Friday, May 09, 2008

Saliba v Huff

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.

4 comments:

Bjørn Are said...

I found the second edition rather good when I read it a few years ago.

Maybe part of the challenge here for the negative reactions is the fear of sounding eurocentric and all that political uncorrect stuff?

Huff at least made a good and unusual case by looking at a much broader canvass than a pure ideological or economical one.

And it is a good antidote to books like "How Islam Created the Modern World" by Mark Graham.

Note also the discussions here and here

Zameel said...

Hello James. You wrote:

>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.<

I do agree "western science" does require an explanation as to why it headed in the direction it did in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Saliba does not deny this. But you make the "circular reasoning" that Saliba talks about. By conflating "modern" and "western" science you assume modern science could not have its roots in earlier "science". You simply assume the "fact" you espouse, and it is this assumption that has hampered our knowledge of the scientific activities of earlier civilizations.

The questions of what created western science and what created modern science may indeed be two separate questions. It is Saliba's contention (and others) that the marks of modern science can be found as early as the 9th century under Baghdadian Abbasid Islam. The discontinuity from Aristotelian and Greek science is found in this stage onwards. The characteristics that define this discontinuity, which in turn defines "modern science", is certainly found in Arabic scientists. For example, Biruni (d. 1048) in his correspondence with Avicenna (As'ila wa Ajwiba) rejected the Aristotelian notion that heavenly bodies have an inherent nature, and asserts that their motion could very well be compulsory; he maintains that there is no observable evidence that rules out the possibility of vacuum; he further asserts that, although observation corroborates Aristotle's claim that the motion of heavenly bodies is circular, there is no inherent "natural" reason why this motion cannot be, among other things, elliptical. Other characteristics like observation, mathematisation of nature, experimentation, the view that all physical bodies are describable by the same physical laws etc. are firmly rooted in Arabic science. Of course Alhazen and his "revolution in optics" (AI Sabra), long before Isaac Newton, bears mentioning here.

What Saliba demonstrates is that there is *continuity* in this type of "modern" science developed by the Arabic scientists and western science which simply continued in this Arabic tradition. This is the crux of Saliba's research. He shows how Copernicus had access to the mathematical theorems of Tusi and 'Urdi (the Tusi-couple and the Urdi-lemma) and employed them even without proof. There is no doubt he had some access to the Tusi-couple as he used the exact alphabetical designators Tusi had done over 3 centuries earlier. Although heliocentrism was Copernicus' he simply overlaid Ibn Shatir's planetary model and that of others in the new system, and heliocentrism had little theoretical value without a gravitational theory. This, for Saliba, constitutes an astronomical revolution in the period between the 13th and 14th century. Saliba also finds links between the writings of thirteenth century Ibn Nafis and Severtus and Harvey about pulmonary circulation displacing the earlier Galenic model. The decimal point was also borrowed from the Arabs. All this through an intense interchange of Arabic-Latin languages in 15th and 16th century Italy (see Rethinking Origins of Modern Science by Saliba).

Saliba does away with old myths from the nineteenth century of no Arabic-Latin exchange after the 13th century, of the Arabic scientists as a simple "preservation" tool, and most importantly that renaissance science shows a discontinuity with earlier science.

That's to do with *modern science*. The decline of Arabic science (probably much later than previously thought in the 16th century) and the rise of Western science, however, are certainly questions that need answering and a lot of factors play into it which have not yet been fully appreciated, but economic and sociological factors seem to have been far more important than is made out.

Useful reading:

Rethinking Origins of Modern Science, Saliba

The Interplay of Science and Theology in the Fourteenth Century Kalam, Ahmad Dallal

Early Arabic Critique of Ptolemaic Cosmology: A Ninth Century Text on the Motion of Celestial Spheres, Saliba

Historiography of Arabic Philosophy, Gutas

Epistemological Foundations of Arabic Science, Gutas

The Appropriation and Subsequent Naturalisation of Greek Science in Medieval Islam, Sabra

Anonymous said...

"Obviously, Islamic science involved the rational investigation of nature. But modern science goes further by showing that radically counter-intuitive ideas (that the earth moves, that heavy objects fall the same speed of light ones, that behaviour is largely independent of upbringing etc) can be demonstrated by asking the right questions of nature in the right way."

From your forum. The two first ideas existed in both Greek and Islamic science. On the third ("that behaviour is largely independent of upbringing"), the jury is still out on *to what extent it is true* and of course it took 300 years for us to *begin* to understand it properly. So Zameel is correct.

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