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A response to rationalism: Edmund Burke and the contemporary turn to traditions

William Henry Ploog, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The contemporary turn to traditions in social and political theory, exemplified in the works of Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Walzer, can be distinguished from other forms of traditionalism by the emphasis placed on a critical engagement with traditions. In critical traditionalism traditions are understood to embody debates and disagreements over their meaning, their scope, and their validity. It is argued that a turn to traditions offers the possibility of a politics in which the history and experience of past generations mattered. I also show that a politics with remembrance enhances the rationality of political action. I argue that neither Walzer nor MacIntyre adequately concern themselves with the issue of how we are related to traditions and to the past. How is it that we ought to find ourselves "in" a web of traditions? In Edmund Burke's concept of inheritance we find an articulate view of how one might understand oneself as part of a tradition. I examine to what extent Burkean living in tradition is compatible with a critical appropriation of tradition. My interpretation stresses the strong emotional resonance of the term "inheritance" and the way in which it is a reflection of family life. I conclude that criticism "within the family" may be subject to various difficulties, including the fear of offending the "fathers"; but I also argue that Burke's understanding of practical politics and the need to keep the language of justice from becoming platitudinous goes some distance toward mitigating these difficulties. I pursue the question of our relationship to traditions a bit further when I discuss Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being and Alfred Doeblin's Karl and Rosa. Kundera challenges the turn to traditions with his notion of kitsch. Doeblin challenges the view developed in the dissertation that our recollection of deceased relations (our dead ancestors for instance) may mediate a relationship to the past that is also critical.

Subject Area

Political science|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Ploog, William Henry, "A response to rationalism: Edmund Burke and the contemporary turn to traditions" (1989). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI8917390.