Re(2): Non-western science

From: Martin Owen (
Date: Wed Jan 05 2000 - 02:34:55 PST

Nate , Paul

In any discussion on Cutlural Historic embededness of Science I think we
must also look to the work of Needham and his mamoth study of Sceince in
China. In relation to the way religous attitudes to schience and the
difference between the Christian "rationality" and the Islamic "
omnipotence" issue Needhams thoughts on Tao are interesting.

From Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 2: History of
Scientific Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1956), pp. 280-81:

              A number of modern students -- H. Wilhelm, Eberhard,
Jablonski, and above all Granet – have named the kind of thinking with
which we have here to do, “coordinative thinking” or “associative
thinking.” This intuitive-associative system has its own causality and its
own logic. It is not either superstition or primitive superstition, but a
characteristic thought-form of its own. H. Wilhelm contrasts it with the
“subordinative” thinking characteristic of European science, which laid
such emphasis on external causation. In coordinative thinking,
conceptions are not subsumed under one another, but place side by side in
a pattern, and things influence one another not by acts of mechanical
causation, but by a kind of “inductance”. In the Section on Taoism (pp.
55, 71, 84) I spoke of the desire of the Taoist thinkers to understand the
causes in Nature, but this cannot be interpreted in quite the same sense
as would suit the thought of the naturalists of ancient Greece. The
key-word in Chinese thought is Order and above all Pattern (and, if I may
whisper it for the first time, Organism). The symbolic correlations or
correspondences all formed part of one colossal pattern.

Things behaved in particular ways not necessarily because of prior actions
or impulsions of other things, but because their position in the
ever-moving cyclical universe was such that they were endowed with
intrinsic natures which made that behaviour inevitable for them. If they
did not behave in those particular ways they would lose their relational
positions in the whole (which made them what they were), and turn into
something other than themselves. They were thus parts in existential
dependence upon the whole world-organism. And they reacted upon one
another not so much by mechanical impulsion or causation as by a kind of
mysterious resonance.

and from p.339-340

Greek atomism and mathematics are doubtless rightly regarded as the
foundations of the Cartesian- Newtonian science of the Europaen 17th
century. In the womb of modern capitalist society they gave birth tothe
"modern" science of our immediate forefathers, Dalton, Huxley and the
materialists. But science since their time has been obliged to become
still more "modern", to assimilate field physics, and to take account of
parts of the universe, the enourmously great and the enourmously small,
which transcend the range of sizes for which the Newtonian world-picture
constructed. Deepening knowledge of biological phenomenon, too, has
necessitated a reformulation of scientific concepts in which the
philosophy of organmism has had a vital part to play. But the philosophy
of organism was not, to begin with, a product of European thinking; we
Leibniz may have been influenced by it in its systematic Neo- Confucian
form. An unexpected vista thus opens before our eyes- the possibility that
while the philosophy of fortuitous concourses of atoms, stemming from the
society of European mercantile city-states, was essential for the
construction of modern science in its 19th century form; the philosophy of
organism, essential for the construction of modern science in its present
and coming form, stemmed from the bureaucratic society of ancient medieval
China. The new forms which science is taking today do not of course
supercede the "classical" system of Newtonian natural science; they are
simply rendered necessary by the fact that science today has to deal with
realms of the universe which that syatem did not envisage. All that our
conclusion need be is that Chinese bureaucratism and the organicism which
sprang from it may turn out to have been as necessary an element in the
formation of the perfected world view of natural science, as Greek
mercantilism and the atomism to which it gave birth.

Of course if these suggestions should be substantiated it would not be the
only instance of a kind of oscillation in the application of fundamental
ideas, as betwen Man and Nature. One thinks of the parallel of natural
selection. As is generally known, Darwin obtained inspiration from Malthus,
and applied with much validity to nature what Malthus had somewhat
unjustifiably applied to Man. Then later on the formulations of Darwin
were brought back into human society and unjustifiably applied there. So
in the present case a theoretical organicism which Leibniz and Whitehead
to Nature had perhaps originated as a reflection in Nature of Asian
bureaucratic society. It will be understood that none of these meditations
justify in any way the position of the Book of Changes (I Ching) or
pallate its evil effects on Chinese scientific thinking. The gigantic
historical paradox
remains that although Chinese civilization could not spontaneously produce
"modern"natural science, natural science could not perfect itself without
the characteristic philosophy of Chinese civilization."


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