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TRADITION AND MODERNITY

THE NATURE AND SCOPE OF TRADITION

The traditional is depicted by sociologists and anthropologists as rural, agrarian, prescientific, resistant to change and innovation and bound by perception to its past. By contrast, the modern is characterized as scientific, innovative, future oriented, culturally dynamic, and industrial and urbanized. It is the alleged contrast that grounds the polarity between the traditional and the modern. The contrast, for Gyekye however, is based on some false assumptions. Historical inquiries would show that even though the societies characterized as "traditional" have a large proportion of beliefs and practices inherited from the past, they nevertheless experience varieties of changes over time. The refinement or abandonment of a tradition and the need to revitalize it by adding on new elements are the consequence of two main factors: internal criticism of the tradition undertaken from time to time and the appropriation of worthwhile exogenous ideas, values and practices. The causal factors of cultural change, or transformations of tradition, are therefore internally and externally induced.

It would be a safe assumption to make, then, that those cultural values and practices that evolve into tradition were, at the time of their creation, grounded in some historical circumstances, some conceptions of society, social relations, certain metaphysical ideas, and other kinds of beliefs and practices. That is to say the beliefs, practices and institutions are inevitably grounded in some conceptions. But the conceptions themselves, from the point of view of subsequent generations, may not have been rationally enough grounded. So they might discover them to be simply false, inconsistent or morally unacceptable, as inadequate to the realities of the times.

CONTINUITY AND CHANGE

The Notion of Tradition

Some critics, then, may see tradition, or an element of it, as a drag on the kind of progress they envisage for their societies. Thus they see it as dysfunctional. Others may see it as discordant with a new set of cultural values that a new generation is bent on establishing. Others may see it as simply morally unacceptable. Others may see it as not cohering with other parts of the tradition. Finally, yet others may see the whole metaphysical base of the society as no longer convincing or credible. Criticism may be aimed at merely refining a tradition to bring it into more harmony with contemporary trends, or at abandoning a tradition altogether because it is seen as totally out of tune with the contemporary cultural ethos.

Changes may be brought about, primarily, through exogenous causal factors. These come into play in the wake of encounters between an indigenous cultural tradition and an alien one. No tradition can claim to be pure, in the sense of having developed purely on its own terms, in total isolation from other cultural influences. In one way, elements of an alien cultural tradition can be voluntarily assimilated by adaptation by an indigenous tradition; in another, alien cultural traditions may be said to have been foisted upon the indigenous culture. In the history and evolution of cultures the former has been the more common and effective mode of diffusion.

The success in moulding and appropriating the elements of an alien culture is determined by the adaptive capacity of the indigenous one. It is the exercise of such which will make the adopted elements of the alien tradition meaningful and understandable to the practitioners of the indigenous tradition, establish a real basis for genuine commitment and attachment to the appropriate elements of the alien tradition, and enable the users of the indigenous tradition to build on, and thus to contribute to the advancement of the received elements of the alien tradition. In the absence of an adaptive capacity, the indigenous tradition may absorb the alien tradition without fully appreciating the real implications of the absorption.

An indigenous cultural tradition, however, can also come into possession of alien elements by having them foisted upon them by alien practitioners. The imposition deprives the indigenous culture of opportunities to appraise and select such elements of the encountered tradition as it would consider worth appropriating. This will have a damaging effect, then, on self-perceptions and self-understandings of the recipients of the tradition. Second, the circumstances would be such that it could not be predicted how long the tradition will endure in its new cultural environment. Third, the users will find themselves absorbed only in the outward frills of the alien tradition; but, not only that, they would also find themselves confused in the pursuit of the practices and institutions imposed. A particular cultural creation, overall then, will have two faces: a particular face, confined to its local origin, and a potentially universal one, when its transcends the borders of the environment that created it. What, then, about modernity?

The Notion of Modernity

Modernity, for Gyekye, can be defined as the ideas, principles and ideals covering a whole range of activities that have underpinned Western life and thought since the 17th century. Modernity was and is culture dependent, although this should not inhibit the appreciation of the notion, and the exploitation of its practical implications. While it cannot be denied that "modernity" is indigenous to Europe, some exogenous nonEuropean cultural inventions or institutions were appropriated by it along the way, and thereafter uniquely developed by it.

In view of the need and desire of human society to advance its material existence, it would be expected that Europe's modernity, if not also now America's, would serve as a model in other countries. But the important question is, for Gyekye, is it possible to assume Western models of science and technology and the capitalist economic system without taking into account cultural values of Western modernity in tandem? This question may be answered yes and no. There is a very close link, for example, between capitalism and democracy, individual freedom (distinguished from unbridled individualism) and human rights.

At the same time it is possible for a nation or society to become Westernized without becoming modernized, just as it is possible for a nation to be modernized without being fully Westernized. African nations, through their long contacts with the West, have, voluntarily or involuntarily, acquired Western values and institutions without becoming modernized, that is industrialized, in any real sense. Thus the link between modernization and Westernization can only be empirical, not conceptual. This logically implies that modernization cannot be defined as Westernization. In fact we can talk of modernization in relation to many different aspects of human enterprise: architectural style, scientific outlook, commercial practices. Moreover some of the features of Western modernity are being questioned by Western intellectuals themselves: technology and industrialism, undisciplined and unguided by other values, are resulting in environmental degradation, unbridled individualism, a weakening of social ties, and a fragmentation of social and moral values.

The approach non-Western cultures are taking to modernity is in fact selective. Such selectivity is feasible if the basic goals of modernity are achieved: a developed economy, scientific and technological advancement, the installation of democratic politics. The goals of modernization are common human ones rather than particularly Western. Some of the East Asian societies, in particular, have so developed, without donning the entire regalia of Western values and institutions, creatively forging a new modernity that is appropriate to their cultural traditions.

But even if modernity cannot be defined by a monolithic set of cultural values, it can be broadly conceived in terms of an ethos – the innovative ethos, that is the commitment to innovation aimed at bringing about the kinds of progressive changes required for the enhancement and fulfilment of human life. What follows for Gyekye is that African modernity can be creatively forged from the furnace of African cultural experience, and experience that is many sided, having sprung from the encounters with alien cultures and religions, and from problems internal to the practice of the indigenous cultural ideas and values themselves. The creation of modernity out of the cultural experience of a people will ensure that the institutions that are fashioned and the values that are established are those to which the people will have emotional, ideological and intellectual attachments. Modernity emerging in this way will not only endure but will have real meaning for the people and shape their lives in a more positive direction.

Modernity, whatever else it entails, certainly involves transition to a new era: the transition is born partly on the wings of the elegant or worthwhile features of a cultural tradition, and partly through the production of new ideas and the invention of new techniques that have far reaching consequences. The latter may involve whatever can usually and suitably be appropriated and adapted from outside a given culture in addition to what can be acquired from within the culture itself by way of the exercise of the indigenous intellectual, evaluative and adaptive capacities. The former will require the abandonment of negative features of a culture as well as the maintenance – albeit through refinement – of what Gyekye calls the positive features. The creation of modernity in Africa will be a function of both methods of transition. It will also inevitably involve science and technology.

CONCLUSION

The many-sided nature of the African cultural heritage is not peculiar to the African experience: it is an aspect of the historical phenomenon of cultural borrowing that follows the contours of cultural encounters. As long as people from different cultures appreciate what is good in each, and know what would be conducive to the fulfilment of their own goals, cultural borrowing will continue to be a lever of human progress. But what is borrowed needs to enrich, rather than confuse or deracinate, another culture. Wisdom and adaptive capacity needs to be profoundly exercised in the pursuit of modernity, a pursuit that requires an innovative ethos. African modernity must be a self-created one, if it is to be realistic and meaningful, sensitive and enduring, and self-sustaining.

Modernity is a stage, a significant stage in the civilizational trajectory of mankind. It behoves mankind, while it is inebriated by its sophisticated achievements – especially in its scientific and technological achievements made possible by modernity – to create and maintain values consistent with its conceptions of what human beings, and their societies, ought to be. Modernity is created for humanity, and not humanity for modernity. The essence of our humanity – of which our intrinsic sociality is a natural part – should not be jettisoned in the transition to modernity. For in the final analysis, the pursuit of such values is always a matter of rational or moral choice that human beings are free to make. This brings us onto so-called auto-centricity, for which we turn to the next chapter, and to the work of Eritrean-American, Kidane Mengisteab.

 
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