"..We Shall Not Cease From Exploration.."


The Purpose

Some caveats and qualifications are necessary before getting on with the job. It is directed at those of you who feel butterflies in your bellies, like I do, when the import of the theme, viz., ‘decolonizing social sciences’ sinks in. To begin with, I do not survey problems and the purported solutions from the domain of social sciences in either their variety or range. Secondly, I do not analyze the validity of arguments, adequacy of evidence and acceptability of theories from any one single social science. Thirdly, I have not chronicled the history of some ideas as a status quaestionis either: there is no sketch of the emergence and evolution of some problem and no tracing of its vicissitude as it was variously received by intellectual communities all over the Western world to be found in the pages to follow. Fourthly, no proposal has been criticized. Strictu sensu, it is not a position paper at all. Fifthly and finally, I do not argue in favour of a theory, propose and defend a solution to some problem which would fly in the face of accepted wisdom either. Thus, in at least five different ways, what I have attempted in the course of the pages to follow is something more modest than the task assigned to me.

Having said this much, I should now like to suggest that the paper is more ambitious than its title. That is so because I will attempt to sketch a proposal for developing alternate theories in a set of domains. It is ambitious insofar as it has the pretension of being a program for doing so.

The Nature

What I intend doing in the course of this paper is to make plausible a certain way of looking at the task. I would like to draw your attention to certain considerations and thereby persuade you that the task of this paper is less bizarre and the goal less frightening than might appear at first sight. In some senses, I would like to practice a deception and I aim to do it despite your awareness of my intention. While reading this paper or after a thorough perusal of it, if you get the feeling that what I am saying is self‑evident or that you knew it all along – as I believe you will – then I will have succeeded in this aim. All I want to do is to make you realize how unoriginal this paper is: not because someone else has voiced same or similar thoughts elsewhere, but because these are the things you learned on your grandmother’s lap! If you can remember, recollect and resonate to these themes as you read through this piece, the task of ‘decolonizing’ social sciences will become less alien and more realistic. This will be the deception: it will appear a reasonable goal!

At this moment though, I would say we need such deceptions because that is our only hope. As Arne Naess, a Scandinavian philosopher, recently put it in his book, A Sceptical Dialogue on Induction (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1984, p.63):

“I love times of philosophical puberty when the most gifted among us make the most preposterous claims on the flimsiest grounds, and I hate maturity when the most gifted mumbles long, carefully guarded technical phrases, and only outsiders or the insensitive propose delightful, somewhat mad and irresponsible doctrines...”

I do not belong to “the most gifted”, but am known to be insensitive, and have often been accused of not growing out of puberty. Until the gifted come along, let us make do with an “outsider”. Let us, for now and for a time, irresponsibly, irrepressibly and delightfully get “somewhat mad”!

The Context

Unlike the earlier generations of Asian intelligentsia, we are not confronted by what they had to cope with viz., a dynamic western society. We know only too well today, what choices they had and what they made of them yesterday: either they retreated into obscurantist revivalism touting the indigenous culture as the only or the best form of life, or took to an aggressive hawking in the street bazaars of Asia those goods and products bought at bargain-basement prizes from giant warehouses elsewhere. The first went into bankruptcy in its country of origin while some entrepreneurial elements amongst them shifted their shops from the banks of the Ganges and the Kaveri to that of a Thames and a Hudson. The second has made fortunes by selling remainders at retail prices. Either way, the Asian culture stagnated: our intellectuals had lost a world they never had and grew up in one they never knew. And we, their heirs and legatees, have to struggle to make an alien world our own whilst our own becomes alien.

All of this was yesterday. Today? Today, Europe has turned in on itself. Its culture has developed agoraphobia. Its leaders are parochial and provincial, its intellectuals amnesic, its body-politic anaemic and its citizenry cynical. It is a world grown old beyond its age, its vision myopic and bi-dimensional, and its perspective short and shallow. This enables us to study some of its values and presuppositions without being overawed by its dynamism; the static nature of European society today throws these values up in sharp relief.


The Impulse

Despite the grandiose nature of the task, the impulse for this position paper is both normal and reasonable: it is one of assessing theories from the domain of social sciences. The intuition guiding this undertaking is the realization that whatever their explanatory power or problem-solving capacity, the existing social sciences are not adequate to the task of making our world intelligible to us. There is a feeling of dissatisfaction with the conceptual apparatus that obtains today, a disquiet that interesting and important issues are not even being formulated as questions for an inquiry. One of the tentative explanations often put across to account for this unsatisfactory state of affairs is that the social sciences of today are ‘Western’. That is, the social sciences embody assumptions (whether all of its assumptions or only some of them are ‘Western’ requires to be made out), which blind them to recognizing issues that are very important to an understanding of our world.

The Condition

However correct it might prove to be later, this intuition is not sufficient for the task of assessing theories from the field of social sciences. To reject the existing conceptual frameworks, simply because we feel that they do not quite manage to do what theories are supposed to, would be a folly. There is no way of assessing theories, unless it be by comparing them with rival theories. We could sensibly begin with theory appraisal (assuming, of course, that the theories under consideration are not inconsistent) if, and only if, we have two or more theories which are competitors to each other with respect to the phenomenon they explain. I will not go deeper into this point, except to state it as a condition.

In one sense, it could be said that there are rival theories in the field of social sciences: structural as against cognitive anthropology; Austrian school of economics against Keynesian economics; Marxian economics against Micro and Macro economics; Parsonian as against Weberian sociology…etc. Therefore, it might appear that our problems are solved, even before we have formulated them. It becomes merely a question of ascertaining which of these competitor theories are best suited for the job we have in mind.

A Question…

But this is not what we have in mind when we speak of ‘decolonizing’ social sciences. So, what do we have in mind? Let us look at the issue this way. Without the least bit of exaggeration it could be held that the study of societies and cultures is a project initiated by the Western world. Over the centuries, Western intellectuals have studied both themselves and other cultures and, in the process of doing so, they have developed a set of theories and methodologies to understand the human world. What we call ‘social sciences’ are the result of the gigantic labour performed by brilliant and not-so-brilliant men and women from all over the world over a long period of time.

Let us formulate a hypothetical question in order to express our intuition: would the results have been the same or even approximately similar if, say, the Asians had undertaken such a task instead of the Europeans? Suppose that, in the imaginary world we are talking about, it was the effort of the Asian intellectuals reflecting about the European culture and that of their own, as they saw both, which eventuated in social sciences. Would it have looked like contemporary social sciences?

…and an Answer

I put to you that the most natural answer to the question is this: “We do not know”. It is worthwhile reflecting on this answer.

When we confess to being unable to answer the question, it does not arise from an impossibility to answer questions about hypothetical situations: all our scientific laws describe hypothetical situations and we can say what would happen in such situations. (E.g., ‘what would happen if I drop a stone from the top of a building? It would fall downwards…etc.’) Our claim to ignorance has to do with the specific kind of hypothetical situation which the question picks out, and with the feeling that there is no way to check the veracity of the answers one may give. That is, because we have no model of such an attempt, we have no way of deciding how to go about answering such a question. Worse still, because we have no models where the answers can come out either true or false, we feel that all answers to this question are meaningless and, therefore, that the question itself is meaningless. The question has not violated any syntactic or semantic rule; it has not committed any category mistake and yet we do not know how to make sense of this question.

There is a peculiar air about this state of affairs. We are not able to make sense of a question which asks us, literally, how we appear to ourselves and how the West appears to us. And yet, we have been studying both ourselves and the West for quite sometime now!

We know the West as the West looks at itself. We study the East the way West studies the East. We look at the world the way West looks at it. We do not even know whether the world would look different, if we looked at it our way. Today, we are not in a position even to make sense of the above statement. When Asian anthropologists or sociologists or culturologists do their anthropology, sociology or culturology – the West is really talking to itself.

The task

As a result, if you will allow me a mild hyperbole, I would assert that neither the problem of ‘incommensurability of cultures’ nor that of ‘indeterminacy of translation’ arises. They might become problems when the background assumptions and theories which underlie a study are different. The background assumptions and theories which guide a Western anthropologist studying Asian culture are the same as those of an Asian anthropologist studying his own. Should one of them face problems, so should the other. Both study the same phenomenon (the ‘inscrutability of reference’ notwithstanding), with the same tools embodying the same assumptions. The nature of some problem and its relative importance are not different for the two, and these are so organized by their background assumptions.

Western culture, with background assumptions peculiar to it, ‘problematized’ some phenomenon which has taken the status of a fact to us: we prattle on endlessly about the problem of ‘the Indian caste system’, the amorphous nature of ‘Hinduism’, the problem of ‘underdevelopment’, the ‘question of human rights in Asia’ …etc. Idem for our perspectives on the West.

Surely, but surely, there is a problem here? If our culture differs from that of the West and if, perforce, our background theories and assumptions are other than those of the West, we could not possibly either formulate questions or assign weights to them, both about us and the West, in exactly the same way the West does. Yet, we do – invariably and as a matter of fact. How can we make sense out of questions routinely copied from western social research, and then go on to answer them by means of empirical studies? But we do – we act as though these questions do make sense to us.

Be it as that may, this situation prevents us from either defending or attacking the Western social sciences: we cannot say that they are ‘true’ because we do not know any other. We cannot say they are ‘false’ because there are not any theories to compare them with. And that is why you will not find criticisms of Western social sciences in this paper.

Consequently, our task at this stage cannot be one of assessing Western social sciences. Therefore, we cannot ‘decolonize’ them either. But, what we can do is to try and say how the world appears to us. What are the things we take to exist in this world? What are the experiences important to us? If we try to do this by constantly contrasting our answers to the ones formulated by Western social sciences, then perhaps a stage will come when we could begin to talk about assessing Western social sciences. In this process, we shall have begun to construct an alternative (where possible) to Western social sciences.

What does it mean though to say or suggest that we try and describe the world as it looks to us? How can this be both rewarding and serious? It is the aim of this paper to answer these questions. For the moment, all we ought to remember from the foregoing is the following: even though we have been looking at the world, the social world that is, for centuries, we do not know how it appears to us!

The Structure

This paper has six sections. In the first, I introduce the notion of world models which I will use during the course of the next five. The second section explicates the model of “self’ as it obtains in the Western and Asian cultures. The third section looks at one dimension of the relation between human selves and ethical phenomenon. The fourth discusses one aspect of the moral domain viz. the moral nature of human rights. It asks the question whether the differing notions of the ethical, as they obtain between these two cultures, throw doubt on the idea of universal rights. The fifth section carries us into the debates about Nations and ethnicity as they are isomorphic with the differing models of self. The sixth looks into the way human selves learn in these two cultures and at the relation between the nature of selves and learning. It also formulates some hypotheses as a consequence. The paper concludes by reflecting about what has been achieved and proposes some guidelines for assessing it.

The entire paper is organized around one theme viz. the model of “self”. The first section, consequently, does not exhaust the theme. It is taken up and elaborated in different ways in the different sections: hopefully, what is said in one will get clarified by what will be said subsequently. Because not only do later sections clarify the earlier ones but also presuppose them, the paper hangs together as a whole: each section illumines the other, each leans upon the other. Therefore, I would suggest that you read through to the end, even when you feel that some thoughts expressed in any one section are not perspicuous enough. If I have succeeded in what I want to, by the end of this paper you should get a glimpse of the pattern I am trying to point out.

In this sense, I would like to believe that this paper is not only governed by a thematic continuity but also by the methodology used. Cultural practices, I believe, should not get “explained” in the first instance as something that arose out of a rational or irrational belief or decision.( M. Harris’ ‘explanation’ of the “origin of sacred cow” in India and Frazer’s ‘explanation’ of the “magical practices” of peoples represent such attempts.) Because a culture is “a way of life of a people”, to render a culture perspicuous is to show how one practice leans upon the other, how the other illumines the first and how they, in their interconnections, hang together and constitute a “form of life”. Such a ‘methodology’ is the most appropriate one for this domain because it is best able to point out the “patterns” in cultural practices.

The test of this paper, in a sense other than those I propose in the concluding section, would be this then: does this paper succeed in suggesting or hinting at an interconnection? Does it signal in the direction of a pattern which it does not seek either to capture or explain? I will raise this as a question here, leaving it to you to give the answer as you read through the sections. ...........

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