The Postmodernism of Traditionalism

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The world is drowning in postmodernism, and the tragic consensus among many conservatives is that traditionalism is a stalwart alternative against the postmodern dangers. I say it’s tragic because traditionalism, as I will argue below, is just a lazy and nostalgia-inspired version of postmodernism. No, not the hip cultural postmodernism of the late 20th century, but the ideological postmodernism of rejecting objectivity (whether denying that objective truth exists, or denying that we can objectively know it), which precedes the late 20th century postmodernists, both logically and chronologically. 

Demolishing the Motte & Bailey

Let me begin by doing what the postmodernists (including those of the traditionalist variety) are wont to do: define my terms. By traditionalism, I do not mean merely valuing tradition. I mean using tradition as a standard for truth or morality. 

This distinction is important because traditionalists love to evade the distinction in a classic motte-and-bailey evasive maneuver whenever pressed. 

There is nothing wrong (or postmodern) about merely valuing tradition. The essential test of traditionalism arises when there is a potential or apparent conflict between tradition and objective truth. The traditionalist, as I am using the term, is the one who automatically sides with tradition in such a conflict. 

Of course, there may be many self-described traditionalists who do not fit my above definition; who would always side with objective truth over their tradition in any conflict. If they exist, then they are not the target of my criticism here. The problem is that you can rarely get any self-described traditionalist to answer straight when pressed on questions like that. 

They may say, “Of course, truth overrides my tradition if there’s ever a conflict,” but the test is when that hypothetical is applied to one of their treasured traditional convictions. And here is where that motte-and-bailey comes into play: Anyone who uses tradition as an argument for (or against) the moral or epistemic value of something is the postmodern sort of traditionalist I have in mind here—no matter how earnestly he believes that his traditionalism means nothing more than “just valuing tradition.” To use tradition as an argument for (or against) moral or epistemic value is to use tradition as a moral or epistemic standard, which is far more than merely “valuing tradition.” 

Consider as an example certain traditional western values, like personal responsibility and hard work. The essential question to ask oneself (assuming one values such things—and one should) is: “Do I value these things because they are part of my western tradition (such that I wouldn’t value them if they were not part of my western tradition), or do I value these things because I have judged them to be objectively valuable, regardless of the tradition(s) they might be a part of?” 

Don’t allow yourself to be confused here. Your value for something is either based on the mere fact that it came from your tradition, or it is based on the fact that you have judged it to be objectively valuable. It is one, or the other. The first is the traditionalism I am criticizing here. The second is objectivity. And this is why I say that traditionalism is postmodernism: traditionalism is the functional rejection of objective standards. 


Progressivism & Traditionalism: Two Brands of Postmodernism

The progressives and the traditionalists are two sides of the same postmodern coin. They both functionally reject objective standards. The only difference is in what they subjectively and arbitrarily choose to replace those objective standards with. The progressives replace objectivity with that which is novel. The traditionalists replace objectivity with that which is nostalgic. The progressives are guided by a blind hatred for that which is old. The traditionalists are guided by a blind hatred for that which is new. The object of hatred which they share in common is reality. 

Reality demands the kind of objectivity which both the progressive and the traditionalist abhor. The reality which the progressive evades is that some new things are bad, and that some old things are good. The reality which the traditionalist evades is that some old things are bad, and that some new things are good. The commonality between them is that they are not concerned with objective goodness. 

Or perhaps, for some of them, the problem is that they don’t know how to identify objective goodness. I suspect that this is often the underlying motivation. The progressive feels helpless to face reality on his own, so he relies on a sort of implicit majority vote from his peers to guide him. He thinks to himself, “none of us are infallible, but we do gradually learn from our mistakes, and thus improve over time, so it is best to go with the modern consensus.” 

The traditionalist begins with the same helplessness and fear of facing reality on his own, but he leans on a different sloppy argument. He thinks to himself, “none of us are infallible, but those things that have been tested over time are more sure than those things which haven’t, so it is best to go with the historical consensus.” 

Both adopt an automatic bias, but in opposite directions. And both have what appears to them to be a fairly reasonable justification for their biases. But they rely on these biases because they have already discarded the possibility of discovering the truth on their own, apart from the bias. 

They have shunned from their minds the possibility of the objective option, which says, “none of us are infallible, but it is still possible for each of us to grasp objective truth, and to know it with accuracy, apart from some automatic bias toward what others (whether present, or historical) have said on the matter in question.”

“But,” an interlocutor might object, “there are some instances where we really don’t have the answers, and in those instances, we should default to the progressive / traditionalist bias.” While this argument is possible (and likely mistaken) from both sides, this article is about traditionalism, so I will focus on the traditionalist variety of that argument below. 


Time Tested, Devil Approved

The most plausible argument for traditionalism is that we ought to favor those things which have been “time tested.” 

But to say that something has been “time tested” begs the question: tested against what standard? In other words, what is the result of the “testing,” and why should we see it as favorable? 

Is the mere fact that something has been around for a long time sufficient to conclude that it is good? What about sin? That’s been around pretty long. Are we going to say that sin has “stood the test of time,” and so should be embraced? If not, why not? How do you differentiate between a good thing which has “stood the test of time” and a bad thing which has done the same? If the “test of time” is the standard, then you can’t. 

But every traditionalist does differentiate between good and bad things which have both “stood the test of time,” and they do so with the hidden premise that time-testedness is not sufficient for making value judgments. If it was, then no such differentiation would be possible.  

Perhaps the traditionalist would say that we ought to follow the time-tested traditions of men who were utilizing a standard which we objectively agree with. This would bring objectivity back into the equation, but it subverts the goal of traditionalism. The traditionalist wants to subject his mind (and that of his hearers) to the minds of those who “came before” him. 

But if he is going to be selective about which historical minds to follow, and which to ignore, then he is necessarily using his own mind to judge the value of those who came before him. He is independently deciding on the value of some objective standard, and then using that standard to decide which time-tested traditions to follow, which means that the time-tested tradition, itself, is no longer the standard. 

Incidentally, this utilization of “tradition” (which is antithetical to traditionalism) is one I would agree with. Insofar as we are able to identify with historical figures and practices which align with the standards which we have independently and objectively adopted, it can be a very good thing. 

But the tradition must always be seen as logically subordinate to the objective rationale used to determine the value of the standard being applied. I identify with many historical figures, and view myself as rooted, to some extent or another, in the traditions of great men throughout history. But my admiration for those historical men and traditions is determined by the common values I share with them. 

Contrast this with one advocate of traditionalism whom Jon Harris, of the Conversations That Matter Podcast, recently promoted: Donald Livingston. In his talk on “What’s Wrong With Ideology,” Livingston argues that we ought to assume tradition to be true, apart from some reason to doubt it. Moreover, he argues that even in Christianity, tradition rules over the creed; that apart from tradition, the creeds would have no authority. According to Livingston, there is no such thing as transcendent and certain principles by which we can determine what is true. Rather, we must rely on the “slow and uncertain work” of tradition unfolding through a historical process of working through incoherences. Livingston’s view of tradition’s relation to truth is very similar to the Hegelian ‘Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis’ view of tradition among the slavery-defending traditionalists of the Civil War era. For further elaboration on this historical ideological trend, along with a fantastic refutation of such Hegelian traditionalist thinking, see C. Bradley Thomspson’s latest book, America’s Revolutionary Mind (pp. 359-386).

Livingston’s view of tradition denies “transcendent” (i.e. objective) principles, relying on a Hegelian-style “slow and uncertain” synthesis, where tradition is presumed automatically true in virtue of being tradition. A more objective view of tradition would affirm “transcendent” (i.e. objective) principles by which to judge between various traditions, including various elements within a tradition, and then only valuing those traditions which align with objective truth to the extent that they do align with it.


Grandma’s Recipes & Other Trivialities

Whenever this topic is brought up, some traditionalist will inevitably attempt yet another motte & bailey diversion by pretending that their traditionalism only pertains to relatively insignificant things like Grandma’s baking recipes, or the nostalgic feeling of being in one’s hometown. There’s very little, if anything, morally wrong with harboring such preferences (unless Grandma’s recipe includes rat poison, or one’s hometown was a recent Chernoble). 

These are trivialities. I certainly don’t care (and I doubt anyone else does either) whether your preferences on such trivialities is based in tradition (i.e., “it’s good because it’s tradition”), rather than being objectively accurate. You may be missing out on some really great pie if your Grandma’s recipes happened to be terrible, but hey—that’s on you. 

But don’t use these trivialities to evade the more important question: Where do you get your moral values? How do you determine what is true, good, and beautiful? How do you determine what is best for you to do with your life? It is these non-trivial questions for which traditionalism can only lead to postmodern destruction. 


Honoring The Tradition of The Good, The True, and The Beautiful

There are many great men who came before us, men on whose shoulders we stand, whose greatness consisted of their ability and willingness to identify the good, the true, and the beautiful, and to celebrate it in various aspects of their lives: in their writing, their art, their teaching and preaching, their building, and their institutions. 

It is right to want to honor such men, but we do not honor them by blindly celebrating them merely because they came before us—as if their chronological relation to us, rather than their achievements, are the cause of their greatness. These men were great precisely because they used their own reasoning minds to independently “appraise the value of all things” (1 Cor. 2:15), and to objectively identify what was good and true and beautiful. And so, the best way to honor them is to follow suit with our own minds, to emulate that in them which made them great, in order to build on the greatness which they left to us, and at the end of the day, to know that we built well. 


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