Published Humanitas, Volume XIII, No. 2, 2000

Tradition can be a highly evaluative concept. Conservatives often evoke the idea of tradition to express reverence for continuity and the past. Tradition can act as an anti-theoretical concept deployed to question the role of doctrine and reason within social life. Traditions allegedly validate social practices by providing an immanent guide to how one should behave. Any abstract doctrine or reason informing such a guide is best—or perhaps of necessity— left unarticulated since such abstractions are inherently destructive in their effects on social order. The ability of traditions to confer legitimacy on social practices helps to explain why cultural nationalists, states, and even radical movements have tried to invigorate their political projects by inventing appropriate traditions, symbols, and rituals.

Yet whilst tradition can be an evaluative moral and political concept, it also plays a vital role as an ontological and explanatory one. Historians often explain features of works, actions, and practices by locating them in the context of a particular tradition. Even when scholars explicitly reject the concept of tradition, they typically adopt a related concept to indicate the importance of social and historical contexts for a proper understanding of particular works, actions, and practices. It appears that a concept such as tradition, structure, heritage, or paradigm is integral to our understanding of the human condition. One argument for believing this to be so—the one I will adopt—derives from meaning holism. What is more, this argument encourages us to unpack the relationship of individuals to their social and historical contexts in a way that suggests the concept of a tradition is preferable to that of a structure or paradigm. Finally, because the ontological and explanatory notions of tradition clearly overlap with one another, we can use the ontological concept thus derived from semantic holism to say something about, first, the idealization procedures by which historians should construct traditions to explain a particular object, and, second, the nature and limits of such explanations.

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