concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


A tradition is primarily a basis of epistemological appeal, where past practice or past belief is taken to be a justification for future belief. Traditions in this sense are really just groups extending over time. Groups tend to appeal to metaphysical beliefs to bind them together, because such beliefs are apparently self-justifying and immune from individual scrutiny. Further appeal to the tradition of a group can be given to support this metaphysics, and to distance its justification further from present experience so as to make it even more beyond question. This kind of appeal is widely used in eternalistic religion, and is a form of ethical foundationalism.

There is no justification at all for believing that a claim is true just because it is traditional: in fact the claim becomes less justified from the very fact that a traditional appeal is being made. However, traditions do not have to be solely bases of epistemological appeal. Traditions can also pass on skills or useful beliefs that are subject to experience. In this kind of case tradition is not appealed to, but just used as a way of passing on information. For example, we could contrast the apostolic succession in the Roman Catholic Church (a tradition that is almost purely dogmatic in function, to justify the power of clerics) with the traditions that have passed on scientific method from one scientist to another. In the former case, the tradition consists only in an appeal to a story about the past to reinforce current metaphysical claims. In the latter case, however, tradition has largely operated as a repository of information, so as to build on past successes and avoid past mistakes. The scientific tradition includes an expectation that at any time a new scientist could repeat the experiments of the past and gain similar results.

One argument used to justify appeals to tradition is that a live transmission from one individual to another can convey a type of understanding that cannot be expressed by the written word. Whilst this may be true up to a point, this argument becomes very thin when it is used to justify the authority of religious leaders who trace their traditional transmission back hundreds or thousand of years to a legendary founder. Such transmission requires personal trust, and trust is a response of a whole character to a whole character. Even second-hand trust no longer provides such a complete experience of whatever subtle understanding is being communicated, let alone hundredth-hand trust. Such chains of trust rapidly degenerate into metaphysical appeals to authority as they become more remote from our experience. Information, and perhaps a degree of credibility, can certainly be passed on by these chains, but not trust of the more personal kind that would be needed to convey helpful spiritual understanding. 

Links to related discussion

Features of eternalism (from thesis)

The individual and the group (from thesis - scroll down to section d)

The sources of justified belief in Buddhism (from 'The Trouble with Buddhism')

The Way of Trust (talk given to members of Western Buddhist Order - external link to FWBO discussion site)


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