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Steeped in Eurocentrism

A response to the many comments on "A Critique of Eurocentric Social Science and the Question of Alternatives" (EPW, 28 May 2011). The comments only prove the point about Eurocentrism.

DISCUSSION

categories, with Varghese in fact declaring

Steeped in Eurocentrism

western knowledge systems as “marked by a heroic spirit for new experimentation, adventures and scientific advancement”. Claude Alvares Both repel indirectly my own pleas to

A response to the many comments on “A Critique of Eurocentric Social Science and the Question of Alternatives” (EPW, 28 May 2011). The comments only prove the point about Eurocentrism.

Claude Alvares (goafoundation@gmail.com) is director of the Goa Foundation and editor of Other India Press, an alternative publishing house located in Goa.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
OCTOBER 15, 2011

I
am heartened to see that all the authors of the four comments that have been published (K Ramakrishna Rao, 18 June 2011; George Thomas, 9 July 2011; Anirudh Deshpande, 23 July 2011; George Varghese, 30 July 2011) declare that they are broadly in sympathy with the concerns expressed in my “A Critique of Eurocentric Social Science and the Question of Alter

natives” (EPW, 28 May 2011).

My purpose in writing the essay was

very direct. It was to provide an updated,

sharply focused version of a controversy

which has been surfacing sporadically in

the EPW and other fora – obviously since

it has never been resolved – and to ask, if

the criticism of Eurocentrism remains

consistently valid, why then is there no

commensurate response and why is it

that we continue to resist an independent

and autonomous academic discourse

complete with its own focus, categories

and methodologies.

This is all the more glaring since there

is really little incremental knowledge

insofar as the social sciences are con

cerned. We cannot, for example, claim

that people have become better or happier

or more fulfilled human beings in socie

ties which have “developed” social science

regimes compared to those societies that

have not. Often entire social theories are

scrapped, major disciplines are over

thrown or find a new label, or new speci

alities appear. The “knowledge counter”

in this respect often turns back to zero and

restarts with a set of fresh or different

assumptions. Despite this opportunity

embedded in the nature of social sciences,

we are unable to strike paths on our own.

Part of the answer to that question can

be found in the nature of the responses

that have come from Anirudh Deshpande

and George Varghese K. Despite conced

ing the charge that our social science re

gimes are “tail-wagging Eurocentric per

spectives”, both go on to provide in their

comments an eager defence of Eurocentric

vol xlvi no 42

allow ourselves similar opportunities for experimentation and adventures. Perhaps, we are not mature enough to be granted such liberty. I would have been happier if Deshpande and Varghese had instead provided – as Ramakrishna Rao and his colleagues have done – their advice and guidance on how one could deal with the real task of getting out of the sewer of Eurocentric activity into which we agree we have fallen rather than provide reasons, howsoever attractive, for wallowing more deeply in it.

One of the issues raised in my essay was the continuing obsession of Indian scholars – and academics from similarly placed countries – with western texts, western persona and with Europe.

A Gaggle of Ghosts

Let me begin with Deshpande first.

He displays astonishing familiarity with a long line of European and American thinkers from Martin Luther to Muntzer, Carlo Ginsburg, Natalie Davis, Macaulay, Darwin, Flaubert, Michelin, Stewart Gordon, Saul David, Jean Chesneaux, and Noam Chomsky. I have long since stopped reading any of them. I have come to realise that I live in a continent jammed with a million mutinous thinkers and resisters. I may need several life-times before I am able to converse adequately with most of them, at least the interesting ones, before I go looking elsewhere. The last thing I desire is to find myself in the midst of a gaggle of ghosts from Europe – and like ghosts, all white – who may serve no other purpose than to make us fearful of ourselves and of our capacities to think on our own.

Deshpande is steeped so fully in European matters that he authoritatively warns us that we must be careful about our definition of what constitutes the European tradition, that it is not as monolithic as I claim it is, that there are diversities. In fact, pedagogy must take into account the existence of the “other Europe”.

DISCUSSION

Great point, except that the “other” Europe, like mainstream Europe, has been an equally heavy millstone round our necks as well. We people in the “developing countries” have only two options it appears. Either we drink of the European establishment’s world view and its dreams laid out in textbook detail in our institutions of higher learning and management institutes. But should we find all that inhuman, materialistic, corporate, soulless, destructive of ecology, we need not think any further: the west will provide from its underbelly a rival set of dissenting thinkers from whose breasts we can drink as deeply. Like Noam Chomsky.

Enlightenment?

I have nothing against Chomsky. But when he writes (at least this is what Deshpande says he writes) that we must not desert the Enlightenment and its values of liberty, equality and fraternity simply because they have been hijacked by capitalist rogues – and because we have in any case nothing else – we can excuse his ignorance. But can one excuse Deshpande’s derived ignorance? Does one seriously think that equality, liberty and fraternity erupted on the world’s consciousness for the first time with the Enlightenment? Perhaps it was virgin France’s first time, but several other parts of the world were already discussing and implementing these ideas several centuries before and I am not referring at all to Greece which ran a rather wonderful democratic system based on slavery. There is not a single idea or conception in the European Enlightenment that is not preceded or independently encountered within the cultural traditions of societies outside the European imperium and with far greater zest. The Africans and Chinese will claim that privilege as well. So would the Iranians, with Rumi, Saa’di and Hafez. And rightfully so. Only those brought up in Macaulay’s system of education would put the European Enlightenment up there among the stars.

Deshpande knows early modern, modern, and critical European historiography. This is proof, if any is required, that our scholars are indeed “experts” on all aspects of Europe because they mentally live there all the time. So what then are they doing in India? I never thought I would live to see the day an Indian scholar would applaud with pride the fact that a handful of Europeans have finally crawled out of the Eurocentric woodwork and produced social science about Indian society without Eurocentric filters. Wow! What another great achievement for all of us to celebrate and emulate! At least we have evidence finally that European scholars can improve! Deshpande praises a “blistering attack” on Eurocentrism by Chesneaux but it would have been nice if he had also provided reasons why there has been no “blistering attack” from scholars like him and why all these attacks always need to come first from western scholars.

Deshpande misunderstands me when he reports me as wanting to reject further conversations with western scholars or academics. I am actually saying, bury them. Unless you get rid of these ghosts, you are never going to be free and you will continue to remain incapable of independent or original thinking. He (and George Varghese) also misunderstand my standpoint when they reduce the controversy I raise to one between Eurocentrism versus the indigenous. I am chided by both in fact for serving my argument in terms of such binaries.

My standpoint, however, was never Eurocentrism versus the indigenous in the first place. It was about the indigenous versus the indigenous. Not two versions, but hundreds, since there are so many epistemologies that lie within plural societies like ours and so many more in so many societies outside.

Just because one society and its ruling class was self-glorified and touted during our colonial years as a gift from god is no reason to assume it has never been indigenous. It has always been indigenous to Europe. So why would we celebrate, study and import their indigenous intellectual traditions here and downgrade ours? As I explained in my article, perhaps the underlying reason can only be that for academics like Deshpande Europe is still the standard. So when did that indigenous become universal? And if that is at all possible, why can’t our indigenous, when it is formally assembled, be uploaded into world social science as a rival universal as well?

Sorcerous Prose

Now to come to George Varghese. After eight pages of the most unintelligible, almost sorcerous prose, he makes two points in the final two paragraphs which simply echo the familiar Macaulay chant: the west bubbles, we are all still dead. But before he reaches there, he devotes space to Sundar Sarukkai, then Aquinas, Bonaventura, William of Ochkham, Duns Scotus, Robert Grossesteste, Henry Suso, Johan Huizinga, Pierre Duhem, John Buridan, Nicole of Oresme, Albert of Saxony, Descartes of course, Hobbes, Leibnitz and Newton, Foucault (compulsory), Bernard Cohen, Don Quixote (not a real person), Koyre and more: the list is nearly quite endless. His “global tour” does not extend beyond the books and essays of 15 western scholars. This huge motley mob is paraded in a comment written on an article that has politely suggested we keep them all out! This eminent scholar is so captivated, he can spell all their names without error, but is unable to copy my own name correctly in his unconscious desire to turn me also into a European!

It has been my practice after more than 30 years of academic associations, to begin reading every article or book I receive

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OCTOBER 15, 2011 vol xlvi no 42

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

DISCUSSION

from its end where one finds all the references. If I find only western writers listed or quoted, I know the article will be nothing but a further display of the captive or captivated mind. It might have information or insights I am unaware of, but these will mostly be borrowed – as almost all of George Varghese’s article is – from people who mean little within the context of our day to day experience here. There is no difference between him and the owner of the neighbourhood provision store: both make a living selling the wares of others. They produce nothing of their own.

The sum total of both comments is therefore on the whole rather disappointing. Both scholars spend practically 90-95% of their comments almost pleading for the greatness or complexity of western thinking when all that I was worried about was how we could think originally untainted by Europe’s assumptions and create our own new social sciences, a fairly legitimate quest. Both scholars are obviously convinced we are not equal to the west, but they are afraid to say so directly. They completely disregard everything else and everyone else: the Chinese, the Africans, the Koreans, the South Americans, the Cubans, the Sinhalese, etc, all of whom do not even exist on this intellectual planet of theirs.

The Euro-worship is blind, total, routine and perverse. I have found that many academics in our universities are profoundly schizophrenic individuals. There is an inability and unwillingness to sever or surrender one’s links with a mode of analytical thinking – formulated as econo mics or sociology or any other social science – that has reached a dead end as far as western societies themselves go and a sorry end as far as the natural environment goes. There is a wonderful capacity to disassociate the theory part of the social sciences from the west from the present-day mess in which most of their institutions find themselves today. Can societies so deeply narcissistic, neurotic and violent be a norm for social science in any part of the world? Is it sensible teaching their pedagogies here, when their own education systems are admittedly without direction? Can an industrial science that has brought the planet to its last gasps be a norm for responsible living anywhere?

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
OCTOBER 15, 2011

Can one honestly say that the white Amer

ican male – the world standard today – is a

superior personality when compared, for

example, with the monks who moved with

Gautama Buddha. Do we not have enough

evidence to see him instead as a steady

degeneration of the human standard?

But there is a fear circulated – after cen

turies of mental dependence – that if we

surrender this inherited but borrowed

heritage, we would be running the risk of

having to surrender to repressive local rul

ing elites and their ideologies. This is

nothing but a diversionary tactic. The real

problem is that most academics in Indian

universities and elsewhere are so exclu

sively immersed in western knowledge

systems, ideas and books that they are

wholly and hopelessly uneducated and

ignorant when it comes to either know

ledge available in their own mother

tongues, their society’s great texts and

connected intellectual traditions. They

are so deeply delinked from any serious

interaction with their own societies that

they actually fear the daunting prospect

of re-educating themselves in ways of

thinking and knowing which they were

involuntarily kept away from because they

were victimised by Macaulay’s education

system. That is the core of the problem. In

that real sense, the problem will only dis

appear with the end of this generation of

“captive minds”. But the purpose of my

essay is to plead that we do not let another

generation fall victim to the same score.

In his remarkable book, The Intimate

Enemy, Ashis Nandy more than 30 years

ago neatly laid out the framework within

which he precautioned such discussions

could be held. He observed that if you

carry on any debate with the west using its

categories, then we are forever doomed to

debate using only those categories and to

play by the rules the west sets.

Revolt against the Standard

The present knowledge system against which the revolt has come has been based on seeing the west as the universal standard and evaluating all others against that standard. We now see this as wholly unacceptable practice. Once one rejects the west as the only universally accepted embodiment of freedom, of creativity, of wisdom, or whatever, one is truly free to

vol xlvi no 42

examine, re-examine, review our own societal standards and ideals and start from there. What were the standards that move Indian society, for instance, and how far does it fail to measure up to those, and how can those standards be critiqued and transcended as well, if found to be necessary.

At Independence, we made the error – like most other new countries – of refusing to own any of these standards and we adopted for our discussion, implementation and guidance the standards of western societies. We are paying the price of having done so: for more than 50 years we have generated social science which excites only those involved in making a livelihood out of it, howsoever grand the titles they give themselves, and they too find it of no use for meaning in life, post retirement. As the World Social Science Report 2010 shows, it has no use at the global level either.

The specific challenge finally is whether we can reconstruct social sciences, mathematics and even the physical sciences within the framework of our own intellectual and cultural traditions. I will go to the extent of saying that we can generate a consensus on those disciplines with which we are comfortable while rejecting those disciplines whose assumptions we find it difficult to accept.

Our politicians that way have always demonstrated far greater courage. They have, for example, renamed our cities and done with it. We can likewise rename and recreate entire disciplines. If by these methods, the global mind loses its capacity to claim universality and becomes more diversified and inscrutable, so be it. The reasons we have so many cultures is not accidental: it is because nature abhors universals, knowing full well that universals are often to oppress; fake universals even more so.

If we are incapable of this act of decolonising, of formulating our own sociological assumptions, political theories and psychological insights, we should shut down our universities instead, because by keeping this mindless circus of borrowing and mimicry alive we only cause stupendous pain to the students who come to us in good faith. To think these innocents pay hard cash for this punishment as well!

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