Shimla Workshop Reflections


On August 9-10, 2016, a workshop on the changing perceptions of the history of science was held at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla, India.  Below are reflections by Urmila Unnikrishnan, a PhD student in the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University.


Urmila Unnikrishnan, Jawaharlal Nehru University

A two-day international seminar on the cosmopolitan in the history of science was organised at International Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The concept note of the seminar termed it an exploratory meeting and indeed it was one. Spread over the two days and divided into six sessions, including an inaugural session, the seminar opened up the notion of cosmopolitanism to extensive scrutiny regarding its prospects and limits as an analytical category to write a globalised history of science. The point of the concept note was revisited all through the seminar: the primary concern behind this intellectual endeavour was an attempt towards writing a history of science, which is non-hierarchical, non-exclusionary and devoid of centrism of any sort. This concern in history is not a recent one and has accumulated deliberations for half a century now. Hence one of the main themes underlying the discussions at the seminar was to distinguish cosmopolitanism from other similar notions like multicultural science, transcultural science, universalism, internationalism and many others. And this task presumes a comprehensive definition and explanation of the idea of cosmopolitanism and the methodological imperatives it entails.

All the papers presented at the seminar sought to elaborate on these and other concerns about cosmopolitanism. Some speakers tried to arrive at a definition of the term cosmopolitanism by referencing the legacy of various thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Martha Nussbaum, Gerard Delanty, Martti Koskenniemi and Kwame Appiah. On the other hand, some put forward alternative notions, like Kapil Raj who suggested the idea of heterogeneous sociabilities. Others presented their own definition; for example, John Lourduswamy defined 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’.

The first two sessions – the inaugural session and the technical session that followed – explored the nuances of the notion of cosmopolitanism. In his welcome address, Prof. Chetan Singh, a historian who now serves as the director of the Institute, highlighted the inherent conflict and diversity in the concept itself. The introductory note by Prof. Dhruv Raina, who convened the meeting, provided a grounded perspective to take forward the discussion. Prof. Raina charted a history of the term cosmopolitanism and glanced upon its history as an adjective to the history of science. Elaborating on the notion of Mughal cosmopolitanism, Prof. Raina hinted at one of the important questions on when does a body of knowledge become cosmopolitan. He also highlighted the politics that any endeavour towards a cosmopolitan history of science underlines. Kapil Raj’s paper traced a history of the concept of cosmopolitanism and brought out the ambivalence inherent in the usage and meaning of the term. Pointing out the instances of pejorative uses of the term throughout history, Kapil Raj forced one to think about the various possible connotations of a term and the kind of politics that each of them engenders. Lesley Cormack discussed the challenges of writing a more inclusive history of science and furthered the discussion on the cosmopolitan history of science and global history of science.

Robert Brain and Sanjay Kumar reflected on the practice of science from a cosmopolitan perspective, while Lourduswamy and Vijay Shankar Varma mainly delved into the cosmopolitanism of things. Jobin Kanjirakkat and Pradipto Roy offered a critical reading of their disciplines – linguistics and psychiatry respectively – from a cosmopolitan perspective and foregrounded the politics of the local. Joachim Kurtz provided an interesting detour by discussing the absence and presence of the term cosmopolitanism in Chinese lexicons through various periods in history and explained how contemporary socio-political forces had engendered different meanings for the term. Kurtz pushed forward the discussion on the history of concepts and opened up the conversation on translation and appropriation as well as the need to explore the failure of a concept in certain contexts. Srabanti Choudhuri attempted to identify strands of cosmopolitanism in the works of Nirmal Kumar Bose, an anthropologist and sociologist from Calcutta who offered a civilizational perspective to explain the structure of Indian society.

As diverse as these papers were, the underlying themes of the papers and the discussion that followed hinted on similar questions on cosmopolitanism, each paper pointing it out in more nuanced ways. Ideas of circulation and diversity seemed to form the crux of the discussion. Cosmopolitan history of science understands the development of science as a dynamic process moving across time, space and geographies. This movement not at all linear is spread across the globe in multidirectional ways. However, as Prof Cormack pointed out, the conventional history of science has not paid much heed to this transcultural churning of ideas. The task of the cosmopolitan history of science or for that matter any analytical frame that promises to render a more inclusive history of science is to fill up this lacuna. Nevertheless, highlighting the movement of ideas in space-time and location has to be negotiated in terms of situated histories also, because a cosmopolitan history cannot amount to a naive denial of centre and periphery. The task at hand then is, to put forward a more political argument that allows a discussion of appropriation and validation of knowledge systems as well. We need to arrive at an understanding of cosmopolitanism, to paraphrase Prof Chetan, that raises questions as well as answers and helps to build a metanarrative, where each of the smaller narratives is contextualised, connected to one another and contribute to the larger meta-narrative as well.

Some papers raised the issue of the conflict between an actor’s category and an analytical category. This concern is compounded in the case of cosmopolitanism, which is shrouded completely in a form of presentism that is constantly in dialogue with the local, national and international politics at the same time. And that takes us to another issue underlined by most of the papers and discussed at length by Joachim Kurtz- the conflict of the idea of cosmopolitanism with the notion of nationalism. Prof. Raina had earlier pointed out how the critique of cosmopolitanism both from the left and the right are couched in terms of nationalism. In this era of heightened cultural and political fundamentalism all over the world, the theoretical and methodological imperatives that enable an empowering dialogue between cosmopolitanism and nationalism is a compelling need, and I wonder how the analytical category of cosmopolitanism equips one for the task at hand. Moreover, it is important to remember that the idea of the nation, especially when it is used to qualify a body of knowledge, is itself a hegemonic category and any cosmopolitan history of science needs to be equipped to accommodate the diversities at the sub-national levels also. On the whole, the idea of the cosmopolitan history of science is itself a political idea and Prof. Gordon McOuat’s idea of new critical cosmopolitanism does sound hopeful, but we definitely have a long way to go.

Postscript:  while Prof. Cormack wanted to include more non-western narrative in her history of science and Prof. Raina was toying with the idea of how not to write the history of non-western science, the gripping question for me was why to write a history of vernacular science. As a graduate student attempting to locate science in the social imaginary of a vernacular intellectual-scape, I am constantly faced with the “so what?” question. The only way to answer it is to locate my study in the larger history of science. Recent developments in the history of science have indeed opened up the possibility for such an endeavour, but I am apprehensive about the questions I am raising. An analytical framework that not only seeks local answers for global questions but also raises questions that are local in nature and connects it to the global narrative still eludes me.


Photo credit: Indian Institute of Advanced Study




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