Thinking about Tradition v. tradition

Professor Kocku von Stuckrad from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands has been stranded in Houston due to the eruption of the volcano and the cancellation of his flight home after the Hidden God conference. So today he joined my seminar and discussed the methodology which he has been developing to analyze the history of Western Esotericism and published a few weeks ago in his new book Locations of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.

It was a pleasure to hear him discuss how he approaches the problem of pluralism in the ancient world and his constructive views. What struck me about our conversation was the difference in our usage of words. I don't know if this is because he was trained in Europe and I in the States, but it has caused me to pause again and consider again that even though we may be using the same words in our analyses, we do not necessarily mean the same thing.

Part of our discussion centered on the word 'tradition' which von Stuckrad has set aside in favor of another concept, 'discursive field'. He does so because 'tradition' means for him 'the' centrist religions and is not able to handle the material 'outside' 'the' tradition except on 'the' tradition's own terms. Discursive field, however, allows him to talk about any field of knowledge (like 'journeys to heaven') without being bound to 'the' tradition's perspective of it.

I identify as a tradition-critic. But my understanding and use of the word 'tradition' is not the same as von Stuckrad's. I don't use it to mean 'the' tradition or the Tradition, as a referent to the centrist religion and its normation. I use it in the sense of 'tradition' with a little 't': as those ideological holdings and practices belonging to a group and transmitted by them over time. I think that I am using the term 'tradition' in the same way that von Stuckrad is using 'discursive field'.

So this afternoon was enlightening for me, reminding me how careful I need to be to define the terms I am using in my academic writing, and never to assume that my colleagues, especially across the Atlantic, are using them in the same manner.