What Tradition Is Not


It is not recollection

Recollection is a deferral of meaning. It is what happens when people look back to "the good old days". Meaning resides in the past, rather than in a continuum between the past and the future.

It is not plagiarism

If a student is asked to do a report on a paper, and they copy the thing out word for word and hand it in, have they understood it perfectly? No, they've plagiarized it. Their "perfect" reproduction of it covers over the possibility of understanding. Tradition is not plagiarism from the past. It is the creative re-appropriation of elements of the past.

It is not object transfer

Many think about tradition as traditions, or things handed down. The etymology of the word encourages that way of thinking. But these things become impenetrable, and we cannot access them if they become artifacts of culture rather than living elements of culture. The "things" (e.g., dances, rituals, patterns of life) are the notation of tradition, not the tradition itself, just as music is passed down through notation, but no one supposes that that is the music itself.

It is not passive or non-rational

Views of "traditional" society usually suggest that these things are beyond reason, or irrational, and they just form the unthinking basis of organization. But that's a functionalist view, which sets out to demonstrate the passivity of culture. That's a problem of functionalism, that it leads one to believe that the function of a feature of society might not be understood by its members, but nevertheless does something useful for that society and therefore is handed down. It's an instinctual thing.


However, if you actually look at the practices, you hardly get the idea that things are done or handed down unthinkingly. Example: dilemma tales & proverbs. These things give the context for discussion within a society. They may reinforce beliefs from the elders, since the "gatekeepers" of tradition have a central voice. However, there is still conversation, there is still enactment of tradition in a reflective way.