The Politics of Knowledge

THE emergence of the scientific revolution in Europe is often associated with the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) in 1543. While the exact date of the scientific revolution is debatable, there is a consensus among philosophers of science on its repercussions.

It is universally acknowledged that the scientific revolution had not only broke the church's monopoly of knowledge but also revolutionised the human mind. That mankind is overly awed by the scientific revolution is understandable.

This phenomenon is partly attributable to the ability of natural sciences to explain hitherto mysteries of the universe without any reference to the supreme being, and could also be due to the fact that advances in natural sciences had eased a great many human sufferings and greatly reduced travelling time across the globe.

The rise of the scientific revolution in Europe and its subsequent dominion by the West are conventionally linked to European scientists' three fundamental assumptions: (1) No scientific explanation is permanently true, hence, a rational person should remain sceptical of all interpretations of nature; (2) all phenomena are the final products of a sequence of material processes that can be predicted with reasonable confidence and finally; (3) there are no ethical values in natural phenomena.

It is claimed that European scientists were able to make dramatic discoveries by adhering to the aforementioned principles. The premise behind such a statement is that only European culture had the necessary ingredients to bring about a scientific revolution. Never mind that Europeans had borrowed heavily from the Arabs who had, without doubt, made significant contributions in advancing knowledge. But to the Europeans, the knowledge of "the other" is not scientific.

By claiming to be not only the birthplace of the scientific revolution but also the custodian of scientific knowledge, Europe and its off shots are able to extend its imperium to the academia, and all other spheres of life as well. The question that very few people seldom ask, policy makers included, is why the rest of the world has been fed by a steady diet of European and American views on what constitutes knowledge.

More importantly, we have also been conditioned to think that knowledge production is value neutral. Can one really believe that societies like those of India, China, or Iran could survive for thousands of years without intensive know-how on natural, social, political or military knowledge? Why are we unable to resist the notion that only European and American knowledge systems are absolute, that it cannot be questioned?

It is worth nothing that the European colonial enterprise and intellectual dominion are one and the same. The intellectual history of societies falling under colonialism demonstrates two discernible characteristics.

In the first instance, there was a determined and systematic assault by the coloniser on their intellectual and spiritual tradition that is often said to be the main source of their backwardness.

Secondly, there was an overt attempt to completely replace the indigenous systems with ideas associated with the experience of the coloniser – a routine feature of the exercise of power. In a country like India, for example, the assault on its indigenous knowledge and intellectual system occurred gradually but steadily over a period of two hundred years. The modus operandi adopted for such enterprise was officially announced by William Wilberforce in his 1813 speech to the English Parliament in which he forcefully argued that the English must ensure the conversion of the country into Christianity as the most effective way to bring it to civilisation. The effort to Christianise the Hindu population fell flat on its face and proved to be one of the abject failures of imperial governance.

In 1835, a profoundly new approach in the form of a "Minute" by governor general Lord Babington Macaulay, became the foundation of the modern academic enterprise and proved to be successful beyond expectations to both colonial and post-colonial rulers.

In that influential "Minute", Macaulay summarily knocked down the entire intellectual output of India and Arabia.

Macaulay insisted on installing a new system of education with a very specific set of goals. These are well known to all people who have seen a summary acquaintance with the history in the colonised world.

An almost identical situation unfolded in other Asian countries where the colonisers there attempted similarly drastic programmes in converting the minds and habits of the population they had come to rule. Nor was the situation any different in the Americas and Africa.

It is truly amazing to witness that the intellectuals as well as every segment of the populace in previously subjugated societies could be convinced on the worthlessness of their knowledge systems and traditions.

As S. N. Nagarajan has noted elsewhere, the Western colonial enterprise had summarily dismissed the "other" knowledge system and culture as useless.

This intellectually and spiritually devastating story is repeated ad nauseam in countries as diverse as Turkey, Indonesia, the Philippines as well as with respect to the people of South America and the Maoris in Aotearo.

These defeated societies became backwards, traditional, and their knowledge system discredited.

Their feelings of inferiority can only be overcome by emulating their colonial master's knowledge system.

Such asymmetrical relationship is very much alive even after colonialism had met with its death knell.

Associate Professor Dr Azeem Fazwan Ahmad Farouk Director Centre for Policy Research and International Studies Universiti Sains Malaysia