The Botereid

Friday, October 22, 2004

traditional vs common sense

What's the difference between "traditional" and "common sense"? Too often people use the former for the latter, and I think it's wrong.

Let's assume that "common sense" is just what we accept as truth when growing up. Einstein said something to that effect, something along the lines of "Common sense is everything you believe at eighteen." Now, this isn't meant to disparage common sense. Any philosopher will tell you that it's a valuable tool. Also, just because we learn things while young doesn't make them cheap. Quite the opposite. I prize being able to read, do arithmetic, speak, etc.

But, understanding that the use of words change over time, how can we be so cavalier in our use of "traditional"? It seems the most common uses are those applied not to what has been historically the constant usage, but to what we consider it by common sense. For instance, I can say, "The traditional use of logic just meant clear thinking," while following up with "But in the twentieth century it became the study of valid inferences," or something along those lines. These statements seem to make sense.

But of course they don't. Aristotle was studying logic in very similar ways to how we study logic. For millenia people have followed him in holding it as the study of valid inferences. Isn't that a tradition? Why can't I identify with those people? Or with the tradition of logicians in the 20th century? Why is my "tradition" pegged to a certain adolescent vagueness?

Now tradition could just mean the tradition passed to us as children, but this seems like a fairly weak use of the term. (I think maybe "common" would be a good substitute.) While there are traditional uses of words, I believe that they're actually more difficult to know. After all, don't they suppose an intimate knowledge of verbal history?

The point is, tradition shouldn't be a catch-all for the personally common. It's just an incorrect use. For example, "Poetry is traditionally ignored." This is somewhat true today, and has been somewhat true for decades, but in the grand tradition of the West it is an outright error. Why should "Logic has traditionally meant clear thinking" be any different? Years from now, long after you and I have passed, people will still be saying it. Are we not part of our own tradition?

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