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The Value of Tradition in a Post-Enlightenment Age

In my last post, I discussed how the Enlightenment gave a boost to liberty by making progress central to the aims of society and the scientific method central to its processes. But these new developments, in turn, raised serious questions about the value of tradition.  If past is to be surpassed, tradition becomes less revered. If the scientific method is prized, less formal ways of knowing, like tradition, become devalued.  Finally, progress continuously changes society, making traditional practices a less good guide for a future that is ever accelerating away from the past.

Thus, ever since the Enlightenment, tradition has to struggle for its place as a contending category for social organization. Nevertheless, it still has relevance. Here are three important remaining functions for tradition, ideas that have been distilled for me in my discussions at the Tradition Project.

Tradition as a Buffer. Even assuming that other methods are better at bringing out progress, progress itself has costs. It destabilizes society, and sometimes alienates citizens who do not feel they have a place in the world progress has created.  Thus, even as society progresses, it must respect traditions to avoid social upheaval. Edmund Burke, the greatest defender of tradition in Modernity saw this value, among others, for tradition. He himself was steeped in Enlightenment thinking and much of his thought is best seen as trying to work a compromise between Enlightenment and Tradition. On this view, of course, traditions must evolve as society progresses. The enlightened defender of tradition sharply differentiates tradition from reaction.

Tradition as Substitute for the State. Even if progress is in the air, it does not mean that government is likely to deliver it. Because of the self-interest of rulers and passions of the people, the scientific method simply does not translate into a politics that will deliver the best policies. Thus, while in some imaginary world, a technocracy might get us the best possible policies, even taking into account transition costs from previous social practices, trying to achieve that world, like any utopia, ends in disorder and bloodshed. Of course, that insight was one of Burke’s core critiques of the French Revolution. It is far better to allow traditional norms to evolve in light of the scientific and other discoveries made by free citizens rather than have them imposed by government.  On this view, private associations, as repositories and slow transformers of venerable norms, are the key to the continuing relevance of tradition.

Tradition as Setting the Burden of Proof. The liberty of the Enlightenment generates a lot of ideas about how to improve human progress. Not all of them of turned out well.  If these ideas are opposed to traditional norms, tradition may serve to shift the burden of proof to the proponents of new ideas. The more the ideas depart from long tradition, the higher the burden should generally be placed on novelty.

In a subsequent post, I will look how one area of science, sociobiology, has bolstered some traditional understandings of human nature.

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