Back to Main Page

Contact us

Tradition and Modernism

Payvand's Iran News ...1/4/01

Scientific Development, Political Development

Abdolkarim Soroush, the text of his speech in the seminar on 'Tradition and Modernism' held in Beheshti University, May, 1999.

Kian Monthly Review, Vol. 10, No 54, Oct-Nov 2000


The subject of my discussion is a simple point that I don't think anybody would be totally ignorant about. But the preliminaries that are introduced here in order to strengthen and establish this simple point might be worthy enough to hear and contemplate, as they can lead to some new conclusions. That is why I am more concerned about the preliminaries rather than conclusions and invite everyone to reflect upon them further.

Whenever I think about the story of Tradition and Modernism or the relation of the so-called underdeveloped and developed countries, a picture comes to my mind. Imagine a long road where a train of cars is moving with a huge trailer driving slowly in front of them occupying the whole breadth of the road. Imagine that the engine of this trailer does not work properly and therefore, there is this suffocating smoke coming out of it bothering the people sitting in the cars trapped behind it. Although these people suffer from this thick smoke and have to linger behind, nevertheless they show a lot of patience. But then finally they get tired of being patient and seek a solution. They sit down to talk and find out what they can do with that gory trailer. Some leisurely say, 'that's it. We have to give up and just follow the trailer and adjust our speed to it.' Others say 'we should go and fight with the driver, puncture the tire of his trailer and protest.' Some others believe that the trailer would soon be left without fuel and then we would be able to get rid of it. Still others try to find a way to get ahead of it and make a few attempts in this respect, but they soon find out that there is no way to pass that trailer as it occupies the whole width of the road. Finally some say quite despairingly that 'we should make a turn and go back. After all who says that we have to go through the same road and in the same direction, we can take the opposite direction,' but they also realize that it is now too late to turn back as they are already short of time.

The above example shows the situation of our country and other underdeveloped countries. We are sitting in the cars that by chance or the inescapable fate of history are located behind that smoke-producing trailer which is modernism or advanced technological development. We are seeking to find a way out of this trap. Like the people sitting in those cars, some believe that we should turn back. These people believe that there is no future in moving behind that trailer and if we do we would just change into mere followers. Instead of that we should return to the past. This is the very movement that is interpreted as 'traditionalist conservative movement.'  

Some hope that the fuel of the trailer would one day finish and it would then experience a natural historical death. This is the approach of those who believe and claim that western civilization would finally fail and decline. There are yet others who believe that in this road of history, there is no other way and we should actually reconcile with those sitting in the trailer. In case of having the power, we should criticize, shout and hinder their progress and so on. Others believe that before doing anything we should actually sit down and think a little bit and see why we are in such a situation? Why aren't we the driver and the people sitting in that progressive trailer? Why are we driving behind it? They think that unless we mentally and intellectually don't find the answers to the above questions, it would not be wise to take any decision and act in any way. In that case, the harms would surely far exceed the benefits.  

These are the kinds of discussions and solutions that have been going on in our country and other third world countries. There is no need to point to any specific examples. It is enough to glance at the writings, articles and books written during the past 50 years in our country to find sufficient evidences of the above statements.  

I agree with the group who claim that knowledge should come first, on the condition that we would not stay in that state for ever without doing anything. There is no doubt that the correct action should come after gaining the proper insight and if we don't try to gain insight about this very sophisticated problem, it is quite possible that our action would produce opposite results and would make the knot harder to unbind.  

With this introduction I would now point to some preliminaries that would help us to reach a very simple conclusion. One's subsistence is as much as one's knowledge. If I may borrow an interpretation from Molavi, I would say that the level of our constructions suits our wisdom. Molavi says: 'blind mice living in underground holes, have as much wisdom as it is suitable for living in holes and it is in the depth of these holes that they do their constructions.' They live as much as they know. We too should cut our coats of subsistence according to the cloth of our knowledge. Our knowledge controls our emotions too. You befriend people to the extent that you know them. If what you know about them changes, it is quite possible that your friendship might turn into animosity, or it might become more intimate. Our human way of interaction, whether in collective relations or international relations, is related to the kind, level and degree of our knowledge of the opposite side. All these interactions are adjusted to and harmonized with the level of our knowledge and wisdom. I consider both the negative and positive aspects of knowledge, which are what we know and what we don't know. These two aspects regulate subsistence. Even our emotions are like that. Not only our personal subsistence, but our collective subsistence too is proportional to our knowledge. Let us not forget Molavi's interpretation that our constructions and wisdom suit each other like the key and the keyhole.

One with a complicated mind leads a complicated life and establishes complicated relationships with other human beings and with nature. On the contrary, one who has a simple mind, lives a simple life and has simple relationships with others and nature. Everything depends on our subjective mind. It is the personal or collective subjectivity that determines the conditions of our subsistence. Marxists have determined the major historical eras of mankind. Without negating or approving this division, that part of Marx's philosophy that has been accepted by specialists, economists and historians is that there are two great periods in the history of mankind: pre-industrial and industrial periods. The first include slavery, feudalism and perhaps other forms of life. And the industrial period includes bourgeoisie, capitalism, socialism, communism and so on. These are two distinct eras.

Now if we admit the presence of a deep abyss between the industrial and pre-industrial way of life, we would find a parallel abyss in human knowledge, belonging to these two distinct eras. If we accept the first preface that humans cut their coat of subsistence according to their cloth of wisdom we should accept this second point too. The latter is the logical and necessary result of the first. Why has mankind had two kinds of subsistence? It goes back to the different kinds of knowledge that man has had during the pre- and post-industrial eras. I know that there are people who think differently. If our wisdom changes, our life would inevitably find a new form. The level of human understanding and his knowledge of Human being, Nature, Bliss, God, Religion and Law has tremendously, but gradually changed and with the change in knowledge, life has changed too. For example today's medical knowledge is not even comparable to that of the past.  

I repeat, the divisions of the history of human subsistence accords with the divisions of the history of human knowledge. We have two subsistential periods: modern life, and pre-modern life in parallel with the two periods of human knowledge: modern and pre-modern knowledge.  

Different fields of human knowledge are closely inter-related and call each other. It is not possible to attain advanced economical knowledge without advanced science of mathematics, physics, chemistry andů

The caravan of science is one single caravan whose members move together and side by side each other. Knowledge is an integrated entity in the New World. If we look closer and examine the history of the process of the development of the different fields of knowledge we would see that how all these sciences are developed hand in hand and how they have assisted each other in this respect. The same is true about both natural and social sciences. The serious transformation of philosophy in the West began when Kant reflecting on Newtonian physics tried to lay the foundation of a new structure in epistemology. Have you ever asked yourself why has philosophy found such a great importance in the West and why was metaphysics neglected so much? Let alone right and wrong in this respect, we are now just in the position to explain and analyze this important event. During 17th and 18th centuries, the most important incidence was the advent of the critical philosophy and epistemology and the decline of metaphysics. The heroes of this field were first-grade philosophers such as Desecrate, Kant, Hume and others whose minds were largely preoccupied by experimental sciences. When experimental science came to forth, many questions were posed that no philosopher could ignore and escape them. That experimental knowledge then started to accompany philosophical thinking and together they gave birth to a child that is called epistemology. The important question posed was what is 'cognition'? It was noted that so far man had just tried to know things, now was the time to discover the process of cognition itself. That was where epistemology started. This was a preliminary not found in any of the classical works of philosophy.

The above questions and the various answers offered changed the face of philosophy. Even religion was changed as the result. Surely, due to its celestial nature, religion is not condemned to historical and human decrees. But what can we say about our understanding of religion? Our share in religiosity is to understand it and this understanding is time dependent, that is it transforms in relation to the transformation of human knowledge.

Different fields of knowledge including religion reach a state of balance together. The complex of human knowledge before the pre-industrial era had its own balance and equilibrium. With the development of new fields of knowledge, a new equilibrium replaced the old one. The crisis of modernity means losing the old equilibrium without reaching a new one. This is a general statement that encompasses individuals, the society and the human relations. The undeveloped societies that are undergoing the transition are exactly in such situation: they have put behind the old epistemological -subsistential equilibrium, but have not yet reached a new equilibrium and are vacillating between the two. It is not even known whether they would ever reach a new equilibrium or not. At present, in our universities they teach the data of the science of psychology, but regarding morality they issue decrees in a completely different way. That is what we mean by disequilibrium and imbalance. It is only when the different pieces of our knowledge attain the necessary balance that we can attain a pleasant tranquility. The transition period is the period of confusion, the decrees and tasks are all unclear.

The Old World enjoyed a balanced epistemological traditional or pre-modern arrangement. Such balanced arrangement whose medicine was in harmony with its politics, morals, philosophy, experimental sciences and religion, dictated a certain way of living. Now too we should find a kind of balanced medical science and politics and morality and philosophy and religion to find the corresponding subsistence.

The main question is why did the old epistemological arrangement change and why was it replaced by another epistemological arrangement? What was the cause of the fact that humans started to undervalue their old sciences and knowledge? Why did Galileo, Hume, Hobbes, Kant emerge? All those facing the questions of modernism, tradition, progress and civilization would inevitably face the above question and should find a suitable answer for it. The answers are divided into two groups that I call them: (1) philosophical and semi-philosophical answers and (2) non-philosophical or scientific-experimental answers.

The first philosophical answer was briefly as follows: humans have reached a new understanding of 'being' and have established a new relation to it. As a sea 'being' has produced a new wave and consequently new men with a new nature and identity have emerged. These new men have found a new relationship and interaction with themselves, with Nature and with God and such a new relation and interaction has given rise to a New World. You might say that this answer is in fact the repetition of the same question and I agree with you. The followers of this idea do not show us the way to confront the new situation. They say we can not do anything, we can just sit and wait until the sea produces another wave to give rise to another world. We should condole ourselves with the idea that hopefully the fuel of that trailer would soon finish and we would then be freed from it forever. Some of the philosophers of our country are the preachers and followers of the above philosophy. It is some time now that they preach and suggest the same idea under the title of 'passion for the west' (gharbzadegi).

Apparently they invite people to know the west, but in reality they are suggesting the idea of impotence and inability against the fatality of history. They claim that it is our destiny to fall into such conditions and it is the history that should determine something else and offers us another way and saves us from our present conditions. This is their first solution which is not a solution, but at most is an unscientific and semi-philosophical analysis. No doubt that unscientific analysis can not replace scientific ideas. The most arises out of this kind of philosophizing is to curse and sigh and regret. The core of their belief is that we are living in the dark era of history and the key to light in not in our hands. Recently they have knotted their theory with the concepts of 'imperialism' (estekbar) and 'sensuality' (nafsaniyat) in order to create a kind of verbal struggle not followed by any actions.  

There is another semi-philosophical answer that is worth mentioning. In his book Knowledge and Human Interests, Yurgen Hobermas one of the most prominent contemporary social philosophers tries to suggest this idea that sciences do not only seek and attain the truth, but human passions and interests give them direction too. If we ask the above question from Habermas, he would say that humans abandoned the old sciences and founded new ones because human passions and interests changed and they were looking for something else in the field of knowledge. What does passion mean?

Habermas answers, during pre-industrial era, men were not interested to exploit nature, abuse it and to restrain the natural forces and if they did show any interest in this respect it was quite secondary and exceptional. But when this new interest arose and humans found the inclination to exploit nature, experimental sciences flourished and were rapidly developed. In other word, in the past humans were friendly to nature, but in the industrial era, there is no sign of that friendship. Humans wish to exploit nature now. No kind of knowledge would teach us this sort of exploitation. Surely metaphysics never would say that, nor would religion. No religion has said that the people who have restrained natural forces more are more blissful. This is a new interest that has driven human knowledge into this course. As soon as the experimental sciences found such inclination, other fields of knowledge such as philosophy, politics and morality too tried to balance themselves with it. Now if we ask why did human interest change, no clear answer is given.  

But the non-philosophical or scientific experimental answer is that of economists, sociologists and historians. They have approached the subject rather from the sociological view of knowledge and have thus suggested that it is the social transformations that has given a new orientation to the course of sciences. Those who are familiar with the history of science know that social, economical, psychological and political conditions interfere with the emergence and development of sciences. Take the subject of freedom as an example. This is not only a pure political matter, but it is also an epistemological category. It is very important to know that freedom and science hold hands. There is no doubt about it. It was impossible for the sciences to grow in an environment devoid of freedom. Science demands freedom in its essence. Free discussion, free understanding, free criticism and the absence of any red lines are the necessary conditions for the growth of science. It can not be imagined how it is possible for science to grow in a closed environment with a series of heavy and inflexible red lines. These obstacles would sooner or later puncture the tires of the vehicle of science. But where does freedom come from? From the struggles of people against despotism and the church and accumulation of wealth and prevalence of free trade and so on. This is just a simple example. It is in this sense that science and knowledge hold hands with other social matters. It is a very known fact that economic factors are effective in the social conditions of scientific development.  

These were three possible and general answers to the question 'why did man change his knowledge and consequently his subsistence?'  

The conclusion is that modernity is not be defined by modern tools and technology. These are the fruit of modernity. Modern knowledge defines the world and modern way of life. One of the components of this modern knowledge is modern experimental science. If you follow the history you would see that the sheep that first jumped out of this cattle and pulled the rest of sheep after itself, was the very sheep of science. It suddenly leaped and other leaps in fact accompanied it and happened in parallel to and in relation to it. In the history of the new mankind, the leap of experimental science was a wonderfully amazing leap. Development in the New World is a science-centered development. That is it can not be imagined how a country may develop with low level of scientific development. It is not possible to develop a society with a backward weak science of economy and management. This does not mean that progress is the same as scientific development, but I should also say that without scientific development we could not speak of progress.

The conclusion is that in undeveloped societies development will start with scientific development. We should not just sit and wait for the sea of existence to give rise to a new wave and to wait for an invisible hand to appear out of nowhere to do something for us. We should not mystify things and claim that modernity is a combined complex of hundred thousands organs and it is not known where did it start and where does it lead. Instead we should take clear definite steps. Considering the history of modernity and the role that sciences play in progress, we are forced to reach this simple, but important conclusion that progress starts with scientific development. We can not follow modernity only in the world of illusion, that is to make a turn and return from where we were in that road. We don't have such freedom in the world of reality. Apparently we are standing at a historical junction, but the bridges behind us have been destroyed so extensively that it has actually changed into a single way. If we do not will to return we should learn about the course we wish to take. If we demand progress and modernity, then one of its important, determining, inevitable and valid keys is scientific development. That is science with all its roots and veins and imperatives and means. We should make criticism and research and respect to the learned people widespread and expand our universities and training institutes as much as possible. We should furnish the necessary freedom of speech and scientific exploration and so on. Our sheep should jump across the ditch of history to not only encourage the rest of the sheep to jump, but force them in this way because that balanced epistemological arrangement would not allow the rest of the sheep to stay in the same old meadow. No doubt that the goal of reaching the necessary scientific development is not an easy task. In practice it is considerably difficult. But at least it has this virtue that it is a clear concept.

Expansion of universities and quantitative and qualitative growth of higher education play a vital part in the process of progress, and the same is true about social and political development. Another imperative is the development of the corresponding scientific rationalism. Demystification and criticism are also among the imperatives here. We do not wish to offer sacred science and knowledge, but we are seeking the very science that progresses through trial and error. In Mashroteh (constitutional movement) we started the movement with political ideas, but now we know that the key to political development too is scientific development in the general sense of the world, that is development of natural experimental and social sciences. Political activity has no value without political theory. This very little and defective progress that we now enjoy in our country is the product and the effect of scientific development. The key to progress is in the hands of primary, secondary schools, universities and other teaching institutes. 

If science develops, it would modernize and develop our politics, it would give meaning to justice and freedom, it would sit the elite in their proper place and would determine the rights of people. We should not forget that in the New World politics is scientific politics and management is scientific management. The new science modernizes even philosophy. Islamic philosophy is dear, but we should not think that this is the only possible imaginable philosophy. We should not think that the answer to all questions could be found in this philosophy. Even on the scene of philosophy we should seek progress and renewal. Whatever that would lead to weakening and isolation of sciences is the enemy of progress and evolution and is of the nature of regression. Science would determine our future. Sitting idle and finding pleasure in the defeat of others, is the work of children and the disabled people who enjoy watching other people's weakness. With the progress of knowledge, subsistence will evidently improve too. Therefore, we should first stretch the cloth of knowledge in order to be able to cut our coat of subsistence accordingly.


-- Translated for payvand.com by Roya Monajem, royamonajem@yahoo.com


Back to Comments by Dr. Soroush