The Social Theory of Practices: Tradition, Tacit Knowledge and Presuppositions

Here are some highlights from this 2013 book:

* The logical positivists had no objections to even the most extreme forms of sociological reductionism, if it was applied to morals. For them, the fact – value distinction was a fire-wall that prevented sociological reductionism from reaching science.

* The present use of the concept of practices and its variants reflects the disappearance of the fire-wall between fact and value and the demise of evolutionism of the Marxian variety.

* The political theorists and historians of the nineteenth century had more to say about concepts in the ‘practices’ family than either the social theorists or philosophers. This was the era of constitutionalism and a time when the failure of transplanted democratic forms to thrive was part of the common experience of Continental intellectuals. Taine’s reflections on the subject used the image of the rooting of a tree, and concluded that the tree of democracy would not root in soil that was not prepared by appropriate traditions. The idea was central to the celebration of the British constitution and the tracing of Anglo-Saxon origins of political and legal institutions, such as the common law. The aficionados of Anglo-Saxon origins wrote as though a millennia of experience with the ‘moot’ was a precondition for a free political order. Some of this thinking came close to a more disturbing mysticism of race and blood, a mysticism to which the Germans later succumbed. But the constitutionalists had a point – underlined by the two world wars of the twentieth century as well as the repeated failure of attempts to build liberal constitutional regimes in nineteenth-century Europe – Democratic forms placed on non-democratic political cultures produced dangerous results.

* Hobbes said that ‘manners maketh man’. Pascal varied an aphorism of Cicero to the effect that ‘custom is second nature’ with the remark that perhaps ‘nature itself is but a first custom’. The language is instructive. Each of them was aware of the fact of ingrained human differences in tastes, dispositions and the like – ‘second nature’ – that were not the products of a universal human ‘first nature’.

* What separates us from the Romans is not merely the rules, criteria, means of assessment and the like which they employed and we do not, but the skills necessary to apply all these in the Romans’ way. Both these skills and the criteria and principles are constitutive of the Roman way. They are what make the Romans’ sense of the world different from our own. Our powers of persuasion and explanation, it seems, stop at the borders of our own localities. It is our shared practices that enable us to be persuaded and persuade, to be explainers, or to justify and have the justifications accepted.

* The literary critic Stanley Fish is a gold-mine of Durkheimian usages, all of which are probably unconscious…

* The crucial ’empirical’ fact of the anomalous persistence of traditions, mores and the like, for example, is usually understood to be explained by the persistence of the tacit or hidden part. Two aspects of this fact may be distinguished. One is the apparent imperviousness of attitudes, values and the like to governmental action or conscious modification. ‘Stateways cannot change folkways’, according to the slogan of Sumner, a slogan strikingly supported by the re-emergence of traditional patterns in Eastern European countries after a half-century of suppression under communist rule. The second is that patterns of conduct can be observed to persist in radically different environments and historical settings linked only by the facts of common inheritance. Even quite specific patterns of private conduct, for example, may persist for centuries among persons with a common ethnic or regional genealogy. David Hackett Fischer gives examples of such ‘folkways’ in his study of the persistence of the local cultures of particular English counties in American communities of emigrants over centuries.1 These patterns of conduct are not the part of any explicit ideology, and indeed the explicit religious ideologies of the persons who exhibit these patterns of conduct have changed far more radically than the conduct itself. This suggests that there is a secret or hidden pathway by which these patterns are transmitted, and a hidden level which is the substrate in which the patterns inhere. The same sorts of anomalies arise in other contexts, such as the persistence of national scientific styles after emigration.2 This kind of persistence does not require any hypothesis about transmission, but it does support the idea that there are common cultural ‘frames’ even in science that scientists carry with them throughout their lives.

* What sort of identity – sameness – is at stake in claims about the persistence of tradition? One can find startling cases of ‘persistence’, such as the fact that the daughters of the Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping, elderly and unable to speak intelligibly, claimed to understand him and therefore to be his authoritative interpreters, just as in the imperial past daughters of senile and incoherent emperors made the same claims. The reversion to pre-war patterns of political argumentation and bureaucratic intrigue in the post communist states of Eastern Europe is equally striking. Alan Macfarlane has made claims about the persistence of English individualism from the times of the Germanic tribes described by Tacitus to the present.3

* In the case of Deng’s daughters, one might invoke Thomas Wolfe’s dictum that people in the same profession tend to be the same the world over, and note that Woodrow Wilson’s wife performed the same function at his deathbed, absent any Chinese traditions.

* Norms are ‘societal’; Sitten inhere in a Volk. Lawyer and judge are ‘social’ rather than natural categories. And in the case of other insufficiencies analogous to those that arise in relation to the law, the same pattern holds. The knowledge in question is localized to some group. In the closely related case of constitutions, the problem takes the following form: written constitutions, or written abridgements of unwritten constitutions, have different results when they are enacted in states which have ‘different political traditions’ or in which people have different habits of dealing with one another as citizens – therefore written constitutions are insufficient in practice and insufficient to explain political diversity.

* But to grant the existence of such things as Weltanschauungen, tacit knowledge, Sitte with causal powers, paradigms and so forth is to create an epistemic and explanatory problem for the social theorist. What sorts of objects are these? How can they be known, how can their causal properties be assessed, and how do they change? These are just the beginnings – the more we look into the answers, the more questions arise. How do these peculiar things get from one person to another? Where are they located? How does the same thing get ‘reproduced’ in different people? What sort of sameness or identity is at stake here? Does the sameness necessary for speaking historically of the identity of ‘traditions’, for example, correspond to some sameness-preserving feature of the transmission or acquisition of a tradition?

* We may distinguish two general strategies in dealing with the problem of making inferences about practices in the tradition of social theory. One view, best exemplified in Weber, is to reason about unconscious aspects of action on more or less strict analogy to the conscious forms of the same things that are available to the individual. Thus the Protestant believer whose habits and emotional responses to pleasure and indulgence are formed in the inchoate emotional experiences of early childhood is to be understood in terms of the explicit doctrines of Calvin.

[LF: I wonder what Max Weber would think of African protestants practicing Calvinism? Or modern northern Europeans of no religion acting the same way he saw Calvinists acting.]

* It would be, on this account, impossible to bemoan the supposed fact that modern people lack a tradition, as Macintyre does, or claim that the British have a political tradition and the Americans, Germans or some other group do not.

[LF: America is a state but Americans are not a nation.]

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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