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Decolonising science

Unlocking new ways of thinking

20 11 11.surrakai.ata

Decolonising science is not just a negative project of getting rid of dominant patterns of thought and opening up a space for more local knowledge systems. It is also a production of new forms of thinking, writes Sundar Sarukkai. 

Decolonisation is largely seen as a critique of the dominance of knowledge and intellectual practices of dominant (colonial) cultures as well as a call to replace them with 'indigenous'/’local’ knowledge systems and practices.

Specifically, it is a call to replace/modify the hegemony of ‘Western’ systems of knowledge in the sciences, medicine, philosophy, education, development and in all aspects of the society in non-western societies. It is a recognition that Eurocentric models that are an integral part of education, knowledge systems and political processes in the non-West are not universal and have to be replaced with the intellectual productions of the local and the marginalised.

Knowledge has become a term that is used to create hierarchies within, and among, societies.

Decolonisation is a cleansing process that is used across a wide range of activities and social structures such as in decolonising the university, pedagogy, curriculum, library, methods and aims of research, development, ideas of progress, ways of being human and being social. Typically they draw attention to a variety of knowledge systems produced by communities across the world, such as in medicine, in mathematics, in education systems, narratives on the universe, society and so on. The call for pluriversity instead of university, by scholars such as Mbembe and Mignolo, is based on ideas of pluralism and epistemic diversity.

Arguments for Decolonisation
The project of decolonisation attempts to set right the wrong history of intellectual traditions in different parts of the world and in different communities. Knowledge has become a term that is used to create hierarchies within, and among, societies. This is accomplished by valuing knowledge of the colonisers along with claiming that this knowledge is not present or available to the colonised and those lower in the social hierarchy. Thus, European colonial discourse repeatedly claimed that logic, mathematics, science, art and even religion (interpreted in a particular manner consistent with Christian theology) were higher order systems that were only possible for the European mind. This conclusion was not based on knowledge, or a critical analysis, of other knowledge systems. In this process, the knowledge systems of the colonised are presented and constructed in particular ways in order to negate their epistemological value. Moreover, colonialism created societies where the colonised were forced to repudiate the knowledge produced out of their experiences and their intellectual labour, and replace it with the systems of the colonisers.

It is important to recognize that the colonisers are not merely the European powers but also the marginalised groups within every society. As de Sousa Santos points out, colonialism is not only a relation between West and the non-West. He sees Southern Europe as being colonised by Northern Europe and those who are seen to be ‘colonised’ today includes migrants, poor, minorities, indigenous populations, victims and many others. Thus, the world of knowing and understanding created by communities of the poor, the dispossessed, those outside the dominant castes, women, migrants and so on needs to be recovered and engaged with for decolonisation to be possible.

Some would argue that the world has paid a price in terms of the destruction of human societies as well as the environment due to this skewed dependence on one dominant Eurocentric knowledge system. This does not imply that non-western metaphysics are all non-violent and peaceful but it is necessary to reflect on the possibility that certain worldviews associated with colonialism and power are inherently more violent and destructive of nature and societies.

Critiques of decolonisation
Perhaps the strongest critique of decolonisation is that (theoretical) knowledge is universal and does not depend on local contexts. It is the argument that science and mathematics are independent of the cultural and human qualities of those who produced these disciplines. Proponents of this view would claim that science is only a record of the truths of nature and does not encode European culture or white male privilege.

The world has paid a price in terms of the destruction of human societies as well as the environment due to this skewed dependence on one dominant Eurocentric knowledge system.

Another argument is that the western production of knowledge is a superior form of knowledge, one that was not produced by other cultures. This argument claims that non-western epistemologies cannot create today’s technology and science, and it would be impossible to imagine progress and development if we did not accept the universality of these western systems. To consolidate such ideas, western scholarship repeatedly points out that non-western societies did not ‘possess’ concepts like Reason, Logic, Freedom, Liberty, Politics etc., thus suggesting that all these societies would continue to be in a state of nativity if not for colonial knowledge systems. Thus, they would suggest that it is the west that has shown the path to other societies. To the argument that there are vibrant epistemologies of the global South, they would argue that even if these were accepted as knowledge, they nevertheless are not relevant for today’s world or that they are more primitive compared to their intellectual practices.

Science and mathematics have posed the greatest challenge to decolonisation. While it has become easier for the west to accept alternate epistemologies related to culture in general, they resist any such idea of alternate epistemologies - whether from the non-west or from proponents of feminist epistemologies, subaltern epistemologies and so on - for the natural and social sciences, mathematics, logic and even philosophy to a great extent. This view has also become part of institutional knowledge in Asia and Africa. Moreover, science and mathematics are seen as global practices with the power centres being located in the dominant societies of the west and hence there is a genuine concern that talk of alternate epistemologies will exclude membership in this global system.

Counter arguments
Since the universality of science and mathematics is an important critique of the decolonisation project, it is necessary to understand how this claim can be challenged. Indian mathematics is an excellent example of an alternate understanding of mathematics. It is primarily empirical not formal, has no complicated metaphysics associated with entities like the square root of 2 or negative numbers (both of which plague the metaphysics of Greek/’western’ mathematics), had developed trigonometry, algebra and early ideas of calculus such as limits and infinite series through a completely different system of numbers and concepts. Moreover, the philosophical and theological basis of Platonism (one which is very much present in modern day science and mathematics) are not present in non-Greek and non-western mathematical systems.

If we consider the long history of technology in Asia and Africa, much before the growth of science in Europe, we have many examples of complex technological processes including the production of materials like steel, zinc and alloys, chemistry, ship building and so on. In the domain of medicine and health, there are even today powerful cultures of knowledge of healing across the world, which are quite different from western medicine. These medical systems are used by millions today in Asia and Africa, even in the midst of the covid pandemic but yet are devalued by western medicine.

IScience is more than just knowledge - it is a social process and uses a variety of methods, concepts, approaches, and converting knowledge into technology.

Finally, science is more than just knowledge - it is a social process and uses a variety of methods, concepts, approaches, and converting knowledge into technology. So when we are told that science is universal and that there is only ‘one’ science, what does this ‘oneness’ amount to? I am not suggesting that what science describes and articulates is not true or is different for different cultures but only pointing to other ways of understanding how science is not necessarily universal. The universality of science can be questioned at different levels ranging from alternate descriptions of the physical world through the use of different conceptual schema to the pragmatic ways of converting scientific knowledge into technology. For example, if we had a different concept of nature then we would have a science - as an activity that describes nature - that is quite different from the one we have now in the guise of modern science.

Decolonising Science - Decolonisation at all levels
It is necessary to recognize that decolonising science is to decolonise different domains related to science. Thus, a proper decolonisation of science would require the decolonisation of the following domains that support the institution of science globally: History of Science, Philosophy (& Methodology) of Science, Social processes of Science through the focus on the categories of gender, class, caste and privilege, Science Education through changes in the curriculum, pedagogy as well as the larger idea of university itself, Science Communication, Health practices and Science Policy.

Decolonising science would not be possible without decolonising each of these domains. For example, even today history of science and mathematics is still taught as if the origin of modern science in Europe is a representation of European Enlightenment and as if mathematics had never been seriously produced in cultures other than Europe. Mainstream journals in the history and philosophy of science continue to promote these ideas, sometimes explicitly but many times implicitly by deciding what (and who) to publish and what not to publish.

As a discipline, philosophy of science has continued to perpetuate the myth that the only meaningful philosophical foundations for science has to come from western philosophy. This is ironic considering that the greatest obstacle to modern science in Europe came from Greek philosophy and scholasticism, but yet the roots of philosophy of science go back to this tradition to understand science. What makes this discipline a colonial project is that there is a complete absence of attempts to draw upon other philosophical traditions, which offer far more perceptive insights into the foundational themes of modern science. Similarly, there is an urgent need for decolonising science education which continues to propagate the story that scientific ways of thinking are a special quality of the western mind.

How would decolonised science look?
I would argue that decolonising science is not just a negative project of getting rid of something. It is also a production of new forms of thinking which include the following:

● Setting right intellectual history. 
● Maintain honesty in a global history of ideas. 
● Accept ethics as an integral part of knowing and knowledge. 
● Focus on the particular/local and not the universal/global. 
● Factor the importance of the Body in knowledge production. 
● Create the possibility of a broader and more democratic and participative vision of the future.
● Focus on science not just in terms of knowing but in terms of the potential of harmoniously ‘being’ together.

This is not a wish list but is a pragmatic project. To accomplish this, we need to recognize how a new science can be done without radically overturning some of the ideas of science that we have today. Here are some specific ways of accomplishing such changes in the doing of science:

● Science should engage with a broader description of phenomena, not restricted to just measurable quantities of phenomena.
● Rethink how we conceptualize the idea of ‘certainty’, especially in terms of the end goal of scientific knowledge.
● Prioritize knowledge that promotes harmony and better living for all.
● Develop a science which understands nature not as a machine but as a living organism. We know that different definitions of Nature lead to different forms of science as well exemplified in the traditional sciences of physics, chemistry and biology. If we include conceptualizations of nature from different communities in the world, then different sciences based on these different views of nature are possible.
● Allow conceptual structures that are different, concepts that challenge received dualities such as body-mind, human-nonhuman, human-nature, reason-emotion, qualitative-quantitative and so on.
● Question the extraordinary amount of scientific knowledge that is being produced, thereby becoming more ethically aware of the question: “Why do we want to know this?” Unbridled curiosity should no longer be allowed to legitimize unaccountability in scientific exploration and scientific creation.

These elements can all contribute to a meaningful and positive project of decolonisation as it liberates the spirit of science from cultural prejudices, utilitarian ends, from narrow visions of governments and the military, as well as from senseless capitalism.

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