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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part Two. Identity, Culture, And Tradition

Chapter twelve. Human flourishing and understanding of values

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1We shall now develop the congeries of themes centering on culture and tradition and pass to one of the threads we isolated from it, the argument from flourishing (as J. Lichtenberg has called it [1997, 160]). Its underpinning is the nationalist-traditionalist picture we began to discuss in chapter eleven, that is, the view of a particular culture, prominently its language, as creating a natural framework—that is, a ‘second nature’—for members of the culture, the only road to the world of meanings, values, and of human and cultural significance in general. Only within a given comprehensive linguistic-cultural tradition (or practice) is a flourishing life to be lived, and the nation offers a congenial, comprehensive framework for such a life. Of course, the preservation of traditions—in their pure form—is then the paramount task of cultural politics and of politics tout court. What I have to say will overlap with chapter eleven, since I want to use the considerations of flourishing to develop in more detail the approach to tradition sketched there.

2The central part of the flourishing afforded by tradition has to do with our ability to recognize and understand meaning and value, both in general and on a specifically moral level. Recognition of value is, one hopes, compounded by endorsement. Here we concentrate upon meaning and value in general. Since moral values form a politically crucial group of values, we will dedicate to them the whole of chapter thirteen (of course, this does not commit me to any sharp contrast between moral values and the rest). The traditionalist believes that values are available only to insiders sharing a tradition and accepting its norms wholeheartedly. Of course, we should think about the culture in its pervasive unity and totality: its merely cognitive achievements are inseparable from the rest. As MacIntyre puts it: “Beliefs are expressed in and through rituals and ritual dramas, masks and modes of dress, the ways in which houses are structured and villages and towns laid out, and of course by actions in general” (MacIntyre, 1988, 255). Let me call the traditionalist view that claims that values are recognizable and available only within a large context of a tradition the Availability View. After stating the Availability View the nationalist typically proceeds to demand loyalty to such a tradition—implying its preservation and continuation—as a condition sine qua non of the very ‘presence’ of values, both moral in the narrow sense, and cultural in the wide sense. In reconstructing the argument I have relied upon the current of literature stressing the immediate presence and availability of meanings and concepts in a language (a theme developed within the Wittgensteinian tradition in Anglo-American philosophy, and used with communitarian political overtones by authors such as MacIntyre, Taylor, and Margalit). If the reader thinks that I am attributing to my nationally minded thinker an argument that is too involved and too indirect, and that actual nationalists go for much less subtle grounds, he is perfectly at liberty to skip this chapter. In most actual pro-nationalistic literature the uniqueness of tradition is simply assumed, and I shall go a little out of my way to make philosophical sense of various brief statements to this effect. (The critics of nationalistic communitarianism are, as a rule, less charitable than I am: see, for example, Hardin [1985], and Kautz [1995], for a rather harsh judgment on it.) Here is my reconstruction of the argument from flourishing, put in the mouth of a moderate, even-handed nationalist:

  • 1 The extant literature in favor of national traditions is unfortunately rather stingy with examples (...)
  • 2 There is a stronger version of these claims, namely that traditions are incommensurable: there is (...)

Let me continue to draw upon language as my central example. Meanings exist only within a given language, so that only through it can one apprehend them. They are learned together with words and sentences, and become fused in conscious understanding and speech. But for the native speaker of a language the contents apprehended are not just abstract meanings. The words carry with them also their emotional significance: the word mort sounds frightening to many native speakers of French, and poets are particularly adept at exploiting such significances.
Thanks to this blend of form and meaning the native speaker of a language is capable of apprehending the meanings directly: we read the meanings from the words, the way we read anger from a familiar face. In short, it is a fact that one’s mother tongue is one’s first and perhaps most important window on the realm of concepts, knowledge, social and cultural significance, and so on. We, the speakers of the language, owe our humanity, indeed our very identity, to it. The same point generalizes to culture in its totality. Let me first mention a more pragmatic reason for endorsing tradition-created patterns of value (which was in political theory famously formulated by Edmund Burke at the close of the eighteenth century in his criticism of the French Revolution). Here is a good contemporary formulation: “Good lives do not just spring from rational insight... Like forms of painting or music or literature, ways of life require centuries of experimentation and innovation to develop” (Putnam, 1996, 94). I hasten to add that Putnam himself is far from agreeing with further traditionalist claims.
Let me now pass to principled considerations. Take religious and aesthetic values (this can be generalized to any values that matter to the reader). For a religious Christian, in particular a Catholic, a good painting of the Crucifixion immediately manifests its emotional, religious, and aesthetic content.1 The suffering of the god crucified is made immediately manifest in the painting, in the appearance of Christ; we do not ‘infer’ or ‘reconstruct’ it, but recognize it, as immediate participants in the tradition which invented it. From the iconoclastic point of view of the Jewish and Islamic tradition this is sheer abomination. What an iconoclast sees is just a man hanging from some boards; the whole point—religious, and thereby also aesthetic—is lost upon him. This nicely illustrates the traditionalist’s point that—as MacIntyre puts it—a practice essentially involves “standards of excellence and obedience to rules” (1981, 177), so that to enter a practice involves accepting these standards and rules. Only within the tradition of painting the Crucifixion with its implicit rules, and beliefs that give the rules their point, can one properly appreciate a great Crucifixion, like those of Duccio, Dürer, or El Greco. The value in question is a complex one, welding a purely religious aspect with an aesthetic quality. Such goods and values are, as MacIntyre would put it, “internal to the practice” of religious painting. [Here is his explanation of what it is to be internal to a practice: A good is internal to a practice only if it can be described exclusively in terms of it, and can only be “identified and recognized by the experience of participating in the practice in question” (1981, 176)].
Let us take one more tradition as our last example: the ritual of All Souls’ Day in Mediterranean cultures (French, Italian, Croatian, Hispanic, including Latin American). It involves the ritual of burning special candles in the evening at the cemetery, at the tombs of deceased relatives, often accompanied by ritualized crying, pious remembrance of the dead, a memento of the brevity of life and the vanity of things. The practice features a mixture of specific beliefs—that the dead relatives are living ‘souls’ who might perhaps already be blessed (which is rather improbable, but polite to believe), but who might also be suffering terrible torments; that one is oneself facing such a prospect; that the dead relatives care about the ritual—specific feelings of piety and awe, and a unique ritual aesthetic. One can convincingly argue that the custom features a special, unique feeling that can be felt only by the believing participants. It seems to make available to them a distinctive felt trait or quality of the situation at the cemetery, close to the quality of the sacred, but tempered with sadness and compassion. Call it the ‘All Souls’ Quality’. Individuals acquire sensitivity to standards and norms within a determinate given tradition. Therefore, they can only apprehend the tradition-contents— meanings, significance, and values—in the version in which they are incarnated in some specific community. In a nutshell, only tradition makes available some important values and meanings, and so on. To put it in philosophical parlance, the contents—meanings, significance, and values—are made epistemically accessible (made manifest) only within a tradition. They become welded to the tradition that makes them accessible, and cannot be separated from it and grasped in isolation. Notice that traditions are quite different between them: just cross the street from a Catholic church to a Protestant one, and there will be no painting of the Crucifixion nor statues of the Virgin Mary.2 Now, the preservation of a given tradition is essential for preservation of the value it makes manifest. In particular, given the importance of the specific traditions, it is essential that each such tradition be preserved in a relatively pure form. They should be somewhat encapsulated in order to prevent indiscriminate, eclectic mixing.
Finally, what about the need for criticism? After all, we nationalists need not be dogmatic about our traditions. We should (following the advice offered by the American theorist Michael Walzer in his Thick and Thin. Moral Argument at Home and Abroad [1994]) distinguish between a critic who tries to disconnect him- or herself from the tradition, place him- or herself outside it, and the critic ‘connected’ to the tradition. The first kind is bound to be empty and ineffective, lacking roots in common values, and addressing no audience in particular; the second is welcome and might also turn out to be effective since it speaks to a particular and known audience. The same applies to the birth of new practices: any change must start from some given practice. Every new practice is dependent on some existing practice or other. Let me now remind you of how all this connects with the topic of nation. We just apply the Nation-as-Basic-Unit Assumption: the proper format of a tradition is ethno-national. The consequences have already been drawn in chapter eleven, so I will not repeat them.



3Just to warm up, let me briefly point out that the Nation-as-Basic-Unit Assumption is here just as invalid as in the matters discussed in chapter eleven. It is partially valid for linguistic meanings and the signification attached, insofar as language is welded to a particular ethnic group. For the vast majority of other significances and values it is clearly invalid. Consider pragmatic, aesthetic, and religious values, starting from the latter (and leaving aside moral values, to be discussed in chapter thirteen). Christian religious values are clearly anational; even the narrower ones, Catholic or Protestant, go far beyond anything like a single ethnic group, or even a congeries of such. Major religious denominations notoriously cut across ethnological-linguistic categories: some Slavs are traditionally Catholic, others Orthodox; some Germanic peoples are Catholic, others Protestant; some ethnic groups in India are Hindu, others Buddhist or Muslim, still others are Christians of various denominations. (I am listing notorious examples to point out the utter and obvious implausibility of the nationalist’s strategy.) Are there any clearly important pragmatic values that characterize one national tradition in contrast to others? If there are, they remain to be discovered. (The same holds for aesthetic values. Is there a special Albanian artistic beauty, recognizable only if you pledge your allegiance to the Albanian nation? Hardly: the only contexts in which beauty is national is the banally commercial one of beauty contests, and even there it is the mixture of types and even races that nowadays often wins.)

4Given these problems, some implication of the assumption taken literally can easily be seen to be quite eccentric. On the literal reading of it only a Frenchman would be able to understand French literature, only a German would enjoy Mozart’s and Schubert’s music, or understand Kant’s and Reichenbach’s philosophy, and Thomas Mann’s novels. A practical consequence is that foreign culture should not be taught at all, since there is no way it can be transmitted to the student of another nationality.

5Although the glaring implausibility of the Basic-Unit Assumption tells forcefully against the nationalist appeal to the tradition, we are still far from finished with it. Our opponent could just replace the nation with some wider circle, and then reiterate the same line, claiming that the wider circle should be given a kind of absolute status (take, for instance, Huntington’s widely publicized view of civilization as the basic unit of politics and history). Equally, some nationalists are primarily interested in the atypical nations for which the ethno-national format coincides to a large extent with cultural belonging, such as Israel. (Their philosophical spokesman facing the task of universalizing his claims might propose that for other ethno-national communities some ad hoc accommodation can be found.) Therefore, we have to dig deeper, and discuss the motivation for traditionalism in general. I shall argue that traditionalism misconstrues traditions. However, there is something to the feeling—shared by many people—that to understand certain kinds of values (for example, the religious and aesthetic value of a Crucifixion scene) it helps to belong to certain traditions (for example, the Catholic one). I shall try to do justice to this feeling, explain it, and dissociate it from more far-reaching traditionalist claims.

6Here are the questions I want briefly to address: first, why and how do traditions open an avenue to specific values; secondly, is tradition the only avenue to them? Since I shall answer the second question in the negative, I have at least to sketch the alternative ways of accessing value and meaning. Let me first point out an element which seems completely absent from the traditionalist account, namely the importance of conventions for the birth and maintenance of tradition. Since authority is essential for tradition, tradition-bound actions are not forced by situation and human nature alone; a certain elbow room is available. It is normally shot through with convention.

7The simple practice (‘tradition’) of driving on the right seems to be purely conventional. Language, especially the sound/ meaning pairing, also leans to the side of convention. But are all conventional solutions to a given problem (from the banal one of driving on the same side of the road to the deeper one of representing an invisible deity pictorially) equally good? Consider driving and the choice between driving always on the right, always on the left, and on alternate sides on alternate days. All three options are solutions to the problem of how to coordinate the actions of individuals so as to minimize damage, and the choice between them is in this sense conventional. However, the last option is less simple and puts more demands on drivers, so the first two are better and in this sense more ‘natural’.

8So, the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that some choices are better than others, although all of them are conventional in the sense of being up for grabs. Let me give a few more examples. A slightly more complicated matter concerns the fact that only some meanings are assigned particular words: English has a single word for female fox ‘vixen’, but not for female whale. The linguists express this by saying that a meaning is ‘lexicalized’. Lexicalization often implies the frequent occurrence, importance, and naturalness of the property referred to. (There is in English no male equivalent for ‘midwife’; the fact that the combination ‘woman + assists at childbirth’ is lexicalized, whereas ‘male + assists at childbirth’ is not, indicates that the job has traditionally been done almost exclusively by women.) Different languages lexicalize different concepts. There is no single word equivalent in ancient Greek, Chinese, Slovenian, or Croatian for the English ‘mind’. So the practice of speaking English makes one familiar with the concept ‘mind’ immediately, so to speak, whereas a Slovene speaker has to learn the concept through descriptive explanation. Various contemporary schools of philosophy have attached various degrees of importance to the difference. Good advice for a language-creator (society, evolution, God) is to first lexicalize the concepts that stand for the most conspicuous properties: create the word for ‘dog’ before creating one for mammal or for basset hound (‘dog’ belongs among the ‘basic-level categories’, as they are officially called in the psychology of concepts). So some conventions (lexicalizing the concept ‘dog’ and waiting with ‘basset hound’) are better than others (lexicalize ‘basset hound’) in a given practical context. One can tell a similar story about artistic traditions of style: a given tradition might offer optimal solutions for satisfying diverse demands, urgent at the time of its birth, but also relevant at later epochs. Let us then generalize this point.

9Traditions involve conventions, but some conventions solve the problems at hand better than others. The traditionalist denies any role to conventions, while the radical conventionalist inflates it. The truth lies in the middle. This partly vindicates the pragmatic consideration about the good life proposed by Burke and his followers: tradition-transmitted paradigms of the good life may incorporate the results of accumulated experience. They are like actual living species that have survived through evolution by being successful. But the vindication is only partial. First, our thoughtful and pragmatic traditionalist faces a paradox. Notice that he justifies traditions by their excellence in solving problems: if tradition demands that you do such-and-such an action—say eat with a knife and fork—you should perform the action since it is an efficient way of getting things done, it saves time and deliberation (are my hands clean enough so that I can safely eat with my fingers, and so on). But performing an action, A, as part of a tradition implies doing it primarily because it is being done, and has been done, by others. Our traditionalist enjoins us to do A on grounds that are independent of tradition: considerations of efficiency and economy are precisely non-traditional grounds for doing A. So, a kind of mild paradox threatens our traditionalist. One may almost cynically add that tradition starts when the original pragmatic reasons for doing things are forgotten (as B. Bercic once put it). Moreover, the proposed account of how traditions begin implies that some experimentation is essential for finding good solutions; perhaps one should then go on experimenting, and not follow tradition blindly.

10Now, merely pointing out that conventions are valuable because they solve problems does not explain the more difficult cases: why does one have to know so much about the history of religious painting properly to appreciate a Baroque Crucifixion, or so much about history of science properly to appreciate the achievement of Linnaeus or Darwin? In order to answer this question, let me propose an idealized sketch of the development of tradition. To vary the example, take table manners: how should one eat? At the beginning we face simple choices: eat from one’s hand, eat with sticks, or devise knives and forks. Some solutions (say sticks and knife-and-fork) offer themselves as better than others given the general conditions of hygiene, the nature of the food, and so on. So each tradition adopts one solution (the West adopts the knife and fork, and China adopts chopsticks). The appropriateness of the solution is determinable independently of the adoption and tradition and this makes the adoption rational. Similarly with the more sublime issues, like religious painting.

11Returning to Crucifixion scenes, here is a drastically simplified sketch. A culture can be atheistic, denying that there is a God, or it can be a religious culture. Focus upon monotheistic religion and take the problem encountered by Moses and Aaron (according to some version of the biblical story). Moses has understood that God is infinite and has no visible shape. On the other hand, Aaron reminds him that the faithful want to adore a concrete item, to visibly represent God in order to be able to think of him. What should one do? The Jewish and Islamic founding fathers chose to forbid portraying God, the Christian ones to allow it. Each tradition has found its own answer to the Moses and Aaron problem.

12At a second stage some further choice is encountered. For table manners, once you choose sticks, you have the option of cutting food in small pieces before cooking, or afterwards. The Chinese chose the first option. Similarly with the Moses and Aaron problem. Several options offer themselves for the first tradition: don’t decorate churches at all, decorate them with symbols, or with calligraphically written names of God. Several options are also available to the second tradition. Once God is to be portrayed, and Christ is God, you can portray him as a ruling judge or as a suffering victim on the cross. People are already used to God being represented. Suppose that the sympathies of the public lean towards those who are suffering, and that judges and kings are not very popular. In such an atmosphere, a crucified God is an appropriate object of painting. A tradition of painting Crucifixions, even rather naturalistic ones, can get started. From the (iconoclastic) point of view of the Jewish and Islamic tradition this is sheer abomination; it makes sense only within a tradition which already routinely represents God, and only chooses among various ways of doing so.

13If we simplify matters, and also represent the alternative between religion and atheism, we obtain the following tree that leads to the tradition of painting Crucifixions.

14This explains the epistemic bonus that membership of the tradition gives: if you are a devout Catholic, pictures of the Crucifixion have a content for you that you can grasp without hesitation; first, you understand the literal meaning of the picture without any conscious effort; secondly, you see it as deeply intertwined with other religious/cultural contents (such as the sorrow expressed in various Stabat Mater compositions), and finally its emotional and moral significance is not only manifest to you, but it is manifest immediately. The tradition has done the job for you, taking you along the complicated decision tree sketched above: of course it is all right to represent God pictorially; of course you should represent him in one of his moments of deep, not apparent glory, the glory of total sacrifice for humankind. And of course this glory is only accentuated by a naturalistic, dramatic display of the otherwise gory details of martyrdom. In contrast, a member of an iconoclastic culture is stuck at a distant branch of the decision tree: for him or her, the first decision, to paint a likeness of God, already amounts to blasphemy, so that the issue of the naturalistic representation of the Passion is completely out of the question.

15A large part of the justification and value of membership of the tradition lies in the fact that it is appropriate given that one has adopted previous solutions and responded to problems they have created: the rationality lies in the path taken, not in the outcome considered in isolation. This initial success can then lead to later stages (consider expressionist Crucifixions, or the more recent ones painted by Francis Bacon). Very often the choices become completely unintelligible outside the long and tortuous path. Consider an analogy with evolution: why did nature not invent wheels as means of locomotion? Well, once proto-legs emerged out of various excrescences, evolution was stuck with this solution; it could only make legs more perfect, not start anew with a fresh design for wheels. To summarize, the impression that values exist only within given traditions is in large part due to the way human activity is structured within traditions. The value of particular solutions is relative to the problems, and the problems are posed within given frameworks. These frameworks are themselves products of previous attempts at problem solving.

16This insight into the path-dependence of value is a double-edged sword for the traditionalist. On the one hand, it gives him some consolation; after all, some values really do not exist outside their tradition. On the other hand, he has to admit that some of the tradition-sanctified values are such only insofar as one complies with the tradition, and evaporate once the tradition is jettisoned. Of course, such values cannot by themselves justify the continuance of the tradition, on pain of circularity.

17Now, how about the directness of access to meanings and values that the language-tradition offers its members? Here is a way to account for it, starting with language meanings. Meanings are learned together with words and sentences, and become fused in conscious understanding and speech. This engenders the feeling of naturalness: of course, the word-shape ‘cat’ means [CAT] and refers to cat(s). We don’t need psycholinguists to tell us this: the experience of learning a foreign language is enough. You first put together the word chat and the meaning [CAT] which may be, for you, incarnated in the English word and for the time being inseparable from it. After having spoken French for a longer time, you come to recognize the meaning ‘immediately’; the word chat begins for you to refer to cats without any need to invoke the English intermediary.

18With the acquisition of a first language, the issues are more controversial. It is not clear what kind of concepts the prelinguistic ones are (if such exist, as the cognitive scientists are more and more inclined to believe). Certainly, a lot of concepts are acquired through the acquisition of language, and inseparably from it. Now, a monolingual child normally assumes that the naming relation is in a sense ‘natural’: of course, the word for cat is ‘cat’—what else? The conventional character of the word-form-meaning connection is hidden from view, unavailable for the learner. I propose that we take this simple fact as our paradigm for explaining the felt naturalness of the semantics of our mother tongue.

19Psychologists will one day come up with a detailed explanation of why the conventionality of certain relations keeps such a low profile and stays in the background, if nothing intervenes. The lack of conspicuousness certainly makes learning simpler by reducing the number of alternatives the learner would be tempted to think of; but the phenomenon might also be a byproduct of our neural design. For instance, the learning of skills is generally less flexible than propositional learning, and a lot of semantic knowledge may be just a question of skilled use. Alternatively, one could argue that neural networks are extremely good at simple and univocal associations, and rather bad on subtleties. Whatever the actual bio-psychological cause, the effects are tremendous. The low visibility of the mechanisms that fix meaning is responsible for the dramatic difference between the view from within and the view from without.

20The feeling that a word has a semantic ‘profile’, a ‘physiognomy’ is tied to this fusion of meaning and form. But there is more to it, namely affective significance. The acquisition of language does not stop at the recognition of mere semantic profiles. It involves a ‘thick’ understanding, rich with emotional and evaluative overtones. If the word mort does not sound ominous to you, you have not even begun to master French. How is this to be explained? Consider language learning. The graphic shape ‘mort’ in my own colloquial dialect of Croatian, means [PLASTER], and is for me devoid of any emotional significance. The sound pattern ‘mo:r’ in English (meaning, of course [MORE]) is often emotionally equally bland. Now, in learning French, I have to ‘see’ the graphic shape as embodying the meaning [DEATH], and my anglophone counterpart has to ‘hear’ the sound pattern ‘mo:r’ as doing the same. In doing so, we presumably transfer the emotional overtones associated with the meaning and referent to the newly learned word. The assumption is a piece of commonsense. It is not because of the sound of the word that we fear death, but the other way around. The form of the word ‘death’ carries an emotional overtone since its meaning does; the meaning does since the (type-)event does. Equally, the form of the word ‘mort’ begins to acquire the overtone, once the learner associates the French meaning with it. Of course, in learning his mother tongue, the child does not start from the correct view that it is a matter of convention what the sound ‘mo:r’ stands for. For little Jacqueline it is a scary word, whereas for Johnny the same sound pattern is a useful device for asking for a second helping. Again, the conventional character of the link between word and significance remains in the background, or even completely hidden from the speaker. Worse still, the inability to think of alternatives and the feeling of complete fusion is a sign of deep, spontaneous mastery of language. It is then used by poets and musicians and becomes part of high culture. The fusion can be accompanied by the following phenomenon: the emotional overtones of mort and ‘death’ are almost the same, but perhaps not exactly the same. It is not that death itself is scary to the French in a different way. More probably, our access to emotion is holistic and blurred, so that a difference in the vehicle—the word shape—is felt as a difference in content.

21One can use the analogy with language in order to understand in detail how other kinds of tradition manage to make manifest significance and value. Unfortunately, we can here only signal the possibility and leave the hard work for another occasion.


22We can now tackle the main issue: is the only way to understand tradition-bound values to become a card-carrying member of the tradition, or can an outsider achieve an understanding as well? For some traditions the answer is clearly negative: it is enough for the outsider to learn the facts about problems and choices. For instance, once you know the basic facts about eating with chopsticks, you can come to appreciate a virtuoso technique displayed by an authentic member of the tradition. Even a person who only knows the rules of chess and has very little experience of playing can understand some spectacular quick victories won by great chess-masters.

23But can an outsider equal an average member of a religious tradition in his or her understanding of religious painting and music? One way is to try to reconstruct the path, and thus achieve insight into the point of the final result. One can do this without oneself endorsing the choices. A thoughtful atheist can understand why other thoughtful people believe in an infinite, personal god, in the sense of being able to reconstruct their motivation, their reasoning, and the sources of their emotion. One can well understand the need for pictorial representation of a beloved being, and the difficulty which arises if the being is supposed to be infinite and literally unrepresentable. (I first understood this many years ago, following the plot of Schoenberg’s opera Moses and Aaron.) One can then reason from the general facts of human sympathy. We can read books on church councils in the fourteenth century, when iconography became more humanized, and books about the Counter-Reformation and the artistic views of the Council of Trent. Moreover, it might happen that an outsider can understand some of the values in certain ways better than an insider. A traditional Christian normally sees only one possibility for a religious person, that is, to believe in a god. No god, no religion. A researcher doing comparative work might point out that Buddhism is, strictly speaking, a religion without god; he understands that religious feelings are not necessarily tied to (an idea of) a god at all. In his view, then, Christianity actualizes one distinctive possibility of religious life. It might seem to other readers, as it seems to me, that this insight from an outsider offers an authentic understanding of an aspect of Christianity that is simply not available to the traditional Christian unacquainted with other possibilities.

24But is the reconstruction sufficient? Is it enough coldly to understand the point of certain beliefs and practices, the traditionalist might ask? Is not the value of a painting disclosed primarily to someone who is capable of emotionally reacting to it, not to someone whose means are limited to cold, rational reconstruction?

25Indeed, the traditionalist might have a point. But is emotion reserved to serious, literal love or hate? Do we not sympathize with the plight of Anna Karenina, or with Kurosawa’s (culturally rather distant) heroes? The examples of emotion evoked by fictional characters point to the general capacity for empathy, which goes a long way in helping people to understand distant strangers emotionally. To return to our example, the outsider need not limit him- or herself to cold reconstruction. Once he or she has realized that some people really do feel intense love for God, he or she might understand their wish by putting him- or herself into their shoes. Of course, the outsider knows what it is to want a picture of a beloved person (he or she might carry a photo of one in his or her bag), so it is enough for him or her simply to imagine that a beloved person is a somewhat unusual one, an almighty and perfect being. He or she then imagines how it would be to believe that such a being has let himself be tortured and killed for the well-being of humanity (or how he or she would feel if he or she knew this was actually the case). Of course, he or she is then deeply touched by a picture of this ordeal, in the same imaginative way in which he or she would be moved by a good dramatic representation.

26Cognitive psychologists have elaborated a theory of empathy under the title of ‘mental simulation’. They would represent our outsider-character as using his or her own mind to simulate the reasoning and feelings of a devout Christian. He or she uses his or her own mental ‘equipment’ for an imaginative task. He or she starts by giving it the appropriate input: there is a perfect, infinite being that I love. Then he or she lets it run—so to speak—’offline’, not with a view to reaching an actual decision, but rather to see how it feels to be a devout person. The result of this simulation is an affect, a wish to have a picture to adore, which is not seriously acted upon, but used in order to understand people with different beliefs. (Alternatively, if our hero is well read in history, he or she can try to empathize with a priest living centuries ago when Christ was not routinely depicted on the cross, and having to make a decision whether to commission a crucifix for his church; he or she might relive his struggles and come to understand the deep point of this genre of religious painting.) Of course, coming to understand the religious and artistic values of a foreign tradition might be an arduous task, but the anti-traditionalist does not claim it is easy, only that it is humanly possible without endorsing the tradition oneself.

27Consider again the example of All Souls’ Day. The alleged quality of the situation at the ritual is seen by us as depending upon a web of belief we find hard to sustain. We can account in a rough and ready way for the specific All Souls’ Quality: it is projected from the web of beliefs, ritual, and the filial sorrow and sense of loss. In philosophical parlance it is a response-dependent quality. Perhaps no other combination can create the same response, and project exactly the same quality. (The Chinese cult of ancestors is probably accompanied by different emotions and qualities.) In this case the alleged quality is indeed essentially tied to the practice, but this is simply in virtue of being projected from it; it is a pleasant phantom born from the practice, rather than a solid item revealed in it. Similarly with All Souls’ Day in a community which does not believe seriously in the afterlife. We manage with a simulation: taken in by the beauty of the ceremony, we simulate the belief that our deceased ancestors are perhaps tormented (I myself cannot imagine them exactly in purgatory, which seems to me ludicrous, but I manage to imagine them tormented somewhere, somehow, in a rather Romantic fashion). Recently the Kronos Quartet, together with a composer who had studied the ritual in Mexico, decided to recreate it at one of their concerts, to my mind quite successfully. In an interview they expressed a feeling featuring a deep interest in the aesthetic component, plus the simulation of sorrow, piety, and awe; the music, which was extremely beautiful, was in the same vein.

28This bring us to the last possibility, namely a theoretical, scientific understanding of traditions and their contents. I shall mention it for the sake of completeness, since it would take us too far afield to consider it in detail. A theoretical understanding is not to be excluded in advance, and, if and where possible, should certainly be sought.

29To summarize, it is not true that one can understand the meanings and values embedded in a tradition only by becoming a devout member of the tradition. The main line of defense of traditionalism is invalid. The outsider has several options: first, learning the facts about problems and choices; secondly, rationally (commonsensically) reconstructing the path and recognizing the reasons for choices; thirdly, using empathy to ‘simulate’ original feelings and thoughts; and, possibly, fourthly, attempting a theoretical reconstruction of original choices.

30Using these options one can even hope to understand the tradition better from the outside. We begin to understand the flexibility of traditions and practices, and their capacity to beget new, rather different practices. Again, language should be our paradigm; like bilingualism, biculturalism is a revealing phenomenon, not a mere curiosity. In the West it has been almost a conceptual truth about being religious that one has to believe in (at least) a god. Now, some Buddhists are clearly religious and profess belief in no god, Buddha being just a perfect saint. The moral of the story: the practice of worshipping a god is not the only practice which fosters religious feelings and activities. The form of god-centered religion is only one way among many to be religious. Learning this fact makes one view one’s own practice from a (sometimes salutary) distance; one learns that certain emotions survive drastic transplantation, and thrive in unexpected climates. If you believe that emotions reveal values then the values revealed in this case seem to transcend even very broadly conceived practices (the broad practice of theism, encompassing Greek polytheism, Islam, Christianity, and a lot of others).

31The discussion, however, need not remain purely theoretical. The possibility of empathizing with different traditions points to the importance of the plurality of cultural forms, most of which are not specifically ethno-national. They might all become available if one’s education is cosmopolitan enough. It also reminds us that the antiquarian interest of preservation has to be counterbalanced by the striving for originality and innovation and the moral effort for the correction of the morally repulsive traits of any given culture. Indeed, among the good solutions that various traditions propose, some are solutions to antiquated problems that need to be reviewed, and all of them have been arrived at by experiment in innovation: so why not go on in the same direction?

32We should also take into account the fact that the creative development of art and culture might require a pluralistic context which can go in our time all the way towards a cosmopolitan setting. In the next chapter we shall try to extend this result to the special and specially important case of moral traditions.

33Let me conclude the chapter by pointing to another, more general weakness of the argument from flourishing. The un-chosen national framework is essential for human flourishing, it claims. But such a high valuation of non-chosen, non-autonomous belonging neglects the value of autonomy. We do not want to be made happy independently of our choice. We do not want to live in a brave new world in which others decide on our destinies; therefore, the appeal to non-chosen belonging to tradition seems to run counter to the fundamental value of autonomy. One reason communitarian nationalists do not mind sacrificing some of our autonomy lies in their view that individuals are products of socialization, therefore not independent units (‘atoms’, as they put it), as the quotation from N. MacCormick in chapter two made clear. Children do not autonomously choose the kind of community they want to live in, and once constituted by the community they had better abide by its traditions. In my view, the communitarian’s mistake lies in jumping to the further conclusion, that is, that socializing does not result in autonomy. As we have already mentioned: individuals in our civilization are normally often socialized precisely for independence. One can caricature this goal using the notion of the ‘atom’, but the goal is more noble than the caricature allows one to suppose. We cherish an education that makes one capable of choice, not blind identification with a given framework.

34According to a comment by M. Haller, then of Geneva University, M. Haller, MacCormick and other communitarians might simply mean by ‘independent’ individuals, ‘individuals anterior to any form of organized society’, whereas I mean ‘competent to make autonomous decisions’. But the issue is precisely whether the right model for a state is the model of the contract entered into by autonomous individuals. If communitarians take the view that it is absurd to suppose that human beings are autonomous anterior to any form of organized society, and accept that, once socialized, individuals are capable of autonomous decisions, then they cannot derive a criticism of the contract view from this origin-oriented dependence: although socialized, an individual might view staying within it as a matter of autonomous decision, and if all individuals do the same, their community will rest on a broadly contractual basis, without any absurdity being implied.

35At this juncture our even-handed nationalist can enter a complaint that we have identified culture with ‘high’ culture and that we have talked mostly about paintings and sophisticated music. When he talks about culture he means all of it, customs, ways of solving practical issues, that is, traditions of action of a much more solid kind than those characterizing high art. To these issues we now turn.


1 The extant literature in favor of national traditions is unfortunately rather stingy with examples, so I am reusing my own Crucifixion example, hoping that it captures the kind of considerations our nationally minded philosophers have in mind.

2 There is a stronger version of these claims, namely that traditions are incommensurable: there is no way to appreciate the values of one tradition from within some other tradition. Since Taylor and MacIntyre do not go so far, I will follow their lead and not saddle my nationally minded philosopher with claims of incommensurability which I find wildly implausible.

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