Mischievous Eurocentrism 1: Whiteside
— On Mon, 19/5/08, rajchak1 rajchak1@… wrote:
Subject: [indiantheory] Re: Brahmagupta
Thanks for the comments on the Brahmagupta article. A couple of immediate points come to mind:
1) How to make Indian developments widely known and appreciated
without placing them in a context the Western world can understand
(i.e., in the language of math understandable to Westerners)?
Let us try and separate the issues. Therefore, I will reply to your post in parts.
First you raise the question of what can be done about what you euphemistically call a Eurocentric bias in history. Euphemisms ought not to hide the real nature of the disease, for we must understand the disease to effect a cure.
In my considered opionion, a great deal of Western history is false. The situation is NOT one of any unconscious biases, which is how “Eurocentrism” is conceived, a la geocentrism. My point is that many leading Western historians know that their trade is to deal in falsehoods, and are willing to do whatever needs to be done to preserve the falsehoods. Therefore, we are dealing with a situation of active fraud. Call it mischievous Eurocentrism or racism—I leave that to you.
To understand the problem, let us take a few simple cases, and then generalize. The first case I would like to take up is that of the late D. T. Whiteside, the celebrated Cambridge historian who passed on recently.
On the late Historia Matematica discussion list, someone asked whether any of Newton’s works remained unpublished. The two of us responded almost simultaneously, somewhat as follows. (You might want to search the archives of that list for the exact details.)
Whiteside: “NONE, repeat none, of Newton mathematical manuscripts are unpublished”
CKR: “A “cartload” of Newton’s papers are unpublished.”
Some finer points. Observe the construction of Whiteside’s statement. The sense of the sentence is in “None”. The adjective “mathematical” is a quibble: to allow the sentence to be construed as literally true, on the grounds that the suppressed Newton papers all relate to Newton’s religious beliefs. An impartial truth-seeker would have told the whole truth, and would have added that there are a large number of Newton manuscripts that are unpublished and suppressed for the last 270 years, but in his opinion they are all about religion. Whiteside did not do so, for his statement was clearly designed to mislead. Note also that “cartload” in my response is in quotation marks because it is a quote from a 19th c. historian’s description.
Everyone has been sold on the story that Newton only dabbled a bit in religion and alchemy towards the end of his life, when he had perhaps gone a bit soft in the head. In fact, religion was his lifelong obsession, and no one has told us the story of the passion that made his hair go white at the age of 30.
Observe also that for some 230 years after Newton’s death, Whiteside’s strategy would have worked fine. Even after that few of his listeners would have cared to contest him. As the leading Newton scholar from Cambridge, and editor of Newton’s papers, it would have been very hard to prove him wrong. In fact, it was only because of the advent of the Internet that he was for the first time exposed to open debate even if it happened accidentally because two diametrically opposite answers were juxtaposed.
I had to point out to Whiteside that Newton’s physics (and his mathematics and understanding of the calculus for that matter) were all deeply influenced by his religious beliefs—so how could anyone make a clear separation between them? In trying to refute me, he could do nothing better than to fall back on personal abuse, and I had to tell him that personal abuse might be the norm at Cambridge, but it is a sure sign of losing the argument according to the Nyaya sutra.
Now let us analyse this a bit more. I have deliberately picked Newton, a very well known Western figure, and from modern times. The suppression of his work for so long is a clear case of active fraud, an attempt to distort history to suit the powers that be. If this could be done with Newton, what could not be done with the foggier figures from the past?
Note also that the “most respected” historians in the “most respected” Western universities have happily gone along with this fraud, not for decades, but for centuries. (Don’t get me wrong, there certainly were a few honest historians like Gibbon out there, but they were blocked from getting to the evidence.) Note also that this process has been going on till recent times.
Finally, a note about the subsequent attempt to revise history. Newton’s revised biography “Never at Rest”, at least gets out many of the facts that were little known earlier, but its 800 odd pages seem to have deterred all but the most serious scholars.
The Newton story can actually be told in one line: Newton thought that the Bible had been distorted to suit the selfish interests of the priests. Even this remains a secret by using the same fraudulent means that are used to perpetuate false history.
So let us understand what we are up against.
(You can find more details about Newton in the chapter “Newton’s Secret” in my book, The Eleven Pictures of Time, Sage, 2003.)
More to follow,