As the world becomes “global”, so too should its history - especially its history of science. Contemporary histories of knowledge have drawn our attention to the importance of multiple sources, communicative networks, and circulation of scientific knowledge in the making. This refocusing has come with a closer sensitivity to the multitudinal genealogies and movements of knowledge. It also presents us with a new set of general questions about doing local and global history of science.
Two years ago, the EHESS, Paris organized a workshop on "Cosmopolitanism in early Modern South Asia”. The collection, as published in a special issue of the journal Purushartha, focused on specific case-studies of knowledge circulation and cosmopolitanism in South Asia, recognising the interpenetration of the local and the global. The idea of the workshop could now be pushed further to re-examine some of the concerns of social theory that are linked up with the history of science. This exploratory meeting will explore those re-examinations.
In unpacking “cosmopolitanism” in the history of science, such a re-examination would entail commencing with a categorical distinction between the "trans" -cultural or -national, or whatever metanarrative one adopts to engage with our historical concerns, and the cosmopolitanism of objects, things, actors, texts etc - that we confront in our investigations; something which perhaps may not be in the reckoning of the historical actors concerned.
Further, it is equally important to understand how the politics of knowledge plays itself out in the contact zones between the little and high traditions. Playing fields are hardly ever level. For example some recent research reflects on itinerants medical practitioners from Korea who travelled to China and became the mediators between several medical traditions, while at the same time raising questions of their high professional status in Korea and a diminished one in China.
Finally, beyond the debate on what cosmopolitanism means or when was cosmopolitanism, the frame of `cosmopolitan science’ enables an engagement with the diversity of agents, objects and things constituting more than the material culture of science, transgressing the boundaries of national and civilizational history. In branding or labelling a tradition or school or practice as cosmopolitan the gesture is always towards an essential diversity, of a multitude of genealogies, objects and flows. The politics of cosmopolitan science urges further explorations of authority, privilege and cultural capital to be possessed by the practitioners of a cosmopolitan science.
This exploratory meeting could be reoriented towards a dialogue that will then flag a set of important issues for further research and problematise cosmopolitan science, rather than celebrate `nous sommes toujours cosmopolite’.
Some of the central questions to be explored at the two days meeting are:
The objective of this exploratory meeting is to bring together scholars studying narratives of a non-exclusivist history of science. The meeting will examine the issues, problems and materials involved in building a globalized history of science that is both sensitive to the “local” and open to trans-local exchanges, circulation and translation of knowledge. By focusing on the concept of “cosmopolitanism”, our aim is to explore new ways of narrating a non-hierarchical world history of science. In order to do so the meeting hopes to discuss the possibility of developing a long term collaborative research network bringing together researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds and specialties.
A limited number of participants will be invited for the seminar. Those interested in participating should send an abstract (500-700 words) of the proposed paper alongwith their C.V. complete with academic affiliation to following E-mail ID's:
Cosmopolitanism in the History of Science
Seminar Held at IIAS Shimla on 09-10 August 2016
An international seminar on Cosmopolitanism in the History of Science was organised at IIAS, Shimla on 9th and 10th of August 2016. The seminar had an impressing profile of speakers and led to an engaging debate. The two-day seminar had six sessions including an inaugural session. The seminar was more of an exploratory meeting, to discuss the possibilities and limitations of the concept of cosmopolitanism for writing a global history of science. The underlying concern was to lay down the theoretical and methodological imperatives towards writing a history of science that is more inclusive and counters centrism of all sorts.
The seminar began with a welcome address by Prof Chetan Singh, the director of IIAS. In his welcome address, Prof Singh touched upon some of the issues that recurred throughout the discussion that followed. One of the most pertinent among the issues he raised was the lack of an agreed-upon definition or understanding of the term cosmopolitanism. He pointed out that the nature of engagement with the other that cosmopolitanism envisions requires a critical inquiry. Failure to explain it makes cosmopolitanism run the risk of being yet another analytical category that tries to make sense of diversity. Prof Singh invoked the idea of cosmopolitan imagination put forward by Gerard Delanty and insisted on the need for a working definition of cosmopolitanism.
The welcome address was followed by an introductory note by Dhruv Raina. He explained the motivation behind the seminar and elaborated on the concerns set out in the concept note. He also presented a comprehensive picture of the discursive plane of cosmopolitanism as an analytical category that served as a background to the discussion that ensued. He reiterated Prof Chetan Singh’s concern about the need for a more nuanced definition of the term cosmopolitanism. In a globalised world, a simple understanding of cosmopolitan as ‘citizen of world’ is not enough to address the issues at hand. Following Appiah's idea of ‘ethics of identity,’ he argued that any understanding of cosmopolitanism should derive from both moral cosmopolitanism and cultural cosmopolitanism and at the same time should distinguish itself from diversitarianism and simple universalism. Raina drew attention to the myriad semantic expressions of the term cosmopolitanism around the globe and pointed out how the discourse of cosmopolitanism is intricately linked to liberal individualism, capitalism, socialism and with religion and the nation. This nested concepts and categories have come in for criticism from both right and left, enhancing the precariousness of the concept. He pointed out that although cosmopolitanism has been part of the conceptual baggage of social and cultural theory for a long time now, it has not had a significant impact on the history of science. This could be partially explained by the over emphasis on the internationalism of science and the political and intellectual debates during the Cold War. Reflecting on his work on the Jaipur observatory and the contributions of Raja Jai Singh to astronomical knowledge, Raina elaborated on the idea of multiple cosmopolitanisms and the need to be cautious against centrism of all sorts. He further distinguished between trans-cultural history and cosmopolitan history and offered a critical reading of the idea of the local and its interface with the global. Drawing upon recent reorientations in the history of science, he suggested that a history of knowledge approach might be more useful to contextualise the global and local in a more meaningful manner. Raina also highlighted the politics underlying the idea of cosmopolitanism.
The first paper by Kapil Raj interrogated the usefulness of cosmopolitanism as a concept in writting the history of science. He argued that the very term cosmopolitanism is a wolly one, departing from the reading of Sheldon Pollock, Raj argued that the term need not be defined. While there were arguments suggesting that cosmopolitanism in science is nothing but cosmopolitianism of knowledge, another view suggested that cosmopolitanism in the history of science is nothing but a non-European history of science. He ended his paper by arguing the that intentions of using cospopolitanism as a concept in the history of science may be at the right place but as a concept it is doesn’t seem helpful instead he argued that we can use the term ‘hetrogenous sociability’which captures the sense of science as a local activitiy without being hierarchical. Lesley Cormack presnted a broad outline of what would constitute a cosmopolitan history of science and what it would contain and what it would not. She argued that first and foremost a cosmopolitann history of science would be non-herarchical and will not privilege one form of nowledge over another and it would aid in countering popular telologies within the history of science like the Greco-Roman origins of modern science. She further emphasised that any cosmopolitan sciencce has to be sensitive to transmission studies and the appropriation of local knowledge. She ended her presentation by arguing that some of the terms that historians have used over the years like ‘republic of letters, international trading zones’will help us to write a cosmopolitan history of global science.
The ‘cosmopolitan moment’ in the 19th century according to Robert Brain was epitomised in the Universal Exhibition that was held in 1900 in Paris. He argued that using this as a standpoint we can argue that cosmopolitanism is not an ideology but a network of global public flows. He identified three notions of cosmoplitanism which inform the concept and its usefullness in writing the history of science, cosmopolitanism as a product of modernity, cosmoplotiansim as a practice and cosmopolitanism as a critical procedure of translation. Pradipto Roy presented a paper on the histroy of mental health science in colonial South Asia, where he argued for conceptualising a history mental health in the subcontinent by moving the focus away from the instituitional history of psychiatry to plural medical practices which arose due to scientific collaboration and solidarity. He argued that significant practices, dialogues and parallel connections between various strands of disconneccted developments could come together meaningfully in histories of mental health, which could provide a ccosmopolitan understanding of mental health science in early twentieth century. Roy discussed texts written by Indian practitioners on mental health, which referred to global developments in medical practice to argue for the emergence of this cosmopolitanism.
Srabanti Choudhuri presented her work on Nirmal Kumar Bose’s masterpiece ‘Hindu SamajerGadan’ and highlighted the cosmopolitan strands in his work. Nirmal Kumar Bose was an anthropologist and sociologist at Calcutta University, known for his civilizational approach to the study of Indian society. Choudhuri argued that Bose was a staunch advocate of cosmopolitanism even though he never used the term per se. This was especially evident in his work on the structure of Indian society where he offers a civilization perspective and underlines accommodation and assimilation as two critical processes of formation of Indian society. Bose conceived accommodation and assimilation as a two-way process, and Choudhuri highlighted his works on tribal assimilation into Hindu society to substantiate her reading of Bose as a cosmopolitan. The paper opened up an invigorating discussion on caste in Indian society, and many were skeptical of reading Bose’s civilizational approach as a cosmopolitan perspective. This suggested that perhaps cosmopolitanism was a political category rather than a mere confluence of diverse perspectives. The comments underlined the politics of reading a text and impinged upon the concerns regarding actors’ categories in historical analysis.
The debate on actors’categories was taken forward in more elaborate ways in Joachim Kurtz’s paper which offered a reading of the concept of cosmopolitanism in the Chinese language. He traced the history of cosmopolitanism through various periods in Chinese history to the twentieth century and highlighted the socio- political and cultural factors that engendered various nuanced meanings of the concept. He pointed out that the idea of cosmopolitanism was embedded in Chinese culture and politics throughout its history. However, the term cosmopolitanism was never used in the sense we understand it today. This absence of the term in the Chinese lexicon draws attention to the global history of concepts, and the issues of translation underlie this discussion. He commented on semantic nominalism and methodological nationalism in global history of concepts and insisted that translation of the concepts has to be understood as a dynamic process of meaning making, rather than a simple search for equivalent terms. He went on to prove his point by explaining the varied meanings of cosmopolitanism that emerged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, triggered by political events and showed how the idea was in constant negotiation with ideas of culturalism and nationalism.
Moving from issues of translation and the politics of language, John Lourdusamy discussed commodities and cosmopolitanism in his study of the itinerary of tea. Lourdusamy traced the history of the commodification of tea and its evolution as a cosmopolitan product. Tracing this history back to 1830s when tea cultivation started at a much larger and more organised scale on the Indian subcontinent, the author looked at how tea was made a cosmopolitan commodity transcending geographical and cultural locales. He traced the movement of tea across the globe, triggered by the economic and political interest of colonialism. Various agents: human, technology, and capital played a crucial role in this movement, and it was in turn determined by various socio- cultural, economic and geographical factors. Lourdusamy argued that focusing on the circulation of the products around the world not only helps to bring in the elements that were hitherto unnoticed but also renders the history more cosmopolitan. He also tried to put forward a definition for cosmopolitanism as a process or a state of a thing belonging to a place, with that belonging, informed by its belonging to other places, other times and things.
Instances of cosmopolitan exchanges in the realm of knowledge throughout various periods in Indian history were inventoried by Sanjay Kumar before pointing out that such a cosmopolitan reading of the history of science becomes difficult in the twentieth century after one particular culture of science assumes significance. However, within the culture of science, he argued there are various traditions of the practice of science and translations and exchanges between different traditions. This opens up the possibility for a cosmopolitan understanding of science in the twentieth century. Kumar used the notion of critical cosmopolitanism put forward by Delanty that shifts focus from agents to social actions and thus helps to understand the practice of science as a cosmopolitan activity. Thus Kumar focussed on the practice of modern physics and astronomy in the twentieth century and attempted to identify the cosmopolitan strands. He pointed out that the international composition of body of scientists and the nature of their work suggested that they were not confined to the boundaries of any nation. Evoking the much discussed figures of Meghnad Saha, P C Vaidya, J B S Haldane and Satyendra Nath Bose Kumar surveyed Saha’s association with the international astronomical society and reiterated that cosmopolitanism need not always be antithetical to nationalism. Through a discussion of the works of Saha and others, Kumar drew attention to the dynamics involved in practicing science in a colonial periphery. He emphasized the discussion on colonialism and science and elaborated on the need to distinguish between the cosmopolitanism of the elite and the cosmopolitanism of subjugated. The discussion that followed delved into science and politics and fore grounded the need to distinguish between internationalism and cosmopolitanism. It was pointed out that the discussion on nationalism and cosmopolitanism has to be more nuanced when nationalism is understood as cultural nationalism.
Jobin Kanjirakkat initiated a dialogue between the idea of universalism in linguistics and cosmopolitanism. He provided a brief overview of linguistics as a discipline and commented on the state of linguistics as a science. He further elaborated on universalism as an important idea that underlies the dominant perspective on language. The generative understanding of language propounded by the Chomskyan school understands the development of language as a universal phenomenon that follows a universal pattern or design. This idea of language, its syntax, and grammar mainly conforms to the structure of English. This not only renders an assumed hegemony of English and English-speaking parts of the world but also excluded the possibility of any different interpretation of language, its development and structure. Any instance of non-conformity with this imposed universalism is seen as an aberration and not substantial enough to impact the theory. Deriving from Appiah's idea of cosmopolitanism, Kanjirakkat argued that a cosmopolitan approach to the study of language could prove to be more inclusive and empowering. This does not mean a complete rejection of the universal, rather the understanding of universal is expanded to accommodate differences as well.
In the 9th century CE, the Arab philosopher Yukub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi composed a treatise called the Burning Mirrors. Vijay Shankar Verma presented this text as an instantiation of Cosmopolitanism in Science He then went on to discuss the ways on how can science be cosmopolitan? From the historical, the discussion veered thus towards science as a body of knowledge held together by unique principles of validation, which makes it difficult to be a plural practice.
It was left to Gordon McOuat to perform the difficult task of bringing all the important issues raised by the various papers presented in the seminar as well as to present some of his own ideas on how we can understand and use cosmopolitanism in the history of science. Since a lot of discussion during the course of the seminar was to arrive at a definition of cosmopolitanism, McOuat raised the question; do we really need a true definition of the concept? He argued that since a great deal of philosophical discussion around cosmopolitanism is derived from Kant we should look at non Kantian meanings of the concept. He touched upon some of the phrases that crept up during the discussion like ‘trading zones’ ‘openness to the stranger’ ‘heterogonous sociability’. While offering his own ideas on the ways we can understand cosmopolitanism he flagged off certain areas which would be need further exploration such as cosmopolitanism and power, cosmopolitanism and colonialism. As a conclusion he argued that cosmopolitanism should never be thrust as a new master narrative but as a way of thinking through things. The seminar ended with a vote of thanks by Dhruv Raina.
Report prepared by Om Prasad and Urmila Unnikrishnan, Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 110067.
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