This article is divided into five parts. After a brief example in the first part, the second explains what historical sense-generation is about. The third characterizes tradition as a pregiven condition of all historical thinking. With respect to this condition, the constructivist theory of history is criticized as one-sided. The fourth part presents tradition as one of the four basic sense criteria of historical narration. The article concludes with a discussion of the role of tradition in the historical culture of modern societies.
Historical sense-generation is a mental procedure by which the past is interpreted for the sake of understanding the present and anticipating the future. This mental procedure is an anthropological universal in the cultural orientation of human practical life and will lead to a concept of the course of time as a necessary factor in the cultural orientation of human life.
Today the dominant opinion in metahistory conceives of historical sense-generation in a constructivist way. The sense of the past is understood as an ascription of meaning onto the past; the past itself has no impact on this meaning. But I hold that the past is already present (as a result of historical developments) in the circumstances and conditions under which historical thinking is performed and is obviously influenced by it. This presence can be called tradition. Before historians construct the past they themselves are already constructed by the present outcome of past developments in the world. Thus tradition is always at work in historical thinking before the past is thematized as history.
Historical sense-generation needs basic principles of sense and meaning. Using these principles transforms the experience of the past into a meaningful history for the present. Despite cultural differences, four sense criteria can be identified as basic for making historical sense of the past. One of the four principles is tradition. It is the most fundamental one upon which all other modes of making sense of the past are grounded. It presents temporal change in the human world such that the world's order is maintained despite all its changes. Since the emergence of the so-called advanced civilizations, other types of historical narration have overshadowed the constitutive role of tradition. Historical narration has been supplemented by exemplary, genetic, and critical approaches to the past. Yet the traditional one has remained the most frequently used and is the most basic and popular.