Philosophical Traditions

Philosophical Traditions

by Anthony O’Hear

Tradition is that body of practice and belief which is socially transmitted from the past. It is regarded as having authority in the present simply because it comes from the past, and encapsulates the wisdom and experience of the past. For some, the very idea of tradition is anathema. It is characteristic of modernity to reject the authority of the past in favour of the present deployment of reason, unencumbered by tradition or prejudice. While prior to the seventeenth century tradition was largely unquestioned as a source of insight, and in need of no defence, since the Enlightenment the notion of tradition has been defended by traditionalists such as Burke and, more recently, Hayek. Upon inspection, however, traditionalism, if not indefensibly irrational, turns out to be a demonstration of the overlooked rationality contained withintraditions. Traditions often turn out upon inspection to be not so much irrational as subtle and flexible deployments of reason in particular spheres.


According to Karl Popper, a prevalent modern attitude to the past holds that ‘I am not interested in tradition. I want to judge everything on its own merits… quite independently of any tradition… with my own brain, and not with the brains of other people who lived long ago’ ([1949] 1963: 120–1).

Have there ever been people who thought in this way? In The Frogs Aristophanes depicts Euripides as wanting to teach his audiences to use their own brains, unfettered by meaningless traditions, and uncowed by authoritarian windbags who simply spout outdated myths. But we should remember that Aristophanes was hostile to Euripides. Furthermore,Euripides’ plays certainly exploit old myths, and not always with new intentions.

In the eighteenth century, Diderot insisted that a true philosopher would ‘trample underfoot prejudice, tradition, venerability’ and admit nothing ‘save on the testimony of his own reason and experience’, possibly oblivious of the fact that that doctrine itself had by 1750 become well embedded in the philosophical tradition to which he belonged (Wilson 1972: 237). Critics of the French Revolution, such as Burke and de MAISTRE certainly saw the revolutionaries as attempting to break with tradition, but again, in view of their constant invocations of ancient Roman and republican virtue, it is doubtful that the revolutionaries conceived themselves as operating independently of any tradition. In the twentieth century, Keynes, along with many others, saw traditional morality as a crippling burden. Every decade or so artistic avant-gardists have called for the need to create anew, ‘burning one’s path behind one’ (as the Russian constructivist Malevichput it). In retrospect, of course, the reality is that antitraditionalism is always selectively antitraditional, and that, as Poppersays, whether we like it or not, we always stand on the shoulders of at least some of our predecessors.

Burkean traditionalism

Nevertheless since the end of the eighteenth century, in face of explicit verbal attacks on traditions, attacks on respect for tradition and successful assaults on parts of actual traditions, a line of thinking has developed which defends the virtues of tradition against its critics. In this explicit defence we encounter what might be called traditionalism, an attitude of mind intended to curb the pretensions of present reason to criticize traditional beliefs, institutions and practices.

One of the first and certainly one of the most famous expositions of traditionalism is that of Burke.

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suggest that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.

([1790] 1967: 84)

Burke argues that old prejudices should be cherished both because they are prejudices, and because they are old. Prejudices are easily applied in emergencies, and they can also become habitual, rendering, as he says, a man’s virtue his habit. He also argues that if they are examined sympathetically, they will generally be found to contain ‘latent wisdom’, encapsulating the wisdom of the ages and of much experience, which would be likely to elude us if we relied solely on our present stock of reason.

In Burke’s approach to tradition there is not a little hint of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, transposed to the moral and political sphere; that is, reason as well as economic equilibrium can emerge through the actions and decision of individuals who have no conception of the greater order to which they contribute. By a process resembling natural selection, fruitful lines of behaviour will be rewarded and reinforced and eventually embedded in society as a whole, although the individuals concerned may be quite unaware of this aspect of their decisions, and be taking them for reasons quite other than the evolutionary advantage they bring to the society to which they belong.

Hayek’s evolutionary account of tradition

In the twentieth century the conception of a tradition in terms of spontaneously developing orders has been associated particularly with the work of Hayek (§3). Hayek points out that societies with successful economies have reproduced and spread themselves more than those with unsuccessful economies. Along with economic success the rules of behaviour which underlie or accompany success have also been reproduced. In particular, in Hayek’s view, the institutions of the family and private property have not just been an irrelevant accompaniment to economic success; they have been central to the market order. But in market societies, these institutions have usually been promulgated and defended for religious reasons, and as the societies have prospered, so has their religion. Conversely, societies with belief systems prejudicial to the market order have tended to die out, their belief systems dying with them.

While Hayek’s conception of tradition might help throw light on unsuspected links between a society’s historical success and apparently unrelated aspects of its beliefs and practices, it is less clear how far what he says can amount to a defence of the traditional as such. He and Burke can certainly be read as counselling us against premature attempts to overthrow traditions, warning us to examine the unsuspected consequences of so doing in greater depth than would aDiderot or a Keynes. It is also true that any explicit judgment we make will always be made against a background of unspoken and largely traditionally based agreement, again to a greater extent than many rationalists might suspect. But, at the end of the day, when confronted by any explicit controversy, we still must make a decision, and the mere fact that something has always been done is a less than compelling reason for continuing to do it. For example, we need to know whether its always having been done has had good or bad consequences. The simple fact that a particular religion’s morality is conducive to the market order is not, in itself, a reason for a sceptic to accept that religion, even if they were concerned to promote or promulgate the market. The sceptic would have to accept or reject the religion in the light of its credibility, and not in the light of its supposed contribution to social wellbeing. A sceptic may even lament their inability to go along with a traditional belief or practice precisely because they are aware of its incidental benefits.

Hayek is particularly critical of modern thinkers who find market arrangements unjust, and who believe that they can improve on them by use of their own reason. He argues that experience of the comparative success of planned and unplanned economies shows that tradition is in some respects superior to conscious human reason. In reality, it demonstrates no such thing. What experience shows is that adherence to some traditions is sometimes better than attempting to improve or replace them. And if, following Hayek, we decide to defend and develop the traditions central to the market order, this will not be because of our love of tradition as such, but because we have reasoned that experience has shown one particular tradition has superiority over others. The fact that tradition suggests limits to the scope of rational planning and advances strategies for encouraging unplanned economic activity does not mean that a decision in its favour is either irrational or purely tradition-based. So while a prejudice in favour of tradition need not be irrational, particularly if associated with a Burkean attempt to reveal its latent wisdom, this hardly amounts to a full-blooded commitment to tradition as such. Traditionalism, then, is itself either irrational, or a rather sophisticated form of rationalism, a prejudice in favour of tradition, but for good reason in so far as the traditions in question can be shown to be reasonable.

The flexibility of traditions

Flexibility as a characteristic of traditions would not necessarily prove unacceptable to traditionalists, who usually emphasize such a flexible nature, the way in which traditions respond to circumstances of various sorts. One of the circumstances to which traditions respond is the reasoning and discussion their adherents engage in for both internal and external reasons. There can be no denying that a long-lasting tradition of belief, such as Roman Catholicism, has undergone many developments and changes of emphasis over the centuries, so much so that one might be tempted to wonder just how much there is in common between a twentieth-century bishop and one of the Apostles. It was this question among others which Cardinal Newman addressed in his 1845 Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Although specifically dealing with theology and the Church, Newman’s essay is a profound analysis of the continuity through discontinuity present in any long-lasting tradition, with implications for any field of human endeavour which manifests creative interplay between inherited tradition, rational reflection and the wider social circumstances in which it is located. Doubtless many fields do manifest such creative interplay, although it is noteworthy that visual art has largely turned its back on its past achievements. Newman shows that the success of a tradition is related to its ability to assimilate new data, while conserving its past principles and achievements, and also to its ability to develop complex sequences of thought and practice while anticipating future development. He brings to the study of tradition a subtlety and a comparative perspective often lacking in the blanket statements of self-professed traditionalists and antitraditionalists alike.

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