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Western domination in Knowledge
by Shelton Gunaratne
19 June 2002 16:48 UTC
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From "The Island" daily of Sri Lanka (June 18, 2002)

Midweek Review
Western domination in knowledge
by Nalin de Silva
Western science is supposed to be making attempts to understand the objective reality, and the truths or whatever that is taught by the westerners is said to be objectively valid. The entire European modernism that began in the fifteenth century with renaissance, is based on objectivity, reality, and absolute truth. Rationality, a concept that has been created and developed in the west, "rationalises" these three concepts that are interdependent. This does not mean that these concepts were formulated in the fifteenth century itself but it took some time for Europe to evolve them. The evolution took about three centuries finally culminating in what is called the enlightenment in the eighteenth century, that dragged on to the nineteenth century. Modernism, unlike some westerners seem to believe, did not begin with the enlightenment. Modernism that began with renaissance matured with enlightenment. In between, the west had Galileo, Newton, Kant, Voltaire, Descartes, Calvin and the rest. The educational system that the west has designed propagates the ideas created during this period and subsequently, based on the above concepts.
Those in the so-called third world are recipients of this education and they have been indoctrinated with these ideas, theories, concepts etc. Once we are taught that there is an "objective reality" and that with the so-called (western) scientific method in hard sciences and in the social sciences that limp behind the former, the "objective reality" could be "discovered" all we have to do is to wait for the theories that are exported from the west. In the mean time we could engage in some case studies either in "our" universities and research institutes or in their universities, coming to our countries for so-called field work. The theories that explain the "objective reality" or the "objective world" become the Truths, though the Truths would be replaced by other Truths occasionally. These Truths are supposed to form a sequence leading to the "objective reality".
However, this is an erroneous opinion that has been drilled into the minds of the people both in the west and the east. A good example is the Newtonian theory of gravitation. Many people, including some professors of Physics and also of other subjects, still believe that Einsteinís theory of general relativity improves on the Newtonian theory of gravitation. Though Einsteinian theory predicts results that tally with the results of the Newtonian theory, to a first order of approximation, the concepts used in the two theories differ to such an extent the former cannot be considered as an improvement of the latter. In other words if we assume that Newtonís theory is true, then we cannot say that Einsteinís theory is "more true" or "truerer" as the conceptual apparati used by the two theories differ from each other. It cannot be said that Einsteinís theory is closer to an "objective reality", than the Newtonian theory. Though I have explained this in "Mage Lokaya" it is not my original idea and anybody who is interested could also read some of the modern books, not the books some professors have read or just bought or even glanced in their youth, in English, for details. For example, Feyaraband in his "Against Method" explains not only that Newtonian theory is different from the Einsteinian theory but the observation of objects of different masses falling down with same acceleration near the earth (at least in Pisa in Italy) attributed to Galileo is not the same as the results deduced from Newtonian theory, though numerically they are the same. It is not the numerical results that we are interested in deciding whether one theory is closer to the "objective reality" but the concepts used by the theories. However, in spite of these examples, the western scientists and philosophers of science and epistemologists continue to propagate the myth that the theories get closer and closer to the "objective reality". It is ridiculous to assume something like that when one does not know what constitute the "objective reality". To decide that the theory B is closer to "objective reality" than the theory A one should know what "objective reality" is. At least the Parangia (Portuguese) when they were being taken to Kotte knew that they were not far from the port of Colombo and were going round and round as they had got those who were left in the port to fire cannons from time to time. They had a reference point (a relative) and relative to that they knew that they were not being taken far away. There is no way of defining "objective reality" as an absolute reference point. How does one define the absolute reference points? Without having a clue as to what the "objective reality" is the westerners tell us that theory B is closer to it than theory A.
. There is a view that knowledge may be defined as the subjective appropriation of what "is". According to this view if there is no "is" then there is nothing that we can know. In other words to have knowledge or to know there has to be an "is". This "is" is nothing but the "objective reality". Anybody who knows anything about Kant and his philosophy knows about the "thing in itself. Now the first question that can be raised is how did Kant know about this "thing in itself". According to Kant the "thing in itself" cannot be known. Since Kant used Aristotelian logic and not even Hegelís logic, one is free to ask how did Kant know that there is a "thing in itself" that cannot be known. It is no better than saying that there is a unicorn that cannot be seen. Kant would say that these things cannot be known through "pure reason". For Kant there were things that were "a priori". In other words these things were there "before" empirical "perceptions". For him knowledge did not begin with perceptions. He speculated that space and time existed and that the man had a knowledge of them independent of any perceptions. In effect Kantís concept of space and time gave a philosophical justification to Newtonís "absolute" space and "absolute" time, which Einstein rejected. Of course, Einstein who was a product of his culture came out with an "absolute" space-time but by that time Kant was not there to speculate whether the space-time was "a priori". In any event Kantís rationalism included these a priori concepts that cannot be "rationalised" within empiricism.
Let us assume that there is an "is" that is subjectively appropriated. In other words there is an objective world that is subjectively appropriated. Even according to this view knowledge is subjective or relative. Now what about this objective world, that is being subjectively appropriated. Do we know of this "objective" world or not? Is it possible to "objectively" appropriate this "objective" world? It cannot be, as even if there is an objective world one could only subjectively appropriate it. There is no way of objectively appropriating the so-called objective world. Also the concept of an objective world is not something formulated objectively. In other words even the concept of an objective world is subjectively formulated. Thus the "objective world" becomes the subjective appropriation of a "more" "objective world", or let us say an "objectiver world". This leads to infinite regression and we would never be able to end up with the most "objective world", or the "objectivest world". The western world is obsessed with this "is". Derrida refers to the same problem as the problem of presence in the western world, though formulated in a different way. It is this "is", and the "objective truth" of this "is", which "is not", that has helped the western world to force on us their knowledge.
The west has acquired a monopoly of the Truth and the "objective reality" that they claim is discovered by western science. The western science becomes the Science and the technologies, skills associated with it becoming Medicine, Engineering etc. The western social sciences that limp behind western science are also given respectability and they become the Social Sciences. We have been conditioned to think that if there is an "objective reality" then there cannot be more than one Science and the associated other disciplines, and the other systems of knowledge at best should be termed alternate medicines etc. The word alternate implies that there is something which is the standard, the reference or the dominant knowledge system. Even the word traditional implies that the traditional systems of knowledge are confined to certain regions and that these systems had been used in an earlier period. The words we use or we have been trained to use imply that the western science is the standard (dominant) and it is applicable at all times and in all regions. Why do not we refer to the so-called science, medicine and engineering as western systems of knowledge that are being created in the west in a particular period of time. Why give this particular knowledge a universal character? There are different sciences and different systems of knowledge and we have to concentrate on our systems.
I know that it is not an easy task to rebuild (not build for we had our systems of knowledge in the past) our science but I am optimistic. Though there are bachelors, masters and doctors of western science, among the so called intellectuals in this country who could only imitate and would not know the difference between a mechanic and mechanics, let alone the intricacies of Quantum Mechanics, I am of the opinion that we have a great future in rebuilding our own science. Quantum Physics offers a very good example of a knowledge system that could be absorbed into our culture. It is post modernist in outlook and brings the observer back into the picture. Descartes had separated the observer from the observed (or the subject from the object) with his now famous wall, during the period modernism matured, as Judaic Chinthanaya in which the "objective reality" existed independent of the observer, demanded such separation. Descartes only formulated a concept that was inherent in the Judaic Chinthanaya. It stems from the separation of the God from the world He created, in the old Testament. This God is different from the God of the New Testament. I know that the Christians would not agree with me, but Yehowah the God of the Jews in the old Testament is a concept different altogether from the Christian God. The Christian God who sent His son (Himself) to the world is more closer to Brahman who is not differentiated from the world that was created. Jesus is God and man and the separation of the God of the Jews from the world He created is dropped here. It is a beautiful concept that I admire, and that goes against Descartes and his wall, parapet or otherwise. Jesus and his coming back reminds one of the Avatars of god Vishnu, in a way, and one is not surprised by "objective" science not being created within the Catholic Chinthanaya from the third century to the fourteenth century. It is the Judaic Christian Chinthanaya of Calvin and others before and after him, that gave rise to western science, capitalism etc. The alienation of man, that Marx tried to understand, in the final analysis, is also a result of this separation of the object from the subject. Jesus tried to eliminate this separation (and attempted to eliminate the alienation of man) and the then leaders of the Jews did not approve it.
The ideas of modernism culminated in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century the other currents began to be recognised in Europe, but they could not challenge the main stream ideas associated with modernism effectively as they themselves were not totally independent of the Judaic Christian Chinthanaya (Judaic Chinthanaya for short) that gave rise to modernism. For example Hegel and Marx talked of dialectics but could not completely break away from the Judaic Chinthanaya. As a result the dialectics which is very much inferior to catuskoti, became a formal system. I have discussed this in my Apohakaye Rupikaya (Formalism of Dialectics) that could be read with Marxvadaye Daridrathavaya (Poverty of Marxism). Also Marx could not deviate from the objective world view and the so-called objective truths as "discovered" by western science. However the non mainstream ideas have gathered momentum during the last two hundred years or so and relativism is being discussed though they have not been able to challenge the Judaic Chinthanaya successfully. Some of the western post modernist ideas are associated with relativisms and observer dependent worlds. However, these ideas have been with us in the sub continent for thousands of years and we are in a position to see the weaknesses of western post modernism as well.
The west in the modernist outlook want all of us to have one Chinthanaya. They want to dominate the world through this Chinthanaya making all the other Chinthanayas secondary and inferior. The Jathika Chinthanaya even in a small way attempts to reverse this trend. We begin with the observation that knowledge is created and not discovered. It is a social construction as some non main stream western intellectuals would say. We go further and state that knowledge is created relative to the sense organs, the culture and the mind of the people, due to "avidya" or ignorance of "anicca, dukkha, anatta". If we had different sense organs the knowledge that the people created would have been different. For a moment imagine that we had a sense organ that could respond to "what is described as the electromagnetic field". (The expression "what is described as the electromagnetic field" is not accurate, but then we do not have much of a choice in this matter. It assumes that there "is" something that can be described or formulated or conceptualised as the electromagnetic field. I prefer "electromagnetic field dukkha" which to my mind is a better expression.) Then our knowledge would have constituted of different theories. Our knowledge is our world. It is not the knowledge of a world that exists independent of us. There is no "is" that is independent of us. One sees the world that one constructs. This does not mean that there "exists" only the world constructed by me and that I advocate solipsism. Different people construct different worlds. We construct the worlds that we see meaning not only through eyes but through our sense organs and the mind.(Mind is also a sense organ in the Bharat tradition.) There is no "world" from which we receive perceptions independent of concepts. We cannot perceive without concepts. Can anybody think of a perception without a conception? There is no blue colour without the concept of blue. Now somebody would say that the word blue is a recent invention but the blue sky has been there always,at least from the time of creation. However, I must say that the concepts should not be associated with words only. Imageries are also concepts and before the words there have been imageries. The imagery of blue was there before the word blue. In the "beginning" there was the mind and the imagery.

Shelton A. Gunaratne, professor
Mass communications department
Minnesota State University Moorhead
1104 Seventh Ave. S.
Moorhead, MN 56563

Tel.:  (218) 236-4035 (office)
        (218) 233-0453 (home)
Fax: (218) 291-4333
E-mail: gunarat@mnstate.edu

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