A (Vexing) Revolution in Science

Louis R Godena louisgodena at ids.net
Thu Oct 3 10:45:46 MDT 1996

A question that has engaged the attention of Marxist and non-Marxist
histrorians of science alike since practically the beginning of the
discipline is:   Why did modern science arise only in West and not in the
civilizations of China or Islam,  both of which were relatively highly
advanced well before the fifteenth century?

Answers have varied,  unsurprisingly,  in length and intensity,  as well as
in ideological character.    Joseph Needham's (1900-1993) magisterial
*Science and Civilization in China* (16 vols. Cambridge U Press,   1956-93)
presented a detailed (though necessarily bifurcated) survey of large-scale
technology under the strict control of the centralized Chinese state during
the era of bureaucratic feudalism.    Such technology (especially in the
areas of hydraulic engineering),  administered by the non-hereditary civil
service was used to secure the power of the emperor against centrifugal
political tendencies.    It was not controlled by a bourgeois productive
class,   as it was in Western Europe.

Needham also saw the social impotence of the Chinese merchant class as
inhibiting the rise of modern science. Within traditonal Chinese social
values,  merchants were the least esteemed class,  and in China the city
lacked the political autonomy it possessed in early modern Europe.    Only
the bourgeoisie could bridge the gap between mental and manual labor,
necessary for modern science to develop.     Needham of course saw the
bourgeoisie as the potential carriers of scientific modes of thought,  and
viewed their impotence as central in explaining China's failure to develop a
modern scientific paradigm.

Needham's work followed,  more or less doctrinally,  that of another
Marxist,  Edgar Zilsel (1891-1944),  whose seminal "The Sociological Roots
of Science" appeared in the *American Journal of Sociology* (47, 1942).
Zilsel's theory related the emergence of modern science to social change in
early modern Europe,  identifying three separate intellectual strata in late
Mediaeval Europe: university scholars,  secular humanists,  and artisans.
The first two groups were the carriers of formally systematized rational,
logical and mathematical modes of thought;  the artisans were the repository
of experimental and observational techniques in causal thinking.

However,  according to Zilsel's scheme,  pre-capitalist social structure
presented an unbridgeable gap between practitioners of the "liberal" and
"mechanical" arts.    Systematic contact was all but precluded by the class
arrangements (e.g. the hostility towards manual labor harbored by social
elites) of feudalism.

With the progress of mechanical technology and the social reordering brought
about by early capitalism,  the social barriers separating carriers of
rational modes of thought from carriers of causal and experimental thinking
were lowered.    Too,  the city,  as a politically free center of capitalist
production,  provided a congenial milieu for this development.     The
"artisan elite" came to require the rational,  mathematical resources of
university scholars and the secular learning of the humanists,  even as the
scholars contempt for technique was obviated by new socio-economic

By c1600 this merger of traditions was evident in the work of Bacon
(1561-1626),  Galileo (1564-1642) and Gilbert (1544-1603).   In Zilsel's
view,  the general characteristics of a scientific cosmology were produced
through the hybridization of conceptual resources which is in turn
ultimately attributable to capitalist socio-economic change.  Such a
phenomenon failed to occur in China .

And why did not Islam itself give us modern science.   A number of Marxist
historians of science (Hiebert,  Goff,  Ruark,  et al) have offered several
explanations.    These are reflected,  along with others,  in Toby Huff's
recent work *The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam,  China, and the West*
(Cambridge U Press, 1995),  and in H. Floris Cohen's *The Scientific
Revolution: A historiographical inquiry* (University of Chicago,  1995).
Both authors link,  in Weberian fashion,  the emergence of modern science
with the rise of capitalism.   Huff toys with the idea that Islam spawned
intolerance for the natural sciences and a substitution of the occult for
the "Greek and rational sciences".    Too,  "there were real legal
impediments to the formation of social structures open to and supportive of
science."   In a word,  Islamic law,  like the Chinese,  did not have that
vital ingredient,  a legal theory of corporations,  whereas the West did.

Cohen only warily accepts these premises,  and goes on to point out the
internal differences in Chinese and Islamic society: in the former,  inquiry
pertained mainly to the human and moral domain,  and was lacking in the
rigorous canons of proof available to the inheritors of Greek thought.
Islam completely failed to cultivate "universalism",  the idea that science
is completely independent of the individual.    Arabs,  too,  were afraid of
scientific inquiry  and kept it out of their colleges.

It is certain that the ongoing debate about the peculiarities of the
Scientific Revolution will continue.    Some (cf. Wm Eamon's *Science and
the Secrets of Nature* [Princeton, 1995],  and Bernard I Cohen's *Revolution
in Science* [Harvard,  1985]) have even argued for the presence (albeit on a
more modest scale) of Islamic and Chinese "revolutions" in their own
right--techniques of Arab astronomy,  for example, that seem to foreshadow
Copernicus.   Others have questioned whether modern science itself is a
purely Western phenomenon.   A number of modern Chinese Marxist historians
of science have insisted that China knew only individual sciences,  and had
no feeling for an all-embracing scientific rationality that ethnocentric
Westerners have postulated as a pre-requisite for a "revolution".    They
point to even the smaller scale of Chinese mathematization as an example of

The alternative historical strategies appear to be legion.

Comments,  anyone?

Louis Godena

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