Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Scientific Revolution: China’s Failure (pt. 1)?

Posted by Darin Hayton on 03/30 at 06:00 AM

The Scientific Revolution is certainly one of the pillars of modern, western society. The intellectual advances and the concomitant institutional developments laid the foundations for modern science, for incredible medical advances, and for the developments in modern technology, all of which have improved living standards in the Western World. The Scientific Revolution has even been implicated in the rise of modern, rational governance and political thought.1 This picture continues to inform standard histories of Western Civilization and often influences histories of science—especially those offered in support of particular sciences such as histories of physics or astronomy—as well as histories of China and far east civilizations.2 The fact that the Scientific Revolution continues to hold such authority indicates that the work of recent historians of science has not succeeded in decentralizing this episode in society’s broader self-conception. That is to say, despite the work of historians such as Steven Shapin and Peter Dear (to name just a couple authors of recent surveys of the Scientific Revolution), general historians and the population at large still claim the Scientific Revolution as a hallmark of Western modernity.

H. Floris Cohen’s historiographic study of the “Scientific Revolution”̃

The role of the Scientific Revolution as a historiographic category has been treated at considerable length in H. Floris Cohen’s The Scientific Revolution. Beyond a few summary comments, I have no intention of reworking that same ground. Cohen defines the “Scientific Revolution:”

It stands for a historical idea about one episode in the past of science. It signifies the idea that there has been a period in history, which is hard to date with precision but which almost always is meant to include the first decades of the 17th century, when a dramatic upheaval occurred in science. This upheaval was unique.3

Although the term had been used sporadically since the early 20th century, it gained wider usage in the 1930s when Alexandre Koyré used it as a conceptual tool to denote the birth of modern science and then, further, in the late 1940s when Herbert Butterfield’s lectures on the history of science were published as The Origins of Modern Science. In this guise, the Scientific Revolution typically focuses European developments from the middle of the 16th century—ushered in by the publication in 1543 of both Copernicus’s De revolutionibus, which argued for a heliocentric cosmos, and Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica, which overturned traditional ideas about human anatomy—to the end of the 17th century—concluding with Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica in 1687 and his later Opticks in 1704. The dramatis personae for this story include Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descarte, Robert Hook, Robert Boyle, Issac Newton, and a handful of supporting characters.

Historians have tried to explain the development of modern science by pointing to a range of conditions that they consider fundamental: the rise and spread of capitalism, the rediscovery of linear perspective, the contested political conditions in Europe, the Protestant Reformation, etc. For various reasons, all these have turned out to be insufficient as monocausal explanations.4 Closely related to the question “What caused the Scientific Revolution?” is the question “Why didn’t the Scientific Revolution occur elsewhere?” or, slightly reformulated, “Why didn’t [fill in your favorite place] experience a Scientific Revolution?” The two cultures that have endured this question most frequently are China and Islam. For prolonged periods in the past both seemed to have been more advanced than the West and yet “failed” to capitalize on their advancement. The most famous case has to be the Chinese development of printing centuries before Gutenberg.

Joseph Needham first began asking about the absence of a Chinese Scientific Revolution in the mid-1960s. He refined his thoughts and in 1969 published his thoughts on the issue. In his The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and the West he posed the framing question:

Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo?5

Needham’s answer attributed a strong role to the rise of capitalism.6 More recently, Nathan Sivin has asked questions about China’s Scientific Revolution, and has offered more nuanced answers. Ben Elman, one of Sivin’s former students, offers yet another set of answers.

The next post, “The Scientific Revolution: China’s Failure (pt. 2)?” will survey Needham’s, Sivin’s, and Elman’s suggestions about why China failed to enjoy a Scientific Revolution. With some luck, a third post, “The Scientific Revolution: Islam’s Failure (pt. 3)?” will survey some of the recent historiography that attempts to account for the absence of a Scientific Revolution in the Islamic world. Finally, a last post will offer some thoughts about these efforts to search for Scientific Revolutions.

1For example, see Merrimam’s chapter on the new science in his textbook on European history. See especially his summary comments about the role of the Scientific Revolution pushing theology into the background, subjecting society, government, and political thought to critical scrutiny, challenging absolutism, and laying the foundation for freedom: John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe, vol. 1: From the Renaissance to the Age of Napoleon (New York: 2010), 310–311.
2See, for example, these lectures from an astronomy professor or these lectures from an Asian and Asian American Studies class.
3H. Floris Cohen, The Scientific Revolution, 21.
4The question of linear perspective was made recently be Samuel Edgerton in his The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope, which I reviewed here.
5Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration, 16.
6There is a recent biography of Joseph Needham by Simon Winchester. It is, apparently, quite good. I confess that I haven’t yet read it, despite having a copy on my shelf for nearly two years. For a review of the book, see Steve Ruskin’s “Author traces man’s quest to prove China’s dominance in inventions” in the now defunct Rocky Mountain News (29 May 2008).

Tags: ben elman, china, historiography, islam, joseph needham, nathan sivin, scientific revolution