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Example of a custom: wandering journeymen

Tradition (from Latin tradere "over-giving" or traditio "handover, delivery, tradition") describes the passing on (the tradere ) of patterns of action , convictions and beliefs etc. a. or what is passed on itself (the tradition , for example customs, conventions , customs or manners). Tradition happens within a group or between generations and can be done orally or in writing about upbringing , example or playful imitation .

The social group thereby becomes a culture . Those behavior and action patterns that, unlike instincts, are not innate are to be passed on. This includes simple patterns of behavior such as the use of tools or complex ones such as language . The ability to follow tradition and thus the basis for cultural education begins with animals, such as crows or chimpanzees , and in the area of ​​human culture education can reach extensive religious-moral, political, scientific or economic systems that were passed on through a complicated educational system. Tradition can be a cultural asset .

Two adjectives are derived from the word tradition : In the common language , only the term traditional is usually used. Semantically correct is used to describe something that is based on an older story, but that is not still valid. If this validity projected onto the future is to be contained in concrete terms, one speaks of traditional in educational language .

The visible expression of the traditions of an ethnic group or an indigenous people is called folklore (see also folklorism ).

Two main meanings

The phrase "It is tradition that ..." usually refers to what has been handed down (traditum) , often in the sense of "It has been customary for a long time that ...". In colloquial terms, tradition is rarely used to describe the process of tradition itself (tradere) . In order to distinguish between “tradition” in the sense of traditum and “ Tradierung ” according to the tradere is sometimes spoken in German . This distinction points to two main meanings of tradition:

  1. cultural heritage
  2. Transmission

Research on the concept and the relationship between the two main meanings fall within the scope of traditional theory ( see below ).

Tradition in the sense of a cultural heritage

Tradition of old, rural techniques: threshing with the flail
The revival of a historical event, as it happens every year by the residents of Visby at the “ Medeltidsveckan ”, is not a tradition, but a living history , a modern phenomenon

As a rule, tradition is understood to mean the transmission of the totality of knowledge , abilities , customs and usages of a culture or group . According to Hans Blumenberg , tradition therefore does not consist of relics, i.e. what is left over from history, but rather of “ testates and legacies .” In this regard, tradition is the cultural heritage (legacy) that is passed on from one generation to the next in work and communication processes becomes. Scientific knowledge and craftsmanship are just as much a part of it as rituals , artistic conceptions of design, moral rules and eating rules. Traditions in the sense of customs and cultural heritage encounter, for example, at weddings, village festivals and in connection with church holidays. Everyday gestures when greeting and saying goodbye are also customary traditions. The Ethnology examines how such a tradition is created specifically and handed down is.

In German-speaking countries, the aphorism is often quoted in various variations: “Tradition is not keeping the ashes, but passing on the flame”. It is said to have come from Thomas More or other great intellectuals or at least to have been used. Evidence for this is regularly not presented and cannot be found anywhere else. The juxtaposition: preserving the ashes or the flame, was used by John Denham in his poem To Sir Richard Fanshaw, upon his Translation of Pastor Fido (1647). Denham compares a poetry-free translation that sticks to the words word for word and line for line with Fanshaw's lively, analogous translation in the spirit of the original:

"A new and nobler way thou dost pursue
To make translations and translators too.
They but preserve the ashes, thou the flame,
True to his sense, but true to his fame: “.

The Bremer Sonntagsblatt. Organ of the artists' association published a German translation by Georg Pertz on May 12, 1861 under the heading English poetry :

You opened up the new, nobler railway
The art, proudly calling out to its disciples:
“Not ashes - keep the flame holy!
Be faithful to the poet - even more to his fame! "

This was followed by Pertz 'transmissions "to Th. Moore ". This could have contributed to the fact that later, when someone transferred the ashes / flame metaphor from translations to the maintenance of tradition, Thomas More mistakenly became its author.

Tradition in the sense of handing down

Tradition rarely describes the handing down, i.e. the process of transmission itself, even if, in systematic terms, the tradition process forms the basis for tradition as cultural heritage. The older tradition theory described the tradition process as a process in which a trader delivers something to a recipient. More recent approaches criticize this view as oversimplification. Just as simple transceiver model in communication theory actual communication describes improperly, the comparable tradent-receiver model is inadequate. According to this view, the discovery of the subject in modern times makes it necessary to assume an interrelation, as suggested, for example, by the cultural sociologist Stuart Hall for the sender-receiver model. The former “recipient” is understood as an active part of traditional processes (trader-acceptor model).

Traditional theories in the cultural and human sciences

Theories of tradition exist in very different contexts: in ethnology , folklore , sociology , philosophy , theology , literary studies and law . The individual sciences focus on partial aspects of the phenomenon of tradition . So far there is no approach for a systematically developed theory of tradition.


Since tradition is one of the foundations of social life and trade, sociology in particular has dealt with the phenomenon of tradition . Robert Spaemann even sees French traditionalism as one of the roots of sociology itself. In any case, the sociological examination of tradition has shaped discussions in the humanities and cultural studies as a whole. In particular, Max Weber's understanding of tradition as one of four basic types of social action can hardly be overestimated in terms of impact history. Weber distinguishes the orientation towards tradition from the purposeful and value-rational orientation of action. He takes up an understanding of tradition that juxtaposes pre-rational tradition and rationally oriented modernity at the end of the 19th century . This juxtaposition is also the result of a critical turning away from the understanding of traditionalism.

In addition to his attempt to make the concept of tradition tangible with four basic types of social action, Weber formulated a theory of political rule , distinguishing between charismatic , rational , legal and traditional rule. Here he linked the concept of tradition closely to a ruling individual who had an administrative staff that was dependent on him . According to Weber, the characteristic of tradition-based rule is that the political order is primarily based on traditional knowledge, is based on personal obedience and - in contrast to charismatic rule - has an everyday character.

However, Max Weber's understanding of tradition is only partially suitable for adequately describing the phenomenon of transmission and adoption between the generations and the influence on the formation of social groups. The juxtaposition of pre-rational tradition and rational modernity alone does not work. If it were the case that the modernization process would gradually shed the traditional, this phenomenon would have to be able to be described worldwide. In fact, the modernization process offers a differentiated picture: in part, traditions are being replaced by modern developments and perceptions (break in tradition), in part modernity and tradition come into an insurmountable conflict (traditionalism, fundamentalism ), in part tradition and modernity coexist or complement each other without conflict even ( alternative medicine ). How little the terms are mutually exclusive is particularly evident from the fact that modernity itself has become a new “great tradition”. Instead of viewing tradition as premodern, which would fall short, it is important to describe the social function of tradition in modern and post-modern societies as well. For Anthony Giddens , this function is to organize a society's collective memory .

For the sociological analysis of the phenomenon of tradition, according to Edward Shils, there are three aspects: 1. form, 2. content and 3. structure. In formal terms, tradition is dependent on the process of transmission. Contents that have not been or will not be handed down may be of cultural and historical interest, but are sociologically uninteresting for the consideration of tradition. In terms of content, traditions are characterized by a special appreciation or a special claim due to the orientation towards the past. Structurally, tradition is based on repetition , transmission and ritualization . From the perspective of these three aspects, it becomes clear how tradition develops cultural guiding patterns and thus the past reaches into the present and influences it.

Following Shils, the American organizational psychologist Karl E. Weick defines tradition as something that was created, carried out or believed in the past, or of which [today] is believed to exist, carried out or was believed in the past and that of one Generation is or has been passed on to the next. Shils and Weick further specify: "To qualify as a tradition, a pattern must be handed over at least twice in three generations."


In ethnology , a separate debate on the topic of tradition developed from 1982 onwards , which is shaped by the understanding of tradition as a cultural construct (see also social constructivism ). The starting point was the work of the British Eric Hobsbawm and the American Roger Keesing in the early 1980s . In 1983 the thesis of the “ invented tradition ”, which the two social historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Osborn Ranger elaborated in their anthology The Invention of Tradition , had a major influence on the discussion . According to this, many traditions that are ascribed an ancient origin are relatively young, as demonstrated by the example of Scottish and Welsh cultures, most of which have roots in the 19th century. The best-known example is the so-called Highlander tradition with kilt and bagpipes , which appeared as protest clothing only after the unification with England, but is regarded as the original Highland tradition. A year earlier, Roger Keesing and Robert Tonkinson had tried to show Reinventing Traditional Culture based on ethnological research in Melanesia using the example of the name kastom (a Pijin word in the Solomon Islands , derived from the English custom , translatable as "tradition") in their article Reinventing Traditional Culture that the cultural self-image is strongly shaped by colonial influences and clearly differs from pre-colonial customs .

In 1984, Jocelyn Linnekin and Richard Handler understood tradition as a symbolic construction and representation. They separated their analytical use of the word from everyday understanding, according to which tradition appears like a thing that can be passed on. In contrast, Linnekin and Handler emphasized that traditions, as symbolic constructions of the current generation, are always interpretations and can be changed by the interpretation. This creates what Linnekin and Handler call the “paradox of tradition”: The attempt to authentically preserve a tradition requires the interpretation of this tradition, and that is precisely why it changes. At the core of this symbolic construction is the use of material from the past to understand actions, behavior, relationships and artifacts in the present.

Geoffrey Miles White and Lamont Lindstrom (tradition as discourse) and Kathleen M. Adams (tradition and agency) represent other important ethnological positions .


In historical studies , “tradition” is understood to be the oral or written transmission of information for the purpose of preserving it for posterity. The term serves to distinguish tradition as a conscious transmission from the remnant as an unconscious transmission, for example in the form of utility texts and objects such as invoices, inventory lists, etc. (see article Tradition (historical science) ). In contrast to the pair of terms “tradition / remnant”, the concept of “ invented tradition ”, which was introduced in social history, focuses on the opposite perspective of the (conscious or unconscious) tradition construction of posterity and emphasizes the social construction of historiography itself.


In ancient legal language ( Roman law ), tradition ( traditio ) was the act of handing over a (movable) thing, for example in the case of inheritance and purchase . Hence the use of tradition as extradition, which is still sometimes encountered today (compare English: trade ).

Even in today's German civil law is the legal transaction of transferring ownership of a movable thing basically next to the in rem agreement , the transfer of the case required, so it applies the principle of tradition . However, this traditional principle is broken frequently by the handover is replaced by one of the statutory transfer surrogates (z. B. agreement of a Besitzkonstitutes or assignment of the claim).

In modern jurisprudence, traditional theory describes a certain approach to delimiting public law from private law . According to this, traditional theory describes the view that certain areas of law are traditionally assigned to public law. This includes, for example, legal disputes within police , regulatory and administrative law .

In addition to the traditional theory, there are further demarcation theories, the interest theory , the subordination theory (also: subject theory) and the special law theory (also: modified subject theory).

In the area of auxiliary sciences of history one of the jurisprudential meaning obvious use is common when the transfer of land to monasteries and their certification as tradition is concerned (see. Traditionsbuch )


The concept of tradition hardly plays a role in philosophy . Even established manuals often lack a discussion of the topic and an analysis of the term. The philosopher Karl Popper saw the development of a theory of tradition primarily as a task for sociology, not philosophy. In this respect, sociological or social anthropological explanations of terms are usually used. Nevertheless, some philosophers such as Josef Pieper , the so-called Knight School and Alasdair MacIntyre have dealt with the theory of tradition. Pieper focused primarily on the connection between medieval philosophy and Catholicism. The knight school discussed tradition primarily because of the historical integration of all cultural life. As a communitarian, MacIntyre referred to the need for traditional and regionally valid standards for current ethics and politics. In contrast to Pieper and MacIntyre and with recourse in particular to the discourse theory of Jürgen Habermas , Karsten Dittmann has recently attempted to understand tradition as a condition for unbounded, cross-generational discourses that make long lasting processes of change such as the Enlightenment project understandable. Chesterton points to the parallels between tradition and democracy and emphasizes that tradition consists of rules and beliefs that were largely decided in a society in the past. According to Chesterton, this informal process is based on the same principles as in formalized democratic decisions and he boldly formulates that "all democrats are against the exclusion of people because of the chance of their birth", while the "tradition against their exclusion because of the chance of their death" argue.

Tradition and religion


The term traditional religion is not infrequently used as a synonym for the orally transmitted ethnic religions, whose ideas go back almost exclusively to the process of tradition. But traditions also play an important role in world religions :

Tradition in Judaism

In Judaism, tradition has always been seen in the context of transmission, teaching and memory . In Deuteronomy 6 (Deuteronomy 6) there is the instruction to pass on the Jewish creed as the sum of the (divine) law to the son so that he can pass it on to his son. In addition, the memory of the history of one's own people, their origins and the covenant made with God on Mount Sinai should be passed on.

The core of the Jewish understanding of tradition is the law, the Torah . In the tradition of the Torah, a distinction is made between the written Torah (the so-called five books of Moses) and the oral Torah, the (initially) orally transmitted interpretation of the written Torah. This, in turn, is partly written in the Talmud .

There is no separate term for such a tradition in the Tanakh . There is probably the word magan , which means to deliver in the sense of deliver , but not in the sense treated here. Such a word only develops later from the word masorät (the obligatory, binding). This is where the term Masoretes is derived , which is used specifically for a Jewish group of scholars of the Middle Ages . The Masoretes tried to get the most accurate written transmission of the Torah possible . They created the Masora , an extensive text-critical apparatus, the so-called Masoretic Text . Masora is now considered to be the core term of the Jewish understanding of tradition.

A well-known tradition in Judaism is the Brit Mila ( circumcision of male newborns shortly after birth). Brit Shalom , the bloodless variant, is not very common.

Tradition in Christianity


In the Roman Catholic Church , tradition is understood to mean the doctrine of faith that has stood next to the Bible , but is just as binding since the apostles and church fathers . This doctrine of faith serves as a traditional principle in Roman Catholic exegesis for the interpretation of Christian scriptures ; According to the Roman Catholic view, the true message of Christian biblical texts can only be understood through the church's tradition of interpretation. The traditional principle therefore complements the writing principle .

Since the time of the Reformation, the reference to tradition has become a particular characteristic of conservative Catholicism. In its first session from 1545 to 1547 , the Tridentinum , which is considered to be the beginning of the Counter-Reformation, was dedicated to the relationship between the Bible and tradition. In the “Decree on the Acceptance of the Holy Books and Traditions”, the claim of tradition is documented in contrast to the Protestant view. However, at this point in time the concept of tradition itself is not yet explicitly reflected. This only happens with French traditionalism, which is a conservative, Catholic reaction to the French Revolution, supported by Catholic nobles and scholars such as Louis de Bonald and Joseph de Maistre . The explicit reference to tradition and the primacy of tradition over reason gives the movement the name “traditionalism”, which since then has stood for many anti-modern views that are critical of reform and the Enlightenment. In the 20th century, the Society of St. Pius X, in particular, stood for such traditionalist views of Catholicism .

Christian orthodoxy

The term orthodoxy already refers to the two essential aspects of the orthodox understanding of tradition: Orthodoxy means at the same time "correct belief" and "correct praise". The "orthodoxy" refers primarily to the biblical tradition. For the Orthodox faith it is important to turn to the original and to remain true to this original. The biblical text is considered to be the guarantor, heart and core of tradition. At this point, Orthodoxy differs significantly from Roman Catholicism, which places the church teaching tradition on an equal footing with the Bible. In the early days of the Reformation, the first reformers saw potential allies in the Orthodox churches. The first contacts made in the first half of the 16th century ended with no consequences.

"Right praise" refers to liturgical worship. The so-called “ Divine Liturgy ” is essentially based on Jewish and early Christian forms; it has been celebrated unchanged for a good 1000 years. However, different variants of this liturgy have developed. The best known form goes back to the liturgy from Constantinople and is in use in all Orthodox churches. This liturgical tradition, which includes not only texts but also melodies, actions, vestments, liturgical implements, the building of the church itself, icons, etc., is just as important as biblical teaching and is also often used to interpret the Bible.


Since the Reformation , when the Roman Catholic understanding of tradition was criticized, the conceptual contradiction between Christian scriptures and tradition has developed. The traditional principle was abandoned in favor of the writing principle as a necessary element of the true understanding of scripture; According to evangelical doctrine, the holy scriptures are self-explanatory and therefore only scriptures are binding for questions of faith (compare sola scriptura ). The new traditions that have developed in the individual evangelical denominations are in a certain tension.

The modern critique of tradition of the Enlightenment owes itself essentially to the tradition-critical impulse of the Reformation, but also went much further, in that it also understood the Bible itself as a tradition to be criticized.

Criticism of tradition

Traditional criticism is, on the one hand, the name of a method in historical-critical text research, and, on the other hand, a description of the criticism of tradition and the traditional content itself.

  1. Traditional criticism as a historical-critical method serves to reconstruct the underlying orally disseminated versions in written texts (for example in biblical texts, didactic fairy tales, prayer collections, myths). Traditional criticism is linked to other historical-critical methods, for example textual criticism and criticism of form , and cannot be separated from this research context as an independent method.
  2. Critique of tradition also means criticism of tradition as the traditional, cultural stock. Tradition becomes problematic when forms become independent, whose original meaning has been lost: "Reason becomes nonsense, benevolence plague" (Goethe).

In Europe began with the Reformation , later with Rationalism and Enlightenment, a critical questioning of traditional forms of knowledge , belief and morality . With the emphasis on the principle of reason (which took the place of the Reformation principle of writing ), the validity of every traditional principle was called into question. French traditionalism , an expression of the reaction, reacted to this early on . The battle of strength between tradition and reason continues to the present day. Together with the momentum of rationalizing capitalism and the consequences of cultural and economic globalization , a worldwide revision of traditional values and traditions can currently be observed. As a counter-reaction, there are also fundamentalist tendencies worldwide . Like French traditionalism , the reaction in the present is often religiously motivated and ready to use violence.

See also


Web links

Commons : Traditions  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Tradition  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Andreas Körber: Once again, pattern of meaning formation: "traditional" vs. * "Traditional" . In: Learning to Think Historically / Learning to Think Historically. University of Hamburg, Faculty of Education, February 16, 2015, accessed on February 9, 2019.
  2. Hans Blumenberg: The legibility of the world, Frankfurt a. M., 1981, p. 375.
  3. Collection of quotations from Helmut Zenz  ( page no longer available , search in web archives )@1@ 2Template: Dead Link /
  4. ^ Wrong paths of a metaphor , Wiener Zeitung, June 10, 2017.
  5. ^ Robert Anderson (Ed.): The Works of the British Poets vol. 5. London 1795. p. 690 ,
  6. ^ Bremer Sonntagsblatt May 12, 1861, p. 152
  7. Karsten Dittmann: Tradition and Procedure, Norderstedt 2004 (online version, Chapter 12) , ISBN 3-8334-0945-2 . Retrieved February 9, 2019.
  8. Robert Spaemann : The origin of sociology from the spirit of the restoration. Studies on LGA de Bonald , ISBN 3-608-91921-X
  9. Max Weber : Sociological Basic Concepts, § 2 Determinants of Social Action: "The strictly traditional action stands ... completely at the limit and often beyond what one can call 'meaningfully' oriented action at all."
  10. a b Daniel Ursprung: Legitimation of power between tradition and innovation . Kronstadt 2007, p. 27 ff., ISBN 3-929848-49-X .
  11. Shmuel N. Eisenstadt : Tradition, Change and Modernity. 1979, p. 227, ISBN 3-518-57901-0 .
  12. ^ Anthony Giddens : Tradition in the post-traditional society. Soziale Welt 44/1993, pp. 445-485.
  13. Edward Shils : Tradition. P. 32.
  14. ^ Karl E. Weick: Sensemaking in Organizations. Sage, 1995, ISBN 978-0-8039-7177-6 , p. 124.
  15. ^ Hugh Trevor-Roper : The Highland Tradition of Scotland. In: Eric Hobsbawm , Terence Osborn Ranger , 1983, p. 15 ff.
  16. Richard Handler , Jocelyn Linnekin : Tradition, Genuine or Spurious? In: Journal of American Folklore. Volume 97, No. 385, 1984, pp. 273-290. pdf
  17. ^ Gilbert Keith Chesterton: Orthodoxy . The ethics of the elven country.