On Needham and Chinese science

Louis R Godena louisgodena at ids.net
Fri Oct 4 14:21:00 MDT 1996



 John Barkley Rosser thinks that:

> Louis Godena has somewhat misinterpreted
>Joseph Needham's work on Chinese science and technology.
>His books demonstrate that many inventions widely thought
>to be of European origin were actually of Chinese origin.
>The list is long and significant.  Chinese technological
>progressiveness may have slowed down in the 1300s, but as
>late as the early 1400s Korea was probably the world's
>scientific and technological leader.  Taking a Braudelian
>perspective there is a very long wave element to this
>Europe-Asia oscillation in terms of
>scientific-technological global leadership.  I don't have
>any quick answers or explanations here.

I think that that Mr Rosser has "somewhat misinterpreted" my original post.
I began by asking the (by now) perennial question: "Why did modern science
arise only in the West and not in the civilizations of China and Islam, BOTH
OF WHICH WERE RELATIVELY HIGHLY ADVANCED WELL BEFORE THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY?
[my emphasis]

This is the central historiographical problem that is the focus of Professor
Needham's huge classic.   But let him tell it--as he did in a provocative
introduction to another work:

"...Apart from the great ideas and systems of the Greeks,  between the first
and the fifteenth centuries the Chinese, who experienced no 'dark ages',
were generally much in advance of Europe;  and not until the scientific
revolution of the late Renaissance did Europe draw rapidly ahead.   Before
that time, however,  the West had been profoundly affected not only in its
technical processes but in its very social structures and changes by
discoveries and inventions emanating from China and East Asia.    Not
only....printing,  gunpowder,  and the magnetic compass[,] but a hundred
others--mechanical clockwork,  the casting of iron,  stirrups and efficient
horse-harness, the Cardan suspension and the Pascal triangle,  segmental
arch-bridges and pound-locks on canals,  the stern post rudder,
fore-and-aft sailing,  quantitative cartography--all had their effects,
sometimes earth-shaking effects, upon a Europe more socially unstable.
Why,  then,  did modern science,  as opposed to ancient and medieval science
(with all that modern science implied in terms of political dominance),
develop only in the western world?"  ( *The Grand Titration: science and
society in east and west*  Toronto,  1969:  Univeristy of Toronto Press,  p. 11)

In sum,  Mr Rosser appears to be speaking of the period prior to 1500,
whereas my concern is largely with the era subsequent to it.


Louis Godena






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