The “Demarcation Problem” in Science: What Has Enlightenment Got to Do with It? Part I

Dialogue and Universalism 32 (1):165-188 (2022)
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Steven Pinker’s recent Enlightenment Now aside, Enlightenment values have been in for a rough ride of late. Following Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s critique of Enlightenment as the source of fascism, recent studies, amplified by Black Lives Matter, have laid bare the ugly economic underbelly of Enlightenment. The prosperity that enabled intellectuals to scrutinize speculative truths in eighteenth-century Paris salons relied on the slave trade and surplus value extracted from slave labor on sugar plantations and in other areas Europeans controlled. Indeed, deprived of its ugly economic underbelly, Enlightenment was barely conceivable; furthermore, its reliance on surplus value extraction from oppressed labor was accompanied by a racism that, with the exception of the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a few other thinkers, was arguably inherent to Enlightenment. However, I am not proposing yet another revelation of Enlightenment’s complicity in exploitation of, or disregard for, the Other. Rather, I want to highlight the damage being done today by an insidious strategy of labelling as “pseudo-science” entire domains of non-Western knowledge such as Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, thereby rendering them no-go zones for serious minds. Even though the term pseudo-science had yet to be coined, the beginnings of this tendency are already evident in Enlightenment-era works such as Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s Description … de la Chine. The perpetuation of this dismissive treatment of non-Western natural knowledge creates a significant obstacle to superseding a “scientific revolution” whose confines have long been burst: it is increasingly recognized that traditional/indigenous knowledge affords a vast reservoir of materials, skills and insights of which the world has desperate need, no more urgently than in response to the covid-19 pandemic.



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