Take some pity on Toby Huff. In 1995 he wrote a book called The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West. Let me say from the outset that I thought Huff’s book was quite good. It asked the right questions and attempted to answer them in a sensible way. It was disadvantaged by being based entirely on secondary scholarship, but frankly, given amount of the ground it covered, that was not unforgivable. Huff is a sociologist by trade, not a historian, but he made a reasonable fist of writing a historical analysis. He attempted to explain why modern science arose only in western Europe by considering social and institutional factors like the existence of corporations and a modicum of intellectual freedom. His analysis was quite easy to argue against, but deserved to be taken seriously.
Sadly, as far as I can tell, the academic history of science community was united in heaping opprobrium upon poor Huff. My supervisor urged me not to refer to The Rise of Early Modern Science in my PhD thesis lest I be tarred by the same brush. The famously shouty Sir Geoffrey Lloyd told me he recalled giving it QUITE A BAD REVIEW. But nobody was more upset about Huff’s book than the historian of Islamic science, George Saliba.
Saliba teaches at Columbia University where he has been accused of virulent anti-Israeli views. It is clear from his academic work that he is strongly influenced by Marxist theories and may even be one of those who took Edward Said’s Orientalism thesis seriously. He does tend to refer to European scholars of Islam as Orientalists shortly before disparaging their views. I am currently reading his Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance. It is very good – provocative, packed with facts and impeccably researched. It’s also quite hard going as Saliba makes no effort to produce flowing prose or make allowances for the general reader.
The dispute with Huff began in an essay review of The Rise of Early Modern Science that Saliba wrote for an obscure journal under the auspices of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, an organisation based in Amman, Jordan. Saliba’s main beef with Huff appears to be with Huff’s contention that modern western science is something special. Saliba rejects the idea that modern science is either unique or a product of western civilisation. If this is Saliba’s main objection, it is, in my opinion, misguided. It is a fact that modern, western science has no parallel in its success in explaining nature and its origin does require a historical explanation. It is not sufficient to point to the scientific achievements of other civilisations and say they are ‘valid’ too. Any explanation of western science is likely to compare it with the inability of other scientific traditions to properly account for or describe the workings of nature. What we must not do is cast aspersions on these other traditions just because they did not achieve the mastery of nature that western science has. But Huff never does that. He tries to understand both Islamic and Chinese science in their own terms. Saliba is entitled to correct his errors of fact (of which there are quite a few), but it is clear that his real problem is with any historical project that suggests western civilisation is in any way better or more successful than any other. This is ironic because the main point of his own books is that Islamic science was better than anyone else’s for most of its history!
Huff’s reply shows he is a bit bemused by Saliba’s attack, while Saliba rounds off the discussion by completely losing his rag.
The moral of the story seems to be that political blood is thicker than historical water. Huff has since brought out a second edition of his book, responding to his critics, which I will try to read when I get a moment. My supervisor remained deeply unimpressed and I doubt that Saliba will be singing its praises either.
Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.