Discussion evening on “Tradition and Rationality”

Series: “Tradition(s): interdisciplinary and trans-epochal”

Tradition and rationality are often seen as opposites within the context of modernization theories: supposedly unreflective forms of action are contrasted with rationally sound and thought-out actions. Though often criticized, this binary schema nevertheless leaves its traces. The historian Prof. Dr. Silke Mende, the philosopher Prof. Dr. Michael Quante, and the sociologist Prof. Dr. Joachim Renn discussed how sociology and philosophy, but also selected examples from history, could be used to relate tradition and rationality to one another. Their introductory statements and a complete recording of the discussion can be viewed here (in German only). Part of the discussion series “Tradition(s): interdisciplinary and trans-epochal”, the discussion on 28 June 2022 was moderated by Jürgen Kaube, head of the arts section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. (apo/sca)

Historical moments of disruption: tradition and rationality as opposites in modernity

The historian Prof. Dr. Silke Mende pointed out that the often binary opposition between “tradition and rationality” has been shaped essentially by modernity. “Rationality stands for modernity and progress, sometimes also for civilization”, she says, while tradition tends to be associated with backwardness and a lack of self-reflection. Nevertheless, there have always been mixed forms and moments of disruption, for example in spiritual awakening and protest movements such as anthroposophy and the turn to Far Eastern traditions, which emerged both around 1900 and increasingly in the 1970s: “These movements have often been seen as an escape from a supposedly cold rationality”, Mende explains. At the same time, though, their adherents are very much children of modernity.

The dichotomy is also framed in Western-European terms and draws on the demarcation from the supposedly traditional “other”. This can be seen, for example, in the relationship between religion and politics in republican France at the turn of the 20th century. “The goal is a secular state rooted in the values of the French Revolution, such as the Enlightenment and rationality. The Catholic Church is seen as a source of superstition and backwardness, sometimes even savagery, and is driven  back”. Non-European societies were perceived in similar terms, Mende points out, since political aspirations at home coincided with the second phase of French colonial expansion. “Many current debates in politics and society are still shaped by the formation of opposites in modernity and by the character of modernity in the Western world”. (apo/sca)

A sociological view: reconstructing the relationship between tradition and rationality

Sociologist Prof. Dr. Joachim Renn used the examples of Max Weber (1864-1920) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) to explain how, from a sociological and philosophical perspective, tradition and rationality are in tension with each other. “Weber distinguishes between traditional and modern societies, while Gadamer relativizes this distinction by exploring the prerequisites of science, which evade rational understanding”, Renn explains.

The 20th century, he says, was marked by the debate on how far it was possible to rationalize societies, specifically democracies, which organize themselves through administration and are thereby accompanied by problems of bureaucracy. “We can currently observe a traditionality of rational orientation, which expresses itself, for example, in a general scepticism towards ultimate explanations and the universalizability of norms”. The relationship between tradition and rationality must be reconstructed both in theoretical debate and socio-politically. (apo/sca)

In the present: rationality under pressure?

The difficulties arising from the ambiguous definition of the terms “tradition” and “rationality” were illuminated by philosopher Prof. Dr. Michael Quante. “They are used as terms of combat, for example to denote a deficit on the part of the political opponent or to formulate a social goal”. Rationality is currently under pressure: “Following Marxʼs critique of ideology, rationality is seen as an ideology that requires historical contextualization, and that carries before it a claim to power”, says Quante. However, there are no alternative rationalities based on formal explanation theories.

According to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), however, philosophy has distanced itself from the idea of a self-explaining reason, meaning that there must be bodies of knowledge that have always been assumed. “This attitude goes back to Aristotle”, says Quante. “The question for current debates, too, is how tradition and rationality can be integrated in such a way that they are able to provide plausible answers to real problems, instead of straying into pseudo-problems through identification with unclear concepts”. (apo/sca)