Decolonisation of math:
C. K. Raju
Some 30 years ago, a group of influential Indian intellectuals decided: we must tell our own stories. The West has been telling our stories for us for far too long. This resulted in the Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture which was pluralistic and had scholars from the extreme left to the extreme right. My (authored) volume, a tome of some 500 pages, took a decade, and was the 50th in the PHISPC series.1
The radical new conclusion of that book was that the calculus originated in India over a thousand-year period from the 5th to the 15th c. CE. It was used to obtain precise trigonometric values, precise to 10 decimal places. The Indian economy depended on rain-fed agriculture and overseas trade, and these precise trigonometric values were needed both for navigation and astronomy needed to determine the rainy season. In the 16th c. CE, Europeans sought overseas wealth, but had a major navigational problem, in determining latitude, longitude, and loxodromes, due to bad European mathematics, a related bad calendar etc. Hence, the Indian calculus and astronomy, and related calendrical texts were translated and taken to Europe in the 16th c. by Cochin-based Jesuits with the help of local Syrian Christians for whom they set up a college.
False credit for the precise trigonometric values stolen from India was claimed by the Jesuit general Christoph Clavius, and for the astronomical model by Tycho Brahe (Kepler’s master, and astronomer Royal to the Holy Roman Empire). However, Clavius did not understand enough trigonometry to determine the radius of the earth. Further, the infinite series of the Indian calculus were not understood in Europe, due to contrasting epistemologies of math, even until the time of Marx,2 though the calculus was falsely attributed to Newton and Leibniz on the infamous and genocidal “doctrine of Christian discovery” (still part of US law).3
The other key conclusion of the book was that the philosophy of (formal) mathematics, as globally taught today, is NOT universal. The different philosophy of math (“normal math”), with which the calculus originated, makes calculus very easy, and ENHANCES its practical value. Accordingly, I started teaching calculus that way, first in CUTS, Sarnath, then in the math department in Universiti Sains Malaysia,4 then in CISSC, Tehran, and in Ambedkar University Delhi, etc., with significant success. In Malaysia, this came into the limelight, and involved heated public discussions, as part of the effort to decolonise the university, since 2011. It, further, emerged that the history and philosophy of science also needed extensive decolonisation. I summarised this real story of calculus in a 2015 talk at MIT.5
The #RhodesMustFall agitation in South Africa gave a fresh impetus to attempts to decolonise the university, and especially to decolonise math which was a major stumbling block for blacks in post-apartheid South Africa. I gave a talk at the University of South Africa on decolonising mathematics. This made some racists there very nervous, because it threatened their claims of intellectual superiority. Accordingly, one racist professor “explained” that blacks and women were bad at math because they needed to be taught to think like the dead white men who had created the subject.
I responded with an
article “To decolonise math stand up to his false history and
bad philosophy” in the Conversation. The article went
viral, before it was CENSORED by the South Africa editor. Numerous
news portals across the world, who had earlier reproduced it, also
took it down, except for Science 2.0 which highlighted my claim that
Euclid was a black woman.6
In India, the Wire put it back, but the Scroll permanently removed
it. (The censored article was reproduced in full in an article “Black
and also in the recent Rhodes Must Fall book,8
and no one has yet pointed to a single wrong statement in it.)
Subsequently, in a series of 5 lectures “Not out of Greece” at the University of South Africa,9 I explained why the tall claims of early Greek achievements in math and science (not covered in Black Athena) are racist history without substance, as Afrocentrists rightly maintain.
Eventually, there was a historic debate10 in the University of Cape Town on decolonising math and science proper (and not just its history). I explained in detail in a keynote in Durban why math needs to decolonised,11 and its formalist philosophy rejected, regardless of its true church origins. I had hoped to explain the effect on science, in two lectures on this topic at Palestine Technical University, which were blocked by Israel’s refusal to grant a visa for no specified reason.
Though both formal math and racism are based on the same rhetoric and myths of “superiority”, people understand racist prejudices, but most people are ignorant of formal math or the prejudices it injects. They accept the formal mathematician’s rhetoric that formal math is “superior”, and this rhetoric is repeated in current school texts. But, in the last two decades, formal mathematicians have proved to be be intellectually bankrupt, and desperately avoiding serious debate on any aspect of the formalist philosophy of math, since it is by now apparent that it will collapse like a house of cards. Actually, the philosophy of formal math originates not with the Greeks, but in the superstitions of rational theology adopted by the crusading church. It is not certain that the Western psyche can tolerate the complete crash of its long-held claim of intellectual superiority.
1C. K. Raju, Cultural Foundations of Mathematics: The Nature of Mathematical Proof and the Transmission of the Calculus from India to Europe in the 16th c. CE (Pearson Longman, 2007).
2Dirk J. Struik, “Marx and Mathematics,” Science & Society 12, no. 1 (1948): 181–96, also CKR, “Marx and mathematics”, a series of 5 articles to appear in Frontier Weekly.
3C. K. Raju, “The Meaning of Christian ‘Discovery,’” Frontier Weekly, January 2015 http://www.frontierweekly.com/archive/vol-number/vol/vol-47-2014-15/47-29/47-29-The%20Meaning%20of%20Christian%20Discovery.html, “Doctrine of Discovery,” accessed June 18, 2020, https://www.manataka.org/page94.html.
4C. K. Raju, “Teaching Mathematics with a Different Philosophy. 1: Formal Mathematics as Biased Metaphysics,” Science and Culture 77, no. 7–8 (2011): 274–279 arXiv:1312.2099, ; C. K. Raju, “Teaching Mathematics with a Different Philosophy. 2: Calculus without Limits,” Science and Culture 7, no. 7–8 (2011): 280–285 arXiv:1312,2100.
5C. K. Raju, “Calculus: The Real Story“, Talk at MIT” (Cambridge, Mass., USA, April 26, 2015), http://ckraju.net/papers/Calculus-story-abstract.html., abstract at http://ckraju.net/papers/Calculus-story-abstract.html.
6C. K. Raju, “Was Euclid A Black Woman? Sorting Through The False History And Bad Philosophy Of Mathematics | Science 2.0,” October 24, 2016, https://www.science20.com/the_conversation/was_euclid_a_black_woman_sorting_through_the_false_history_and_bad_philosophy_of_mathematics-180581.
7C. K. Raju, “Black Thoughts Matter: Decolonized Math, Academic Censorship, and the ‘Pythagorean’ Proposition,” Journal of Black Studies 48, no. 3 (2017): 256–78.
8C. K. Raju, “To Decolonise Math Stand up to Its False History and Bad Philosophy,” in Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire (London: Zed Books, 2018), 265–70.
10UCT Panel Discussion on Decolonising Science (University of Cape Town, 2 Mar2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWdqR-z6jIc&feature=youtu.be; Decolonising Science Panel Discussion: Part 1 (University of Cape Town, 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckbzKfRIi6Q&feature=youtu.be.
11C. K. Raju, “Decolonising Mathematics,” AlterNation 25, no. 2 (2018): 12–43b, https://doi.org/10.29086/2519-5476/2018/v25n2a2.