Intellectuals and Philosophy vs. Conservatives and Tradition

Tired of being called a “traditionalist?” Maybe you shouldn’t be. Traditionalists may know more about truth than we have been led to believe.

Intellectuals, philosophers, and ersatz “progressives” have been hanging the albatross of tradition around conservatives’ necks for … well … let’s just say it is a long standing tradition for the intellectual elites to demean conservatives by calling them “traditionalists.”

In this article, I will argue that tradition is a good thing, not a bad thing -- a smart position not a naïve one. I will suggest that the process we call “tradition” helps human beings understand and delineate, over the long run, what is true. Intellectuals and liberals are wrong about the meaning and value of tradition. And, once again, whether they understand and can articulate their reasons or not, conservatives are right.

To emphasize my thesis: establishing and then observing tradition is the basis of how human beings determine a large part of truth. Most conservatives instinctively recognize this fact.1 In this paper I want to begin the examination of this oddity.

Introduction: Tradition and Philosophy
There is a long-standing feud between tradition and philosophy (or “intellectualism”). One might say that there is an intellectual practice of bashing and then banishing tradition. There are two reasons for this war between tradition and philosophy. First, philosophy is, at its core, progressive or revolutionary, whereas, tradition, by its very definition, is not.2  Philosophy begins in an examination and a critique of the given; and the human given, in any particular culture at any particular time, is that culture’s nomos or its tradition. The system the intellectual or the philosopher creates in his reflections on the given always diverges from and contradicts the current tradition.

Second, intellectualism, and especially philosophy, is an ego driven enterprise. One of the first things that first year college students hear in their first philosophy class is “Cogito ergo sum.” (“I think therefore I am.”) The philosopher is a thinking “I.” It is not tradition, the common wisdom, that the philosopher loves -- it is his own wisdom.

Since he believes that he has, finally, discovered and conveyed the truth, the philosopher must necessarily reject the traditions that preceded him. These traditions include previous intellectual and spiritual traditions. Hegel, accordingly, looked back at his philosophical tradition and saw “ein Schlachtfeld, nur bedeckt mit den Gebeinen der Toten” (“a battlefield, strewn with the bones of the dead”).3

Tradition is the enemy of revolutionary and intellectual philosophy. This is why, with few exceptions (and we will get to some momentarily), philosophers have refused to consider the possibility that tradition is, or can be, based upon a rational process. If there is a preexisting method of rational tradition then there is no need for the intellectual to create another system (and yet another tradition) that proves that previous traditions (and systems) were false.

Open minded persons need to take a much more serious look at the idea and method of tradition. I want to suggest that there is a method for determining what is and is not rational within tradition. I will contend that the scientific method is, itself, a reflection of the rational method of tradition. This indicates that conservative (traditional) principles are based on reason because tradition itself is (or can be) part of a rational method of establishing certain truths.

By way of introduction, I will briefly examine three philosophers who caught at least a glimpse of the method of rational tradition. In chronological order they are Aquinas, Montesquieu and Edmond Burke.  Not surprisingly, all three of these thinkers, each of whom in his own way defended tradition, are considered “conservative” or, in the case of Montesquieu, at least anti-revolutionary.4

In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas tells us: “Through actions, especially when they are repeated and made a custom, law can be revised and expressed; thus establishing a thing that obtains the force of law…. Because, when something is done again and again, it appears to deliberately proceed as a judgment of reason.”5  According to Aquinas, repeated actions, which form a tradition, merely appear to be true (“a judgment of reason”) through their repetition. They are judgments of reason (and, thus, true) only in as much as they adhere to the divine and natural laws. In other words, neither the longevity, nor the stability, nor the repeatability of a tradition has anything whatsoever to do with the truth of that tradition. Aquinas did not consider, as we will in this paper, that the viable and shared process of the repetition of an action might, in itself, lead to the reasonableness of that action.

Montesquieu, in his De l’Espirit des lois, was the first person to attempt to use the newly discovered scientific method as an analytical tool for understanding the process of the creation of customs or traditions. Like Aquinas, he contended that the truth of custom relies on the truth of the natural law; unlike Aquinas, he proposed a “scientific” explanation for the discrepancies that exist between the customs of various cultures. Such differences were to be explained by local geographic, topographic and climatic variations, to name a few.6

As Stanley Rosen has pointed out, there is a flaw in Montesquieu’s approach:

[For Montesquieu] human nature is always the same, but it is diversely individuated by circumstance. Hence we need a knowledge of history in order to see both that different circumstances require different adaptations of natural principles, but also that there are natural principles. Furthermore, these principles are not uniformly applicable in all cases. Instead, they serve as a guide for the improvement of those laws that express the spirit of the local situation.  One could say that the regularity of ordinary experience expresses itself in the diversity of custom.  Regularity is the basis of science, as is diversity of history. The problem is that these two bases form an unstable conjunction.7

I would add further that Montesquieu has placed the cart before the horse. As we will see, tradition is not (at least not initially) verified by science; science is verified by tradition -- including, eventually and especially, its own -- i.e., the scientific tradition.

Edmond Burke was the conservative’s conservative. His work is peppered with moral and political defenses of tradition. A major theme in his writing is that a tradition is good if it is old and it is stable. Yet almost all of his arguments for this thesis are rhetorical. Nowhere in his writings did I find a clear and reasoned exposition of how the stability and the age of a tradition make it true. The nearest he comes to such an explanation is this terse remark about the method of tradition:
It is one of the excellences of a method in which time is amongst the assistants, that its operation is slow and in some cases almost imperceptible.8
Not much and still at the level of rhetoric -- but it is a start. Let us keep this remark in mind as we begin our search for the method of rational tradition.

Part I:  The Method of Conservative Tradition

Philosophers and intellectuals are not the only persons made uncomfortable by tradition -- most thoughtful human beings are. Traditions were here before we were born; they will be here when we die; and there is not much we can do about them in the time between our individual comings and goings. Our customs, rules, laws, religious commandments, even our habits, are, in effect, traditions.

We sometimes feel that we are, like flies, trapped in a web of traditions. But before we try to articulate a rational method of tradition, we must understand the normal method for establishing a tradition -- and to do this we need to know: Who spins the strands of the web of tradition and how is each strand spun?  

Nearly every member of a society contributes to the creation of its particular traditions. The process is very slow, sometimes taking several generations, but it is discernable. We are not often involved in the initial establishment of any particular tradition but we confirm the tradition of our forebears by our, usually tacit, acceptance. (One mark of conservatives is their willingness to accept and abide by traditions.) Let’s take a close look at some examples of how traditions come to be established:

Think back to Joppa, Israel’s ancient seaport. As the port grew and traffic increased some rules for entry and egress became necessary. Notice first, that the solution to this particular predicament was arbitrary and based on mutual consent. Vessels could either yield to the right or to the left. Either way would do to facilitate port access. The first appearance of the tradition of, say, steering starboard when an oncoming craft approached the bow was, probably, mutual agreement. A long time ago some unknown and unnamed sailor said, “Let’s agree to keep to the right.” (Moving in the opposite direction would have worked just as well.) Many crashes and many sailors later, the local pilots gradually consented to cede the water to their left to approaching vessels. A tradition was born.

When a social problem has a physically fixed number of solutions, and when the selection of one of the solutions is arbitrary (solution A is no better or worse than solution B), then the tradition that evolves in answer to the problem usually begins in shared accord. I will call these kinds of tradition “arbitrary traditions.” An arbitrary tradition can be, and sometimes is, formalized by legislation, through edict, or even affirmed by revelation. But, to repeat, it begins with mutual recognition of an arbitrary solution.  

In these circumstances, it is the mutual recognition of an arbitrary solution that gives the tradition credibility, that makes it right; and because it is right, it is true; and the wider the recognition, the greater the credibility, the greater the truth, of the tradition. Furthermore, it is neither natural nor divine for approaching vessels to sail to the right or to the left (or, for that matter, to remain in the middle.) It is, however, absolutely true, that if all approaching vessels steer to a starboard heading then shipping is a much safer enterprise.

An arbitrary tradition, at least in this instance, can be viewed as a substitute for, and an enhancement of, (animal) instinct. Our instinct for self-preservation is not refined enough to force us to veer to the right when confronted with an oncoming object. Yet some coordinated response is clearly necessary. When we finally agreed to veer to the right (long years of frustration confusion and negotiation may have intervened), we made the world a safer place for our species.

A second example will take us into deeper waters. We return to the harbor at Joppa to study the creation of another type of tradition. Once upon a time a shepherd from Samaria, let’s call him Ishmael, visited the port and ate his first lobster dinner. He was so enthralled by the seafood that he bought a bushel basket of lobsters, trekked back home, and prepared a shellfish feast for his neighbors. Unfortunately, the lobsters did not survive the two-day trip through the desert on the back of a mule -- and, as a result, half of Ishmael’s guests did not survive dinner.

After many Ishmaels, and many failed feasts, God heard the cries of the survivors and a new tradition was born:
Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.9
In this example the tradition allows certain activities (the eating of scaled fish) and denies others (the eating of shellfish). In such cases, the decision to permit X, and to forbid Y, is not arbitrary, nor is it initially reached by mutual consent. This type of tradition entails a judgment of value. (Scaled fish good, shelled fish bad.) Let us call these second types of traditions, “value traditions.”

There is a distinction between arbitrary traditions and value traditions. No claim is made that an arbitrary tradition is inherently good or bad; for value traditions such a claim is made.  

Montesquieu’s contention (that traditions very according to local circumstances) is most fruitful when it is applied to value traditions. It seems to explain why some cultures prohibited Y and allowed X, while others did just the opposite. To follow up on the previous example, inhabitants of “Lobster Island” would have starved to death if they had proscribed the eating of shellfish; and it would have made no sense for nomadic shepherds to go to the great lengths that would have been necessary to safely enjoy the same food -- sheep herders simply did not have the means to preserve crustaceans. So, at least for a desert dwelling people, it was better to forbid the eating of such foods altogether.

Nevertheless, Montesquieu’s contention seems only to explain discrepancies between local traditions, i.e., traditions that depend upon specific local geographic, topographic, and climatic circumstances for their rationale. It does not and cannot explain traditions that break these local boundaries and establish themselves across mores and across millennia.

The same desert nomads that codified and prohibited the eating of shellfish also codified and prohibited the murder of their fellow human beings. The first tradition (thou shall not eat lobsters) became the basis of a lot of bad Jewish jokes; the second (thou shall not kill) became the basis of the stability of all of human civilization. In order to understand why, we need to see if we can find a pattern or a method of rational tradition. This we will do in part II.

Part II: The Method of Rational Tradition

We sometimes fail to recognize that science is also a tradition-based endeavor. Scientific experiments are verifiable because they can be repeated. Initial experiments fade into history and become established traditions. Today’s chemists, for example, do not reestablish the validity of the periodic table every time they start a new experiment.

I will call this custom of science, to rely on previous results, “fact traditions.” Fact traditions (the accumulation of empirical evidence by repeatable experiments) are similar in method, and outcome, to the arbitrary traditions and value traditions we saw above. Aquinas was right to claim, “…when something is done again and again, it appears to deliberately proceed as a judgment of reason.”10

In fact, his claim was not strong enough. One of the criteria that makes any judgment reasonable is, given the exact same set of circumstances, the judgment (and the reasons for it) will be the same. Swerving to the right in a boat saves lives. Eating lobsters, two-days removed from salt water, is dangerous. Water has two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule.

Of course not all traditions are rational, like the Hindu practice of sati or the Bushido code of olbara.11  How are we to decide if a tradition is rational or irrational? In a future paper I wish to explore this question in more detail. (And I would love to hear suggestions from AT readers on this inquiry.) For now, I offer these initial suggestions:
1. The length of the tradition. One indication of a rational tradition is its historical staying power. A tradition that spans millennium and refuses to die is more likely to be rational than the latest fad.

2. Cross cultural acceptance of the tradition. A tradition shared cross culturally is more likely to be rational. Such traditions have jumped the local limitations that Montesquieu described in De l’Espirit des lois. (See Part I.)

3a. A lack of controversy regarding the tradition. A rational tradition is more likely to slip “under the radar” and to be accepted far more often than it is challenged. “Thou shall not steal” is not controversial.

3b. The application of the tradition is taken for granted. This is slightly different than 3a. Some traditions are so ingrained that most people do not even see them as traditions and follow them without thinking. Consider “Thou shall not kill.” Most people do not have to tell themselves not to kill other people.

4. The tradition is relied upon in mutual interactions between human beings. I expect you to stay in the right hand lane on a two-way road -- and you expect the same from me.

5. The application of the tradition by different human beings produces a consistent outcome. This is, of course, what the scientific method requires for an experiment to be valid.
A method of rational tradition would consist of a mix of (at least) these five criteria. A rational tradition does not necessarily have to initially meet all five criteria at once. (The height at which jet airliners travel does not meet #1.) But, if a tradition is rational it will eventually fulfill all five.

Intellectuals and liberals have, traditionally, had a problem with tradition. Maybe it is time for them to rethink their position.

Larrey Anderson is a writer, a philosopher, and submissions editor for American Thinker. His latest award-winning novel is The Order of the Beloved. His memoir, Underground: Life and Survival in the Russian Black Market, has just been released.

1. I intend to discuss why conservatives are instinctively aware of these truths in a future article. Suffice it to say here that many social conservatives believe in the Judeo-Christian tradition that is well over two thousand years old and that has numerous principles that have been tested under every conceivable condition for millennia.
2. “Tradition,” is used in this paper in the broadest possible manner.  It means both custom and habit; it means both positive and natural law; it means both revealed and legislated law.  For a cogent discussion of the revolutionary character of philosophy, see Stanley Rosen, “Philosophy and Revolution,” in The Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry, (Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1988).
3. Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie, (Leipzig, 1971), Band 1, p.105.
4. I believe that Plato was the first to see the presence of reason within tradition and the topic for this paper came to me while restudying his dialogues.  My evidence for this interpretation of the dialogues is difficult to present in a short paper and I will not attempt a full exposition here.  In essence, Socratic wisdom originates in common sense and common sense begins in reflection upon the truths that appear in nomos or tradition.  For Plato, common participation in nomos is the common ground for the appearance of the “ideas.”  This is one of the reasons that Plato did not offer a “system” of philosophy.  He saw that there is no need for a system because truth is discovered in our interactions with and our rational corrections of tradition or nomos.  The dialogues depict Socrates offering reasonable modifications to nomos in various venues with a variety of interlocutors.  Such is Plato’s method of rational tradition.  (See Theaetetus 185c-186b, ousia is separate from estin; 202c-e, the “likely myth” of correct opinion plus logos; and Letter VII, 340c-344c.)
5. S. T., Part I-II, Q.97, Art.3, Ans.  Emphasis and translation are mine.
6. See De l’Espirit des lois, Book 1,chapters 2 and 3.
7. Stanley Rosen, The Elusiveness of the Ordinary, (Yale University Press, 2002), pp. 17-18.
8. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, II, 2, c.
9. Leviticus 11:12.  See Leviticus 11:9-12. See endnote #2 above for the definition of tradition.
10. Rational human beings must mutually recognize this process of repetition that establishes a tradition. Obviously, a mentally incompetent person can repeat the same action over and over and no new tradition is established.
11. I picked these traditions because they are clearly irrational. Killing another human being simply because he or she is somehow related to another recently deceased human being (in sati the widow is killed, in olbara the servant of the warrior is killed) cannot be rationally justified. Certain other religious traditions, e.g., the Catholic doctrine of transubstitution, are based on faith, cause no harm, and their validity cannot be known. (At least not in this lifetime.) In this paper I am concerned with how we might be able to determine whether or not a specific tradition is rational. I am not interested in theological speculation.