The Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap (RCVC, 'Comparative Science of Cultures') emerges from a fundamental question: "What makes a difference between human beings, any difference, into a cultural difference, rather than a social, psychological, biological ... difference?" Current theory formation in the social sciences and humanities does not address this question and often ignores the significance of cultural difference in the study of human beings and societies. Yet, understanding the cultural differences between Europe and Asia is becoming more and more important in a globalized world where Asia is on the rise politically and economically.
This lacuna has led to very problematic descriptions of India, and Asia more generally, in today's social sciences and humanities. Indian culture is supposed to consist of religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism; Indian society is said to be constituted by a caste system; "the cow is sacred" and "religion permeates all aspects of life." In the European media, similar stories dominate the reporting about India: it is represented as a country of caste, cows, corruption, and rape. Our research programme suggests that these accounts do not describe Indian culture and society; instead, they describe how Western culture has systematically experienced that culture and society.
More generally, current theory formation in the social sciences and humanities is a reflection of how Western culture has experienced itself and other cultures. By taking the Western cultural experience as a universal human experience, these disciplines transform all cultures into variations on one model, namely, the basic structure and self-image of Western culture. From this perspective, all cultures are constituted by a religion, world view or belief system; their traditional practices are expressions of this belief system; their ethics revolve around moral norms, rules or virtues; their social life and political domain are regulated by a legal system; their psychologies are driven by beliefs, desires, purposes, etc. In other words, theories in different domains of these sciences share a number of limitations upon their conceptualizations of human beings and societies. These limitations are those of the Western cultural experience. And they also constrain the current descriptions of non-western cultures like those of Asia.
The problems which the research programme seeks to address, then, are the following: How does one get beyond these constraints and develop alternative descriptions of the Western culture and Asian cultures? How can one conceptualize the Indian traditions in a way which shows their characteristic contribution to human knowledge, rather than making them into variants of biblical religion? How could one make sense of cultural differences and different cultures, if they are not variations on one single model of religion, society, law, ethics? How does our understanding of human beings and societies change, once we see that cultures can differ in different ways?
To address these issues, the research programme takes a unique entry point: the Western descriptions of India (and Asia in general) are approached as oblique reflections on the Western cultural experience. That is, we identify the limitations on the Western understanding of human beings and societies by studying the way in which the West has viewed India and other Asian cultures. Once these conceptual limitations are identified and an alternative description of Western culture comes into being, the research programme allows us to develop alternative descriptions of the Indian culture and its traditions also. These descriptions give a new access to the Indian traditions and make their experiences and insights available for the development of new theories in the human sciences. In this way, the rich storehouse of knowledge embodied by the Indian traditions can be rediscovered and translated into a twenty-first century language.