Scheffler: Find Meaning in Tradition

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Scheffler: Find Meaning in Tradition

Who is Samuel Scheffler?

Samuel Scheffler (1951-) is an American philosopher. He is primarily concerned with moral philosophy, political philosophy, and theory of value. Scheffler’s writing covers a wide variety of topics, including equality, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, tolerance, terrorism, immigration, tradition, personal relationships, and the afterlife. He was written numerous books of high critical acclaim alongside prestigious fellowships and awards. His work has been praised for being approachable, yet meticuluous in his argumentation. Scheffler is currently a University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. He received his B.A. from Harvard University and Ph.D. from Princeton University. 

A notable part of Scheffler’s work is Equality and Tradition: Questions of Value in Moral and Political Theory. In his book, Scheffler describes the moral and political significance of various issues in modern society. Throughout each chapter, he emphasizes the importance of human value and the concept of value itself. Specifically, Scheffler explores the concept of tradition and its significance in moral and political contexts. 

In this essay, we will read excerpts from “The Normativity of Tradition,” a chapter in Equality and Tradition. The chapter explores the notion of finding meaning in tradition, whether it is possible, and how the concept of tradition applies to the modern liberal political order. You can read a PDF of the text here if you prefer to work through that (the password is in your instructor’s email). 

Key Principle

Tradition is Normative

In the beginning of the chapter, Scheffler conveys the importance of investigating tradition. The common explanation for upholding tradition is that it adheres to some historical practice while appealing to certain cultural values. While those reasons are notable, they are not satisfactory. Scheffler believes that there is a more significant justification for the existence of tradition. He calls this concept the “normative force of tradition.” As you read this excerpt, consider whether you agree with Scheffler’s assessment on the uniqueness of tradition that makes it appealing to individuals generation after generation. 

Tradition plays an important role in many people’s lives. Many people, and perhaps most people, participate in traditions of one kind or another. By this I mean that they take the fact that an act is called for by some tradition as giving them reason to perform that act. For convenience, I will say that they see themselves as having “reasons of tradition” or simply “traditional reasons” for acting in certain ways.

The force of traditional reasons is not immediately apparent. On the one hand, it may seem that to act in a certain way for traditional reasons is simply to act in that way because people have acted that way in the past. But the mere fact that people have acted some way in the past is not by itself a reason to act that way in the future. If it were, then every act that has ever been performed would give us reason to perform a relevantly similar act. This seems absurd. On the other hand, most traditions endorse or embody or exemplify certain values, principles, or ideals. So perhaps to act for traditional reasons is just to act for reasons that derive from those values, principles, or ideals. But if traditional reasons are just reasons deriving from certain values, principles, or ideals, then the reference to tradition seems otiose. The force of the reasons, on this assumption, does not derive from the fact that they are part of a tradition. It is not the existence of the tradition, but rather the normative significance of the values or principles, that gives rise to the reasons. 


The Significance of Normativity

The Significance of Normativity

In the excerpt, Scheffler conveys how our typical understanding of tradition does not fully capture its significance. He identifies two common explanations for tradition’s importance in society: the fact that people have done it in the past and that the tradition appeals to certain values. However, these circumstances are not unique and fail to explain why one tradition is practiced and another is abandoned. He postulates that there is something more significant to traditions, which he terms the normative significance. A breakdown of the argument is below.

(1) People practice traditions to a significant extent in society.

Example: An analysis of any group, such as through a cultural or religious lens, would reveal certain practices that are repeated over time by members of that group. 

(2) There must be a reason behind people’s actions.

Example: Suppose that John decides to order pizza for dinner one night. He must have some reason for ordering pizza, whether it is something as basic as satisfying a desire to eat or that he has a particular affinity for pizza. Regardless of the specific reason, there must be an explanation for his actions.

(3) Some people say that we practice traditions because they have been practiced in the past.

Example: The Notre Dame band plays the fight song after every touchdown at a football game because that is how we have always celebrated touchdowns. 

(4) However, there are things done in the past that we no longer do.

ExampleSimon’s family used to always celebrate the first night of winter with a campfire and smores, but they have not done it in the last ten years. 

(5) Other people say that we practice traditions because they appeal to certain values.

Example: Americans celebrate the Fourth of July because it exemplifies our values of liberty and independence. 

(6) However, the tradition is not necessary to convey these values.

Example: The Fourth of July is not the only way to celebrate liberty or independence. We can practice these values in our everyday actions, policymaking, or other traditions. 

(C) There must be some other explanation for practicing traditions other than their historical significance or ties to cultural values.

After establishing that we do not have a satisfactory explanation for the allure of tradition, Scheffler conveys the need to investigate tradition further. He also establishes two separate reasons to pursue this inquiry based on the context of modern society. As you read this excerpt, consider how understanding the significance of tradition may provide insight on the issues facing the world today.

People do, I believe, act on reasons whose force they themselves ascribe to the authority of some tradition. In this sense, tradition appears to be a normative notion. So the reductive dilemma with respect to tradition has significant skeptical implications. [Q]uestions about the normative force of tradition are of interest for at least two additional reasons.

First, these questions are relevant to issues of political morality. The diversity of traditions is characteristic of a modern, pluralistic society, and the question of how a political society should organize itself so as to accommodate this form of diversity is a pressing one. Liberal societies have a long history of attaching special significance to normative diversity, particularly diversity with respect to people’s differing moral and religious outlooks and conceptions of the good life. This suggests that questions about how best to respond to the diversity of traditions may depend on the normative force of traditional reasons. 

The second reason is this: Questions about the normative force of tradition bear on the more general topic of the role in human life, and the importance for human flourishing, of our attitudes toward the past and the future. Many people care intensely about certain things that happened in the past and certain things that may happen in the future. Of course, they care about their own pasts and their own futures. But their time-related concerns are not limited to concerns about other temporal periods of their own lives. They also care about things that happened before they were born, and things that will or might happen after their deaths.

It is a commonplace, of course, that many people wish to feel a part of something larger than themselves, and contemporary philosophers have relied on this commonplace in their investigations of the moral and political significance of membership in a community or a nation. But I am interested in the specifically temporal dimension of people’s attitudes. Our attitudes toward the past and the future are complex, puzzling, and poorly understood. It may or may not be the case that they involve something that is best described as a desire to be part of something larger than ourselves. Part of the interest of an investigation of the normative force of tradition lies in the light it may shed on these attitudes.

Key Principle

Why Do We Have Traditions?

Why Do We Have Traditions?

Scheffler has demonstrated that historical significance and cultural values do not convey the reason for practicing traditions. Instead, there’s a normative basis for tradition. But what are these reasons? In the next excerpt, Scheffler describes seven normative reasons for tradition’s role in society. As you read each reason, ask yourself whether any traditions you have in your life correspond to the feelings Scheffler provides.

To begin with, one important feature of traditions is that they serve to establish and entrench certain social conventions. Indeed, virtually any well-established convention may be said to constitute a tradition in an extended sense of the term. Like all conventions, the conventions that belong to wider traditions serve to coordinate behavior and, in so doing, to facilitate social interaction and make it easier to achieve various individual and collective goods. 

Second, if it is an essential feature of conventions that they play a useful co-coordinating role, then there may be room for a distinction between conventions and what might be termed collective habits. Suppose that the people in a given community always go to the beach on a certain holiday. On balance, most of them find this a pleasant thing to do. Yet the fact that they all do it on the same holiday is not itself a useful piece of social coordination, for it results in heavy traffic and overcrowded beaches, and does not make beach-going more pleasant than it would be if different people went on different days. [Collective habits] enable us to settle without excessive and repetitive deliberation on courses of action that have, on balance, proved successful in the past. We gain deliberative efficiency by relying relatively unreflectively on successful past practice as a defeasible guide to future conduct.

A third, closely related factor that may speak on behalf of adherence to a tradition is the fact that a tradition of reasonably long standing may be regarded as a repository of experience and of the kind of wisdom that comes from experience. 

Fourth, there may be reasons for adhering to a tradition that derive from the fact that the tradition embodies certain values, ideals, and principles. In this case, the tradition establishes a convention whose function is to make it easier for people to implement some principle or live up to some ideal. And such conventions themselves normally reflect a long history of experience in trying to develop effective ways of encouraging compliance with the relevant principles and ideals.

Fifth, in addition to embodying or endorsing certain values and principles, traditions may themselves be seen as valuable, in something like the way that libraries or cathedrals or museums are seen as valuable. They may be regarded as valuable repositories of human knowledge, experience, creativity, and achievement. As I have argued elsewhere, we can distinguish between recognizing something as valuable and valuing it oneself; we recognize the value of many things that we ourselves do not value. But the situation is different for people who do value the tradition. For them, the fact that the tradition calls for some act to be performed may well be seen as a reason for performing it. Indeed, this may be part of what valuing the tradition consists in.

Sixth, even if the mere fact that people have acted in a certain way in the past does not by itself provide one with a reason to act that way now, the fact that particular people to whom one feels closely tied acted in a certain way in the past—and attached special value to that way of acting—may give one reasons of loyalty to act that way now. Subscribing to a tradition and acting in accordance with that tradition may be ways of expressing one’s loyalty to others who adhered to the tradition and to whom such adherence was important. Loyalty is itself a value that many traditions endorse, of course, and in so doing these traditions are, in effect, self-reinforcing: that is, they confirm for their adherents the importance of acting in accordance with the kinds of reasons that lead many people to adhere to them in the first place.

Seventh, the fact that traditions normally embody certain values, principles, and ideals means that traditions normally stand for something. They are not simply intergenerational chains of replicated behavior. Accordingly, when a tradition has played a formative role in a person’s development, the person may come to feel that what the tradition stands for is also what he or she stands for. The values of the tradition have been internalized in such a way that they have come to occupy a central place in the person’s self-conception.

In acting on reasons of tradition, people may be seen as tacitly acknowledging the force of some or all of these kinds of consideration. This by itself is sufficient to show that the reductive dilemma fails as a diagnosis of traditional reasons. It is not true that, in acting on traditional reasons, one must either be acting in a certain way simply because other people have acted that way in the past or else responding to a principle-based reason that applies with just as much force to people who do not adhere to the tradition. Traditional reasons are neither normatively empty nor otiose.

Key Principle

We are Homeless in Time

In the next section of the chapter, Scheffler attempts to explain why pleasure is often associated with the repetitious and familiar nature of tradition. He supposes there are three reasons. First, tradition is an expression of our control over our mobility. In other words, one’s adherence to a particular practice or structure imposes one’s will over one’s surroundings in a way that is not normally achievable. Second, in a similar fashion, tradition grants us control over the unpredictable, uncontrollable concept of time. Here, Scheffler develops the notion that we are “homeless in time” and use tradition to create a home within time. Third, tradition enables us to recognize each other as individuals and establish a personal identity for ourselves. One’s personality develops from one’s practices and engagements, which is interpreted by others to construct an image of that individual’s identity. 

As you read this excerpt, take some time to ascertain each reason Scheffler describes. While we will primarily focus on the concept of being homeless in time, it is important to understand the entirety of Scheffler’s argument to fully appreciate it.

So consider, to begin with, the pleasures of repetition and familiarity. Someone who goes to the same café and orders the same coffee and pastry every morning may take pleasure in the regularity of this routine over and above the pleasure derived from the coffee and pastry themselves. There may also be an extra pleasure involved if the café proprietor or waiter knows without asking, when the person walks in each day, what the person wants: that he will have “the usual.” Many people have routines of one kind or another that have this character. 

Let me venture three tentative suggestions about what accounts for these pleasures. The first two have to do with what might be called the problem of temporal mobility. It is a striking fact about human life that we have almost no control over our movement through time. The one exception is that we can influence the time of our deaths, either by killing ourselves or, less dramatically, by taking steps that will predictably raise or lower the odds of our survival. But as long as we are alive, we move through time at a uniform rate in a single direction, and we have no alternative. This contrasts sharply with the degree of control we exercise over our mobility in space. Unless we are severely incapacitated, the ability to move our own bodies from one place to another, at a rate and in a direction of our choosing, is a fundamental feature of our lives, and we rely on it so ubiquitously that we tend to take it for granted. Yet its importance to us can hardly be overstated.

Although we also take our inability to control our mobility in time for granted, it is nevertheless experienced as a constraint. The twin urges to revisit the past and to see into the future can be almost unbearably powerful. Since they cannot be satisfied, we must make do for the most part with memory in the one case and anticipatory imagination in the other. But these mental capacities are highly imperfect surrogates for genuine temporal mobility. In a modest way, personal routines help to compensate for the lack of such mobility. If I visit the same café and order the same coffee and pastry every morning, then during any given visit my experience is, in relevant respects, the same as it has been in the past and as it will be in the future—or so it seems to me. This means that I experience what might be thought of as a kind of quasi-mobility in time, for the invariant character of the daily routine effaces the temporal specificity of any particular café visit. One reason why such routines can be rewarding is precisely that they efface the temporal specificity of particular experiences and, in so doing, enable us to feel, as we engage in the routine activity, that we are making contact with other stages of our lives.

A second function of personal routines is as follows. One consequence of our lack of temporal control is that we cannot establish for ourselves a “home” in time, in the way that we can establish a home in space. A home (in space) is not merely a place that we happen to occupy. It is also a place to which we normally have both a claim to return and the capacity to return. It is a place where we feel that we belong, and where others treat us as belonging. By establishing a home, we ward off feelings of being lost or adrift in the world. The very idea of a home is, in effect, a response to the vastness and impersonality of the universe and the precariousness and insignificance of our own place in it. A home is a tiny piece of the world to which we lay claim, and which we experience as our own. It is, in a sense, our world. This is one reason why homelessness is such a terrible condition, even if one does not lack for shelter from the elements. Those who have no home have no place in the world.

But we are all homeless in time. That is, we cannot carve out a piece of time that becomes our own and to which we can return at will. The constraints on our temporal mobility make this impossible. Yet the vastness and impersonality of time are every bit as chilling and awe inspiring as the vastness and impersonality of space, and the need for a refuge—for something that serves the function of a place in time—is, for many people, almost as strong as the need for a place in space. Since we cannot establish homes in time the way we can establish homes in space, we must address this need in other ways. This is a second function of personal routines. By ordering the same coffee and pastry at the same café each morning, I domesticate a slice of time. In other words, I dedicate that slice of time each day to a specific purpose of my choosing, and in so doing I lay claim to it. It becomes “my time,” as people sometimes say. And since a routine is by its nature temporally extended, “my time” extends beyond a single day. The routine establishes a kind of temporal corridor, which passes through the succession of days, and which “belongs” to me. 

There is also a third purpose, which has to do with the reality of the self. The philosophical problem of personal identity concerns the conditions under which a person who exists at one time is the same person as a person who exists at another time. There is a related question that arises from the perspective of the individual agent. What gives me confidence at any given moment that I am a temporally persisting being, that I have a reality that extends beyond the present moment? After all, the past is gone and the future has not arrived yet. I have direct awareness of my existence at the present moment. But what makes me so sure that some person who existed in the past was me, or that there is a particular future person whose existence would be my existence? 

By engaging in personal routines, we enact our persistence over time. Through the repetitive performance of acts that express our distinctive values and desires, we mark the world with continuities that are expressive of ourselves. In so doing, we confirm our sense of ourselves as persistent creatures, manufacturing, as it were, evidence to support our confidence in our persistence. The result is a kind of self-fulfilling, performative validation of our sense of our own reality as temporally extended beings. And to the extent that others recognize or enter into our routines, as for example when the barista knows what our “usual” is, we receive the added reassurance of knowing that the evidence we have manufactured or performed has been independently confirmed. The barista’s response gives pleasure in part because it testifies to our success in making manifest, through willful repetitive doing, our own reality as temporally extended creatures.


Homelessness in Time

Homelessness in Time

In the excerpt above, Scheffler introduces the concept of being homeless in time. As you read in the popup, he argues that unlike temporal mobility, individuals have no capacity to express ownership over time. In this sense, we are homeless in time. However, Sheffler suggests that although it is not true ownership, tradition provides a mechanism to express an individual’s will across time. This is one reason for the pleasure we feel from tradition, as it grants us passage into a dimension we otherwise do not have access to. Consider a breakdown of the argument below.

(1) Humans exist in space and time.

Example: The very nature of existence requires an individual to exist in space (occupying some area) and time (that occupation taking place over a certain period). 

(2) Both space and time are vast and impersonal, and we have very little control over them in a way that can inspire anxiety.

Example: Imagine a pioneer on the range, or even just think back to the last time you went camping in the wilderness. We’re vulnerable creatures, and the world is a vast place.

(3) One way we reduce this anxiety with respect to space is by exerting ownership over it, by owning land and building a home.

Homes provide us with literal safety and support, but the comfort they provide goes way beyond protecting our bodies. They provide us with solace, silence, a place of our own, privacy, and a robust sense of stability over time — they are a place we can return to when we need to separate ourselves from the vast impersonal space that we find ourselves in.

(4) While we can’t “own” space or literally “build” ourselves a home in it, traditions can provide us with an analogous type of comfort.

Example: Every morning at 9am, I get a coffee. 9am is coffee time. The barista greets me when I walk into the cafe. I feel comfort knowing that not every moment is going to be unpredictable and unstructured. My rituals, routines, and traditions allow me to structure my life in time in a way that is more manageable, that allows me to exert control over it.

(5) Traditions provide us with a source of comfort (pleasure) and, thus, value insofar as they allow us to exert control over our “homelessness in time.”

Now that we have established tradition as a mechanism to express ownership over time, one should consider the implications of tradition across time. Scheffler postulates that tradition provides two important components in the context of time. First, it provides an individual a way to live beyond one’s own life. Suppose that the traditions one practices in one’s life continue past death through others, such as a family celebrating traditions each generation. In this way, an individual lives past death because the components of their personal identity continue to exist in the world, despite one’s physical absence. Second, tradition is an opportunity to connect with others in the process of preserving the values of a society. This relates to Scheffler’s earlier description of tradition as a way to express cultural values because the continuation of a certain practice over time connects one to one’s culture and the other members of that culture. As you read the excerpt below, consider these concepts in the sense of how tradition connects us with each other in our lives and beyond.

In regularly acting in accordance with a traditional practice, an individual in effect assimilates that practice as a personal routine, and so reaps the advantages just mentioned. But insofar as the tradition extends beyond the lifespan of the individual, the quasi-mobility in time that it affords outstrips anything that the individual could achieve with an ordinary personal routine. In acting in accordance with the traditional practice, the individual acts not only as she has acted in the past and as she will act in the future, but also as others acted before she was born and will act after she is dead. In so acting, then, there is a way in which she is able to project herself backward and forward in time, to transcend not only the specificity of the moment but also the boundaries of her own life. She acts in accordance with the traditional practice today, but her act is in relevant respects indistinguishable from the way others have acted since before she was born and will act after she is gone. In that sense, participating in the practice enables her to travel back to a time before she lived and forward to a time when she will live no more.

It is no accident, I think, that great traditions are often greatly preoccupied with the establishment of temporal rhythms and routines, with the organization and segmentation of time, and with marking time’s passage. They establish calendars, holidays and festivals, seasonal practices and ceremonies, daily or weekly or monthly or yearly rites and rituals, and regular commemorations of historical events. As already noted, a person who regularly acts in accordance with traditional practices assimilates these routines as his own, and in so doing such a person comes to inhabit what amounts to a pre-established temporal structure. As a way of domesticating time, this offers certain advantages when compared with the development of purely personal routines. Traditions are public, collective enterprises, so the temporal structures they make available have a social dimension that many people find comforting and enriching, much as many people prefer living with others to living alone.

Of course, participation in a tradition has a backward-looking as well as a forward-looking dimension. If, in the forward-looking dimension, one seeks to ensure the survival of what one values, then, in the backward-looking dimension, one sees oneself as inheriting values that have been preserved by others. One is heir to, and custodian of, values that have been handed down by those who went before. These values themselves enrich one’s life, and one’s status as heir and custodian gives one’s life an additional significance or importance that it would not otherwise have had. One is now part of a custodial chain, a chain of people stretching through time who have undertaken to preserve and extend these values. In addition to imbuing one’s own life with a distinctive kind of value, this gives one a value-based relation to the past: a past that might otherwise seem to stand in relation to one’s own life as nothing but an eternal void. Just as the forward-looking dimension of participation in a tradition undercuts the sense of the future after one’s death as representing nothing more than an eternity of nonexistence, so too the backward-looking dimension undercuts this same sense in relation to the time before one’s birth. By giving one a role to play as part of a custodial chain of value, the backward-looking dimension of tradition personalizes one’s relation to the past and enhances the perceived significance of one’s existence. We might say that, in its forward-looking dimension, participation in a tradition diminishes the perceived significance of one’s death, while in the backward-looking dimension it enhances the perceived significance of one’s life.


A Brief Summary

We understand that Scheffler introduces numerous complex concepts and ideas in this chapter. Luckily, Scheffler recognizes that too! Below is an excerpt from the chapter that provides a brief summary over its main ideas and major arguments. Use this as a guide for understanding the earlier parts of the essay and to check that you understand each step of Scheffler’s argument.

At the beginning of this paper, I said that I wanted to investigate the force of traditional reasons, with an eye toward evaluating the reductive dilemma and the form of skepticism about the normative significance of tradition that it appears to support. I also suggested that such an investigation might help to illuminate questions about people’s attitudes toward the past and the future and the role of those attitudes in human life. I have now identified a total of twelve different considerations that may speak in favor of adherence to a tradition. These include the seven considerations that I earlier labeled convention, habit, wisdom, guidance, value, loyalty, and integrity. They also include five time-related considerations. Participation in a tradition may help to compensate for our lack of control over our mobility in time, it may enable us to domesticate time, it may assure us of our own reality as temporally extended creatures and, by incorporating us into a custodial chain designed to preserve things (other than ourselves) that we value, it may help to enhance the perceived significance of our lives and diminish the perceived significance of our deaths. All of this goes to show, I believe, that the reductive dilemma fails in the case of tradition, and that we should reject the form of skepticism about tradition that is embodied in that dilemma. Acting on traditional reasons is not a matter of doing something simply because people have done the same thing in the past. But neither is it a matter of acting on reasons that derive solely from certain abstract values, principles, or ideals. As we have seen, many of the considerations that speak in favor of adherence to a tradition essentially depend on the existence of the tradition as a collaborative enterprise involving many people over multiple generations. The actual existence of the tradition gives the participants reasons that they would not otherwise have, and which nonparticipants may not share. Tradition is indeed a normative notion.