Tradition and Modernity in Postcolonial African Philosophy.

Author:Ciaffa, Jay A.

The relationship between tradition and modernity has been a central theme of postcolonial African philosophy. While African philosophers have examined this theme from many angles, several basic questions have become the focus of ongoing debate and discussion: What is the relevance of indigenous African traditions to the challenges of contemporary life? Do traditional modes of thought and behavior constitute resources or impediments to the projects of development and modernization in Africa? What, precisely, is meant by the terms "development" and "modernization" when they are used in reference to African countries?

Discussion of such questions reveals a conflict between two broad perspectives. The first perspective, which Kwame Gyekye calls "cultural revivalism" (Gyekye 1997b, 233), assumes a basically reverential attitude toward the African cultural heritage. According to this view, the key to effectively addressing contemporary problems lies in reclaiming and revitalizing indigenous traditions that have been degraded and suppressed in the wake of colonialism. Colonialism violently disrupted African cultural traditions and imposed, with varying degrees of success, European forms of thought and social organization upon colonized peoples. Having achieved political independence, postcolonial Africans must now pursue a more decisive liberation, a "decolonization" of African minds and societies. While revivalists are often skeptical of calls for development and modernization, viewing them as thinly veiled calls for the continued imposition of European cultural norms, it is important to realize that they do not typically view their own project as antimodern. For revivalists, the key point is that genuine modernization in Africa can only be realized through the revitalization of African cultural norms.

The second perspective assumes a more critical attitude toward the indigenous heritage. Adherents to this perspective argue that the revivalist project is fundamentally misguided and ill-suited to the challenges of contemporary Africa. According to critics, the call for a nostalgic return to the past is not merely naive and romantic, but positively dangerous. In their view, cultural revivalism diverts attention from pressing political issues, such as authoritarian oppression and class exploitation, and endorses forms of thought that interfere with the important goals of scientific and technological advancement. The most extreme form of this view, hinted at by some thinkers but seldom explicitly endorsed, suggests that Africans must make a "clean break" with the premodern past in order to address the most urgent demands of the present (Hountondji 1996, 48). Modernization, for them, requires a mental orientation commensurate with the problems of the present, not an attempt to resurrect ideas from societies of the distant past.

It should come as no surprise that the debate between cultural revivalists and their critics hinges in large part on contrasting interpretations of "modernity" and "modernization." "Modernity" is a much discussed term in philosophy, and I will not engage the numerous arguments about the meaning of modernity, or the debates about whether modernity itself should be eclipsed by a "postmodern" sensibility. In order to understand the debate within African philosophy, it will suffice to identify two distinct aspects of modernization. The first and most conspicuous aspect involves scientific and technological development--that is, the emergence of science-based technologies that can be used to improve the basic conditions of human life. The second element is broadly political in nature. This aspect, described by one scholar as the "modernity of liberation" (Wallerstein 1995, 472), involves the development of political institutions that move away from authoritarian rule, toward forms of government that enhance the liberty and welfare of all citizens, rather than the select few. We can think of this political project as the "modernity of democratization."

It is worth emphasizing that, in the context of African philosophy, both aspects of modernization function as normative concepts rather than merely descriptive concepts. In other words, the concepts do not merely describe changes that have occurred or that might occur; they identify changes that should occur. Of course, not everything that travels under the banner of modernity, science, or democracy is desirable, but there are obvious ways in which science-based technologies and democratic political systems are conducive to peace and prosperity in African societies. For these reasons, modernization is typically viewed as a sign of progress and an ideal to be pursued.

In examining the debate between cultural revivalism and its critics, the key question thus becomes: Do indigenous traditions tend to enhance or impede the processes of scientific and political modernization?

In what follows, I will examine the main arguments in the debate about tradition and modernity, beginning with the case for cultural revivalism. I will then outline some key criticisms of the revivalist project, focusing initially on the influential work of Paulin Hountondji of Benin. As we will see, Hountondji argues that revivalism rests on mistaken assumptions about African culture and about the nature of philosophy. Hountondji exposes some serious flaws in the revivalist project but, unfortunately he proceeds to suggest that traditional thought is largely irrelevant to the challenges of contemporary life. I think this conclusion is unjustified. Drawing on work of two prominent Ghanaian philosophers, Kwame Gyekye and Kwasi Wiredu, I will argue that certain aspects of indigenous thought may well be inimical to scientific modernization, but other aspects provide valuable resources for thinking about political modernization.

As we will see, this assessment has interesting implications not only for the trajectory of development in Africa, but for our understanding of development in the West.

Colonial Discourse and the Emergence of Cultural Revivalism

Cultural revivalism has its historical roots in the colonial era, and in fact emerged as a response to European discourse about African culture and identity. In order to understand the revivalist project, it is necessary to begin with some brief remarks on this European discourse.

Colonialism in Africa was supported by a broad range of popular and scholarly literature which highlighted fundamental differences between Europeans and Africans, and which reinforced ideas of European superiority. One of the most notorious examples of this literature was the work of the French anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl. In a series of works bearing titles such as The Primitive Mentality and The Mental Functions of Inferior Civilizations, Levy-Bruhl distinguished between two fundamentally different mentalities: the mentality of the civilized European and that of the primitive non-European. According to Levy-Bruhl, the civilized mentality is regulated by reason, and interacts with the world through carefully organized conceptual schemes. In contrast, the primitive mentality is "hardly capable of abstract thought," and is regulated by the forces of myth and superstition (see Levy-Bruhl 1995, 54ff.). The racism expressed in Levy-Bruhl's work under the guise of scientific objectivity was echoed not only in popular European writings, but in remarks of esteemed philosophers, such as Hume, Kant, and Hegel. Although this discourse fulfilled several functions in the context of European culture, for our purposes its most important function was the role it played in the European understanding of colonialism. The images of the civilized European and the primitive African helped sustain the idea that colonialism was a fundamentally benevolent enterprise--that is, an enterprise in which Europeans were attempting to bring civilization to the "dark continent." In short, European domination, exploitation, and cultural devastation were rationalized under the guise of a so-called "civilizing mission."

For purposes of African philosophy, the most important development in European discourse about Africa came in the form of a text produced by the Belgian missionary Placide Tempels. While studying and living amongst the Luo in the Congo in the 1940s, Tempels produced a text entitled Bantu Philosophy. In this book he argued that the so-called "primitive mind" was considerably more sophisticated than had been suggested by Levy-Bruhl and others. More precisely, he argued that Bantu peoples possessed a comprehensive "philosophy of life," a complex system of concepts regarding the nature of the world and persons, which provided a basis for their codes of conduct and social organization. The key element of this philosophy was the belief that the universe is comprised of "vital forces" that exist in a dynamic and hierarchical relation with each other, beginning with God, the supreme vital force, ranging downward through an array of intelligent spirits, including those of the ancestors, into the world of living humans (Tempels 1995, 63ff., 77ff.). For our purposes, the details of Tempels's account are less important than his claim that the Bantu understanding of reality was different from that of Europeans, but not necessarily less rational or less worthy of the honorific name "philosophy."

It must of course be noted that Tempels's study of the Bantu had colonial motives--he wanted to understand the Bantu primarily in order to facilitate conversion to Christianity, and his studies were not entirely devoid of notions about European superiority. Yet, despite his colonial agenda and biases, Tempels's work challenged prevailing ideas about the primitive mind. For this reason, it was not well received by colonial authorities. In contrast, Bantu Philosophy was eagerly received by a number of African intellectuals, who seized the opportunity to explore and revitalize traditional...

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