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  • The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science
  • Sundar Sarukkai
The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science. By Arun Bala. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Pp. 230.

When I first encountered Indian philosophy after having studied Western philosophy, two examples of comparative interest caught my attention. One was Saussure's theory of meaning through difference (which led to the vibrant traditions of structuralism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism). I was immediately struck by the stark similarity between this theory and the Buddhist apoha theory of meaning. The other example was that of Hume, and in this case I was amazed at the sophistication of the Indian philosophical discussions on the problem of induction compared to which Hume's analysis was quite pedestrian. My encounter with both these issues illustrated two problems in the history of ideas. In the case of Saussure, I wondered whether he had any inkling of the apoha theory and whether that theory had any influence in his formulation. Given that Saussure was a Sanskritist this question is not only relevant but also necessary. This is primarily a problem of origin of ideas as well as of proper accountability. In the case of Hume, the problem is that philosophy around the world is taught as if Hume is the first and last word on the problem of induction and causality. A cursory look at Indian philosophy will immediately dispel any such belief, and in fact suggest a contrary picture, yet this practice of not acknowledging the intellectual contributions of other civilizations continues. There are too many examples like these two and this fact demands an explanation.

It is against this background that I read The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science by Arun Bala. This book engages with similar issues but in the context of the origin of modern science. It succeeds in addressing these questions in a far more sophisticated and rigorous way than I would have thought possible [End Page 736] and in so doing illuminates many important elements of the nature of knowledge itself.

Very often, when questions about the origin or priority of ideas are raised a standard response is often one of suspicion. Why should anybody be interested whether science or at least the idea of it was available to ancient civilizations? And when somebody raises these questions, what are they after? Do they want an acknowledgment that different civilizations had the intellectual capacity for science and in this way claim a kinship with the intellectual tradition of Europe, which has come to define the standards for the rest of the world? Or worse, do they want to appropriate a value essentially associated with Europe to other cultures such as the Arabic, Chinese, and Indian?

The reason why anybody should be interested in these issues has as much to do with the nature of knowledge as with the way societies are shaped in contemporary times. Under the influence of the dominant paradigms of the Western Enlightenment, generations of students in Asia, Africa, and the Middle-East have been taught that the most important marker of intellectual thought—that of modern science—was a special creation of the European imagination. Alongside this claim, there is another more contentious claim: that other cultures not only did not create modern science, but for various reasons they did not have the capacity to do so. If one thinks that these observations are exaggerations, all they have to do is to look at the content of textbooks and the sedimentation of the belief that Western civilization is fundamentally superior to other civilizations when it comes to modern science (and philosophy, too, for that matter). The impact of such indoctrination on the self-confidence of non-Western cultures cannot be underestimated.

Given this situation it is not a surprise that there have been knee-jerk reactions to these claims of the West's special relationship with science. One trend is to attack the project of science itself and point to the disastrous consequences of modern science. Another trend is to show how other civilizations 'had' science (and technology) to varying degrees. The examples of Indian and Chinese technological innovations, as...