Saturday, August 25, 2018

Some thoughts on Toby Huff’s The Rise of Early Modern Science


Why did modern science arise in western Europe and nowhere else? If you ever meet a historian of science, for goodness sake, don’t ask them that question. It implies that the West enjoyed some sort of superiority compared to ancient Greece, imperial China or the Islamic Caliphate. In academia today, cultural relativism isn’t edgy postmodern theory, it’s part of the furniture. So no one likes to be reminded that, whereas many civilisations have had scientific cultures, none of them came close to the achievement of western science.

It wasn’t always forbidden to ask the question. In the late-nineteenth century, there were two broad theories of scientific development. One, associated with the positivism of Frenchman Auguste Comte, emphasised reason as the font of modern science. Westerners were supposedly more rational than other races, so it was hardly surprising that they developed science first. This idea was turbocharged by social Darwinism, which seemed to provide a scientific veneer for theories of western mental superiority. At much the same time, the conflict between science and religion was popularised by the American Andrew Dickson White. White suggested that religion had long held science back and the cause of scientific advance was simply the removal of this impediment.

From the mid-twentieth century, as the history of science began to form its own sub-discipline, scholars got to work undermining these grand theories. The myth of western rationality went first. Historians found that when they studied individual scientists, they were usually behaving in a way that wasn’t rational at all. Sir Isaac Newton, the icon of the scientific revolution, turned out to be obsessed with alchemy and biblical chronology. Johannes Kepler developed his model of the solar system by asking, how would God have done it? Scientific pioneers were obsessed with priority disputes and spent as much time burnishing their public image as they did on science. Philosophers of science, like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, unpicked the underlying process of scientific discovery and found it didn’t seem to be logical at all.

The conflict between science and religion took a bit longer to fall apart. This was partly because within academia being rude about Christianity is a good deal more acceptable than lauding western rationality. But gradually, historians realised that the likes of Newton and Kepler were even more devout than their contemporaries. And they discovered most of the examples of religion holding back science, such as banning lightening rods or insisting that the earth is flat, were fantasy. Despite spirited attempts by the new atheists to revive it, the conflict between science and religion is wholly defunct among historians of science.

Nowadays, respectable scholars don’t ask why science arose in the West. For instance, Patricia Fara’s Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) doesn’t engage with the point at all and ignores the concept of the scientific revolution for good measure. In the place of historians, sociologists have attempted to fill the void. This has not always been a great success. For example, the sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, has been justifiably criticised for his simplistic books on the Christian roots of western civilisation. In contrast, Toby Huff, whose The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West (2017), has now reached its third edition, deserves more serious attention. I read the first edition almost twenty years ago. It was one of the books that alerted me to the importance of science in the medieval world and the unique status of universities as centres of learning. But when I started my PhD, I found academics were less than impressed. For instance, Sir Geoffrey Lloyd was quite dismissive when I asked him about the book and my PhD supervisor assured me that Huff had no idea what he was talking about. Since then, Huff’s reputation has improved to the extent that Fara includes Huff as a key source in the annotated bibliography of Science: A Four Thousand Year History. I featured him in the further reading section of God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (2009).

Reading the third edition of The Rise of Early Modern Science provides a good opportunity to take stock of Huff’s answer to the question ‘why did modern science arise in the west?’ His answer is 'institutions'. He believes that science arose in the West because it had the institutions, primarily universities, in which a scientific culture could develop. Huff calls the comparison of the West with other cultures “comparative civilisational sociology of science” whereby he examines how the institutions in China, Islam and Europe developed and flourished.

Huff is an old school sociologist, so his touchstone is Max Weber, who wrote in 1904 that the belief in scientific truth is “a product of definite cultures”. The scientific ethos was defined by another sociologist, Robert K. Merton, in the 1940s in terms of the four norms of universalism, communalism, disinterestedness, and organised scepticism. Huff suggests these norms became embedded in western science alone because the university existed in the West and not elsewhere.

The importance of institutions has become a commonplace among historians in recent years. Daron Acemoglu and James  Robinson used them to explain Why Nations Fail and Dan Hannan thought they were central to How We Invented Freedom. Huff got there long before. Like Acemoglu and Robinson, he knows that institutions have deep historical roots in the culture from which they spring and thus can rarely be successfully transplanted into new soil (a fact that is relevant to the European Unions’s failure to assimilate the UK). And Huff identifies law as a key facet of culture that explains how institutions develop. The European university is a case in point. It owes its origins to a confluence of Roman and Canon law that allowed the creation of a walled garden for scholarship and education. Universities provided lassitude and a semblance of intellectual freedom in which medieval science could flower. Huff contrasts the madrassa, which he says was bound by Islamic law and enjoyed far less flexibility than western universities. The syllabus was constrained by the concerns of the Imams. As far as Huff is concerned, this restricted the study of astronomy and anatomy in the Islamic world. In China, education was entirely geared towards the needs of the imperial civil service, which was a self-perpetuating elite determined to preserve its influence over the emperor. The civil service was an institution that provided no space for science to thrive.

Huff is surely right to note that institutions develop from the implementation of laws, while laws themselves tend to be have religious or political roots. However, his explanation of why science arose in the west is incomplete. He seems to assume that once the necessary institution is in place, science will spring into existence of its own accord. Today’s science is so successful that it is hard to imagine why any civilisation would not develop it given half a chance. The trouble is there is nothing inevitable about modern science. It doesn’t accord with human nature and simply providing scholars with a safe space isn’t enough. Let intellectuals do as they please and you are more likely to end up with astrology and gender studies than physics and chemistry. In another book, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, Huff tried to solve the problem by postulating a cultural artefact called ‘curiosity’. Using the reception of the telescope as a case study, he argued that the West was curious and so investigated the implications of the new discoveries telescopes revealed. Not so China and the Islamic world. Unfortunately, Huff begs the question of what ‘curiosity’ is and why the West has it. His explanation that western society is relatively open to foreign influences seems like a symptom rather than a cause of ‘curiosity’.

Many of the criticisms of Huff’s project have been based on the mistakes he inevitably makes in ranging so widely. Even though it has reached its third edition, a few of these persist in The Rise of Early Modern Science. For example, a list of Greek texts translated into Arabic includes writings on mathematics by Pythagoras and sun-centred theory by Aristarchus, despite the fact that neither of these are extant in any language. In the case of Pythagoras’s maths, it probably never existed at all. But Huff has successfully seen off his critics on more substantial questions, most notably on the prohibition of human dissection in the Islamic world and the uniqueness of western universities.
Sadly, as is so common with academic books nowadays, Cambridge University Press apparently decided not to employ the services of an editor for this third edition, leaving too much repetition and infelicitous phrasing in the final book. But overall, Huff’s sociological look at the big unanswered question in the history of science is a successful example of interdisciplinary work. That it does not provide a complete solution should not detract from its value.

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4 comments:

Tim O'Neill said...

"Unfortunately, Huff begs the question of what ‘curiosity’ is and why the West has it. His explanation that western society is relatively open to foreign influences seems like a symptom rather than a cause of ‘curiosity’."

I actually think Huff is onto something here though. I've long commented on the fact that where the Greeks, Romans and Chinese considered themselves to be at the centre of the world, educated western Europeans from the collapse of the WRE onward saw themselves at its periphery. I've usually noted this in relation to the question of why medieval Europeans had a much greater interest in the world beyond their western edge of it than, say, the Romans, who knew China existed but showed little interest in going there. This is related to the fact that the massive loss of knowledge in the period from the second to the twelfth centuries meant that medieval Europeans also had something of an inferiority complex about their learning and a corresponding drive to remedy the "poverty of the Latins".

This means that while the Chinese and the Romans seemed satisfied with where they were (the centre) and what they knew (everything worth knowing) the Scientific Revolution grew out of centuries of a less of lack and loss and a desire to make that right. Yuval Noah Harari makes a similar point when he talks about how the discovery of the New World increased this idea of lacking knowledge tenfold, but suddenly introducing huge "blank spaces on the map", both geographically and conceptually. There's nothing like finding whole continents with strange creatures and sophisticated cultures to make you realise you don't know enough and need to learn more. Thus - curiosity. It was already deep in western Europe's cultural DNA when Columbus stumbled across the Americas, then it was amplified in the centuries that followed.

James said...

Hi Tim,

Thank you for your comment. I agree the 'advantage of backwardness' is definitely a thing. You note the 'poverty of the Latins'. The Romans sucked up Greek culture when they first conquered the place (although didn't think much of anywhere else). Likewise, the Arabs adopted a huge amount of foreign learning and turned it into their own. So, I think that is a partial explanation. However, adopting ideas that have already arisen elsewhere is an order of magnitude easier than going beyond them and discovering something new. I am also attracted to the idea that the fragmentation of Europe made it easier to find some ruler who was willing to patronise eccentric schemes. Columbus hawking his madcap idea to sail west to go east is a case in point.

Where I get less convinced is when these economic explanations get translated into the idea that cultures possess humanlike characteristics, such as being fierce or curious or mercantile. I don't accept that Chinese people were less curious than European people. Huff is right that we need to explain these differences in terms of institutions, but we don't have a full explanation as yet. I suppose what I am looking for is an explanation in terms of human universals that produces a particular outcome because of particular circumstances. The rise of modern science is doesn't seem to have been explained in these terms as yet. I am not sure the industrial revolution has been either.

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