Traditions and True Successors: A Few Pragmatic Considerations, Martin Beckstein

Author Information:Martin Beckstein, University of Zurich,

Beckstein, Martin. “Traditions and True Successors: A Few Pragmatic Considerations” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 3 (2014): 30-36.

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Building upon previous work by John Williams, David-Hillel Ruben has launched an exciting discussion about traditions and true successors that Williams and Ruben themselves, as well as Samuel Lebens and Jonathan Payton, have taken several steps further. In particular, I consider Payton’s proposal for the concept of inheritance of a tradition through a causal-similarity chain convincing (Payton 2013a, 43, “Inheritance*”). While I also concur with Payton in regard to his proposed modifications of Ruben’s initial concept of true succession (Payton 2013a, 41, “Successor*”), I suggest that some further modifications be made. These modifications include, on the one hand, that we incorporate a causal connection into the concept of true successorhood and, on the other hand, that we exclude the possibility that a true successor may develop a retrograde or degenerate version of the predecessor’s cultural heritage. Moreover, I propose to make a small change in the wording, in order to make the concept slightly more flexible and perhaps accommodate to some extent a point made by Lebens. (This change in the wording should, analogically and for the same reasons, be made with regard to the concept of inheritance of a tradition.) 

The reason for proposing these modifications have, in my view, all to do with the basic puzzle that has motivated Ruben’s reflections in the first place: Why, and under what conditions, do potentially violent social disputes about true succession or (true) inheritance of a tradition emerge? I therefore recall the basic issue of interest that motivates (and justifies) the on-going discussion before I briefly explain the modification in the concept of true succession that I propose to make, and its implications for an answer to the basic question of the discussion.

The Puzzle

Ruben started the discussion on the basis of the observation, that often two or more parties each claim that they, but not its rival(s), are the true or faithful successors of some earlier person or group (or the rightful inheritor of a tradition). Such disputes, Ruben further observed, occasionally take the form of social conflicts, with the individual members of the rival parties being even willing to die for the cause. In the light of these observations, Ruben suggests that philosophical reflections about true succession and traditions have a twofold goal: Firstly, a conceptual structure that facilitates the analysis of disputes over true successorhood and inheritance of a tradition must be developed. And secondly, a convincing explanation must be provided, as to why such disputes are so intractable (Ruben 2013a, 32). The latter, of course, constitutes the justification of the whole enterprise, as an explanation is probably the best thing that (analytic) philosophers can provide to help understand and mitigate such conflicts.

The explanation that Ruben then gives is that vagueness, rather than ambiguity, lies at the core of disputes over true succession or inheritance of a tradition. Claims to true successorhood (or membership of a tradition) are essentially contestable because true succession (and membership in a tradition), like similarity, is a non-transitive and many-one relation (see also Williams 2013, 43).

The Conceptual Structure

For the task of developing a conceptual structure that deals with such social disputes, I consider Payton’s (2013a, 43, “Inheritance*”) proposal to define the concept of inheritance of a tradition through a causal-similarity chain convincing, and therefore agree to adopt it:

True inheritor of a tradition:[1] Y is a true inheritor of a tradition T iff (i) there is some X that originates T, (ii) SX and SY stand on opposite chains of SS (which may include only SX and SY), (iii) each link Sn is developed after Sn-1, (iv) each link Sn is qualitatively similar, to a very high degree, to Sn-1, and (v) the holder of Sn develops Sn because the holder of Sn-1 develops Sn-1.

For the conceptual structure to be complete, we need a concept of true successorhood. Again Payton’s preferred version (Payton, 2013, 41 “Successor*”) is very attractive. Nevertheless, I propose to adopt it in a modified version:

True Successor: Y is a true successor of X iff there is a set of beliefs and/or practices SX and a set of beliefs and/or practices SY such that, (i) Y develops SY after X develops SX, (ii) SY is qualitatively similar, to a very high degree, to SX, (iii) SY is either an updated or a consistently advanced, but not a retrograde version of SX, and (iv) Y develops SY because X has developed SX.

Hence, I recommend to modify Payton’s Successor* in three respects:

1)    With (iii) I specify the possible forms that the qualitatively similar set of beliefs and/or practices of the successor may take in comparison to the set of beliefs and/or practices of the predecessor, if we are to speak of true successorhood.

2)    With (iv) I incorporate a causal connection into the concept.

3)    I supplement the grammatical conjunction “and” with an exclusive “or”.

Combined, the two concepts imply that a true successor Y is not necessarily also a true inheritor of the tradition generated by X. If the tradition generated by X has been carried on by a number of others, SY is the true successor of to SX, but lack the necessary qualitative similarity to SY-1. Analogically, a true inheritor of the tradition generated by X is not necessarily a true successor of X as the qualitative similarity required for the inheritor refers to SY-1, which may be SX, but also some intermediate Sn if the chain includes links in between of SX and SY.

Modification 1

(iii) SY is either an updated or a consistently advanced, but not a retrograde version of SX,

Williams (2013, 43) argues against Ruben that we should exclude the option of retrograde versions because true succession is, in his view, a term of praise. I think that we are well-advised to follow Williams’s proposal and exclude retrograde versions from the concept, even if his argument were to be wrong: No person or group will ever raise a claim to true successorhood by asserting to have developed a retrograde (or degenerate) version of the earlier set of beliefs and/or practices. Consequently, no potentially violent social dispute will arise, and we need not multiply the range of potential candidates for true successorhood. The same obviously applies to the plagiarizer who hopes that his theft of ideas will go undetected.

Claimants to true successorhood will justify their claim to true successorhood either by declaring that they have consistently advanced the predecessor’s set of beliefs and/or practices; or, for instance, if the assumption is made that the predecessor’s teaching cannot be improved and hence, every substantial change in the predecessor’s set of beliefs and/or practices will, from this claimant’s perspective, constitute a distortion, a claimant may hold that true successors just need to make sure that the predecessor’s teaching is in keeping with the times. That is, it may be argued that the true successor’s task is to ensure that SY has the same meaning in the world in which Y lives (WY) as SX had in WX (cf. Ruben 2013a, 38). Pace Williams (2013, 44), then, a true successor’s set of beliefs and/or practices need not constitute an advanced version of the predecessor, but merely a timely update. In fact, the propositional content of SX and SY may even be identical. In this case, the claimant to true successorhood will (have to) argue that no relevant sociological changes have occurred since the time in which X developed SX. (I.e. SY in WY corresponds to Sx in WX because SY is identical with SX and WY is, in the relevant respects, identical with WX). An example may be given with Jehova’s Witnesses, who claim that the Bible must be taken literally, but needs to be preached in translation because Jesus evangelized the people in their native tongue.

Modification 2

(iv) SY develops SY because X has developed SX.

Ruben’s (and Payton’s, but see Payton 2013b, 19) reason for not integrating a causal connection into the concept of true successorhood, as Williams (1988, 161; 2013, 44) proposes, is that he wants to include the conceivable case in which a later group happens to develop the same set of beliefs and/or practices as an earlier group without having been influenced by that earlier group (Ruben 2013a, 38). As an empirical example, Ruben cites certain groups of anti-global capitalist activists that display, as he suggests, a set of beliefs and/or practices that is qualitatively similar to that of the Luddites without probably having ever heard of the latter (Ruben 2013b, 8; see also Ruben 2013a, 38). Ruben agrees with Williams in that not much hangs on such cases. Indeed, no social dispute with a second group (say Neo-Luddites) can arise if the anti-global capitalist activists are not even aware of the existence of their congenial predecessors. And hardly any scholar – certainly not a historian of political thought from Cambridge – will do all she can to supply the later group with the general recognition as true successor by arguing that SY in WY corresponds to SX in WX. Hence, if not much hangs on such cases, we need not take them into account in the present discussion.

Modification 3

a set of beliefs and/or practices

The third modification is only meant to affirm that a true successor is always a predecessor’s true successor in some respect, i.e. in some selected beliefs, in some selected practices, or in some selected beliefs and practices. I also conjecture that rival claimants to true successorhood are usually aware and ready to admit that they consider many beliefs and practices that their predecessor has displayed to be irrelevant for the question of true successorhood. The New Wittgensteinians will not dispute the claim of (other groups of) analytic philosophers to be the true successors of Wittgenstein on the basis that they ignore the young Wittgenstein’s private letters, that they are disinclined to play the clarinet or volunteer for the army. In addition to the varying emphases that rivals may lay on the common predecessor’s individual beliefs and practices, their social dispute may thus also be caused by their consideration of different sets of beliefs and/or practices as relevant for the question of true successorhood.

While I believe that this small modification has been implicitly assumed in the discussion, the point is noteworthy because it provides an alternative line of justification of why Obama might legitimately claim to be Washington’s true successor irrespective of a possible convergence of ideas. Lebens argued that Obama might wish to argue that Washington would – if resurrected from the dead – approve of him as true successor simply because of the historical chain of transmission of the office, while Payton replied that the conceptual structure for dealing with issues of true successorhood and inheritance of a tradition should not include political offices (Lebens 2013b, 67; Payton 2013b, 14). Yet, if we assume that Obama’s claim to true successorshood is predicated upon the similarity in some selected practices such as that of running (successfully) for office of POTUS, we do not need to integrate the criterion of counter-factual approval in our concept, nor (directly) the political offices or the historical chain of transmission of the office. Perhaps, however, the question should be raised as to whether we need another alternative or supplementary condition for the legitimate claim to true succession, such as factual approval, in order to get hold of the historically significant cases of hereditary succession (cf. Williams’s example of The Old Pretender, Williams 2013, 43).

On a related note, it should be added that Lebens has indeed a point when bringing up the idea of counter-factual approval. In many political and religious disputes over true succession, the predecessor’s approval is precisely what the rivals consider the decisive category. The rivals will thus agree that true succession is a matter of fact, perhaps they will even both believe that the fact is epistemologically accessible, yet disagree about just how exactly the predecessor’s (counter-factual) approval is to be verified (i.e. which of the predecessor’s beliefs and/or practices are relevant and how they should be weighted). The reason for their disagreement will then be epistemological in nature.

Concluding Remarks

What these considerations, to expand on Lebens (2013a, 31), ultimately point at, is that the denial of epistemological inaccessibility is just as complementary and equally important an explanation for the existence and intractability of social disputes over true succession as the denial of vagueness. Just as most rivals in such disputes are likely to deny that there can be more than one true successor to a predecessor, they will often believe to know how to verify true succession (think, for instance of the papal infallibility). Actually, it seems to me that when taken together, the denial of epistemological inaccessibility and vagueness form a necessary condition for social disputes over true succession to defy rational solution:

The disbelief of at least one rivalling party in the epistemological inaccessibility and the disbelief of at least one rivalling party in the inherent vagueness of the general idea of true succession taken together, as opposed to individually, constitutes a necessary condition for a religious, political, etc. dispute to last, and perhaps exacerbate into a violent conflict.

If one or more of the rivalling parties assumes that there can only be one true successor, a dispute and potentially violent conflict may, but need not, erupt. Such a situation does not necessarily lead to a dispute in which at least one of the rival parties insists that it, but not its rival(s), is the true successor of some earlier group or person because all parties may agree that there is no way to verify whose claim is correct. The parties involved are bound to tolerate the others. The most they can do is to try “winning” the others “over” by means of deliberation about orthodoxy and orthopraxy (cf. also Asad 1996, 398-402). On the other hand, it is also possible that a dispute is settled even though one (or more) of the parties involved claims to know for sure how to verify whether some person or group is a true successor of some earlier person or group, if it assumes that true succession is a many-one relation and if it (they) reach(es) the conclusion that the sets of practices and/or beliefs of all rivals are equally qualitatively similar to the predecessor’s set of practices and/or beliefs.

However, a necessary condition for a dispute about true succession to possibly lead to a violent conflict is probably that the rivals see in the predecessor’s set of beliefs and/or practices something more than a rational authority, which is why academic disputes concerning true succession will usually not (and arguably should not) comprise a potential for violence. Unless the rivals consider true succession to be a hagiographic issue that is commanded by the personal authority of the predecessor, they are unlikely to mount the barricades. Even if Ruben, Rawls, Dworkin, Lukes, or Swanton were equally inclined to claim that only their interpretation of Gallie is correct – to take up an implicit example of disputes over true succession provided by Ruben (2013a, 34) – each of them should abandon their claim to true succession and tolerate, for the sake of academia, that their respective interpretation of Gallie be generally viewed as their own, rather than Gallie’s, original theory.


Asad, Talal. 1996. “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.” In The Social Philosophy of Ernest Gellner, edited by John A Hall and Ian Jarvie, 381–405. Amsterdam; Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi.

Lebens, Samuel. “True Successors and Counterfactual Approval.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no 10 (2013a): 26-32.

Lebens, Samuel. “Counterfactual Approval and Idiosyncratic Counterfactual Approval.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 11 (2013b): 65-69.

Payton, Jonathan. “Ruben’s Account of Traditions and True Successors: Two Modifications and an Extension.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 11 (2013a): 40-46.

Payton, Jonathan. “Keeping Successorhood and Inheritance Apart: A Reply to Lebens and Ruben.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 1 (2013b): 14-19.

Ruben, David-Hillel. “Traditions and True Successors.” Social Epistemology 27, no 1 (2013a): 32-46.

Ruben, David-Hillel. “More on True Succession and Tradition.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 12 (2013b): 29-31.

Williams, John. “Confucius, Mencius, and the Notion of True Succession.” Philosophy East & West 38, no. 2 (1988): 157-71.

Williams, John. “David-Hillel Rubens’s ‘Traditions and True Successors’: A Critical Reply.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 7 (2013): 40-45.

[1] “S” signifies a set of beliefs and(/or) practices.

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4 replies

  1. Since this is a forum for Social Epistemology, I will assume the “social” role, that is society, hoi polloi while the readership here is primarily academe, those who have, in fact, mastered the writings of those who articulate the process of knowing. Hoi Polloi (I’ve explored it’s etiology and why it is bifurcated) do not only lack the erudition that comes from obtaining an advanced degree in subjects such analytic philosophy or history of science– but this demographic has an active aversion to it. Living in this world, believe me, I know!

    If philosophy traces its provenance from the Classic Greek era, there is a difference that should be included in this conversation. During that era, according to the “The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World” by Charles Freeman, the U.S. majority of voters would have been the slaves of Athens, not only without a vote, but without a voice. With universal suffrage and moreover universal consumerism, we have a transformation that makes this discussion somewhat “academic.” in that the names of originators of ideas are reduced to buzzwords that will be accepted or rejected, not by the claims reasonableness but by media repetition.

    This truncated excerpt from this essay is relevant to the larger issue I am making: “a true successor’s set of beliefs and/or practices need not constitute an advanced version of the predecessor, but merely a timely update. …..An example may be given with Jehova’s Witnesses, who claim that the Bible must be taken literally, but needs to be preached in translation because Jesus evangelized the people in their native tongue.”

    To illustrate how meaningless is actual determination of “who is the current incarnation of Jesus” we only have to look at the last U.S. election. The active fervent belief of one candidate, that Jesus actually preached in a reincarnation in this country, was subordinated to political exigencies, as the most respected protestant spokesman Billy Graham reversed his long term accusation of Mormanism being a fraudulent cult to support Romney. This essay’s conclusion about the contradictions of the masses of neo-ludites, “:Hence, if not much hangs on such cases, we need not take them into account in the present discussion.” seems not to be the case. Romney was seen by most Christians as being one of them, and by consensus the cultural and theological aspect of Mormonism was excluded from the national conversation.

    Our world is being shaped by mass media politics,where references to founders of ideas are reinforced not by the power of it’s logic, as applied to current realities, but by mere repetition and the appearance of acceptance by opinion makers. The true successor to Wittgenstein is what has little importance, while the identification of the current incarnation of Reagan or even Friedrich Hayeck does matter, the former more than the later. An example is the current front runner of the Republicans Paul Ryan claims both Ayn Rand and Hayeck as his intellectual mentors, both who would probably not stand being in the same room with each other.

    Mathematics, once proven, remains valid irrespective of Zeitgeist. To the degree that symbolic philosophy does provide a mathematical logic for epistemology, it is both valuable and misleading. Misleading because power does not reside in those who follow such logic, but in those who understand and control the direction of society, be it deriving from the ballot box or the muzzle of a gun. I’ll finish by quoting the perhaps apocryphal statement of William James, “Reason has only the weakest effects on the affairs of state.”

  2. There are many strategic considerations in politics that may motivate a person to make others believe what the person actually doesn’t believe herself. The claims raised by some parties in a social dispute about true succession or inheritance of a tradition may sometimes be insincere and, too, the social disputes will, as Ruben has admits at the beginning of his article “Traditions and True Successors” (p. 33), often be settled by power struggles. While there is much to be said about such power struggles, the discussion Ruben initiated focuses on the issue of traditions and true successors from the point of view of normative reason and clarify the terms by which one of the parties involved in a social dispute can be considered to have a stronger argument to support its claim.

    Concerning the example of Romney and evangelical Christians, it is important to consider in what precise regard (some) evangelical Christians accepted him as “one of them”. Answering the question “Can an evangelical Christian vote for a Mormon?” with a plain yes, Franklin Graham, emphasized that “we are not electing a pastor-in-chief, we are electing a commander-in-chief”. A Mormon is “one of them” according to Graham insofar as s/he will protect “the freedom to worship without interference of government … and uphold the Constitution as one nation under God”. So in Graham’s view, Romney should not be considered as a Christian, but as one of the desired “moral majority made up of Christians, Jews, Mormons, Catholics and many others of faith – [who] come together to take a stand for our religious freedoms and rights”.

    • Re: Martin Beckstein’s reply of 2/14

      The example of Mormonism, long considered a heretical by the vast majority of U.S.mainstream Christian denominations, from Catholicism to Southern Baptist, becoming part of a coalition against the more secular current liberal parties is meaningful to this discussion. It is the social part of this academic endeavor that must be acknowledged as being the mover of historical events, with rationalizations following for parishioners and theological apologists. “First Things” the intellectual conservative Catholic journal describes this process here.

      I would suggest that intellectual suzerainty was dealt a blow that we never recovered from when the dialogues among German-Viennese intellectuals was overpowered by the black shirts who decide to “reach for their gun” when culture was discussed. Academia is in many ways now defined by being “not Nazi” to this very day as an overriding restriction. We also must include the aura of that regime which was autocratic and focused on genocidal hatred of a small group that was justified by pseudo science, but therein lies the rub, there was enough science that was also banished when it did not pass the higher test of “not Nazi.” One effect was the squashing of the first scientific research that showed the causation of cancer by smoking cigarettes as described in Robert Proctor’s magisterial tome, “Golden Holocaust” -meaning smoking, not the Jewish genocide.

      I would say that the challenge of Social Epistemology, which extends to some degree to other areas of liberal arts academia, is to give vitality to William Jame’s description of that, “weak force in the affairs of history, reason.” Being the heir to a founder of a concept that was a product of a different era may not be that meaningful outside of the particular circumstances. There certainly is a conundrum, a classic dilemma here. As once a science becomes “applied” as I seem to be suggesting, it takes on a different quality. Physicists became builders of bombs, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Less noted is how Social Psychology, a quiet academic discipline was transformed by Dr. Martin Seligman who became involved, perhaps inadvertently, in extending helplessness induced in canine experiments, to torture of our enemies in our “war against terror.”

      I’m smiling as this wheel of an essay I’m struggling to invent is clearly adumbrated in Wikipedia under, “Epistemic theories of truth.” So professional readers of this will have a justified, “duh, what else is new” to this long comment. But it’s worth saying again by someone who imagines he has discovered it. How many young people don’t understand that “truth” is inherently imbedded in history, one that each person only gets a single bite at- their life time. We may not be able to provide an answer to this conundrum, but I suggest it should be acknowledged.


  1. True Succession and Inheritance of Traditions: Looking Back on the Debate, John Williams « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

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