In International Relations, Development theory as well as cultural analysis, often one hears that ‘tradition’ ideas are evil, and must be gotten rid of, on our way to ‘modernity.’ Indeed, if one looks at the development of the West, on is way to Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, much of the tension was between ‘tradition,’ exemplified by the Church and ‘modern’ ideas, that were ‘secular,’ ‘modern’ and ‘progressive.’ Especially, in liberal, progressive circles, tradition is a taboo word; that connotes backwardness, illiteracy and a lack of ability to ‘move with the times.’
In America too, this tension has played out and continues to animate itself in media discourses, popular debates and everyday scenarios. But the question is, is ‘tradition,’ really all that it is made out to be? And is ‘modernity’ all that ‘modern.’ And how are the two linked together, in contemporary ethical life? I will try to answer this, in this short post.
Two scholars are helpful in understanding the notion of ‘tradition’ and its relation to modernity. One of them is Alasdair MacIntyre, a Philosopher and the second being Talal Asad, an Anthropologist, who is most well-known for his writings on Islam. Both are considered authorities in their field of study and have contributed much to our understanding of the world we live in. First off, let us start with the definition that each offers of tradition. Asad says that tradition consists of ‘discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. These discourses relate to a past, and a future, through a present.’ (1986, p.14). His definition of tradition is one of inherited discourses, and he goes on to build the idea of a ‘discursive tradition,’ meaning one which is constantly in dialogue with the others and with itself and hence, is ‘alive.’
On the other hand, MacIntyre argues that a tradition is a shared conversation between a set of people and one that is often born into. I did not choose to be born into an Indian, Muslim family and inherit the traditions that came with it. I may have adopted a few others, along the way, through travel, reflection and life-experience; but the ones that I most closely relate to, are the ones that I am deeply ingrained in. Tradition, then, according to MacIntyre is a ‘shared conversation through time about the rule, ends and overall direction of a given set of practices,’ (Hannan, 2012. P.394).
So, between Asad and MacIntyre’s definitions, we have a lot of similarities in how they understand the role of tradition. Both see it as something that one is born into, one that one inherits. How does one deal with it, then? MacIntyre develops his notion of tradition to talk about one’s ‘narrative self,’ as embodying the stories that one tells and how these impact our sense of our own self, own sense of our ‘traditions,’ and how we keep them alive. Similarly, Asad talks about a ‘discursive tradition,’ as being a dynamic formulation of tradition, in that, one seeks to relate one’s tradition to current practices, based on how one understand how things were done in the past. This necessarily doesn’t mean that one kowtows to what was done in the past and preserves everything therein. A ‘discursive tradition,’ in Asad’s view is ‘alive’ and ‘active’, in that it seeks to question both the present and the future, and also the past.
Both scholars make a very important point that no matter how ‘modern.’ Our conceptions of our life, they are deeply rooted in some ‘tradition.’ For example, all talk of ‘justice’, ‘mercy’, ‘progress,’ are not just Western constructs that are post-Enlightenment ideals, but have evolved over centuries and under certain specific historic conditions. To deny this is to lie to oneself, both Asad and MacIntyre seem to be saying.
The difference between them seem to be in the amount of focus that each puts on the power relations. While Asad words in a Foucaldian tradition, that seeks to understand power-relations between those who create knowledge and those who are at the receiving end of it, MacIntyre seems less interested in these aspects and he is interested more in the ethical dimensions of the problems at hand.
These two formulations of tradition challenge us to re-think what tradition is. In a classical Burkean sense, tradition is seen as something that had no scope for disagreement or reasoning. Asad shows, through his work that this is not the case and in the particular case of Islamic tradition, there has been and continues to be contestation, debate, arguments – in the realm of tradition. Even in the ‘Western tradition,’ for instance, one can see that our conceptions of justice, equality and law and order have evolved and continue to evolve, making it ‘discursive.’
Hannan (2014) Ed. Philosophical Profiles in the Theory of Communication: With a Foreword by Richard J. Bernstein and an Afterword by John Durham Peters. Peter Lang Publishing Inc.
Asad, T (1986). Towards an Anthropology of Islam. Georgetown University Press.