Alasdair MacIntyre on Tradition

The traditions through which particular practices are transmitted and reshaped never exist in isolation for larger social traditions. What constitutes such traditions?

We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

So when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (221)

This is a good encapsulation of MacIntyre‘s “conservative Marxism,” where he uses dialectical techniques to undermine liberal Enlightenment traditions and movement conservatism.

The idea of a thriving institution as always being in a state of becoming is appealing because it maintains the notion of an active, integral participation on the part of the players, not the meaningless repetition of desiccated institutions. This idea has been used in business theory to chart the life cycles of companies, and believe me, I’ve seen it in action.

One point to make clear, though: when MacIntyre speaks of argument over the traditions being established in an institution, I believe he means that this argument plays out through the different, conflicting practices of the participants, rather than in an explicit dispute over the definition of the purpose and methods of the institution. The definition is articulated by the acts, not the words, of the participants.

Ossification sets in when the people in a group begin arguing endlessly over definition, attempting to codify implicitly established but imprecise tradition. The most creative thinkers become bored and depart. Action is replaced by memorial enshrinement and a self-conscious glorification of the past that has led up to this crowning moment where the institution is fully defined–and dead.

This is not how it always plays out. The pressure to establish a working practice in the face of potential failure and annihilation often spurs the vital conflict that MacIntyre mentions. Without that urgency, the arguments often begin before the practice does.

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