Published Humanitas, Volume XIV, No. 1, 2001

Tradition constitutes the inescapable background to human life. Historians construct particular traditions out of the general flux of tradition by tracing the temporal and conceptual connections that flow out of the particular object or objects that they want to explain.

Thus Mark Bevir characterizes the putative subject of his highly interesting essay “On Tradition.” I say “putative” because Bevir is not primarily concerned with tradition as such. His central focus is on tradition as an explanatory device, as a way of examining “the social context within which individuals reason and act” (29). Traditions are useful, according to Bevir, to the extent that historians are able to construct and reconstruct them to “illustrate the process by which individuals inherited beliefs and practices from their communities” (49).

I wish to take issue with Bevir’s treatment of tradition precisely because it is so utilitarian. It reduces a social reality to an amorphous material with no meaning or purpose of its own; to mere clay properly molded to suit the needs of intellectuals seeking to examine objects that interest them. Unchallenged, Bevir’s reading of tradition would further reduce the already narrow focus of most academics on the relationship between individuals and abstract, ideological categories, whether the epistemes and paradigms Bevir explicitly discusses or the race, class, gender, and other constructs so prevalent in current intellectual discourse. And this narrow field of inquiry excludes the primary focus of most actual lives: the constitutive, corporate groups of family, church, and local association, and the modes of conduct their members take as their own.

Bevir is no simplistic atomist. He takes issue with the assertion…

This is a preview. Read the full article here.