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Full Access Three Rival Views of Tradition (Arendt, Oakeshott and MacIntyre)

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Three Rival Views of Tradition (Arendt, Oakeshott and MacIntyre)

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Abstract If we define tradition too hastily we leave to one side the question of what the relevance of tradition is for us. Here the concept of tradition is opened up by considering the different views of it taken by Hannah Arendt, Michael Oakeshott and Alasdair MacIntyre. We see that each has put tradition into a fully developed picture of what our predicament is in modernity; and that each has differed in their assessment of what our relation to tradition is or should be. Arendt sees tradition as something which no longer conditions action, Oakeshott sees tradition as something which conditions all action, and MacIntyre sees tradition as something which should condition right action. In each case, the view of tradition is clearly one element in an attempt to see how the most important constituent elements of human existence – variously called the human condition, human conduct, or human virtue – should be understood in a modernity which is ours because it has put the traditional concept of tradition into question.

1. FN11) Edward Shils, Tradition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981), 12.
2. FN22) Stephen Prickett, Modernity and the Reinvention of Tradition: Backing into the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 28.
3. FN33) Ibid., 70.
4. FN44) For plural see Shils above. For alterable see the famous observation that “the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered”, in T.S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ from Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot ed. Frank Kermode (Faber, 1975), 37–49 at 38. For inventable see Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Inventing Traditions’, in The Invention of Tradition ed. Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 1–14. Hobsbawm’s thesis is hard to take seriously: for either all tradition is invented, in which case the thesis tells us nothing distinctive about modern traditions; or the thesis does tell us something about modern traditions, in which case he fails to distinguish modern “invented” tradition from older (uninvented) ones. See Prickett, 14–15. Shils thought the thesis “frivolous”. See Edwards Shils, A Fragment of a Sociological Autobiography: The History of My Pursuit of a Few Ideas ed. Stephen Grosby (London: Transaction, 2006), 130.
5. FN55) Weber thought tradition was on the “borderline” of “meaningfully orientated action”. His famous distinction of rational or legal, traditional and charismatic authority was ad hoc: although it enabled him to establish for sociologists the category of tradition by which authority rests “on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of the status of those exercising authority under them (traditional authority)”. See Max Weber, Wirtschaft and Gesellschaft, Part I, trans. Talcott Parsons and A.M. Henderson, The Theory of Social and Economic Organisation (Oxford, 1947), 115–16, 130 & 328. Shils thought Weber was too concerned with authority, and had failed to see that tradition was ubiquitous. But Shils himself was more interested in “taxonomy” than “analysis”. See Prickett, Modernity, 14.
6. FN66) Karl Popper, “Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition” (1948), Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge 3rd ed. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), 120–35, at 122, 123 & 127. For Popper’s response to Oakeshott (“a really original thinker”) see 121. Popper’s argument’s influenced Shils, whose view of tradition, ironically, is similar to Oakeshott’s. See Shils, Fragment, 128–33.
7. FN77) For “predicament” see Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (London: Penguin, 2006), 6, Michael Oakeshott, “Introduction to Leviathan”, in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianopolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 227, and Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (London: Duckworth, 1985), 263.
8. FN88) For literature on Arendt, see Bhikhu Parekh, Hannah Arendt and the Search for a New Political Philosophy (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1981) and Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998). For Oakeshott, see Paul Franco, The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott (New Haven: Yale, 1990), and Terry Nardin, The Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001). For MacIntyre After MacIntyre: Critical Perspectives on the Work of Alasdair MacIntyre eds. John Horton and Susan Mendus (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994). MacIntyre’s understanding of tradition has received much more separate attention than Arendt’s or Oakeshott’s. See, for instance, Emily Gill, “MacIntyre, Rationality and the Liberal tradition”, Polity 24 (1992): 433–57, J.B. Schneewind, “MacIntyre and the Indispensability of Tradition”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 51 (1991): 165–8, Jennifer Herdt, “Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘Rationality of Traditions’ and Tradition-Transcendental Standards of Justification”, The Journal of Religion 78 (1998): 524–546, Thomas Hibbs, “MacIntyre, Aquinas and Politics”, The Review of Politics 66 (2004): 357–83. But see footnotes 12 and 52 below.
9. FN99) Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition 2nd ed. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998), 97 & 184.
10. FN1010) Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 105. Oakeshott here distinguishes a (third person) “story” from a (first person) “myth”, which is closer to what Arendt and MacIntyre suppose a story to be.
11. FN1111) MacIntyre, After Virtue, 213. On unpredictability compare Arendt, Human Condition, 182, Oakeshott, On Human Conduct, 105.
12. FN1212) Most of the literature on Arendt deals with this philosophical “tradition” but overlooks the fact that it was part of a “Roman trinity”. See, for perhaps reluctant exceptions, Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996), 91, Margaret Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 68–71, and Shiraz Dossa, The Public Realm and the Public Self: The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989), 154.
13. FN1313) See Arendt, “Introduction into Politics”, in The Promise of Politics ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken, 2005), 130–35.
14. FN1414) Arendt, “The Promise of Politics”, in The Promise of Politics, 83.
15. FN1515) Arendt, “What is Authority?” in Between Past and Future, 132–5. Compare Simone Weil, Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks trans. Elisabeth Chase Giessbuhler (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957).
16. FN1616) Arendt, Between Past and Future, 25.
17. FN1717) For this phrase, see Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin, 1990), 117, Arendt, Between Past and Future, 124, and Arendt, “The Promise of Politics”, 50.
18. FN1818) For elements of this story see Arendt, “The Promise of Politics”, 49, 50 & 60, and Between Past and Future, 17 & 25.
19. FN1919) Arendt, “What is Authority?”, in Between Past and Future, 124.
20. FN2020) Arendt, “The Promise of Politics”, 60.
21. FN2121) Arendt, On Revolution, 28.
22. FN2222) For this phrase see ibid., 34.
23. FN2323) Parekh, Hannah Arendt, 113.
24. FN2424) Hannah Arendt quoted by Margaret Canovan, The Human Condition, ix.
25. FN2525) See Arendt, Human Condition, 26 & 215. Compare Arendt, “Introduction Into Politics”, 95.
26. FN2626) Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?’, in Between Past and Future, 151.
27. FN2727) Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics”, in Between Past and Future, 258–9.
28. FN2828) Arendt, “Introduction Into Politics”, 117.
29. FN2929) For her habit of quoting this line (from Augustine, City of God, 12.20), see Arendt, The Human Condition, 177, “What is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future, 166, “The Promise of Politics”, 59, On Revolution, 211, and even her last work The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1978), 217.
30. FN3030) Arendt, Human Condition, 9.
31. FN3131) Arendt disliked singular “truth” because it contained an “element of coercion”. But she wanted to avoid relativism. See Arendt, “Truth and Politics”, in Between Past and Future, 235, and John S. Nelson, “Politics and Truth: Arendt’s Problematic”, American Journal of Political Science 22 (1978): 270–301.
32. FN3232) Arendt, Human Condition, 220.
33. FN3333) Ibid., 237.
34. FN3434) Arendt, On Revolution, 39. Cf. 116, 184–5 & 191. See also Arendt, “What is Authority?”, in Between Past and Future, 134.
35. FN3535) Arendt, On Revolution, 223.
36. FN3636) Ibid., 280.
37. FN3737) Ibid., 52.
38. FN3838) Parekh, Hannah Arendt, 179.
39. FN3939) Oakeshott discusses action in Human Conduct, 31 ff.
40. FN4040) See, for instance, the suggestion that the outcome of an action is “always a new situation calling for a new response”. Oakeshott, Human Conduct, 45.
41. FN4141) Ibid., 31.
42. FN4242) Ibid., 23.
43. FN4343) Ibid., 32.
44. FN4444) Ibid., 40–46.
45. FN4545) Ibid., 32.
46. FN4646) Ibid., 57. He discusses practices from 54 ff.
47. FN4747) Ibid., 55.
48. FN4848) Ibid., 56.
49. FN4949) Ibid., 86.
50. FN5050) For morality see ibid., 60–81 and for religion, 81–86.
51. FN5151) Ibid., 149–154.
52. FN5252) In Oakeshott’s first book, Experience and Its Modes, “practice” is simply all practical experience, all actions with purposes in mind. But this is different from what he later means by a set of understood conventions: he calls this first “tradition”, and later (after 1958) “practice”. This has been well recognized by Franco, The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, 132–3 & 170–71, Robert Devigne, Recasting Conservatism: Oakeshott, Strauss, and the Response to Postmodernism (London: Yale University Press, 1994), 17, Nardin, The Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, 76, and Luke O’Sullivan, Oakeshott on History (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2003), 112 & 176–77. There is an entire chapter on this in Kenneth B. MacIntyre, The Limits of Political Philosophy: Oakeshott’s Philosophy of Civil Association (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2004), 41–76.
53. FN5353) Michael Oakeshott, “On Misunderstanding Human Conduct”, Political Theory 4 (1976): 364. The only time he mentions “tradition” in On Human Conduct is in the form “traditio” when he writes about religion. See 81.
54. FN5454) For a view of Oakeshott as Burkean see Pitkin, “The Roots of Conservatism”, 249, 254 & 256. For a counter see Franco, The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, 7, 108 & 136–40. Oakeshott was always concerned to counter such misunderstandings. See Oakeshott, “On Misunderstanding Human Conduct”, 353–67.
55. FN5555) Cf. “Actions are not handed down; only their models, rule and legitimations are.” Edward Shils, “Tradition”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 13, no. 3 (1971): 127. See also Shils, Tradition, 31, and, for that matter, J.G.A. Pocock, “Time, Institutions and Action: An Essay on Traditions and their Understanding”, Politics, Language and Time: Essays on Political Theory and History (New York: Athenaeum, 1971), 233–72.
56. FN5656) Oakeshott, “Political Education”, in Rationalism and Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis: Liberty, 1991), 43–69, at 44–5.
57. FN5757) Ibid., 51 & 62.
58. FN5858) Oakeshott, Human Conduct, 161.
59. FN5959) Cf. the claim, that politics is dependent on “law and custom and tradition”. Michael Oakeshott, “The Claims of Politics” in Religion, Politics and the Moral Life ed. Timothy Fuller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 93.
60. FN6060) See Edward Craig, The Mind of God and the Works of Man (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987).
61. FN6161) “The traditions of most countries no longer provide very illuminating intimations of how to cope with daily political reality.” John Dunn, Modern Revolutions: An Introduction to the Analysis of a Political Phenomenon 1972, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 261. “The advice to look to tradition and enhance coherence by pursuing intimations is simply meaningless where no worthwhile tradition exists . . . Oakeshott has simply nothing to say to people without a tradition to conserve.” Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, “The Roots of Conservatism: Michael Oakeshott and the Denial of Politics”, in The New Conservatives: A Critique from the Left ed. Lewis A. Coser and Irving Howe (New Times Book Co., 1974), 262.
62. FN6262) MacIntyre, After Virtue, 208.
63. FN6363) Ibid., 214.
64. FN6464) This is why for MacIntyre, as a good Aristotelian, politics is inseparable from ethics, while for Arendt and Oakeshott politics is always politics. See MacIntyre, “Politics, Philosophy and the Common Good” (1997) in The MacIntyre Reader ed. Kelvin Knight (Note Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 235–52.
65. FN6565) MacIntyre, After Virtue, 215.
66. FN6666) Ibid., 187.
67. FN6767) Ibid., 190.
68. FN6868) Ibid., 194.
69. FN6969) Ibid., 146.
70. FN7070) Ibid., 221.
71. FN7171) Ibid., 222. MacIntyre returns to the “bastardized” conception of tradition inherited from Burke by modern conservatives in MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (London: Duckworth, 1988), 8, 165 & 353.
72. FN7272) MacIntyre, After Virtue, 222.
73. FN7373) MacIntyre, Whose Justice?, 348.
74. FN7474) Ibid., 13.
75. FN7575) Ibid., 355.
76. FN7676) Ibid., 2.
77. FN7777) See, especially, ibid., 16–19, 151 & 42.
78. FN7878) MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (London: Duckworth, 1985), 33, 35–36, 39 & 41.
79. FN7979) Ibid., 59.
80. FN8080) Ibid., 133.
81. FN8181) Ibid., 64.
82. FN8282) Ibid., 91 & 99–100.
83. FN8383) Ibid., 5.
84. FN8484) Lewis Hinchman, “Virtue or Autonomy: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Critique of Liberal Individualism”, Polity 21 (1989): 635–54.

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Affiliations: 1: Dept. of Political Science, Bilkent University


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