Sundar Sarukkai on science, philosophy and non-western traditions of knowledge



***The below was originally published in The Excalibur (10 November 2016)***

by Kanchi Uttamchandani | Assistant News Editor

Sundar Sarukkai, a leading Indian philosopher and theoretical physicist, wants to send a clear message: the academic world needs to be more inclusive of non-Western school of thought.

With a master’s of science from the Indian Institute of Technology and a PhD from Purdue University, Sarukkai discussed ways of thinking and philosophies of knowledge that exist outside mainstream Western tradition.

The panel was hosted by the York Centre for Asian Research, or YCAR.

“If we are studying Asian societies, we should probably be doing so using concepts and philosophies developed in those contexts and not just with transplanted Western theories,” says YCAR Director Philip Kelly.

“Western knowledge can be applied to a non-Western system, but non-Western knowledge is rarely, if ever, applied to a Western system, even within a non-Western institution,” says Tehmeena Chaudhry, MSc candidate in biological science.

Sarukkai’s presentation touched upon the apparent double standard in knowledge and asymmetry in the representation and implementation of scientific theory from Western and non-Western sources.

Among the several examples presented, Sarukkai explained in depth how Western philosophers did not understand Indian philosophy and mathematics because they could neither access nor understand the primary texts.

Sarukkai cites the example of philosophers Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden, who wrote a piece criticizing the Eurocentric nature of university philosophy departments in the United States, proposing that they instead be renamed departments of European and American philosophy in order to be consistent with what they teach.

Sarukkai points out that language and translation are one of the fundamental problems in the quest to learn from other cultures.

“The lack of availability of access to texts cannot really be an excuse because there are secondary texts and some primary texts. Translation cannot be used as a gatekeeper for not letting other ideas come,” said Sarukkai.

Chaudhry thinks the responsibility to acknowledge and incorporate non-Western thought lies with educators and faculty members who have an obligation to expand and add this to the current curriculum.

Sarukkai highlights the need to analyze the long historical trajectory of ideas in order to make sense of experiences of different societies. He asserts that the non-West is a very rich source of creation of experiences which the West can then reflect upon.


*photos by alex felipe