Old / New

New                   -         Old
Future                -         Past
Rationalism       -         Tradition
Top Down         -         Bottom Up
Nurture              -         Nature
Constructivist    -         Essentialist

Tradition is anchored in the past, via a foundational myth that remains accessible in the present. Rationalism is anchored in the future, via the quest for ‘Truth’, a progress towards the One True Path.

Reason allows a way out of tradition because it subverts the originary will of the founder. It births critique.

Revolution attempts a clean break with the past, but must always subsequently work to prevent the past from re-emerging - via doctoring, censorship, and various other forms of denial.    

The left is characterized by a preference for change and reform, a commitment to liberty and equality, an orientation toward progress and the future, while the right is the party of order and tradition, hierarchy, and a disposition to valorize the past.

Whether described as left vs. right, blue vs. red, or liberal vs. conservative, this basic division seems to capture a permanent divide between two fundamental human dispositions, as well as two worldviews that are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive of political options.

[Patrick Deneen]
Why Liberalism Failed, p.43


The modern political divide of the past three centuries has essentially boiled down to these two camps: whether the past is a source of wisdom or an era of horrors; whether culture and tradition were fortifications against decline or barriers to progress; whether politics was the means to preservation of imperfect decencies and virtues, or a tool of human perfectibility.

[Patrick J. Deneen]

Things that have worked for a long time are preferable - they are more likely to have reached their ergodic states. At the worst we don't know how long they'll last.

Remember that the burden of proof lies on someone disturbing a complex system, not on the person protecting the status quo.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 371

We have polluted for years, causing much damage to the environment, while the scientists currently making these complicated forecasting models were not sticking their necks out and trying to stop us from building these risks […] - these are the scientists trying to impose the solutions on us.

But the skepticism about models that I propose does not lead to the conclusions endorsed by anti-environmentalists and pro-market fundamentalists. Quite the contrary: we need to be hyper-conservationists ecologically, since we do not know what we are harming with now.

That’s the sound policy under conditions of ignorance and epistemic opacity. 

To those who say “We have no proof that we are harming nature,”  a sound response is “We have no proof that we are not harming nature, either”; the burden of proof is not on the ecological conservationist, but on someone disrupting an old system.

Furthermore we should not “try to correct” the harm done, as we may be creating another problem we do not know much about currently.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 316

So the reader can see how the ancients saw naive rationalism: by impoverishing - rather than enhancing - thought, it introduces fragility. They knew that incompleteness - half knowledge - is always dangerous.

Many other people than the ancients have been involved in defending - and inviting us to respect - this different type of knowledge. First Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and political philosopher, who also countered the French Revolution for disrupting the “collected reasons of the ages.” He believed that large social variations can expose us to unseen effects and thus advocated the notion of small trial-and-error experiments (in effect, context tinkering) in social systems, coupled with respect for the complex heuristics of tradition.

Also Michael Oakeshot, the twentieth-century conservative political philosopher and philosopher of history who believed that traditions provide an aggregate of filtered collective knowledge. 

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 257-8

In Greek legend, there were two Titan brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus. Prometheus means “fore-thinker” while Epimetheus means “after-thinker,” equivalent to someone who falls for the retrospective distortion of fitting theories to past events in an ex post narrative manner.

Optionality is Promethean, narratives are Epimethean - one has reversible and benign mistakes, the other symbolises the gravity and irreversibility of the consequences of opening Pandora’s box.

You make forays into the future by opportunism and optionality […] It is a way - the only way - to domesticate uncertainty, to work rationally without understanding the future, while reliance on narratives is the exact opposite: one is domesticated by uncertainty, and ironically set back. You cannot look at the future by naive projection of the past.

All this does not mean that tinkering and trial and error are devoid of narrative: they are just not overly dependent on the narrative being true - the narrative is not epistemological but instrumental. For instance, religious stories might have no value as narratives, but they may get you to do something convex and antifragile you otherwise would not do, like mitigate risks.

English parents controlled children with the false narrative that if they didn’t behave or eat their dinner, Boney (Napoleon Bonaparte) or some wild animal might come and take them away. Religions often use the equivalent method to help adults get out of trouble, or avoid debt. But intellectuals tend to believe their own b***t and take their ideas too literally, and that is vastly dangerous.

Consider the role of the heuristic (rule-of-thumb) knowledge embedded in traditions. Simply, just as evolution operates on individuals, so does it act on these tacit, unexplainable rules of thumb transmitted through generations - what Karl Popper has called evolutionary epistemology.

Accordingly, wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior (empirically, hence scientifically) to what you get from a class in business school (and, of course, considerably cheaper). My sadness is that we have been moving farther and farther away from grandmothers.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 211-13, 215

It isn't always the future that people want; they are often, as it were rather ambivalent about the Promised Land. Indeed, it isn't the future they most want, it is the past.

Psychoanalysis, like education [...] is an attempt to lure people into the future, to tempt them to grow up.

What the analyst and the teacher and the political revolutionary come up against is people's refusal to sacrifice an apparently known pleasure for an apparently unknown one. Better the devil you know, because if you know him he can't be the devil.

[Adam Phillips]
Side Effects ('Learning to Live'), p.152, 154

Societies, like animals, evolve.

The ones that survive spawn memetic descendants – for example, the success of Britan allowed it to spin off Canada, Australia, the US, et cetera. Thus, we expect societies that exist to be somewhat optimized for stability and prosperity. I think this is one of the strongest conservative arguments.

Just as a random change to a letter in the human genome will probably be deleterious rather than beneficial since humans are a complicated fine-tuned system whose genome has been pre-optimized for survival – so most changes to our cultural DNA will disrupt some institution that evolved to help Anglo-American (or whatever) society outcompete its real and hypothetical rivals.

[Scott Alexander]
'Meditations on Moloch'

Changes in the formula, if they are not to destroy the society, must be gradual, not abrupt. The formula is indispensable for holding the social structure together. A widespread skepticism about the formula will in time corrode and disintegrate the social order. 

It is perhaps for this reason, half-consciously understood, that all strong and long-lived societies have cherished their “traditions,” even when, as is usually the case, these traditions have little relation to fact, and even after they can hardly be believed literally by educated men. 

Rome, Japan, Venice, all such long-enduring states, have been very slow to change the old formulas, the time-honored ways and stories and rituals; and they have been harsh against rationalists who debunk them. 

This, after all, was the crime for which Athens put Socrates to death. From the point of view of survival, she was probably right in doing so.

[James Burnham]
The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, p. 90

In all these writings, what interests us is not the routine polemics, the case against the abomination of mob rule and Jacobin slogans, but rather the counterrevolutionary argument in principle. This is invariably the rejection of the idea that law and the state could result from the methodical activity of individual human beings.

All important state institutions, and especially the constitutions that were altered so frequently during the French Revolution, are said to result automatically and in the course of time from prevailing circumstances and the nature of things. These institutions are the rational expression of such circumstances, and not their creator. Therefore, it would be absurd to propose to force things to conform to an abstract scheme.

The nation and society are not overnight products of doctrinaire "fabrication.” On the contrary, they are formed over long periods of time, in such a way that the individual persons involved could not survey them or even make an estimate of them.

On this point, Burke – in general phrases that are often powerfully rhetorical and emotional – stresses the growth of the national community that spans generations. De Maistre still sees the individual entirely from the perspective of the theological ideas of the classical age: in his insignificance in the presence of the transcendent providential power that governs us and in whose hands the active heroes of the Revolution appear to de Maistre as automatons.

Finally, as early as 1797, Bonald, a great systematic thinker, explains what is at stake with splendid precision: the opposition between liberal individualism and social solidarity. According to Bonald, the bearer of historical activity is not the individual person or the mass of individuals. It is instead society, which lives in history and constitutes itself according to definite laws, and which really constitutes the individual person as such.

All three - in a vehement rejection of the metaphysicians and the philosophers, Rousseau in particular - agree that the activity of the individual, based on rationalistic maxims, can create nothing. It can only delay, destroy, and abrogate the natural course of things; but it cannot produce anything of permanence.

[Carl Schmitt]
Political Romanticism, p. 110

The historical situations in which romanticism and romantics can arise are epochs in which an antiquated culture confronts a new one […] At such watersheds of world history, persons in whom feeling and imagination outweigh clear thinking, spirits of more warmth than light, always turn backward, to what is old.

From the unbelief and prose that they see gaining ground around them, they will long for the world of the old faith and ancestral customs, a world that is agreeable and rich in forms; and they will attempt to restore this world for its own sake and, wherever possible, beyond itself as well.

But as children of their time, they too are dominated more than they know by the new principle that is repugnant to them. 

That is why the old ways as they are reproduced in and through them are no longer the pure and primordial old ways. On the contrary, they are blended in many respects with what is new, and in this way they reveal the new in advance.

[David Friedrich Strauss]
Julian the Apostate: The Romantic on the Throne of the Caesars

Social facts, then, are entirely continuous with biological facts. They are part of life. This shows how misleading the metaphor of 'social construction' is if it is taken in its strong sense as meaning that we are omnipotent in inventing social practices.

Customs are not just an arbitrary product of our whim. Searle's central target is indeed the sense of artificiality and exaggerated power that this excessive constructivism suggests - the impression that it gives of human decisions taking place in a vacuum and dictating terms at will to the rest of the cosmos. He points out that human beings are not a separate entity detached from the natural world.

Different academic disciplines, therefore, should not behave as if they each owned their own private universe. Physics, literary criticism, political theory, geology and ethics should all notice that they share a world.

‘The traditional opposition that we tend to make between biology and culture is as misguided as the traditional opposition between body and mind … Culture is the form that biology takes.’

[Mary Midgley]
Science and Poetry, p.192-3

Echoing Giambattista Vico, an early critic of the deracinated rationalism of Descartes and Hobbes, [Wendell] Berry defends what Vico named the sensus communis.

Such “common knowledge” is the result of the practice and experience, the accumulated store of wisdom born of trials and corrections of people who have lived, suffered, and flourished in local settings. Rules and practices based on a preconceived notion of right cannot be imposed absent prudential consideration and respect toward common sense.

This is not to suggest that traditions cannot be changed or altered, but, as Burke argued, they must be given the presumptive allowance to change internally, with the understanding and assent of people who have developed lives and communities based upon those practices.

[Patrick Deneen]
Why Liberalism Failed, p.81

For that reason a real knowledge of the past, in Brandt's words, “requires something more than knowing how people used to make candles or what kind of bed they slept in. It requires a sense of the persistence of the past: the manifold ways in which it penetrates our lives.”

This persistence, of course, is what the nostalgic attitude denies.

Nostalgia evokes the past only to bury it alive. It shares with the belief in progress, to which it is only superficially opposed, an eagerness to proclaim the death of the past and to deny history's hold over the present. Those who mourn the death of the past and those who acclaim it both take for granted that our age has outgrown its childhood. Both find it difficult to believe that history still haunts our enlightened, disillusioned maturity.

Both are governed, in their attitude toward the past, by the prevailing disbelief in ghosts.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.118

In this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we (English) are generally men of untaught feelings: that, instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree; and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them.

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that the stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.

Instead of “exploding general prejudices,” philosophers would "better employ their sagacity,” Burke thought, “to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them.” Prejudices guided conduct more reliably than reason, by making a "man's virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts.”

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.129

In the conservative sociological tradition, the tenacity of custom was seen as a useful check against innovation.

For Lynd, "folkways" meant "cultural lag." Habits and "values" failed to keep pace with economic and technological change. Americans retained the mental habits of pioneers even though their habits were now governed by elaborate organisations and complicated technologies.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.427

For this reason, Brownson opposed any theory of progress that implied a rejection of past. 

Having sided in his early writings with "efforts for progress," he proceeded to take his readers "aback by telling them they must not run away from the past." The future could no more be dissociated from the past than the spirit could be dissociated from the body.

"It is idle to war against the past. No man can be a reformer who has no tradition. Divest us of all tradition, of all that we have derived from the past... and we were mere naked savages." Brownson's unwillingness to choose between reform and conservatism or to equate political radicalism with a repudiation of the past was typical of the populist tradition.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.194

History has to have a happy ending.

“Are there no calamities in history?" Brownson asked in 1843. "Nothing tragic? May we never weep over the defeated? ... Must we always desert the cause as soon as fortune forsakes it, and bind ourselves to the cause which is in the ascendant, and hurrah in the crowd that throw up their caps in honor of the conqueror?"

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.221

The relationship of a plant or animal to the general ecology of its region is incredibly complicated.

It may be possible to make a computer model of, say, the introduction of a new bean hybrid upon a particular environment. But, as mathematicians would say, models are highly nonlinear, containing many feedback loops. Predictable behavior can suddenly change in abrupt ways, from gradual trends to wild oscillations or even chaos. It is beyond Western science to fully understand the impact that various aspects of genetic engineering could have upon the environment and our future.

Indigenous science, if we are to believe its metaphysics and its claims, moves in a slower way. 

It is based upon generations of painstaking observations and upon a perception that looks into the heart of things, upon knowledge that is given by the plants and animals to the two-legged. Thus, when changes take place they do so from within an acknowledged web of relationship.

Moreover, the power of the trickster is always acknowledged, for the People know that all human plans are subject to the forces of chance and transformation.

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.183

Others are destined to find their own way; to rebel against the traditions which have been transmitted to them; to suffer anxiety and the fear which attends separation from the parents; and, finally, to win their way to a new individual point of view.

Such men are those whose genetic endowment makes it impossible for them to preserve the integrity of their own personalities and, at the same time, preserve the parental attitudes which they have introjected. They are compelled to fight their way to freedom; to find their own individual way of life; and to discard the traditions in which they have been reared.

For such people self-realization consists partly in becoming conscious of, and subsequently discarding, introjected parental attitudes: and the earlier some degree of emotional security is attained, the sooner will this discarding take place.

Emotional security is more likely to be attained in a household in which the parents are secure enough to be able to tolerate difference from themselves, and mature enough to make relationships with children who are not just little models of themselves, but individuals in their own right.

Part of the process of self-realization consists, therefore, in discarding introjected beliefs and attitudes which prove to be foreign to the developing personality: and this may be attended by considerable anxiety and depression.

Becoming free of identification with others is never completed; and most of us remain to some extent prisoners of our family background, of our social class, or of our nationality. The club, the old boys' reunion, the perpetuation of hierarchical social structure, are mechanisms of reassurance […] The sense of mutual support which men gain from such gatherings is matched by the loss of their individual characteristics, and the subtleties of personality disappear in the simplicities of the crowd.

[Anthony Storr]
The Integrity of the Personality, p.84-6

The neoliberal regime deploys emotions as resources in order to bring about heightened productivity and achievement.

Starting at a certain level of production, rationality - which is the medium of disciplinary society - hits a limit. Henceforth, it is experienced as a constraint, an inhibition. Suddenly, it seems rigid and inflexible. At this point, emotionality takes its place, which is attended by the feeling of liberty - the free unfolding of personality. After all, being free means giving free rein to emotions.

Rationality is defined by objectivity, generality and steadiness. As such, it stands opposed to emotionality, which is subjective, situative and volatile.

Emotions arise, above all, when circumstances change - and perception shifts. Rationality entails duration, consistency and regularity. It prefers stable conditions.

The neoliberal economy, increasingly dismantling continuity and progressively integrating instability in order to in order to enhance productivity, is pushing the emotionalization of the productive process forward. Accelerated communication also promotes its emotionalization.

Rationality is slower than emotionality; it has no speed, as it were. Thus, the pressure of acceleration now is leading to a dictatorship of emotion.

[Byung-Chul Han]
Psychopolitics, p.46

Since we are in the midst of this process of change, a clear description of what is happening is not easy, but the heart of the matter is that our technologies have become more powerful than our theories.

We are capable of doing things that we do not understand. We can perform gene-splicing without fully understanding how genes interact.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.1

The social fabric is not 'designed' by means of some transcendental principle, but develops as a result of the way in which it responds to contingent information in a dynamic fashion.

The process is a complex one involving many individuals with complex, non-linear relationships between them, including feedback relations. Individuals co-operate to form clusters, but also compete for resources in the network. The system is therefore not, and can never be, symmetrical.

The history of the system is vitally important for the way in which meaning is generated in any part of it. The evolution of structures in the social fabric, causing continuous alterations, is an integral part of its dynamics.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.117

Traditional interpretations of the temporal nature of a system […] privilege the present.

The immense gain of the notion of différence is that it reminds us that not only the past has to be considered when we try to establish the meaning of (say) an event, but that since we cannot fully predict the effects of this event, the future has to be considered as well, despite the fact that we have no idea what this future might be.

Now, instead of throwing up his hands, and declaring that in such a case it is impossible to talk about meaning, and that therefore anything goes, Derrida insists that we should take responsibility for this unknowable future. In the case of ethical decisions, this leads to an aporia: we have to take responsibility for the future effects of our decisions, but we cannot know those effects, nor can we wait to see what they are. We have to make the decision now. How do we deal with this aporia?

To fall back on universal principles is to deny the complexity of the social system we live in, and can therefore never be just. To allow everything is to evade our responsibility. The first approach to the system is too rigid, the second too fluid.

Cornell’s suggestion (following Derrida, and reformulated in my terminology) is to take present ethical (and legal) principles seriously—to resist change—but to be keenly aware of when they should not be applied, or have to be discarded. We therefore do follow principles as if they were universal rules (Cornell and Derrida use the term ‘quasi-transcendental’), but we have to remotivate the legitimacy of the rule each time we use it.

To behave ethically means not to follow rules blindly—to merely calculate—but to follow them responsibly, which may imply that the rules must be broken.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.139

Rituals are characterized by repetition. Repetition differs from routine in its capacity to create intensity.

What is the origin of the intensity that characterizes repetition and protects it against becoming routine? For Kierkegaard, repetition and recollection represent the same movement but in opposite directions, 'because what is recollected has already been and is thus repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards'.

Repetition, as a form of recognition, is therefore a form of completion. Past and present are brought together into a living present. As a form of completion, repetition founds duration and intensity. It ensures that time lingers.

Kierkegaard takes repetition to be opposed to hope as well as to recollection:

Hope is new attire, stiff and starched and splendid. Still, since it has not yet been tried on, one does not know whether it will suit one, or whether it will fit. Recollection is discarded clothing which, however lovely it might be, no longer suits one because one has outgrown it. Repetition is clothing that never becomes worn, that fits snugly and comfortably, that neither pulls nor hangs too loosely.

It is, Kierkegaard writes, 'only the new of which one tires. One never tires of the old.' The old is 'the daily bread that satisfies through blessing'. It brings happiness: 'and only a person who does not delude himself that repetition ought to be something new, for then he tires of it, is genuinely happy'.

Chasing new stimuli, excitement and experience, we lose the capacity for repetition.

[Byung-Chul Han]
The Disappearance of Rituals, p.9

The Bolshevik project which the Soviet system embodied throughout its history was that of imposing a western modernity on Russia, but without capitalism.

Like the Utopia envisaged by Lenin, the global free market aims to bring into being a state of affairs that has never hitherto existed in human society - and which goes far beyond the mid-Victorian English free market and the liberal international economic order that existed until 1914.

Global laissez-faire and the communist project that animated the former Soviet Union have many of the same enemies. They are hostile to national and cultural differences in economic life and to the inheritances of tradition and history. They resent the backwardness of peasants and village life. They are intolerant of the unruly individualism of the bourgeoisie and the refractoriness of working people.

The chief victims of the global free market, as of War Communism and the Soviet system, are peasants and - to a lesser but still notable extent - urban industrial workers and the professional middle classes.

[...] Peasant traditional beliefs had been under siege since the communist victory in 1949, but it was in the Great Leap forward, and then the Cultural Revolution, that they were finally almost destroyed: ‘Everything connected with traditional beliefs was smashed up in the Great Leap Forward.’

The attack on traditional China was resumed in the Great Proleterian Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The ‘four olds’ - old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking, as embodied in books, money, documents and antique art treasures - were assaulted in one of history’s greatest convulsions.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.140-1, 180

The global economy deskills people and organisations. It does so by making the environments in which they live and work unrecognisable to them. It thereby renders their stock of local and tacit knowledge less and less serviceable to them.

A major problem that has not been solved by business organisations - except partially Japanese companies - is that of combining the institutional continuity needed, if the local knowledge of employees is to be harnessed, with the capacity for organisational innovation required to make the most of new technologies.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.76

In his Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) Burke supplemented the authority of precedent by that of wisdom and experience, and reverence for the Constitution by reverence for tradition - that "partnership … between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born".

Radical reformers "are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgotten his nature”. “By their violent haste and their defiance of the process of nature, they are delivered over blindly to every projector and adventurer, to every alchymist and empiric."


"I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controuled, and contracted for, by the manuscript-assumed authority of the dead."

Burke wished to "consign over the rights of posterity for ever, on the authority of a mouldy parchment", while Paine asserted that each successive generation was competent to define its rights and form of government anew.

[E.P. Thompson]
The Making of the English Working Class, p.97, 99

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