Dr. Dhruv Raina “Re-writing the history of science & philosophy in late colonial India”

Thursday, October 2nd 2014, University of King’s College Lecture, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

As a featured presentation in the “New lecture series: Centuries of Dialogue: Asia and the West”, renowned international expert Professor Dhruv Raina spoke at the KTS Lecture Hall, University of King’s College, on the the entangled philosophical encounters of science between East and West. His lecture, entitled “Re-writing the history of science & philosophy in late colonial India”, explored the way the 20th century history of knowledge systems of South Asia were constructed as a positive science (chemistry and physiology) and an exact science (mechanics and optics) in the Anglophone tradition of Scientific Thought – a “powerful, normative and dominating” concept in the Western world as encapsulated in the master narratives of J.S. Mill and William Whenell.

The lecture focused on a cursory review of three works in the period of rising “national consciousness seeking to liberal itself” in history and philosophy of science in late colonialism India.

The History of Hindu Chemistry, by Praphulla Chandra Ray (1902), provided the “contemporary practicing anchor” in the construction of the history of science in South Asia. For Professor Raina, Ray’s works introduced the discussion of the Needham question in the Indian cultural context and contributed in the debates of “counter-factual history, under-determinationist and over-determinationist theories of history and debates on modernity and social theory” in India. Ray’s works focused on the question of the “decline of the sciences” or the “non-emergence of modern science” in India – showing why India was prone to speculation and metaphysical reflection that discouraged the development of modern chemistry. His book was seen as a classic in attempts to “cast off bad sciences so that a Descartes, Newton, could emerge in India”.

The Positive Background of Hindu Sociology (1937) and Hindu Achievements in Exact Science (1918) by Benoy Kumar Sarkar provided a narrative, in Professor Raina’s words, that reconstructed “the history of the sciences while responding to and contesting western representations of Indian knowledge systems working within the then current representation of the sciences.” Sarkar’s works gave an account of the “chronological links and logical affinities” between ancient and medieval India with the scientific investigations of Chinese and Greeks. He demonstrated that the history of science was in its important moments a “history of transmissions” or “epistemological correspondences” – demonstrating the “tendencies of the Oriental mind” were not “distinct” from the “Occidental mind”. The advanced discipline of pure mathematics in the India of late antiquity and Middle Ages, he argued, were in some regards distinct contributions in a dialogue with many entangled traditions that made up scientific thought – this asserted for Sarkar a “radical alterity” that “India’s indebtedness to foreign people’s body of knowledge [was] nil”. “Hindu intellect [had in some regard] independently appreciated fact, methods of experiments and developed the machinery of investigation and the external universe and its secrets” and made contributions in the broader exchange of ideas. Sarkar never predisposed however a Hindu “exceptionalism”; the positive was “an assemblage of scholarly experience and experiment, generalization and specialization” without Compte’s theory of stages. The Hindu mind’s predisposal to metaphysical and “non-practical” speculation was based on a “mal-observation” of Hindu life’s “ultra-asceticism” and “ultra-religiosity” as its “sole features” and the inaccurate representation of Hindu life’s idealism, mystical culture excluding its “secular, materialistic and objective side”. Sarkar would proclaim no Hindu essentialism – opting instead that the “proper appreciation of the achievements of sciences in India” required “the backdrop of the landmarks of the history of Western science”. “India is not one but many”.

The third and final work is The Positive Sciences of the Ancient Hindus, by Brajendranath Seal (1915). Along with Sarkar’s work, mentioned above, it confronts the “binary dichotomies of the history of sciences of the 19th century” and practice of “critical assimilation” of Western reception of scientific traditions. Both authors, contends Professor Dhruv, reject the portrayal of Hindu culture as “mystical and a blind eye […] to the analytical, logical and epistemological components of traditions in Indian philosophy”.


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