend to look upon difference as a reason for preservation: for example, people seeking to preserve or at least document endangered languages may aim not just to preserve one or another particular language, but over and above that to preserve the world’s linguistic diversity. Between generations, on the other hand, difference amounts to rupture: historical studies of mediæval worldviews may be interesting, certainly, but even firm believers in society’s moral progress won’t necessarily find it a happy thought that our own ancestors of even a few generations back had somewhat alien ways of getting to grips with the world. The thought puts us in the uncanny position of having to acknowledge our intellectual (and biological) debt to them while at the same time having to recognise this kind of estrangement from our own recent kin.
What then is it that we have in common with our ancestors? We share participation in traditions; we may not have quite the same understanding of just why we do things one way or the other, but perhaps no one generation can have an exhaustive understanding of a tradition. We share not so much the understanding that things shall be done in a certain way, but more the understanding that the way in which we do things shall be sensitive to what we do inherit and pass on. Which isn’t necessarily to say that we maintain traditions for the sake of past generations; rather, it’s with them that we share participation in traditions, so cultivation of traditions and recognition of whatever moral value they possess is a transgenerational project.
Secondly, precisely this temporal aspect makes traditions interesting as possible moral patients: a set of conceptual structures for categorising and organising the world can be remembered, in a kind of intellectual and even scholarly cold storage, long after falling out of use (the ideas and practices that made up alchemy are in this situation), but the traditions within which they emerged and developed may nevertheless have proved themselves susceptible to decay and abandonment. In the case of alchemy there’s no obvious loss when we’ve gained its further development into chemistry, and to keep up the practices of alchemy for the sake of tradition would be at best a playful performance of ‘living history’, at worst deluded and ridiculous (and, recalling an earlier discussion, inauthentic). Yet there are other traditions which perhaps we do value, not only for instrumental reasons (as e.g. in Burke’s defence of tradition as a means of maintaining public freedoms), but by virtue of the fact that they are our traditions, from swan-upping on the Thames to patterns of intercollegiate rivalry.
Eliot writes that tradition ‘cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour’. (I think he means it can’t be passively inherited like a right of possession, i.e. the only way to have it is to participate in it with the right kind of ‘historical sense’.) Popper strikes similar notes: ‘Certain types of tradition of great importance are local, and cannot easily be transplanted. These traditions are precious things, and it is very difficult to restore them once they are lost.’ (‘Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition’ (in Conjectures and Refutations), p. 163) Traditions are capable of decaying and becoming lost—although their capacity for transformation makes it contestable whether, for example, the alchemical tradition is in some sense preserved by the practice of scientific chemistry, or whether the discontinuity constitutes the loss of the former (Edward Shils, Tradition, p. 14). I suspect that it depends on our chosen emphasis in making the judgment: if we regard alchemy as a practice of investigating how the kinds of matter that make up the world may be manipulated, then we are likely to be most impressed by its continuity with chemistry, whereas if our emphasis is on the mystical place of self-purification in alchemical practice, we are equally likely to note the absence of a comparable role for the professional or academic ethos of a scientist of the present day. In neither case is it apparent that we have grasped the true essence of the alchemical tradition—whatever such a thing might be.
Given that traditions (like cultures) seem to have fuzzy boundaries, how much scope might there be for discovering moral worth in them? It isn’t obvious that they superadd anything to the possibility of a cluster of ideas being a value-bearer; if anything they seem to complicate matters by inviting us to wonder how the moral value of a tradition might change over time, and in particular whether it perhaps depends on how the tradition develops into the future, giving rise to obvious epistemological difficulties. On the other hand, maybe (like ‘cultural heritage’ itself, perhaps) ‘tradition’ operates as a kind of meta-category, something built into our organisation of the world by virtue of its historicity. Indeed, it looks potentially morally salient that a tradition, being characterised by continuity, and not only past- but also future-oriented, is a thing aiming at preservation and self-perpetuation—even more so than human beings, with our less extensible lifespans. (Arguably the very practice of siring and rearing children is itself a tradition.)
Thirdly, a concept of tradition opens up some interesting metaphilosophical considerations. A tradition is an inescapably normative phenomenon, whether overtly so or not (Shils, Tradition, pp. 23 - 5): to say that a practice or proposal is alien to our traditions is not merely an observation but an objection. Traditions provide contexts for meaningful activity which can be ruptured, so that a philosopher who veers far enough away from the Analytic and towards the Continental traditions, for example, will be withdrawing from one conversation in favour of another by becoming progressively less readily intelligible to his former colleagues, and sharing less in their understanding of what philosophy is and how one conducts it. Traditions constrain us, not by limiting what we can think (for after all it is possible to change one’s opinions about what it is and should be to do philosophy, to draw on intellectual resources which initially were alien to oneself), but because we cannot very well escape participating in and influencing their development in ways that get out of our control, so that as soon as one opens one’s mouth and expounds one’s ideas in public they become mixed up into the ebb and flow of ‘the great conversation’. From what I can gather the process goes something like this: on day one you come up with an argument that x, on day two someone else voices agreement that x, and by day three the xites are defending their shared position against others who would like to advance their careers through refutations of the new xist movement; a year later xites have ceased to seem radically exciting, but several people have built parts of their careers on x’s supportability or lack thereof, and the tribal conferences are always convivial; and eventually, once the x question is a familiar feature on undergraduate courses and the original generation of xites has largely passed away, someone will begin an exegetical debate by analysing your initial paper afresh and contending that what you had in mind at the time bore practically no relation to how the great x debates ended up.
The practical methodological upshot for a philosopher such as myself, unlikely to found a school of thought on any significant scale with the present project but wandering through the territory of quite a number of them, is that tradition is not something one can step outside in order to analyse it from a perspective unconditioned and uncontaminated by (loosely appropriating a term from Shils) traditionality. To be sure, we can stand outside other people’s traditions, but we cannot do so without taking a stance towards them which itself, whatever it is (for even indifference will reflect our judgments and priorities), will form part of the traditions in which we participate.
Need this present a problem? One might respond, after all, that if we aspire to assess tradition philosophically it is a positive boon that nobody could do so with greater experiential authority than we can; and in any case similar situations arise across the philosophical board, as one would expect from a discipline purporting to examine the fundamental questions of being human; and as it happens logicians go on thinking logically, moral philosophers endure not being amoral creatures, and phenomenologists working on embodiment are seldom heard complaining about a lack of experience of being disembodied. What concerns me, though, is not the thought that traditionality might confine us within unworkable methodological limitations, that we might require some inaccessible vantage point outside it, but rather the questions of what methodological requirements traditionality might impose, how we are to come to know about them, and what it entails for us if we don’t.
In the first place, while I don’t particularly set out to work within the Analytic or any other philosophical tradition, it’s plain enough that I am at the very least a modern, Western philosopher; moreover, that I do hold opinions about what is and isn’t a sensible way of doing philosophy, and that although these opinions are my own and hopefully considered and defensible ones, I didn’t arrive at them in isolation but rather have spent the past few years, especially in my undergrad. days, being taught how to do philosophy. Now that needn’t entail some kind of relativism that limits the application of my ideas to Western cultural heritage; but it does demand payment of attention to the actual application of ‘applied’ (moral) philosophy in the world. According to my conception of heritage, it encompasses not only artefacts, practices, etc. but also the intellectual apparatus with which people categorise them; and this appears in my theorising as an object of my philosophical inspection, a thing to examine and evaluate. Yet maybe recognition of our intellectual heritage for what it is entails that the proper relation to it should be one of engaging with it in something more closely resembling a dialogue, or at least a hermeneutic process. Heritage would then emerge less as an object for my theories to act upon, and more as something persistently able to talk back (as it were) and demand reappraisal even at an abstracted, theoretical level; and as such, to engage in philosophising about heritage would not be to aim at parcelling up a neat, completed package of methods for generating prescriptions in normative ethics, but would itself constitute standing within a tradition of thinking philosophically about heritage, and not necessarily expecting to arrive at conclusive solutions.
By this point, in any case, it would be fair to suspect that not every commentator has a uniform conception of ‘tradition’ in mind. Like ‘culture’, the term is slippery. Appiah writes that a tradition is ‘not so much a body of doctrine as a set of debates’ [PDF] (although when this description appears again in The Ethics of Identity, p. ix, he qualifies it and speaks specifically of ‘intellectual traditions’). Scruton identifies tradition with a ‘tacit understanding’ which ‘mediates between the individual and society’, adding that it ‘involves a willing submission to what is socially established’ (introduction to Conservative Texts: An Anthology, p. 6). Shils, meanwhile, asserts that tradition ‘means many things. In its barest, most elementary sense, it means simply a traditum; it is anything which is transmitted or handed down from the past to the present... The decisive criterion is that, having been created through human actions, through thought and imagination, it is handed down from one generation to the next.’ (Tradition, p. 12. To ‘be regarded as a tradition in the sense of an enduring entity’ a ‘pattern’ must ‘last over at least three generations’ (ibid, p. 15).) There appears to be a fairly lively tradition of thinking about tradition, and not at all a univocal one.