Why Social sciences are not providing knowledge, including the likes of Wendy Doniger and her children?

1. The general pattern that has come to the fore is that Wendy and her children (including Jeffrey Kripal) systematically portray the Indian traditions in an unfavorable light, even when compared to how religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism are portrayed. This claim is made in several articles, independent of whether these religions and the Indian traditions are true or false, whether they are irrational or rational, and so on. The discussion is not about the truth-claims of these religions and traditions but about their depictions.

2. Because this is a systematic phenomenon, the obvious question is about the ‘why’. One of the possible explanations is that these portrayals are ‘Orientalist’, ‘racist’ and ‘Eurocentric’ in nature. My point is that this explanation is not adequate because it ends up transforming all writers, who provide such descriptions into ‘racist’, ‘Eurocentric’, ‘Orientalist’ as the case may be. These writers include not just the western scholars but many, if not most, Indian ones as well.

3. I account for this state of affairs by suggesting that the modern social sciences are secularized Christian theologies. One cannot draw on this fund of ‘knowledge’ and contribute further to it without, in some sense, becoming ‘theologians’ as well. In another post, I have provided some considerations to make this extravagant claim appear less counter-intuitive. Before my argument can become plausible, I need to solve many cognitive problems; before it becomes worthy of further research along the lines I suggest, some alternative conceptualizations have to be provided. In my book on religion I believe to have done both.

4. If what I claim is true, one has to show that the same holds good for Kripal as well. That is to say, one has to show that he cannot possibly have produced knowledge about Ramakrishna Paramahamsa or his mysticism. Again, one possible way of doing it is to challenge the truth-claims of psychoanalysis. (That is, one can try to show why this discipline is not a science.) But this would not be sufficient for my purposes. I need to show that he could not have produced knowledge and that his stance prevents him from even recognizing this fact. I do this by showing that his object of study is not the experience he claims he is studying: his ‘explanations’ trivialize and distort the Indian cultural experience, which is his object of study.

5. There is something more that requires doing. If social sciences cannot produce knowledge, this must be true whether they study the western culture or ‘non-western’ cultures. I suggest that it is true by showing (or suggesting, if you find that I have not ‘shown’ it adequately in my reply to Jeffrey Kripal) that attempting to explain the ‘origin of religion’ by appealing to a set of natural causes distorts his object of study. As I put it, atheism is a philosophical option, but if one embraces it to study the origin and nature of religion, one cannot do science. To become a theist and study religion is to do theology and not science. In other words, I point out that he faces a dilemma and that, by virtue of this, he could not be contributing to human knowledge by doing what he does.

6. Of course, this unsatisfactory state of affairs about the nature of social sciences has not gone unnoticed in the western intellectual history. Even though, as far as I know, no intellectual has argued (or seen) this case in its generality, many people have responded to many aspects of this situation in many different ways over a period of time. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher, is one such. He was dissatisfied with the nature of philosophical enquiries in the western culture and tried to arrive at some understanding of the nature of philosophical problems and their purported solutions. His writings are not systematic elaborations in the form of a theory; he formulates some of his startling insights in at times condensed, at times cryptic manner.

7. Sir James Frazer wrote a multi-volume work called ‘The Golden Bough’, an ‘anthropological’ compendium of stories-cum-explanations about certain kinds of practices in cultures. Wittgenstein wrote down some of his remarks, which were published (posthumously, if my memory serves me right) as ‘Remarks’ on that book. (I am not sure whether he read all the volumes, or read only the abridged edition of Frazer’s book.) In any case, he does not find the Frazer’s ‘explanations’ satisfactory because they transform all ‘non-western’ cultures into idiotic ones (my term, not his). Amongst other things, he considers Frazer’s discussion of the rain dance in that set of ‘Remarks’.

8. Wittgenstein notices that Frazer tries to ‘explain’ the practice of rain dancing by attributing some sets of beliefs to the people whose practice it is. The attribution of such beliefs, says Wittgenstein, ‘explains’ human practices only by trivializing them (my words, not his). That is to say, they ‘explain’ the practice of rain dancing as an expression of some sets of beliefs. He calls such an attempt a ‘sickness’ (his favorite metaphor). He points out too that this ‘explanation’ is not satisfactory because it cannot explain why these people perform the rain dance only during the rainy season. (Of course, one can give any number of silly explanations, including the ‘explanation’ that the performers are ‘conditioned’ to perform the rain dance during the rainy season. What Wittgenstein was talking about was a non ad hoc explanation.)

9. Willem brings out another kind of objection. Willem is not implying that irrigation is unknown to the ‘native American Indians’ in his analysis of the conversational fragment he cites. He is saying just the opposite. He is saying something like the following: one could suggest that rain dances are performed because the performers need rain water for their crops. (And, of course, they believe that their jumping up and down in some manner will cause the rains to come. This is what Frazer’s ‘explanation’ amounted to.) So, if these people are ‘taught’ about irrigation, then they will become ‘rational’ (or ‘scientific’ as the case may be) and get an insight into the ‘superstitious’ nature of their practices. Willem is drawing attention to the fact that this argument is wrong. The ‘rain doctor’ knows about irrigation and says that this has nothing to do with the rain dance. In other words, one should not further ‘explain’ the rain dance by speaking about the ‘need’ for rain water either.

10. The general point about the example of the rain dance is this then. Here too is a practice distorted by the kind of explanation that is provided. It is important to understand what is being said and what is not. Neither Wittgenstein nor Willem is arguing that some practice in a culture is beyond criticism just because it is a practice in that culture. They both are saying something like this: make sure that your ‘explanation’ of a practice does not distort the practice; do not confuse a distorted description of a practice with its ‘explanation’.

11. In other words, this rain dance example is a further illustration of the fact that social sciences (in the case of Frazer, the discipline in question is anthropology) are unable to provide knowledge. (This is an illustration, not a ‘proof’ for the claim.) They seem to think that a distorted description is an ‘explanation’ and in the process of providing such a description, they transform human practices into “pieces of stupidity”. Again, this does not mean that there are no ‘stupid’ practices in human cultures. This is not the issue. The issue is: is it plausible to accept that all the practices of entire cultures are pieces of stupidity? Wittgenstein did not think so: “it will never be plausible to say that mankind does all that out of sheer stupidity.” I agree with him.