Appeal to Tradition


The argument supports a position by appealing to long-standing or traditional opinion, as if the past itself were a kind of authority.



Some typical phrases used to express the authority of the past are "tried and true," "time tested," "old reliable," etc.



"We make money the old fashioned way." - Smith Barney slogan


"Just like grandma used to make." - Country Time Lemonade slogan



We have an instinctive love of traditions. To see how powerful this love can be, just consider that many holiday customs--eggs at Easter, for example--are actually older than the holiday they are used to celebrate. The Christian holiday of Easter is a celebration of the resurrection of Christ. It has nothing to do with rabbits and eggs, both of which are fertility symbols dating from long before Christianity reached Europe. Our love of tradition has kept those symbols alive for well over a thousand years.

Traditions often represent the accumulated wisdom of past generations. Humans have achieved their mastery of the world largely because each new generation does not have to "re-invent the wheel," but can draw upon lessons already learned. When we do take the time to re-think our beliefs, we usually discover that the beliefs of the past check out. The are "tried and true." The have "stood the test of time." Hence, following the opinions of the past is often not a bad idea.

However, the fallacy of Appeal to Tradition is fallacious when it confuses a long tradition of careful testing with the mere tendency to hold on to ideas because they are old. An idea that really can "stand the test of time" can also stand to be checked again. It is because we constantly test ideas that old ideas have a tendency to be true. If we began accepting ideas merely because they were old, we would undermine the very principle that the "test of time" is based upon.


Source: Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620. This is one of his "Idols of the Tribe."


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