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Rethinking Social Sciences and Humanities in the Contemporary World

While Eurocentrism is a problem in Indian disciplines of knowledge today, a careful understanding of the methodological and conceptual issues involved in the diversification, interdisciplinarity and the advancement of the western systems of knowledge is required. Though there is a seeming illogic in the profusion of disciplines in the west today, it is marked by a heroic spirit for new experimentations, adventures and scientific advancement. True, its dynamic is often deleterious and fragmentary to the subject positions and cultural identity of the western humankind. Nonetheless, in the final tallying of the good and bad, the knowledge explosion only works to their overall advantage compared to the rest of the world.


Rethinking Social Sciences and Humanities in the Contemporary World

George Varghese K

While Eurocentrism is a problem in Indian disciplines of knowledge today, a careful understanding of the methodological and conceptual issues involved in the diversification, interdisciplinarity and the advancement of the western systems of knowledge is required. Though there is a seeming illogic in the profusion of disciplines in the west today, it is marked by a heroic spirit for new experimentations, adventures and scientific advancement. True, its dynamic is often deleterious and fragmentary to the subject positions and cultural identity of the western humankind. Nonetheless, in the final tallying of the good and bad, the knowledge explosion only works to their overall advantage compared to the rest of the world.

George Varghese K ( is with the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University.

laude Alvarez’s paper titled “A Critique of Eurocentric Social Science and the Question of Alternatives” (EPW, 28 May 2011) is a timely critique of the tail-wagging Eurocentric perspectives followed in social sciences and other allied disciplines in the non-western parts of the world. Along with a set of proscriptions, he also furnishes a list of prescriptions at the end of his essay as a panacea to the Eurocentric sickness of social sciences, especially in India. Though the tenour and logic of his arguments is well appreciated there are certain lacunas and oversights in his essay that need to be more critically pondered at. My paper here is a response to such perceived lacks in his analysis of the academic institutionalisation of knowledge in general and its Eurocentric malcontents in particular. Some of the gaps in his essay can be pointed out as follows:

  • (1) Alavarez pitches his critique in a general and much clichéd west versus rest logic which disastrously drowns the possibility of a more careful and much needed understanding of the methodological and conceptual issues involved in the diversification, interdisciplinarity and the advancement of the western systems of knowledge at present. As a result his suggestions for improving the imparting of knowledge in the non-western parts of the world at best become political and reformist solutions premised on a patent anti-colonial militancy of yesteryears. The fact is that the Frankensteinian growth of knowledge which by all means has outpaced its western producers and managers has posed a common global threat that needs to be tackled more carefully under one common agenda of both the west and the rest. It is only by starting from such a common epistemological baseline would we be able to ferret out the Eurocentric flaws in the academic systems of the non-western world and India in particular.
  • (2) Alvarez’s binaristic world view mars the logic of his approach on certain very critical points. It gives a fatal and wrong signal that all throughout history the western project was only the imposition of their knowledge on all other vulnerable populace world over brutally and unilaterally. But that is not the whole truth. What we define as west or what they define as knowledge were never stable constructions or realities. All through, there had occurred radical shifts and contestations in the evolution, institutionalisation and epistemologisation of knowledge in the west; and this needs to be carefully understood before issuing a character certificate or entangling it with the lacunas in our own non-performance.
  • (3) The concept of a non-west or third world system of knowledge as Claude Alvarez envisages has already proved rife with a bunch of contradictions. Take, for example, the arguments of
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    Gopal Guru in his essay “How Egalitarian Are the Social Sciences in India?” (EPW, 14 December 2002) and as a riposte Sundar Sarukkai’s essay “Dalit Experience and Theory” (EPW, 6 October 2007). Gopal Guru argues that the social sciences in India, despite its veneer of scientificity, are vitiated internally by caste dominance and elitism. He has coined the famous phrase “theoretical Brahmins versus the empirical Sudras” in this context. Sarukkai makes a cogent argument against this dichotomisation by philosophically building upon the concepts of emotion, reason and experience. Alvarez seems to have consciously bypassed these important and other similar debates on social sciences in India in the beginnings of the last decade which involved eminent scholars like Partha Chatterjee, Peter De Souza, Gopal Guru and the like. He also ignores the many volumes from the Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture (PHISPC) which have seriously attempted to integrate Indian traditions of thought into contemporary natural and social sciences. These absences, particularly in the context of his paper, are very troubling.

    Demoralisation and Alienation

    My paper here is an examination of such epistemological and organisational issues incumbent in the systems of knowledge at present with which Alvarez is also engaged. However, it is fruitless to keep talking of the social sciences in India without acknowledging the difficult times our students in these disciplines face in most of the colleges in India. What kind of a response can we, as teachers and academics, give to the students? Thus, in my response to Alvarez, I want to begin with a concrete anthropological experience in India with regard to the teaching of social sciences and humanities at the college and school levels. To be more specific, some of the ideas in this paper derived out of the responses we received from the college students whom myself and my colleague Sundar Sarukkai met during an outreach programme we undertook in the select colleges of Karnataka and Kerala recently. Our interactions provoked an otherwise diffident group of teachers and students to incisive outbursts on the vital questions concerning higher education in the arts and social sciences. What we heard was a discourse mixed with insecurity, anguish, and hopelessness, both from students as well as their teachers. A thoroughly demoralised group stood before us besieged by numerous problems ranging from social and domestic tabooing for joining a course in humanities or social sciences to the problems of poverty, unemployment and stark uncertainty about the future. The climax came when a girl student studying for BA psychology came to the stage in the Government Women’s College, Thiruvananthapuram, and voiced her resentment with a piquant irony. She said:

    Being a Hindu my parents, teachers and friends would have pardoned me even if I had eloped with a Christian or Muslim boyfriend, but they couldn’t forgive me for deserting pure sciences and joining a humanities course.

    The questions raised by the demoralised crowds we met are all well known: questions about placement, salary, job security, mobility, social status and so on. The main problems we identified were the serious lacunae in the updating of the disciplines, failure to apply interdisciplinary approaches, lapses in raising the standard of teaching and research to international levels, poor quality and unprofessionalism of the teachers, lack of facilities in library and research, need for counselling about further study or jobs, etc. While our newly started centre is trying its best to respond to these problems and attempt new approaches to humanities and social science studies in the country, we recognise that these problems have deeper social and epistemological ramifications. They need to be critically pondered over and debated. One of the major problems that we discovered was the sense of alienation with respect to these disciplines. This also meant that students and teachers could not stake an ownership in these disciplines which, we believe, is absolutely necessary for good education and research. Therefore, in the following parts of this essay I focus on the stature of social sciences and humanities as specific disciplines from a global perspective. Needless to say, these disciplines are caught up in a bizarre ambivalence today: of being personally liked and socially cursed or publicly promoted and secretly murdered (by elite centres of learning and the government). I begin with three important observations made by Sarukkai in his speech in the Government Women’s College, Thiruvananthapuram.

  • (1) Presently there has occurred an increasing marginalisation of social sciences and humanities at the expense of promoting science disciplines throughout the world. Things have taken a dubious turn in this regard which is evident from the orchestrated campaign unleashed against these disciplines even by elite centres of learning and certain governments. For example, in Hungary joining for courses in social sciences and humanities is not only discouraged but also anathematised as a mark of professional primitivism. The campaign against these disciplines is now taken up by the government itself which has of late started making overt and covert legislations against them.
  • (2) The case of India is no different. Our Constitution is specifically committed to the promotion of the so-called “scientific temper” and is patently silent about the nurturing of a social science or humanities temper or sensibility. The latter seem to be unwanted or even deleterious in the eyes of the architects of our Constitution. Moreover, the government has institutionalised support for science education while ignoring social sciences and humanities. Unfortunately, neither the community of social scientists nor the general public seem to have voiced any significant protest.
  • (3) It would be only premature to state that all those who study or take up science as a profession are unsympathetic towards social questions and problems and all those who study social sciences and humanities responsible and worthy citizens. But it is generally observed that those who have even a minimum of knowledge of social sciences or humanities respond to social issues in a more responsible manner. These disciplines definitely enrich the capacity to “think” human problems in a more realistic manner compared to the natural and technological sciences.
  • Sarukkai developed this argument further by bringing in the discussion of the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil written by Hannah Arendt and the trial of Adolf Eichmann which is its central theme. Eichmann as a senior bureaucrat in the Nazi government masterminded the annihilation of

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    Jews in Germany during the second world war. Though he fled to Argentina after the war and remained there under disguise for almost 10 years, the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, finally nabbed him from his hideout and brought him to trial in Jerusalem. He was finally sentenced to death and hanged in 1962 in an Israeli jail. Hannah Arendt, the famous Jewish political philosopher, reported the Eichmann trial for a New York journal. She wrote her book on the banality of evil based on these trial reports. But in her book she took a dissenting stance against the Israeli government’s decision to hang Eichmann, articulating her argument on convincing political and existential principles.

    Arendt first of all questioned the moral legitimacy of Israeli government’s so-called rightful action of hanging Eichmann which was patently executed through unrighteous means. The nabbing of Eichmann from his hideout by Mossad without the permission of the Argentinian government was outright flouting of the international law and justice. From this point of flagrant moral ambivalence she moves on to an analysis of certain intricate questions involved in the nature of evil and social ethics. Arendt’s argument becomes interesting for many reasons and most importantly for our question of knowledge and its social commitments. To her Eichmann did not appear a monster with horns and a tail, but a very ordinary looking bureaucrat and a very conscientious and law-abiding German citizen. As a bureaucrat he only carried out his duty by executing the orders passed on to him by the higher-ups. Both from the perspective of nationalism and bureaucratic order Eichmann could never be punished since he performed only his duty. But ironically for Arendt, Eichmann stood accused for another grave reason: “lack of thinking”. He should have paused for a while and thought about the basic rationality of his action. This did not happen since his capacity to think was the sapped off by the hegemony of military and bureaucratic discipline. “Obey first” becomes a naturalised second nature and under its epistemological spectacle even the most gruesome evil becomes something ordinary, unproblematic and routine. Hence Arendt’s important thesis of the “banality of evil” (Arendt 2006).

    Arendt’s analysis preciously teaches us this fact: that the capacity for thinking gets weakened when the humanistic aspect of learning is lost. This in turn occurs most often when a premium is placed on “technical and scientific rationalism” at the expense of humanism and social thinking. Sarukkai concluded by insisting on the necessity for giving more emphasis to social sciences and humanities in our curriculum par with the technological and natural sciences.

    The Medieval Order of Knowledge

    Sarukkai’s arguments and examples raise a number of questions before us. An important one among many is the very structure and form of different disciplines at present. The ontogeny of disciplines is interesting as they like living beings emerge at a particular point of time, evolve, hybridise, die and also return often. There were also drastic variations in the value tagged on to them from period to period. For example, while philosophy and theology were the most important disciplines in the west for a long

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    time from the Greek days to around the 16th century AD, their status dwindled considerably after that. The shadow of their downfall still haunts the humanities disciplines today. At present the disciplines are mainly divided into three: the technological and natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. There are many nuances in the politics of the epistemological republic and we can understand the present predicament only through tracing the historical trajectory of the disciplines. This scenario is rife with one more fatal contradiction. That in this republic, what we today call the oriental citizens or forms, are literally absent. Sanskrit or Indian languages or Indian philosophy for that matter are subsidiary or secondary citizens; most of them breathing their last and for the time being artificially kept alive. Hence the story is all-west, critically and viciously so. Let us have a brief look into it.

    For almost 2000 years, starting from the ancient Greece of fifth century BC to Europe of 16th century, the western pedagogy was confined to a limited set of disciplines. They were broadly divided into three divisions in its peak in the medieval and late medieval periods. The first division was “trivium”, constituted of logic, grammar and rhetoric, which formed what we today call the primary education. The secondary education was mainly centred on “quadrivium” which consisted of astronomy, music, arithmetic and geometry. After secondary education most of the students left the schools and only very few were qualified for higher education. The higher education was an exclusive preserve and by the middle ages (roughly between ninth and 14th centuries) this was confined to four subjects: philosophy, theology, medicine and law. Of these, theology was the most important one since it was a milieu dominated by the Christian pantheon and Catholic ideas. Most of the scholars were theologians. Scholars like Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, Albert, William of Ockham, Duns Scotus, etc, who contributed to theology and philosophy greatly are well known to us.

    Theological and mystical ideas percolated all walks of life of the medieval world. But these mystical and superstitious ideas were given a scientific garb through deft theological construal. In that sense theology was science and science was theology. On the other hand, mathematics, number theory, architecture, music, optics, astronomy, medicine were all seriously researched upon. Franciscans were known for their work in natural science and physics. Bonaventura, Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon have contributed significantly to optics and physics (Grinnell 1946: 153). Despite such intense scientific quarrying into nature and natural phenomena, one superior cause capped all such researches: the glorification of god. This was the fundamental slant in the whole order of knowledge and things. From such a perspective the whole scientific order got doubled into a divine order and an earthly order. There was a godly hand behind everything.

    Everything in the lower world kept concordance with the higher world for the medieval mind. Each trivial aspect of daily life bore a mystical and divine allusion. Take the case of the mystic, Henry Suso, cited by Huizinga. Life was completely sanctified with a profusion of divine symbolism in almost every gesture (Huizinga 1924: 148).

    What sorts of researches were conducted in this period? There was definitely a microphysics like the atomic physics of today. But the problem posed was divine and angelic. An important problem which the medievals thus posed and racked their head was how many angels could stand on the head of a pin? Do angels have bodies like men and wings like birds? Could the camel pass through the eye of a needle since this was an important biblical riddle and image raised by Christ himself? Some other interesting related questions were: did Mary take part in her immaculate conception consciously? Would the body of Christ have remained undecayed had he not resurrected? There was a macrophysics also which in turn became symbolic and at the same time numerical. Three was an important number since it was the number of the “holy trinity”. Four was another important number since it represented the four elements. So by multiplying three with four or in another sense infusing the spirit of trinity with the materiality of the universe the medievals derived the equation for the cosmos which was 12 (Male 1972: 11). Twelve thus became an important number and that was why Christ chose 12 disciples. It becomes important from another angle too in the derivative sense. The 12 disciples undertook the evangelical mission of spreading Christ’s message to “all parts of the known world” which in turn is symbolic of the universe derived by multiplying three with four.

    There was research in gynaecology as well. Honorius of Autun highlights the importance of number 46 for the gynaecological theory of the age. The middle ages held the view that the soul unites with the body after 46 days following conception. The significance of this number is mystically written in the very name of the first man who took birth in the world: Adam. This can be clearly seen once we transpose the letters of the name of Adam into the progression of the Greek alphabets in the numerical order. Though in the alphabetical order μ is 12th, its numerical value is 40.

    D = 1, (G) = 4, D = 1, (μ) = 4.

    Thus, the sum of the numbers of the Greek alphabets that constitute “Adam” is 46 (ibid: 12).

    Again, as the thesis of the historian of science, Pierre Duhem goes, it was from this theological milieu of cosmological physics, saturated with Aristotelianism, that the modern mathematical physics was born. It was also part of a divine glorification. The Aristotelian theology, represented quintessentially by Thomas Aquinas, postulated that the existence of infinity was contradiction in terms since it went against the theory of Aristotle. For Aristotle infinity could never exist. This in a way put a limit on the infinite powers of the Christian god. If god is omnipotent he should be able to create infinity also. Etienne Tempier, the bishop of Paris, on 7 March 1277, condemned the 219 philosophical theses of the Aristotelian theology and an important one was the limitation put on god to create infinity. This condemnation also became a mandate to the theologian-scholars to develop a theory of infinity. This infinity opened up by theologians and scholars of Paris University like John Buridan, Nicole of Oresme and Albert of Saxony culminated in the groundbreaking astronomical and dynamical theories of Copernicus, Bruno and Galileo later. Thus Etienne Tempier’s condemnation of the Aristotelian concept of the finite cosmos became the “birth certificate” of modern physics and astronomy (Duhem 1985: 3-4; Rosemann 2009: 552).

    17th Century and the Formation of a New Episteme

    The theologically saturated medieval knowledge slowly crumbled and gave way to early modern disciplines by the 17th century. It was the “century of revolutions” for scholars like Bernard Cohen. The first political revolution represented by the English Civil War of 1648, the glorious revolution of 1688, the coming and going of Cromwellian protectorate, the revolution in philosophy pioneered by Descartes, the revolution in chemistry made by Boyle, the revolution in political philosophy created by Hobbes, the revolution in mathematics and physics introduced by Galileo, Leibniz and Newton, and the numerous social revolutions that swept through Europe all concurred in the same period of 17th century (Cohen 1985: 1-12). In the context of these social and intellectual revolutions there occurred a drastic mutation in the epistemic ordering of disciplines and sciences also. Foucault’s Order of Things analyses the nature of this mutation with remarkable depth and range. For his archaeological approach it is not the content of knowledge that mattered in this mutation but the transformation in the very principle of the ordering of knowledge that embraced a range of disciplines at a specific period. This ordering principle he called the “episteme” of an age.

    There occurred a fundamental change in the western episteme in the 17th century that replaced the Renaissance episteme with the classical episteme. Renaissance episteme for all practical purposes was the medieval order of knowledge based on resemblances and similitudes. In this episteme things were ordered in a cosmological space based on their resemblance; the logic of similitude formed the principle of knowledge. Hence the aconite seed became a medicine for eye diseases since its embedding within its outer skin resembled the eye covered with the eyelids. Resemblance had many forms and some of them were drawn from distance also. Thus the sunflower and stars are drawn into certain kinship though they are separated by great distance. The sunflower followed the course of the sun from a distance due to its affinity with this celestial star. They are bound together by a mystic force which works at the root of the zodiacal theory and symbolism. Within this relationship of affinity terms can be substituted too. Thus sunflowers became “terrestrial stars” while stars in turn became “celestial flowers”. This order of things based on resemblance and affinity crumbled by the 17th century and a new order of episteme emerged.

    Catastrophic Shift

    The crisis of this catastrophic shift is represented by Don Quixote whose frenzied adventures become epistemologically important. Don Quixote is the last figure of the medieval knowledge based on similitudes. He is the symbol of word itself; “a tall and lean graphism”, traversing both the symbolic world of knowledge and a hostile physical terrain at the same time furiously on an emaciated horse. Don Quixote walks out of the medieval world fed into his brain through the stories and romances he read in the books. He did not know that the real world had changed radically during the period of his intellectual incubation. He was a stubborn

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    scholar who believed only what he read and swore by it. Hence everywhere he wanted to see the resemblances of what he read in the books. Once that did not happen he imaginarily transmogrified the world outside into his bookish reality. Hence the windmills became monsters, the flocks of sheep transformed into marching armies, and the serving girls in the inn turned into medieval courtesans. For Foucault Don Quixote is “the hero of the Same”, a victim of the medieval similitude. His madness is nothing but a crisis in the sign and the shift in the order of knowledge from the early form to the new one (Foucault 1970: 46-50).

    The new order of knowledge that emerged in the 17th century is named the classical episteme. In the place of the medieval similitude a new principle of ordering knowledge emerged. It was constituted of three axes: taxonomy (taxinomia), mathematisation (mathesis universalis) and the search for origin (genesis). Though the middle ages developed elaborate encyclopedias like Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Ecclesiae and Speculum Naturale the principle of classification followed in these works were illogical and often bizarre. Foucault compares it to the classification in a Chinese encyclopedia borrowed from Louis Borges. For example, animals were classified as: (1) those belonging to the emperor;

  • (2) embalmed; (3) tame; (4) sucking pigs; (5) sirens; (6) frenzied;
  • (7) stray dogs; (8) that painted with a fine brush; (9) that from long way off look like flies, etc (ibid: xv). The medievals failed to order even a library properly which is supposed to be the seat of learning. A library looked like a junk room with assorted things like books, relics, stones, bones, feathers, skins, dried plants, skeletons, skulls, paintings, pots, etc, all piled up together. They did not know the simplest way of ordering books or things alphabetically. Books were ordered according to their size, the merit of the donor, the date of arrival or by the distance of the places from which they were brought. Mathematisation, taxonomy and search for origin completely restructured the medieval knowledge into a new epistemic format.
  • But the influence of medievalism still persisted. Newton wrote his great treatise in physics in Latin entitled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687) which resembled a medieval tome. Even the medieval god was still very much present in Newton’s mechanical philosophy as the final mover of the universe and the ultimate guarantor of truth (Koyre 1957: 225-26). The other great intellectual luminary of the 17th century, Descartes, also accommodated the Christian god in a new form in his philosophy. The two poles of Cartesian philosophy are the “cogito” on the one side and the “ontological proof of god” on the other side. Descartes moved from the assertion of the self to the intelligibility of the world and finally to the perfection of god. In that sense Descartes’ position in the history of philosophy is ambivalent; some see him as the father of moderns while others see him as the grandson of the medievals (Levi 1974: 195).

    19th Century and the Trimodal Scheme of Disciplines

    The change to the 17th century classical episteme restructured the form and content of different disciplines and this continued till the birth of the modern episteme in the 19th century. In this interim period, old classifications and nomenclatures of disciplines got

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    reshaped and reordered radically. Till the 17th century there was another aggregation also in operation that ordered the individual disciplines into two other broad camps: natural philosophy and natural history. All the abstract physical and mathematical sciences came under natural philosophy and all other ideas related to organisms, human life and nature came under natural history. Note that Newton’s Principia was written as a treatise in natural philosophy. In the span of the two centuries that separated the classical episteme and the modern episteme there occurred drastic shifts in the form and tenor of individual disciplines. The analysis of wealth became political economy and later economics; alchemy became phlogiston chemistry and later proper chemistry; old rhetoric and grammar became general grammar and later philology; botany, zoology and early medicine got integrated into biology by 1800. Theology lost prominence as a discipline by the 18th century. Philosophy got restructured and became part of the arts faculty and shared its position by the side of a number of other so-called lesser disciplines like fine arts, music, painting, language, literature, etc. By the 19th century new disciplines like anthropology, psychology and sociology emerged. The age of new hybrids also dawned with this century.

    In this period a third entrant came to occupy a critical position between the pure sciences and humanities: social sciences. Before the rise of social sciences the divide was mainly between philosophy/theology and pure sciences. The contents of these disciplines were also sharply demarcated; while philosophy/ theology tried to understand and promote the notion of “good”, the sciences were concerned with the “true”. The social sciences added a new dimension to this disciplinary divide. The birth of social science was a process that began in the 18th century, the period of the Enlightenment and completed during the turmoil and revolutions of the 19th century Europe. Perhaps the most important event that contributed to the birth of social sciences was the French Revolution. The latter asserted two important things: the rights of man and the perfectibility of knowledge. A third dimension was added to it by Immanuel Kant and the Enlightenment philosophers: the use of reason. Kant’s philosophical tract “What Is Enlightenment” was a major step in this regard which asserted strong faith in the legitimacy of individual thinking and the exercise of public reason (Rundell 2001:13-17). But the true consolidation of social sciences occurred in the mid-19th century.

    History of Social Sciences

    Amidst the many revolutions that occurred in this period three definite ideological camps emerged. The first one was the conservative camp which found fault with the present state of things and strongly exhorted the reversion of things to the old order dominated by the church and the king. The opposite group was formed of the anarchists, communists and other radicals who questioned all forms of social control and aimed at the destruction of the status quo. Between these two polar camps a third one emerged: the liberals. They had faith in democracy and championed a mid-way path between taking things back to the middle ages of the conservatives and the annihilation thesis of the radicals. They championed a reformist and managerial ideology. For them things could be set aright by a rational reordering of social affairs in a collective and consensual manner. It was the faith of the liberals in the “management” of society that resulted in the growth and consolidation of social sciences in the 19th century.

    But no sooner than its birth the social sciences were caught up in a double-bind between the pure sciences and the humanities. “Sociology” was founded in the model of natural sciences by Auguste Comte and specifically established it in 1846 after renaming the hitherto current “social physics”. For Comte sociology has nothing to do with arts or humanities but formed the latest point in the historical progression of sciences. For him sociology is the last one in a series of sciences that began with mathematics and developed through astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology (Gane 2006: 55-64). This is both a logical and historical progression. But things were not very smooth with regard to certain other disciplines like psychology and anthropology. These two dealt with human mind and human relations per se and could not analyse things without empathising with the nonrational side of humans in which the scientific tools of Newtonian sciences were of little help. So in the social sciences two sections emerged: one that followed the nomothetic epistemology of Newtonian sciences like sociology, economics and political science; and the other one that employed an idiographic epistemology of humanities represented by disciplines like psychology and anthropology. Immanuel Wallerstein’s observation is most pertinent in this context:

    Social science was like someone tied to two horses galloping in opposite directions. Having developed no epistemological stance of its own, social science was torn apart by the struggle between the two colossi that were natural sciences and the humanities, neither of which tolerated a neutral stance (Wallerstein 1999:2).

    Wallerstein perceives a contrasting legacy in the history of social sciences from its growth from the 18th century to the mid20th century. For him in the early phase of 1750 to 1850 its disciplinarisation between the “two cultures” of science (true) and humanities (good) faced many intrinsic infantilities. There were many pseudo and proto-disciplines that put their claim as social sciences and the confusion was tentatively resolved by the mid19th century. The growth from 1850 to 1945 was more focused and selective which resulted in the standardisation of social sciences to a limited set of disciplines. As Wallerstein observes:

    In our view, there were only six such names that were very widely accepted throughout the scholarly world, and they reflected three underlying cleavages that seemed plausible in the late nineteenth century: the split between past (history) and present (economics, political science, and sociology); the split between the Western civilised world (the above four disciplines) and the rest of the world (anthropology for “primitive” peoples, the Oriental studies for non-Western “high civilisations”); and the split, valid only for the modern Western world, between the logic of the market (economics), the state (political science) and the civil society (sociology) (ibid: 2-3).

    But after 1945 this structure broke down. There started the disintegration of the old structured disciplines like sociology, economics, anthropology, etc, into new amorphous and hybridised forms. New disciplines also emerged and gained strength like the international studies and the area studies. The rise of “area studies” began replacing the old anthropology and oriental studies to a significant extent. Hitherto marginalised groups and sections also demanded themselves to be brought under appropriate disciplines. This resulted in the formation of women’s studies, minority studies, African studies, etc, by the 1970s. By the 1980s, under the impact of globalisation, more specialised disciplines like the postcolonial studies, development studies, etc, also emerged. For Wallerstein two most important disciplines in this series are the “cultural studies” in the interface of social science/humanities and the “complexity studies” in the matrix of natural/physical sciences. Both these disciplines attacked the classical mode of nomothetic theorising and shifted their probeheads to the non-systemic, non-rational and non-predictive dimensions of reality. We are almost back again in the beginnings of the 18th century where amorphous systems of thought and proliferating proto-disciplines all started claiming respectability as independent disciplines. But this time it occurred more consciously and as part of creating an “interdisciplinary” approach to sciences and social sciences. This also resulted many a time in illicit predations and poaching into each other’s territories.

    New Disciplines in the 21st Century

    The scene in the 21st century is far more bewildering. This can be perceived in the proliferation of disciplines and areas of research at present. The subjects have become so prolific that they have started resembling the junk room libraries of the middle ages. The proliferation is such that the disciplines and courses have to be now organised alphabetically as in encyclopedias. Moreover, those that are classified have no patent interconnections between them either. So under the alphabet “a” we have numerous and diverse disciplines ranging from archaeology, anatomy and accounting to aesthetics, anaesthesiology and Armenian language taught as courses in the same institution. Under “b” we have biology, biosociology, biophilosophy and biochemistry to black studies, Buddhism and behavioural economics. According to Tight Malcolm there are 39 disciplines starting with the letter “g” taught in a standard university in UK. This includes subjects as wide as gastroenterology, general linguistics, gerontological studies and Greek to graphic design, genetics and geomatics (Malcolm 2003: 393). Perhaps more astonishing are the sections subsumed under a single discipline like the legal discipline. There are 144 subsections charted under this discipline which are given in a website. This includes sections as wide and different as audio media law, copy right law and divorce act to internet act, insolvency act and photography act.

    Till the recent past sciences operated with a specific system of knowledge and specialised groups of professionals located in institutions like laboratories, hospitals and factories. Today this division has changed with the mutation that has occurred to both the system of knowledge and the mode of experiments. As everybody knows, today experimental gadgets like cyclotrons or “particle accelerators” are mammoth in size compared to the modest test tubes and horseshoe magnets of earlier laboratories. With the development of “mobile” monitoring mechanisms the form of experimentation on human bodies has also changed. Human bodies are now studied in the real life situations through images taken by sophisticated gadgets like rftMRI (Real-time Functional

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    Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanners. These images obtained through the electronic beads inserted inside the human body are studied by the experts from their own homes or offices located far away. The mobile nature of technology definitely owes to the great development in computer technology and informatics. Two important features of the modern computers are ubiquity and compression. By 1990s the computers climbed down from the desks and tables and started travelling. They have become small and mobile. Chips, handhelds and GPS devices have begun showing up at most unexpected of locations. This is the era of ubiquitous computing or “ubicomp”, observes a scientist from the Stanford University. He observes:

    And with ubiquity comes the recognition that all people in all places at all times might require or benefit from technology and therefore have to be able to use it in a productive and enjoyable way. Enter the social scientists (Inter Action, Multidisciplinary News, Stanford University, Winter 2007, p 11).

    Super-Specialisation of Disciplines

    Today almost all disciplines have become multidisciplinary. The range of divisions and specialisations within a single discipline itself has also widened considerably so that a meld of physicians, technocrats, economists, psychologists, artists, designers, etc, collaborate today to solve a common problem from diverse directions. The scientists are “different creatures” than they were 10 years ago, observes Janette Schmidt, a professor in the Biological Research Centre of the Stanford University. It is not only between sciences that the disciplinary miscegenation has taken place but even across hitherto incommunicado streams like the humanities and natural sciences. One of the four important biological research centres in Stanford University is named National Centre for Biomedical Ontology (not oncology) (ibid: 5). Multidisciplinarity has become so demanding and deep-seated that the new image of a scientist or a scholar has assumed the shape of “T”, according to Bernard Roth, a pioneer in the Robotics department of the Stanford University. The horizontal axis stands for the range of subjects one should master and the vertical one for the depth in each subject one should command (ibid: 2). Again, the new “inter- disciplinarisation” has completely redefined the old binary of man versus nature or subject versus object. Things are shifted to an “in-between”. Scott Klemmer of Human- computer Interaction Centre (HCI) of Stanford University puts it a bit wryly:

    Perhaps civilisation’s biggest screw-up came when Rene Descartes said ‘I think, therefore I am’, separating mind and body. What Descartes didn’t know is that it’s all happening in the interface (ibid: 11).

    The super-specialisation in each discipline has reached such micro-levels that the technical representations have also increased beyond our comprehension. For example, till now pain was considered the after-effect of a cut or mutilation that occurs to the living body. It never formed a proper theoretical object of research as such. Today “pain management centers” are an important part of many medical schools in the western and north European countries. The range of adjectives to identify the nature of pain felt by a patient has also expanded disproportionately. A patient going to the pain research centre of the Stanford University can choose from a hundred adjectives like pulsing, drilling, wrenching,

    Economic Political Weekly

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    scalding, taut, unbearable, nagging, torturing, etc, to express his or her pain. Pain is not a medical condition alone; it has become a philosophy even. Stanford’s online encyclopedia now devotes pages and pages to analyse it as a philosophy (ibid, Fall 2007: 4). Again, pain has become interdisciplinary too so that a team of experts comprising physicians, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, anaesthesiologists, experts on depression, etc, all work together to conquer it.

    The super-specialisation of modern disciplines have reached staggering levels which can be inferred from the savvy ones developed in the US and northern Europe today. A few important ones start with the prefix “neuro” like neurolaw, neuroethics, neuroeconomics, neurotechnology, etc. It is again an “image science” par excellence using sophisticated technology. “Pictures of brain, it is said, can show us why we kill, why we like Bach, why we construct stories the way we do and why we choose the wrong boyfriends” (ibid). Take the case of neuroeconomics. It is a hybrid and a quaint interdisciplinary combination. It is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to understand and explain human decisionmaking, the ability to process multiple alternatives and to choose an optimal course of action in economic activities. It studies how economic behaviour can shape our understanding of the brain, and how neuroscientific discoveries can constrain, guide and promote the theory and practice of the science of economics. It combines research methods from neuroscience, experimental and behavioural economics and cognitive and social psychology. As research into decision-making behaviour becomes increasingly computational, it has also incorporated new approaches from theoretical biology, computer science and advanced statistics and mathematics.

    Neuroeconomics studies decision-making by using a combination of tools from the above-mentioned fields to avoid the shortcomings that arise from a single perspective approach. It employs advanced imaging techniques to study the neuronic changes in the brain when it is engaged in important economic decisionmakings. As in pain studies where pain is studied in its occurrence in real life situations (for example, in sports through sophisticated internal imaging), here changes in the brain functions during the economic decision-making are studied through brain imaging. For example, the neuronal changes in successful and unsuccessful investment decisions are imaged, compared and theorised. Through the appropriate technological manipulations the ideal all-winning investment brains could be developed in the future, thus runs the dream of neuroeconomists. Again, the technology of brain imaging can also contribute significantly to the mitigation of problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, etc, In short, the brain has changed from a valuation device to a process device today. In future ideal artistic, domestic, erotic and even revolutionary and terroristic brains may be developed by the new neuro disciplines.

    With the 21st century a new episode is definitely added to the history of disciplines. But though this event has all the semblance of the new or ultramodern, on closer look we find that the things are only getting orchestrated on an epistemic grid that was at the beginning of the so-called modern age. Things go back to the premodern levels though in an abstract sense.

    When we look from a philosophical perspective like that of Gilles Deleuze this becomes evident. What occurs is a repetition, difference and becoming in the Deleuzian sense. Take the case of our 17th century library and its medieval incoherence and chaos. One could not walk in it without tripping on a skull or a jewel box. But today the form has completely changed making libraries “cybraries”. With the infinite capacity for digitalisation, virtualisation and abstraction, libraries have come to contain the world itself in a non-material form. The bookless libraries are many today. The virtual and digital have changed the form of knowledge radically. The point is that one can dig deep and move into labyrinthine interconnections in the terrain of knowledge.

    You can drill through a text to find the point at which child psychology veers into electrical engineering, the moment of the genesis of scientific arguments within philosophy, the places where biology bumps against chemistry and physics, where relics and stones and texts can be viewed as part of a whole (ibid: 2).

    It almost looks like a lapse into the 17th century chaos of amorphous systems of knowledge and libraries before they got solidified by the 18th and 19th centuries into a limited set of disciplines. But in the Deleuzian sense this is not the original chaos but a new one with a difference. As the librarian of Stanford University points out:

    There is an old narrative (of knowledge) and a new narrative. The old one is a ribbon of text, a stream of characters organised from the beginning to the end. The new narrative is the old narrative with interruptions, with high-octane Java, with links and spreadsheets and videos and citations and whatever else will help the reader make connections (ibid).

    Integrating Different Intellectual Traditions

    From what we briefly examined above as the history of sciences and disciplines one thing becomes evident: that as time progresses there would occur more and more devolutions, reunifications and reconnections between disciplines located at different planes with intense speeds. The scene unfolds as truly one of Deleuzian “becoming” in that sense. There occur not only territorialisations, deterritorialisations and rhizomic interconnections between far end disciplines, but also a patent “eternal return” of a few ones in the Nietzsche/Deleuze sense. In the binge of the new mutations and miscegenations that are occurring to sciences and disciplines today there would be no surprise if antique proto-disciplines like alchemy or impetus physics returns tomorrow. Of course it will not be the return of the same but one with a difference in the Deleuzian sense. For Deleuze who bases his philosophy in difference and repetition this is not a mechanical repetition of the same but an ironic repetition of difference in the simulacrum of the same.

    The same is said of that which differs and remains different. The eternal return is the same of the different, the one of the multiple, the resemblant of the dissimilar (Deleuze 1994: 126).

    The global tour we made enlightens us to two important facts. First is that, though there is a seeming illogic in the profusion of disciplines in the west today, it is marked by a heroic spirit for new experimentations, adventures and scientific advancement. True, its dynamic is often deleterious and fragmentary to the subject positions and cultural identity of the western humankind. Nonetheless, in the final tallying of the good and bad, the knowledge explosion only works to their overall advantage compared to the rest of the world. The second point is only an ironic corollary to the first. Our own case in post-independent India becomes a despicable story of underdevelopment and primitivism with respect to the advancement and diversification in knowledge when compared to the west. Particularly so in the fields of social sciences, humanities and the arts. With a few outdated governmental institutions given the mandate for the overall nurture of knowledge what we have witnessed is tenacious immobility, distortion and degeneration of these non-science disciplines. At the same time, there has been unquestioned growth of scientific institutions of research and education. And where new disciplines have arisen in India they are influenced by the scientific image. As Sarukkai pointed out, we are unique in that we created a discipline called “home science” even as the western countries resisted doing so. (In the US, there was “domestic dconomics” but this is not the same as home science, which is very popular in India.) This brazen use of “science” reflects perhaps all the illbegotten social practices and ideals of the Indian upper class: from the patriarchal confining of the women to the traditional home space to the soporific conspicuous consumption of the rich. What we finally find is that the way out of the Indian predicament is definitely a great challenge but small steps can perhaps lead us out of the morass we have created for our students and teachers in the fields of social sciences and humanities. Social theory in India, contra Alvarez, has to engage with issues on the ground such as these even as it seeks to find new voices which integrate different intellectual traditions.


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