How to produce knowledge about people and their cultures?—S.N. Balagangadhara

1. Let us begin in a very intuitive way and ask ourselves this question: where do we encounter ‘cultural differences’? In human contacts, of course. What kind of human contacts? In inter-individual contacts. That is, we see (or sense, or intuit or whatever) cultural differences in our contacts with individual human beings. You do not meet ‘the western culture’ but individual Americans, Germans, French, etc. Neither do these individuals meet ‘the Indian culture’: they meet individual Indians (or, even better, a ‘Madrasi Brahmin’, a ‘Gujerati Baniya’ – even these are general categories but I use them just to get the point across.) And yet, we appear to see cultural differences in these contacts. How to make ‘sense’ of this experience? Let us first see what is partially involved to truly appreciate the complexity of our ‘perception’.

1.1. Each individual human being is a complex combination of at least four aspects. There is his biological (or genetic) inheritance; there is his ‘social’ inheritance (whether he is from the Middle Ages or from a capitalist society); there is his psychological makeup (let us say his ‘personality’); and there is his cultural upbringing (whether he is a Madhva Brahmin or a Lingayat, say). When we meet individuals, in many different ways we notice these differences: the biological, the psychological and, after some time perhaps, ‘the social’ and ‘the cultural’. Let us bracket the biological away so that the situation becomes deliciously complex. Let us agree to use the following ‘words’ (they are just words for now) in order to go ahead and raise the problem. Let us call the ‘social aspects’ of a person the ‘sociality’ of the person; the psychological aspects the ‘personality’ of the person; and the ‘cultural’ aspects the ‘culturality’ of the person. Thus we meet individual human beings and see the differences between ourselves and the other human beings. What kinds of differences do we see?

1.2. Let us say you come across someone like the following: a Belgian who is living in America driving a Japanese Car. He is married to an African, loves Chinese music and is crazy about Indian food. He prefers jeans, wears a tie, is a bit short-tempered and has a terrific sense of humor. Each week he goes to the ‘Unitarian Church’, calls himself an atheist and a behaviorist, and is a nuclear scientist. And so on and so forth. Let us say, you are just his opposite in many things, and yet you become friends (so that you get to know each other well). In other words, you notice many differences (more than you can say) between yourself and this person.

1.3. From among all these differences, which express his sociality, which his culturality and which his personality? And for what reasons are they that? Notice that you cannot ‘solve’ these questions by giving definitions of what ‘culture’ etc. mean to you. Every one of us has the same freedom to define the terms any which way we want and your definition is my counter example. Nor can you undertake some kind of a statistical survey to answer them because it is not evident what you are looking for. Does the above person belong to one ‘culture’, many ‘cultures’, or to none? Are his ‘personal traits’ personal, social, cultural or biological? The answer that it is both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ is not adequate in our case. We need to know what ‘nature’ is and ‘nurture’ has at least three aspects in this case: his personality, his sociality and his culturality.

1.4. Put even more sharply, but in general terms: what makes some difference, any difference, into a cultural difference as against, say, social or psychological difference? (Somehow, in our contacts with individual human beings, we must have answered this question, even if none of us know what that answer is. Otherwise, we could not see ‘cultural’ differences.) Normally, one would expect Anthropology to have answered this question. But you are going to come out bitterly disappointed if you were to seek the answer either in their ethnographic texts or in their ‘theoretical’ treatises. They do not even ask this question, let alone solve it. Their ethnography presupposes cultural differences without saying what they are; their theoretical tracts still have not progressed beyond disputes about definitions of ‘culture’ and silly ‘theories’ about ‘human culture’.

1.5. My research project, which I call ‘comparative science of cultures’ (actually it sounds better in Dutch and German than it does in English) begins with this question: what makes some difference, any difference, into a cultural difference?’ I discovered that to answer this one has to develop a theory of cultural differences and my study of the western culture and the Indian one (sliced along several different themes) begins the process of developing precisely such a theory. The ‘iti, iti’ answer (that I have now) can be given in a single sentence, but one cannot understand it without understanding the theory I am building. (‘Cultural difference is the how of using the mechanisms of socialization’.)

2. What I have discovered during the last two decades is this then: to say what is ‘cultural experience’ requires taking recourse to a theory about cultural differences. That is to say, it is one thing to ‘experience’ cultural differences, but it is a task of an entirely different magnitude to say what this experience consists of or what makes it ‘cultural’. I am developing conceptual tools to ‘access’ my own experiences and interrogate them. That is, to speak of our experiences as ‘cultural’ experiences we need theories that enable us to make this distinction (between ‘cultural’ and ‘non-cultural’ say) and explain cultural differences. Otherwise, we can just keep talking any nonsense that comes to our head and insist that such an experience is ‘cultural’. (Many, many discussions are ample illustrations of this tendency. Everyone is an ‘expert’ on saying what a ‘cultural practice’ is, why it is/could be a ‘superstitious’ practice and such like without even having the faintest idea of what is being talked about!)

3. It varies from individual to individual and that is true with respect to all cultures and not just the Indian one. The insider/outsider distinction is empty when it comes to saying what cultural differences are: it is the task for building a scientific theory about specific cultural differences, and to build such a theory the passport of a person is strictly irrelevant. So, can we ‘extract abiding universals’? No, we cannot and that in two senses. (a) Any theory we build will be hypothetical (the way scientific theories are), and not abiding in any sense of the word. (Besides, cultures themselves are dynamic entities: they evolve and change, do they not?) (b) We will not be ‘extracting’ some universal facts that require accounting. (Philosophically speaking, developing a scientific theory in our case is not the task of inducing some general patterns from trillions and trillions of facts. It would be impossible. I will simply state this baldly.)

4. If that is the case, how do we go about identifying the problems requiring solutions? We must be truly thankful that Kripal and his forefathers exist! They give us one objective aspect of the problem. Instead of talking about it in the abstract, let me give an example.

4.1. We notice that, in the hands of Kripal, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s mysticism becomes an expression of homo-eroticism. Most of us do get upset and express this as well. One reaction: an unscientific response is to do what some members on Sulekha site did. Convinced of their own intelligence and of our utter stupidity they come up with some third-rate ‘atheism’ as though they have re-discovered the wheel all on their own. That is, they do not even sense the problem. Second response: not being geniuses like them, you and I sense something has ‘gone wrong’ somewhere. This is the first step. What has ‘gone wrong’? We start reading around, say, the articles from Rajiv Malhotra and Sankrant Sanu. What do we find out? This way of talking does not appear to be confined to Kripal alone. Therefore, there is a reasonable suspicion that it might not merely be an expression of an individual idiosyncrasy of Jeffrey Kripal. This is the second step. Let us say, we assume that it is the syndrome of Wendy’s children. So, we read a bit more, from different people, from different periods of time (say the travellers’ reports about India). They say the same things, but use a different imagery and a different jargon. This is the third step. We see that it is not merely a question of Kripal’s idiosyncrasy or merely a question of Wendy’s child syndrome (even if they are both) but that it encompasses people’s reports from the western culture as well. This is the fourth step. May be, it has to do with ‘the western culture’. At this moment, we merely have an intuitive idea of what ‘western culture’ is. So, we read a bit more: say, what the Islamic rulers and writers said about our traditions. We see that they said more or less the same things. This is the fifth step. So, it could be all of the above and yet might have something to do with what ‘religion’ is. (After all, both Christianity and Islam are religions.) Then, because we are Indians, we read and reflect about what we said about Christianity and Islam. We do not appear to have said similar things at all. This is the sixth step. Two possibilities open up: either our ‘religions’ are special; or, they might not be ‘religions’ at all. Then you start reading about religion and thinking again … This process continues until you are able to formulate a tractable problem and come up with a testable hypothesis.

4.2. We are not ‘inducing’ anything by first collecting trillions upon trillions of facts. We are doing research that is hypothesis driven, and which is being tested at every step. But what was the starting point? The ‘feeling’ that something is ‘wrong’ (cognitively wrong, that is) with Kripal’s description of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Of course, my description above is cooked up in the sense that our research is never that simple or that straightforwardly progressive and cumulative. There will be false starts, blind alleys, inabilities to see the ‘obvious’ at times, etc. But that is a process of all scientific enquiries.

4.3. To discover that stories like Kripal trivialize and distort our experience (however simple that formulation might sound) required scientific research that has stretched for nearly two decades now. This is not the beginning point, but one of the results of research. However, this is merely autobiographical. Today, the results of my research can become the starting points for a new, the younger generation of intellectuals. This is what scientific research enables. On this, I pin my hopes.

5. It is true I emphasize that the majority of the social sciences take a particular experience of the world for granted and assume as ‘universally true’ the assumptions that structure such an experience. Not only do I identify these premises as Christian theological in nature, but also criticize them. Of course, I do not stop at just criticizing them but go further in an attempt to provide an alternative theory. What does this imply with respect to the limitations of my own theory? The answer has to do with two things.

5.1. What exactly is the nature of my criticism? Firstly, I criticize these theories for not being ‘scientific’. That in two senses: (a) I say they are secularized Christian theologies. (b) And that they are not scientific because they are not cognizant of this. Secondly, now comes the important question: could they have been any different? According to my story, they could not have been. I can put this answer in another way: the western intellectuals were constrained by their culture (the nature of religion and its relation to the western culture) to theorize how they did. In other words, I do not call it their failure, even though it is a cognitive failure, when looked at as an issue of producing knowledge (i.e. as an epistemological issue). If one were to pose the issue abstractly, i.e. without taking the real and historical dynamics of producing scientific knowledge, then exactly the same criticism (i.e. the constraints of the culture) would have been applicable to whoever theorized first. If Indian culture had developed the ‘social sciences’ first, it would also have been hampered by its cultural constraints.

5.2. However, this cognitive failure of the western culture provides an extremely important reference point (or provides one set of problems) thanks to which I can escape the constraints of my culture and become subservient only to the dynamics of producing scientific theories. That is to say, the development and replacement of my theories will be subject to the dynamics that govern any scientific theory, and only to that. Let me make this abstract answer concrete by taking two examples of my theory production: one from the book you are reading and the other from my forthcoming book.

My theory of religion answers two questions simultaneously: what is the nature of religion? Why did the western intellectuals see religion in every culture? The answer to one is also the answer to the other. No ad hoc assumptions intervene in the process of answering the first question and deriving the answers to the second. In other words, the cognitive failure of the western culture is a problem I have to solve and the solution to this problem has to be derived (in some appropriate sense) from my theory about that phenomenon which they failed to understand. (This must be done without adding ad hoc assumptions.)

The western ethical traditions transform us either into immoral peoples or moral cretins. To show that we are neither, I need to develop a theory of ethics that (a) shows that there are ethical traditions in the Indian culture; (b) explains the western ‘theories’ of ethics and the corresponding perception. That is to say, my theory of ethics will include the western ‘theories’ as its limiting case. Under specific assumptions, I must show how you can go from a theory of ethics I develop (which, I claim, is the Indian ethics) to the western ethics. [To use a historical example: Einstein’s theory enables one to ‘derive’ the Newtonian theory as its limiting case and under specific assumptions. In my book on ethics, I have done this. Currently, I am beginning on the final version of this book; so, this is what I think I have been able to do. I will have to wait and see whether it lives through the final version.]

6. In other words, my story (though drawn from my culture) has to account for sets of theories that are constrained by the western culture. It is not simply a story about how we ‘experience’ the world. It not only does more; it is forced to do more if it aspires to be scientific. Such a scientific story, then, can be developed by any one from any culture (see my declaration at the beginning of the target article); if it is replaced, it will be because the better theory will do the job better. In other words, my story will become subordinated to the dynamics of scientific growth and progress of science. That is why, as I see it, the ‘Indian Renaissance’ is of significance and importance not just to us but to the human community and human knowledge.

7. A question: “So shouldn’t social science (in this instance, a science of culture) seek to explain what we observe or perceive of different societies (in this instance cultures)?

The question, when it comes to culture, is whose perception and how do we define that perception? What we observe of the physical world is pretty much the same irrespective of our own culture, but when we make observations about societies (and cultures), what we observe, how we perceive seems to differ from observer to observer, and more widely between outsiders and insiders. So whose observations are the social scientists supposed to explain? And how do they define what that perception is? Do they have to take the perceiver’s word for it? Or better put, don’t they have to take the perceiver’s word for it?” Let me now see which questions I have answered, and which I have not.

7.1. The first question. Yes, the science of culture should indeed explain what we perceive. We also seem to perceive cultural differences even where we cannot (without such a science) say what we perceive.

7.2. Let me state one general point. Even though the natural world is invariant, the way we experience this world is, somehow and to some extent, dependent upon the theories we use to say what we experience. (There is a huge debate about this issue, and it is not yet settled one way or another. We do not, as yet, even have a decent theory of perception. Research, for example, in Computer Vision is trying to simulate some aspects of perception of objects and motion etc). This is true for our cultural world too: we can say what we see depending upon what ‘theories’ we bring to bear on what we see and say. Dependent to what extent? This is not a philosophical question, but one for scientific research. The theories about cultural differences have the onus of answering this question partially as well.