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Popper on Burke and Tradition

_Conjectures and Refutations_ p 162
[Edmund Burke] fought, as you know, against the ideas of the French Revolution, and his most effective weapon was his analysis of that irrational power which we call 'tradition'. I mention Burke because I think he has never been properly answered by rationalists. Instead rationalists tended to ignore his criticism and to persevere in their anti-traditionalists attitude without taking up the challenge. Undoubtedly there is a traditional hostility between rationalism and traditionalism. Rationalists are inclined to adopt the attitude: 'I am not interested in tradition. I want to judge everything on its merits and demerits, and I want to do this quite independently of any tradition. I want to judge it with my own brain, and not with the brains of other people who lived long ago.'

That the matter is not quite so simple as this attitude assumes emerges from the fact that the rationalist who says such things is himself very much bound by a rationalist tradition which traditionally says them. This shows the weakness of certain traditional attitudes towawrds the problem of tradition.
I see confusion here. The right attitude is to judge ideas on their merits and demerits, but to do so with the aid of both reason and traditional knowledge. This is perhaps clearer to see if one renames "traditional knowledge" to "existing knowledge". Existing knowledge is good, and shouldn't be disregarded even by people with a very high opinion of reason and individual judgment.

Existing knowledge should be used whenever doing so seems unproblematic, and improved when it seems problematic. It should be respected as something valuable, but not something beyond criticism. I think this attitude harnesses the good points of both the rationalists and traditionalists and also demonstrates they are not fundamentally in conflict.

Elliot Temple on January 15, 2010

Comments (6)

Tradition vs. Knowledge

You've confused knowledge with opinion.
Traditional opinion vs. today's opinion. Neither of them are knowledge.

E. Burke was on the payroll of the English royals. They had to remove Locke's theory, otherwise they'd lose their heads.

Biggest mess that ever was called an intellectual.

Burke replaced Lockian ideas with tradition as a defence of private property rights, to the great loss of humanity.

I blame Burke for the socialists revolution--he took an intellectual movement and handed it to a conservative movement of faith-based bozos. In a vacuum, in walked only a justification of mass theft.

K Alexander at 12:56 PM on January 15, 2010 | #1960
By knowledge I mean fallible knowledge, not justified, true belief.

> E. Burke was on the payroll of the English royals

This is a factually false accusation with no citation. He simply was not on that payroll. (He could have been, but he didn't want to be despite having significant debts.) You can read about this in the book _The Great Melody_.


Elliot at 1:02 PM on January 15, 2010 | #1961

based on what?

"The right attitude is to judge ideas on their merits and demerits, but to do so with the aid of both reason and traditional knowledge."

I doubt we disagree. However, any merit or demerit itself could potentially stand under scrutiny, right?

Therefore, the idea once given is okay until there is a problem with it. Fortunately we're born into a world where a lot of good ideas already exist, those come to us from tradition. We're better off following these (until there is a reason not to), than to attempt to build up the whole structure based on some fairly simplistic system of premises (which is what continental rationalists or pure empiricists both seem to be attempting).

I don't think you disagree with that.

Another great essay similar to this one is F.A. Hayek's _the Errors of Constructionism_.

You can find it <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=UK49AAAAIAAJ&dq=New+studies+in+philosophy+politics+economics+and+the+history+of+ideas+hayek&printsec=frontcover&source=bl&ots=1S2_MSfxY9&sig=LyHVkVkuabwT8XXwpNuMGbDMA5Q&hl=en&ei=eQ5RS9snyZ6RBdjgvaEK&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CAcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=&f=false" target="_blank">here</a>.

Matt D at 4:58 PM on January 15, 2010 | #1962
> I doubt we disagree. However, any merit or demerit itself could potentially stand under scrutiny, right?

Right. And I agree with the rest too.

Elliot at 6:56 PM on January 15, 2010 | #1963
>> E. Burke was on the payroll of the English royals

>This is a factually false accusation with no citation.

It is a loosely meant comment (obviously, there are no payroll records, and royals of the time just use a nod or two for those they favour).

It means that English royals would endorse a perspective that would save their and the aristocracy's necks. At the time, because of Locke's ideas, the French were cutting off the heads of their royals. Burke steped in and gave a faith-based defence of private property, enabling Locke's theories to be evaded, thus maintaining the class society.

All at huge cost to the emerging sciences of politics and economics, since which have been stunted.

Anonymous at 2:08 AM on January 16, 2010 | #1964
The Hayek essay is marred by justificationism. One of the effects is he has the wrong idea of what reason and rationality are, something like that a rational person finds, creates, and enacts justified knowledge.

He says near the start something like: before civilization, people didn't have reason. I think he means they were short on justified knowledge.

Of course I agree with Hayek that we can't change our institutions just by deciding to do it, and we don't always know how they work, and they don't always have good reasons for working as they do. I remember Popper wrote things along these lines too, and said we need social technology = knowledge of how to intervene effectively in society.

Later Hayek says we can question any value of our society, but we shouldn't do them all at once. Again I agree, as does Popper.

Elliot at 11:37 AM on January 18, 2010 | #1965

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)