Truth relativism in culture wars

Falsifying history was, of course, one of the central themes of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and a primary tool of the Soviet Union. Are we seeing new, subtler attempts today?

Eratosthenes: "Errr, isn't someone forgetting me?"
Vincent Cooper
On 16 November 2012 17:56

And indeed, cultural criticism of what Sardar sees as European “cultural imperialism” or eurocentrism is a major theme of Introducing Mathematics. At times I found it difficult to separate the anti-eurocentrism from the maths. The final three chapters are headed “Mathematics and Eurocentrism”, “Ethnomathematics”, and “Mathematics and Gender”.

Now, for those of us educated in the traditional, pre-post-modern manner, where 2+2=4, even if you weren’t born in Europe—indeed, even if you were transgendered on Mars—such accusations of eurocentrism in mathematics represent a total failure to understand the nature of the subject. But how, exactly, was this Western cultural imperialism supposed to have come about?

According to Sardar, “Europe used three tactics to propagate Eurocentrism in mathematics”.

Tactics? Surely not!  It’s hard to believe that Europe had to resort to “tactics” to promote the brilliance of Newton and Leibniz. But leaving that aside, what were those three eurocentric tactics supposed to be?

Europe, Sardar says, “appropriated the contributions of non-Western cultures, while simultaneously making them invisible.” (Note the use of the Marxist term “appropriated”.)

But what exactly were those non-Western contributions? Sardar seems to have a hard time with this. Claiming that Muslims were responsible for the discovery of trigonometry does not make non-Western contributions visible; rather, it makes them highly dubious.

Europe, says Sardar, “defined mathematics in a certain way, and declared much of the contribution of other civilizations to be ‘not true mathematics.’”  

Examples of mathematics declared ‘not true mathematics’ (who did the “declaring”, I wonder?) are “street mathematics of peasant pushcart vendors in Brazil’ and “European women’s knitting seen as algebra”.

Now, I’m not aware of any Western imperialist who declared the street mathematics of Brazilian barrow-boys to be “not true mathematics”—but there is nevertheless a serious side to this.

Ziauddin Sardar is a Muslim cultural critic. Essentially, he is rejecting what he sees as the elitist Western dismissal of non-Western, particularly Muslim mathematics, as being simply “utilitarian” (for measuring fields, etc) without the Platonic purity and intellectual rigour of the Western mathematical tradition. The British mathematician, Bertrand Russell, very much represents this Western elitist view:

“Mohammedan civilization in its great days was admirable in the arts and in many technical ways, but it showed no capacity for independent speculation in theoretical matters. Its importance, which must not be underrated, is as a transmitter.”

Sardar doesn’t like this “transmitter” view. He rejects the commonly held belief that the Muslim achievement was simply to “transmit”, in Arabic translation, a few Greek texts to Europe. He wants to establish Muslim mathematics as an achievement in its own right.

Fair enough, but by making demonstrably false and dubious claims about the historical role of Muslim mathematics, Sardar only draws attention to the possible truth of Russell’s claim.

Anyone in Britain today who has an ear to the ground knows there is a slow-burning, low-level culture war taking place. Britain, and indeed Europe and the West generally, are not the mono-cultural societies they were in the fifties. Ethnic group identity and cultural self-esteem are asserting themselves in many areas, including education. The nineteenth and early twentieth century view that European empires were a civilising force is being questioned.

That may be a good thing, but Ziauddin Sardar’s book Introducing Mathematics is an example of where this questioning can go wrong. Underplaying or denying facts about Western culture and history does not, in the long run, enhance the status of non-Western cultures.

But the problem is not confined to somewhat minor books on mathematics written by deconstructive cultural critics trying to relativise the Western achievement. Andrew Marr’s latest BBC television serious: A History of the World displays the same tendency of underplaying the achievements of the West.

In one episode, for example, Marr portrays the ninth century Muslim mathematician, Musa al- Khuwarazmi, as struggling to solve “one of the biggest scientific puzzles of the time—trying to accurately measure the circumference of the earth.”

Well, that will come as a big surprise to those of us who know that the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes had already measured the circumference of the earth way back in the third century BC, over a thousand years earlier. This is an established fact, to be found in any reputable history book. So why is Andrew Marr ignoring the great Western Greek achievement?

I suspect it’s that low-level culture war again. In History of the World, Marr hardly mentions the Greek mathematical achievement, yet goes into detail about Muslim mathematicians solving a problem that had already been solved by the Western Greeks.

True, Marr doesn’t say the Greeks didn’t measure the circumference of the earth—he just gives the impression that Muslims were the first to solve the problem. But if your aim is to inform viewers about how mankind advanced to what we are today, then why omit such an important Greek achievement?

Falsifying history was, of course, one of the central themes of Orwell’s book, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith works all day re-writing history to “fit in” with the current Communist Party line. Indeed, the political distortion of historical truth was a major concern of Orwell’s throughout his life.

Marr’s History of the World and Ziauddin Sardar’s History of Mathematics may not be deliberate distortions in this Orwellian sense. But even if that is the case, they are still forms of liberal, post-modern “truth relativism”, where the politics are more important than the facts.   

Vincent Cooper is a freelance writer

blog comments powered by Disqus