Thursday, August 11, 2011

Toby Huff's Dangerous Curiosity

Toby Huff’s last book The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West was a brave attempt to answer one of the most difficult questions that the history of science presents. Why, asked Huff, did the scientific revolution happen in the West rather than in China or the Islamic world? You might add ancient Greece and India to the list of places the scientific revolution didn’t happen.

Asking this and then answering it too made Huff wildly unpopular with some historians. He’s a sociologist himself which provided one convenient stick to beat with which to beat him. Other reviewers variously implied he was an imperialist or even a racist. His real crime was to suggest that there was something culturally important about the West that made its science more effective than anyone else’s. Huff, in other words, is an anti-relativist.

As someone who is quite comfortable with the idea that western civilisation is the best thing that has ever happened to human beings, I think Huff deserves serious attention. He asks a question that you are not supposed to ask and gives answers that enrage his opponents. I’m not going to deal here with where I agree and disagree with Huff on specifics. But I wholly support his project of a comparative sociological approach which asks what cultural features make a difference to the way that each civilisation does science. And he is absolutely right to say that modern science is the only science that gives us consistently accurate theories about nature.

Unfortunately, because The Rise of Early Modern Science was a book of grand themes and broad sweep, it also contained too many factual errors. Huff prepared a second edition that dealt with many of these, but the feeling remains that he did not lay sufficient empirical foundations to carry his thesis. Neither did Said, Frazer or Foucault (let alone Marx), but we’ll let that pass.

So Huff’s new book, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective (Cambridge 2011), is far more factual then his last one. In the first part, he looks at how the telescope was received in China, India and the Ottoman Empire. The story of the Jesuits’ effort to demonstrate the superiority of western science at the court of the Chinese Emperor is particularly fascinating. It was also amusing to hear that the first recorded instance of the telescope being used in Constantinople was to spy on the Sultan’s harem! Huff’s point is that the telescope did not kick off a new era of scientific research in other civilisations in the way it did in Europe. He puts this down to a lack of scientific curiosity, but wisely doesn’t try to explain what might have caused this.

The second part of the book compares the course of different sciences through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe and elsewhere. A lot of the European material is very familiar, but it is enlivened by stories from elsewhere. But the central theme that European science cracked on at an increasing pace while the rest of the world showed little interest is forcefully made.

Its more modest ambition probably makes Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution a better academic monograph than The Rise of Early Modern Science. But it is surely a lot less fun. Sacred cows litter the pages of the earlier book and it is so bracing to read a sociologist who is not caught in the headlights of political correctness. The combative Huff is less visible in the new book. It remains essential reading for all historians of science, but most of them will probably ignore it and hope that they can continue to avoid the difficult questions that Huff insists on asking.

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Evan said...

I think this is contradictory, because the theories are continually discarded and modified,
"And he is absolutely right to say that modern science is the only science that gives us consistently accurate theories about nature."

That scientists who boast about being proved wrong are so arrogant is remarkable.

I think the relativist line is silly - it's so absolutist! And there are some virtues of western civilisation that we shouldn't give up - the discovery/creation of the 'enlightenment individual' to name just one.

I do think those invaded and bombed by western powers might have different assessment of whether the west is the best thing to happen though.

Banshee said...

There are a lot of civilizations that will kill you, steal your stuff, and burn your house. In most civilizations, this includes your own neighbors, governments, and possibly your close kin.

There aren't many civilizations which will teach you to read, to journey across vast distances in hours, or to find how and why things work as well as that they do.

On the whole, a losing war with a Western power will tend to better the lot of your descendants. Wars of conquest tend to be more problematic. You can be a big long-term winner, like India, or you can be a big long-term loser, like certain other countries.

John Farrell said...

Interesting. James is there a review you can link that has some of the factual errors you mentioned in Huff's first book. I read and enjoyed it very much, but did not realize it had any serious errors.

Tim said...

How can such a blatantly racist book get published?

Elizabeth J. Neal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth J. Neal said...

The story of the Jesuits’ effort to demonstrate the superiority of western science at the court of the Chinese Emperor is particularly fascinating. MS World Summit