South Africa is an important social space in world history and politics for understanding how the modern world comes to deal with the questions of social difference, and the encounter of people with different civilizational histories. In this essay I argue that a particular racial idea inflected this encounter. One of the ways in which this happened was through the dominance of late nineteenthcentury and early twentieth-century positivism. In setting up the argument for this essay, I begin with a characterization of the nature of early South Africa's modernity, the period in which the country's political and intellectual leadership began to outline the kinds of knowledges they valued. I argue that a scientism, not unlike the positivism that emerges in many parts of the world at this time, came to inform discussions of progress and development in the country at the end of the nineteenth century. This was continued into the early twentieth century, and was evident in important interventions in the country such as the establishment of the higher education system and initiatives like the Carnegie Inquiry of 1933. The key effect of this scientism, based as it was on the conceits of objectivity and neutrality, was to institute suspicion of all other forms of knowing, and most critically that of indigenous knowledge. In the second part of the paper, I show that this scientism persists in the post-apartheid curriculum project. Finally, I make an exploratory argument, drawing on the concept of the 'transaction' in John Dewey, for a new approach to knowing.