Until very recently, “traditionalist” to me meant purely “gives weight to unarticulated knowledge embedded in time-tested norms, practices, and institutions.”
As with many ideas I had held onto for a while, Deirdre McCloskey persuaded me to reconsider this. This isn’t because she discounts the value of unarticulated knowledge—to the contrary, she is a Hayekian par excellence. Unlike a lot of Hayekians—including me, until encountering her work—she simply does not discount the value of articulated knowledge, either. In fact, McCloskey’s vision of human social systems is full of talk—a very convenient thing, since the actual human experience is full of it as well.
The problem with the purely unarticulated traditionalist perspective is that people who have fully bought into most traditions do not self-consciously make reference to the tradition itself or the concept of an institution the way that someone like Burke did. This is Alasdair MacIntyre’s big critique of Burke—Burke argued on behalf of tradition but in practice his politics were on the liberal end of the spectrum for his day. Burke was clearly what we now call a classical liberal; while famous for his opposition to the French Revolution, he supported the American Revolution, and his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity put him firmly in the same camp as Adam Smith.
In short, Burke was not just a conservative who respected unarticulated norms and institutions; he also had substantive positions which he defended using the tools of those particular traditions of thought, as they were emerging at the time.
I’ve discussed elsewhere how such a McCloskeyan “traditionalism” (if that word is even appropriate) looks in practice. I’d like to take a moment to look at three fellow Sweet Talkers and what I see in them that I like and hope to emulate myself.
David Duke is very much like MacIntyre—he takes care to situate things in a history. Just see his latest post on property in ancient Mesopotamia. But like most articulate people embedded in living traditions throughout history, he also is not afraid to tell a message in the form of a myth or story, as his ongoing series on Heraclitus demonstrates.
Sam Wilson is deep, deep into the literature within economics on the subjects of importance to him. When he speaks of property as being founded on respect, he can speak not only of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, but their relationship to the vast literature on the game theory of institutions. Moreover, he is expert at the structured thought experiments that economics and game theory lends itself so well to. He is, in short, very much a part of the rhetorical community of economics; he is mired in that tradition, self-consciously aware of it while also participating in and contributing to it.
Sam Hammond, meanwhile, seems to be a bottomless well of knowledge of philosophy, political science, and economics, and is skilled at tying them together. He never begins from first principles; he always situates his arguments in a literature and a living debate. Our own Drew Summitt is exactly the same way (throwing in a comparable knowledge of theology), but his forays into longform writing are few; he largely sticks to advancing points over social media and engaging in debate with groups of highly intelligent and informed people out there (among others).
History, thought experiments within established conventions, and living conversations—that’s what traditions of thought look like in practice.
I still believe the three arguments advanced here, but I do wonder if “traditionalism” is a coherent label. It seems to me that there are many perspectives (traditions of thought) that also subscribe to these arguments, including species of post-modernism (which no one would call a traditionalism).
Not the most important question to answer, but given the general reaction to my usage of the label “traditionalism” at times I’ve started contemplating whether it was more obscuring than clarifying.
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