May Researcher of the Month – Dr. Sundar Sarukkai

Sundar 3-1Welcome to CosmoLocal’s New Researcher of the Month feature, where we spotlight the work of one of our research partners.


1. What is your current position/place of research?

I am presently on leave from the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University. I was the Founder-Director of this Centre from 2010-2015.

2. Could you give us some details about your education background?

I have a Masters in Physics from IIT, Madras and then a PhD in particle physics from Purdue University. At Purdue, I took courses in philosophy for many years and after my doctorate eventually shifted to philosophy as my core discipline.

3. What projects are you currently working on and what are some projects you’ve worked on in the past?

My books give a trajectory of my research interests: my first book “Translating the world: Science and language” was about the nature of scientific discourse and in particular about theories of meaning that allows us to read such multisemiotic texts. It was also about interpreting mathematics as a language. The next book was “Philosophy of symmetry” where I explore the philosophical basis of the concept of symmetry and its central role in both modern physics and in art.

My third book was an attempt to critique the excessive dependence on western philosophy in philosophy of science. It introduced the logical tradition in Indian philosophical systems and showed how these philosophical approaches could illuminate fundamental themes in contemporary philosophy of science. My fourth book was a book for the National Book Trust called “What is science?” This book is an introduction to the history and philosophy of science but through a different set of themes that hopefully would be of interest to general readers in India.

During these years, my interest in philosophy of the social sciences was also developing and eventually it led to a co-authored book with Prof Gopal Guru titled “The Cracked mirror: An Indian debate on experience and theory”. This book is about the nature of social theory and its relation to empirical experiences in the Indian context. It also raised fundamental questions about the dependence on western theories to describe Indian social experiences.

Largely my work has revolved around some central and many peripheral themes in philosophy of nature and social sciences. I continue to be engaged with philosophy of language, particularly in the context of mathematics and the use of language in science. Presently, Gopal and me are working on a follow up book which is on the nature of the social.

4. What’s one thing you particularly enjoy about working in your field?

I enjoy the pleasure of rigorously exploring new insights, especially those that challenge what I consider to be well-entrenched prejudices in philosophy!

5. What caused your shift from philosophy of science to the exploration of the social?

First, this was explicitly catalysed by the interdisciplinary atmosphere at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore where I joined as a faculty in 1994. Prof M. N. Srinivas, the doyen of Indian social anthropology, was at NIAS when I joined them and interacting with him exposed me to Indian sociology. I wrote a bit on some aspects of anthropology and philosophy at that time. Then I encountered Gopal Guru’s work which led to a dialogue between us.

In terms of intellectual content, there is a lot that is common – at the philosophical level – between the concerns of natural and social science. In my reflections on caste, I began to look at certain ontological questions surrounding caste. Some of these questions about the nature of social entities have conceptual similarities with the nature of physical entities postulated by natural science. Moreover, the deep overlap between mathematics, particularly numbers and sets, and the idea of the social led me to explore this relation further. Finally, the ethical questions surrounding the philosophy of the social made it imperative that more serious work was needed on those themes.

6. How do you relate your work with the broader topic of “cosmopolitanism and the local”?

After my initial work in philosophy of science which primarily drew on both Continental and Analytical philosophy, I wrote a book on Indian philosophy and its relation to philosophy of science. The reason I did this was because I was struck by the complete absence of non-European philosophies in philosophy of science as a discipline. This was really odd since Indian philosophy has a long and extremely sophisticated tradition of logic as the analysis of inference and inferential cognitions. There was also extensive material available on ontology, metaphysics and epistemology from these and other non-European traditions. Why then does philosophy of science continue to ignore these philosophical systems? It cannot be because these are ancient or medieval traditions since the ancient Greek, including the pre-Socratic, and medieval European (some of which were explicitly anti-science) are part of the discourse of philosophy of science. So my attempt was to show how Indian philosophy can help us in formulating philosophical reflections about the nature of modern science. Part of the motivation was also inspired by the dismissal of other knowledge systems, like the Ayurvedic medical system, since they were not supposed to be scientific. In this sense, my attempt to expand the philosophical base of philosophy of science was also to make sense of and counter these naive and ideologically motivated ignorance about alternate traditions of thinking, knowing and living. This eventually led me to expand this argument into our work on the social, which explicitly critiqued excessive dependence on one particular type of European tradition to make sense of other social experiences. These are where my engagement with the local and the cosmopolitan can be found.

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