It appears that Sir Isaac Newton was frequently complimented for being the greatest genius the world had ever known. One of his replies is alleged to have been the following: “Even a pygmy sees further than the giants if he stands upon their shoulders. And I, Sir, stand upon the shoulders of giants.” The extraordinary humility apart, there is something very important to what Newton is saying: his theory would not have been there, if the theories of Copernicus and Galileo were not there before him. It is, of course, a historical accident that certain people preceded Newton. This allowed Newton, however, to write his Principia.
In a way, this is all I am saying. Thanks to the writings that exist today, I can build my theory. The errors and mistakes (or however one characterizes them) provide me with the problem-situation. Why certain errors are systematically committed? This is one question. The second question is with respect to the nature of the phenomenon they studied where these errors exist. All I am doing is developing a hypothesis that links these two together: for instance, I say, it is in the nature of religion (this is one aspect) that it makes those who have it want to see religion in all cultures (this is the second aspect). Taken together, the hypothesis not only tells us what religion is, but also explains the errors of the previous generations.
Perhaps, another example would explain why there is nothing extraordinary to what I am doing. If there is a systematic error committed by people in identifying a certain color under artificial light, your hypothesis will explain both why people commit the error and, at the same time, why some color appears differently under artificial light.
Of course, in my case, cultures and their descriptions are involved and not color perception in natural and artificial light. But that has to do with the nature of the domain that is being investigated. For the rest, they are symmetric as far as their cognitive structure is concerned.
In other words, I am saying that my ‘Indianness’ is no barrier to building a theory about cultural differences because I have the work of previous generations to lean on. Without them, I could not have done what I have done so far. I can only be grateful to them for this.
Will my theory be challenged? I hope so. Otherwise, there is no hope of scientific progress. Where would science be, if there was no criticism and disputation? But the thing to note is this: my theory can be challenged, improved, rejected, modified, etc. thesame way you do any or all of these things in the natural sciences. The same, however, cannot at all be said of the competitor ‘theories’, whether of a Wendy, of a Kripal, of a John Hicks, or of a Ninian Smart. There is no way you can empirically test any of their ‘theories’.
Once this is understood, what does it matter who is first or the last? What matters is the growth of human knowledge and the growth in understanding that ensues.
- How to produce knowledge about people and their cultures?—S.N. Balagangadhara
- Simulation of social and cultural changes?—S.N. Balagangadhara