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Are Innovation and Tradition Incompatible?

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Ours is an age of innovation. The worlds of business, education, medicine, and politics are all driven by the search for new ideas, products, technologies, and approaches. Our economic growth, educational success, health and well-being, and political future hinge on the progress that only innovation can generate and sustain. We are constantly being told that we must think outside the box in a never-ending quest for novelty and creativity. One need only think of the dramatic changes in social media over the past decade or so — with such enormous implications for how we communicate, purchase things, relate to others, vote, and view ourselves and the world we inhabit — to appreciate the power of innovation to shape our lives. Innovation is the key to human progress, while failure to innovate, it seems, leads to stagnation, decline, and, eventually, death.

As powerful as innovation is, it must contend with another strong force, that of tradition. The latter manifests itself in any number of social institutions, habits, practices, and intuitions that preserve the continuities, regularities, orthodoxies, and “permanent things” of human existence. Tradition speaks to those impulses that resist rapid change and innovation for innovation’s sake and that cherish nourishing connections with the past — the “mystic chords of memory” and ritual observances and sacred ceremonies that help make sense out of life. Tradition decries the shallow presentism and hubris that dismisses the accumulated wisdom of humanity.

It might seem, then, that innovation and tradition are incompatible: one the engine of change, the other the nexus of continuity. But such a binary understanding is far too simplistic. Upon closer examination, it is evident that innovation and tradition are inextricably linked. As Michael North suggests, newness is always circumscribed with the limits of the old. That is also the conclusion of a number of prominent scholars who have commented on the relationship of innovation and tradition.

For instance, the historian Eric Hobsbawm, the political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, the sociologist Edward Shils, and the historian of science Thomas Kuhn have advanced distinct understandings of tradition and innovation that, taken together, illustrate the ways in which the two concepts are linked. We might label Hobsbawm’s approach utilitarian, MacIntyre’s as emphasizing rational inquiry, Shils’s as capacious, and Kuhn’s as scientific.

In his introduction to a classic anthology, Hobsbawm advanced the notion of “invented tradition.” He contends that many practices, rules, and rituals generally considered to be “traditional” are often recent inventions that developed in response to novel situations. The concept is perhaps best illustrated in a memorable chapter by Hugh Trevor-Roper on the Scottish Highland tradition. Trevor-Roper argues that the kilt woven in a tartan is not an ancient “distinguishing badge of Highland society” but rather a relatively modern “retrospective invention” used to promote Scottish national identity.

In MacIntyre’s work, tradition is a central concept, though he has been criticized by some for failing to employ it with precision or even to define it. MacIntyre treats tradition in terms of rational inquiry, arguing that such inquiry always takes place against the backdrop of the shared assumptions, practices, and aims of particular intellectual community. And, like Hobsbawm, he also sees a close, if paradoxical relationship between tradition and innovation. Traditions of inquiry, MacIntyre maintains, are “defined retrospectively,” often as a result of confronting some challenge or novel circumstance. For example, the Tridentine Catholic theological tradition was formulated as a response to the challenge of the Protestant Reformation.

Shils holds to a more multifaceted — though no less paradoxical — view of tradition. His capacious approach locates tradition within the accumulated cultural production of the past, handed down by social institutions such as the family and church. Understood in this way, tradition winds up amounting to the sum total of human culture. What makes this inherently paradoxical is that many of the things being handed down as tradition were once associated with innovation or even the rejection of authority. Shils draws this tension out further by suggesting that there are traditions of inventiveness and originality whereby, as another writer put it, “even the most original work owes something to tradition.” Historians can trace the genealogy of these anti-traditional traditions retroactively, but they are generally not recognized as such when they first develop.

And then there is Thomas Kuhn. Best known for The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn delivered a conference paper in 1959 that directly addresses our “big question.” The title, “The Essential Tension: Tradition and Innovation in Scientific Research,” conveys the crux of his argument: Both convergent and divergent thinking are needed for science to advance. But they are always in tension with each other. Normal scientific research is a highly convergent activity based on the “settled consensus” of the scientific community; divergence from the consensus is relatively rare, but it depends on extended periods of convergent research. The “ultimate effect” of “tradition-bound work,” Kuhn argues, “has invariably been to change the tradition.” Science must therefore be, simultaneously, both firmly traditionalist and innovative, at least potentially.

The views of these thinkers challenge the notion that innovation and tradition are incompatible. If Hobsbawm, MacIntyre Shils, and Kuhn are right, innovation and tradition are, on the contrary, two sides of the same coin. Neither can be adequately understood in isolation. As analytical categories, they necessarily function in tandem.

That said, I question whether these are good analytical categories. My reservations about them stem from a lack of definitional precision. There really is no all-encompassing definition of tradition. As Wilfred M. McClay has noted, “tradition” has a “complicated lineage.” According to an old meaning of the word, “tradition” is negative, being related to surrender or betrayal: to hand over, so that handing over a person to authorities would be called an act of tradition. The more familiar meaning of “tradition” as handing [something] down has its own negative connotations: of limiting progress or of curbing human potential. Tradition in this sense is frequently invoked in Buckley-esque fashion as “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop!” Another working definition might be: handing down some aspect of the past to serve as a guide to actions or policies in the present. While such definitions may work descriptively, they lack conceptual rigor.

Innovation is an even more imprecise term. It is generally applied today to whatever is new or different. But the implicit association of innovation with positive change is a relatively recent development. In its original Latin usage, to “innovate” was to renew or reform, not to start afresh. In fact, the words “innovation” and “novelty” were often considered pejorative until the nineteenth century; they connoted not just newness but pointless or even harmful newness. So, as is the case with tradition, we must rely upon working definitions. But how do we recognize something as a genuine innovation? How does innovation originate? How is it transmitted? How does it differ from mere change, invention, or incremental improvement? There are no clear answers. Moreover, the ubiquity of “innovation-speak” exacerbates the situation, prompting some to decry the “mindless celebration of novelty” and to question whether innovation has become such a cliché that it has lost all meaning.

Beyond definitional imprecision there are, for both of these concepts, even greater problems of under-theorization and conceptual murkiness. This is especially the case for innovation.

While there are many analyses of innovation in the context of business, there are very few comprehensive scholarly studies of the concept. The best to date is Michael North’s 2013 Novelty: A History of the New, which still falls short of being, in the author’s words, “a standard text or omnibus history.” North, a professor of English, makes the case that novelty has historically been construed as either recurrence (creating something new by the recurrence of something old) or recombination (combining existing elements into new patterns), or some combination of the two. He notes, however, that any concept of novelty faces a fundamental problem: It “depends on something prior, the very continuity it claims to violate.” Consequently, novelty borders on “ontological nonsense.” There is another problem with innovation: the concept is often employed teleologically, as fostering what historians would call a whiggish tendency to focus on whatever led to significant changes and undervalue those aspects of the past that did not yield innovational fruit.

Similarly, there are few comprehensive treatments of the concept of tradition, despite its wide general usage. And while several scholars — including those I have noted earlier as well as William F. Shuter (whose essay titled “Tradition as Rereadingin an obscure anthology I have found very helpful in preparing this essay) — have written perceptively about tradition, it remains under-theorized. Moreover, it is widely viewed with suspicion as an analytical category in the human sciences.

Clearly, much more work is needed to provide greater clarity and analytical rigor to these concepts. Unfortunately, there is very little recent scholarship devoted to the study of the interplay between tradition and innovation. A recent exception is the anthology Tradition as the Future of Innovation, which grew out of an international philosophical conference in Italy. It is too early, however, to tell if these preliminary discussions will spur further research.

We might wish for a grand theory of change in human history and society, one that adequately accounts for the “essential tension” of innovation and tradition. I must confess, however, that I am not optimistic that this is feasible. The drama of humanity, past and present, is far too complex; it defies theorization on such a scale. Context matters enormously, and no conceptual scheme can adequately encompass the sheer vastness and variety of contexts wherein tradition and innovation interact.

Should we therefore abandon the concepts of innovation and tradition? No. They have considerable heuristic value, even if they lack the conceptual rigor needed to use them as analytical categories. What is especially needed is more investigation of the specific contexts, past and present, in which there is evidence of significant change. I hasten to add (as I have noted elsewhere) that we must also complement these case studies with necessarily tentative explorations of broader patterns of activity. Today there is such an emphasis on complexity, especially among historians, that careful scholars often shun generalizations they fear sacrifice the specificity and complexity of history. But we should not let the demands of scholarly specialization — as important as they are — prevent us from advancing provisional hypotheses to account for such general historical patterns. So while a grand theory of change is likely beyond our reach, exciting work remains to be done. Studies on a variety of scales could be extremely important in helping us clarify what we mean by innovation and enabling us to better understand why innovation occurs, when and where it does, as well as the role that tradition may play in inhibiting or spurring innovation.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is innovation overvalued as a concept?
  2. Does the concept of innovation have sufficient analytical explanatory power or is it simply a descriptive term?
  3. Is it possible to give a precise definition of “tradition”?
  4. Is it possible to formulate a grand theory of change in human society?
  5. Might an evolutionary account of human societies as incremental, gradual, spontaneous, and unplanned — such as the one offered by popular science journalist Matt Ridley — be an improvement over the innovation-tradition dynamic?