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The history of science is ostensibly a discipline united by the investigation of the single subject of science irrespective of geopolitical boundaries that construct cultures and civilizations. Yet much of the research literature on Chinese science has taken as its starting point a credulity toward the imagined communities China and the West, and the Great Divide that constitutes them. No satisfactory answer has ever been posed.
This article has analyzed debates about Chinese science which were framed within this broader context. In the first half of the twentieth century, authors asserted an absolute divide between the scientific West and an exoticized, intuitive East. In opposition, Needham proposed to redistribute credit for scientific discoveries among civilizations by a "grand titration"; against the assertions of a radical civilizational divide between China and the West, he revived claims of a radical temporal break between primitive science (which included that of China and equally ancient Greece) and modern science, which for Needham remained culturally universal yet uniquely Western in origin. Sivin criticized many of the excesses in Needham's rehabilitation, and further questioned the uniqueness of the West by proposing that China had had its own, albeit limited, scientific revolution. Yet the scientific revolution Sivin discovered for China was the conversion to modern science from the West, incomplete because of Jesuit distortions; the Scientific Revolution Sivin compared it to in the West was itself only an emblem of the purported radical break between the ancient and modern. Other studies of this period, framed within the legacy of assertions of the Great Divide between China and the West, offered explanations--social, political, philosophical, or linguistic--for the assumed absence of science in a China which then became the anthropomorphized subject of a praise-and-blame historiography of civilizations. Most recently, the cultural turn in the history of science has further identified the culture of the West with science; the cross-disciplinary credulity toward the concept of the West--equated with science, reason, and rationality but now critiqued as hegemonic--which provided many poststructuralist and postcolonial critiques with their inflated urgency only further reinforced this identification of science and the West.
Moving beyond "science and civilizations" as a framework for analysis raises the important question of possible directions for future research. How is the study of sciences and cultures to proceed without civilizations as the central actors animating world history, and without a universal, teleological science to gauge the progress of those civilizations toward modernity? If nations and civilizations are imagined communities, if the sciences are disunified practices, how does one analyze their relationship? There is of course no formulaic solution. But it may be helpful to suggest ways that emerging research--by calling into question particular assumptions associated with the science and civilizations framework--is opening up new areas of study.
First, the rejection of China and the West as analytic categories itself entails several important implications. If essentialized, suprahistorical civilizations are not assumed at the outset, the first question becomes how to determine the appropriate units of analysis. The problem of cultures becomes a general one, requiring the historical analysis of changing cultures, sub-cultures, and sub-sub-cultures that often do not conform neatly to political or linguistic boundaries; political and linguistic identifications become but elements among others in the fashioning of these groupings. And if the performative act of attributing scientific discoveries to civilizations is not naturalized as a given fact, one must then analyze the ideological contests through which artifacts become identified with particular cultures, claimed for civilizations, and the consequences of those claims--including the role those claims themselves play in the formations of cultures. In other words, what role do products of the sciences--knowledges, technologies, and ideologies--play in the constitution of cultures, and how do cultures contribute to the constitution of sciences and their dissemination?
A second important direction for research proceeds from the rejection of the notion of a Great Divide that separates cultures. The traditional historiography often assumed an insuperable barrier between civilizations (whether imagined through claims of linguistic or conceptual incommensurability or accounts of xenophobic traditionalism) and--through mythologies of its unique origins in the West--placed science on one side of that divide. Translation was then conceptualized as the unidirectional flow of scientific truth from the West across that barrier and its imperfect reception or outright rejection by the non-West; the alternative was the wholesale adoption of this scheme now romanticized as local resistance to the global hegemony of the normalizing West. Studies of translation began with the assumption of the self-same identity of scientific facts (an assumption reinforced by stories of origins) supposed to remain constant in displacements across space and time; the question posed of translation was then one of fidelity--had truth been distorted by mistranslation, incomprehension, or cultural barriers? The alternative was the radical dissolution of truth and the impossibility of translation posited by some recent works in science studies that assert a radical locality of scientific practice. One possible approach that avoids the false dilemmas posed by these sets of alternatives is to analyze the circulations of cultural artifacts through material, discursive, scientific, technological, and ideological fields and cultural ensembles, tracing the proliferation and dissemination of copies and their further copies, transfigurations, and appropriations.
A third direction for research begins by recognizing the enormous historical efficacy of imagined communities and the claims made about science and civilizations, studying them as the ideologies of the historical protagonists and thus the object of analysis rather than as explanatory categories in which history itself is to be framed. That is, if cross-cultural study is no longer a project of forging the radical differences and transhistorical continuities of science used to represent the non-West as the antithesis of the West, the historical question remains of how claims of difference and continuity made by the actors themselves contribute to contests over the formation and legitimation of sciences and communities. A fourth direction is the historical contextualization and self-reflexive critique of this historiography itself--subjecting the project of comparison to analysis. For example, what was the role of narratives about science and civilization in the construction of the academic disciplines, ideologies of nations, and the rhetorics through which world history was narrated?
These directions are but a small sampling of the possible directions of future research, directions made possible by rejecting frameworks with trajectories for science and civilizations in which historical details too often contributed little more than producing a reality effect. Instead, this new research seeks to find within historical documents answers to the questions of constitutes science, culture, and their relationship. The prospect is then for histories that contribute not to grand narratives of the rise and fall of civilizations but rather to a historical understanding of the processes of the mutual constitution of knowledge and community.
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[ Last edited by changabula at 2007-2-26 05:00 AM ]