Shils on Text as Tradition

In preparation (maybe pre-preparation is more accurate) for a new large project, I am re-reading and enjoying the sociologist Edward Shils’s short masterpiece, Tradition. In an early part of the book, he says the following about “texts” which I thought relevant to several issues in law (particularly, but not only, constitutional law):

From the standpoint which I take here both declaration and interpretation are traditions. The physical artifacts–manuscripts–are traditions. The sacred text itself is a tradition. The “tradition” is accumulated understanding of the text; the text would be only a physical object without interpretation. The sacredness of the text sets it apart, but it would make no sense without an interpretation; yet the interpretation which makes it what it is, is regarded as different from the text. The works of literary figures like Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Dante are placed in a somewhat similar situation; large bodies of interpretation form around them. The manuscripts and printed books in which the text is recorded, the text and the interpretations of it are all tradita.

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