Tradition and Modernity in Postcolonial African Philosophy

By Ciaffa, Jay A. | Humanitas, Spring-Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Tradition and Modernity in Postcolonial African Philosophy


Ciaffa, Jay A., Humanitas


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. …

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