In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the humanities and sciences at stanford university

Rethinking science and civilization: the ideologies, disciplines, and rhetorics of world history

May 21-23

Sponsored by:

School of Humanities and Sciences

Department of Asian Languages

Program in History and Philosophy of Science

All talks will be presented in the Wattis Room (Rm L111) in the Littlefield Center.
For directions to Stanford Campus, visit the Stanford map page.

All talks are free and open to the public.

About the Program

The ambiguities in concepts as broad as 'science' and 'civilization' have often permitted easy answers to questions about their relationship: on the one hand, features of civilizations have been invoked to explain differences in scientific traditions; on the other, differences in science have provided the defining characteristics distinguishing civilizations. One of the most frequently-encountered narratives of world history has been the discovery and development of science in (what was held to be) the West, leading to its pre-eminence in the modern era. Many writers in the early 20th century attributed the uniqueness of the West to its universal science; they contrasted the scientific, progressive, open, and rational West against a stagnant, despotic, intuitionistic East incapable of producing science on its own. Against this view, research beginning in the 1940s sought to discover in non-Western civilizations precursors of modern science, to assign to civilizations proper credit for their contributions to modern science, and to identify fundamental differences in cultural context asserted to have resulted in divergences in the development of science. Other research still, adopting the assumed absence or non-development of science outside the West as the explanandum, portrayed purported differences in the intellectual, institutional, or political traditions of civilizations as the explanation. These accounts, whatever their differences, all shared fundamental assumptions about science, civilization, and their relationship. Science was conceptualized primarily as a coherent body of knowledge, unified by a common methodology, developing teleologically toward universal truths; science thus radically transcended particular cultures, whose only influence on science could be to encourage or inhibit its development. Civilizations were seen as distinct, coherent unities defined by essential distinguishing traits; charting their careers of rise and decline was the proper subject of world history. Science thus provided a cross-cultural measure for gauging the progress of civilizations towards modernity; civilizations became culpable agents in a praise-and-blame historiography that held them responsible for the differential development of science. Ultimately, science provided a simple answer to the question of what differentiated the West from the rest.

Work in critical studies, particularly in the past twenty years, has questioned these grand narratives of science and of civilizations. Against the view of science as coherent, teleological, and universal, recent microhistorical analyses in science studies have suggested that the sciences are disunified, local practices inseparable from cultural context; the facile equation of good science with good culture was little more than the ideologies of historical actors themselves in their advocacy of their own particular political programs, adopted by earlier Whig accounts as historical conclusions. Similarly, recent work in cultural criticism has interrogated conceptualizations of nations and civilizations as "imagined communities" constructed through complex historical and political processes. Yet these critiques of science and civilization have too often proceeded separately. Indeed, in science studies the remapping of science into cultural context has too often only reinforced the identification of the West as the culture of science. Cultural criticism has too often been tempted to critique the West in its entirety by equating it with science portrayed now not as universal and liberating but instead as hegemonic, normalizing and disciplinary. Thus two key lacunae in contemporary critical studies are the problem of culture in science studies and the problem of science in cultural criticism.

"Rethinking Science and Civilization" seeks to remap the remappings, to bring together current research in science studies and cultural criticism to explore the implications for our understanding of world history. Rethinking the relationship between science and civilizations, with an emphasis on the premodern period, will entail modifications in the ways we investigate science, society, the humanities, institutions and individuals. For example, the broad dichotomies in which much of 'science-and-civilizations' historiography has been framed will be up for renegotiation, involving the asserted divides between civilizations, or between scientific and humanistic knowledges; one might anticipate the meeting of these lines of inquiry in a definition of both 'sciences' and 'civilizations' as variants of the 'imagined community.' We have invited prominent scholars pursuing comparative research on European and non-European science to present their views on the practice and results of comparison, to demonstrate concrete alternatives in the form of recent work on science in a variety of periods and geographical locales, and to investigate interdisciplinary and critical approaches to the categories of scientific historiography.






Roger Hart, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Program in History and Philosophy of Science, Stanford University

Haun Saussy, Chair, Department of Asian Languages, Stanford University

Together with:

Mario Biagioli, Professor, History of Science, Harvard University

Tim Brook, Professor, History, Stanford University

Benjamin Elman, Professor of Chinese History, Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA

Tim Lenoir, Chair, Program in History and Philosophy of Science, Stanford University

We would also like to gratefully acknowledge the suggestions of David Keightley, Lydia Liu, G.E.R. Lloyd, and Nathan Sivin in organizing this conference.



COFFEE (8:15-8:45)



This panel will explore emerging configurations of local techno-sciences in the context of global circulations. Papers include analyses of biopower, bio-ethics and the life sciences in the context of multi-national corporate genomics; genome research in Japan and alternative modernities that are to supersede the abortive modernity of the West; and strategies of institution and state-building though Big Science in the U.S. and Japan.

Chair: John Bender (English, Stanford)

Paul Rabinow (Anthropology, UC Berkeley), "Genetic Futures"

Rabinow will analyze genomics from three perspectives: biopower, risk management and biosociality, and Luhmann's work on risk (including the role of the expert). He will then discuss the implications of this for thinking about the "global": against Lyotard's claim of the end of metanarratives, he will argue that the life sciences and capitalism form a globalizing grid which must be analyzed from the perspective of biopower. He seeks to understand the bioethics of this new order, and its relationship to local science establishments.

Joan Fujimura (Anthropology, Stanford), "Transnational Genomics: Transgressing the Boundary Between the 'Modern/West' and the 'Pre-Modern/East'"

Transnational genomics, in turn, provides a site to explore the place of culture in science and the place of science in culture in terms of both the production and consumption of techno-scientific knowledge. In this paper, I use two examples to make the following points: First, through the transformation of biology, scientists are re-inventing (or attempting to reinvent) "nature" and "culture," on the one hand, and the "East" and the "West," on the other hand. While some authors in science studies continue to debate the science-society, nature-culture divides, biologists have already crossed these "boundaries" to remake nature and culture, science and society. Although some may not necessarily accomplish exactly what they intend and others do not even know what they intend, biologists do have a lot of power to transform "nature" and materiality as well as to create new notions that have already changed how people live their lives.

Second, my discussion also addresses debates within (and outside) Japan on Japanese uniqueness. This debate has taken various forms in twentieth century Japanese history. In the modern era, Japanese culture was represented as authentic and pure in danger of violation by "Western" technologies. My examples demonstrate that "modernity" and "tradition" are not simple binaries. The two can exist together, each even creating the grounds for the existence of the other, especially in this period that is often called postmodernity.

Third, in the postmodern era, Japanese culture has often been represented as "robotic" and inhuman by Western media and politicians who viewed Japanese technological successes as threats to the supremacy of Western modernity. Japanese genomics replays this threat to Western dominance in the examples I discuss.

Fourth, I address the problem of the theoretical language we use to talk about cultural and historical practices and processes. How do we talk about science, culture, and history in ways that do not reduce their complexities, heterogeneities, and dynamisms? In discussing the aims and desires of contemporary Japanese scientists, I explore the ways in which culture and imagination become part of the technoscientific and cultural production of new representations and realities. I use this account to move beyond the analytical reification of culture, either as theoretical tool with which to understand the depredations of modernity, or as the hard and fast product of scientists' and others' discourses.

Sharon Traweek (History and Anthropology, UCLA), "Circulating Physics to the Edge of the World: Strategies for Making Weak Universities Strong in Japan and the United States since 1950"

CATERED LUNCH (11:30-1:00)


This panel explores differing claims made in differing historical contexts about the relationship between science, civilizations, and cultures. For example, how did specific ideologies of science contribute to the construction of the ideologies of nations and civilizations? Papers in this panel examine Soviet and pre-Soviet Russian science, science and the nation in 18th century Germany, the contests between 'Western' and 'Chinese' science in China, and the role that claims about science played in the conceptualization of Eastern civilizations.

Chair: Roger Hart (History and Philosophy of Science, Stanford)

Benjamin Elman (History, UCLA), "Reconsidering the 'Failure' of the Pre-modern 'Chinese Sciences' and the 'Triumph' of 'Modern Science' in China"

This paper is about the contested nature of the interaction since 1550 between Chinese and Europeans over the meaning and significance of natural studies. Unlike the colonial environment in India, where British imperial power after 1700 could dictate the terms of social, cultural, and political interaction between natives and Westerners, natural studies in late imperial China were until 1900 part of a nativist imperial project to master and control Western views on what constituted legitimate natural knowledge. Each side made a virtue out of the accommodation project, and each converted the other's forms of natural studies into acceptable local conventions of knowledge. Europeans sought the technological secrets for silk, porcelain, and tea production from the Chinese. Chinese literati borrowed algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and logarithms from the West. Indeed, the epistemological premises of modern Western science were not triumphant in China until the early twentieth century. Until 1900, then, the Chinese interpreted the transition in early modern Europe from new forms of scientific knowledge to new modes of industrial power on their own terms.

Timothy Lenoir (History and Philosophy of Science, Stanford), "Science and Sensibility: Fashioning the New German Idealism in the Culture Wars of Kaiserreich Germany"

Realism was a much contested category in German science, politics, and art throughout the later decades of the nineteenth century. This paper explores the collaboration between scientists and state ministers to establish aesthetic standards by raising apprehension of the "real" and the "natural" to normative status. Concerned that the taste and sensibility of German artisans and manufacturers of decorative art objects should not be left to the vulgar whims of fashion, ministers of art and education in centers such as Berlin and Vienna created training programs aimed at instilling a "naturalistic aesthetics" for producing the desired materials and artifacts of everyday life. Such programs were defended as important means to instill patriotic feeling and protect civilization. Natural science would instruct the artisan in ways to escape pernicious influences external to true art, thereby preparing sensibilities receptive to higher moral ideals: to the beautiful in image, gesture, and thought. Instructional programs at the Museum für Kunst und Industrie incorporated physiological optics and physiological color theory as key elements in constructing this natural aesthetic, while scientific instruments, such as Ernst Brücke's schistoscope, and color wheels constructed according to James Clerk Maxwell's methods were employed as means for inculcating a "proper sense" of color harmony. In another element of this program for educating the senses, chemical principles were applied to color pigment production, and standards for regulating the naming and production of color throughout German-speaking lands were established. While ostensibly directed to improving the mundane taste of artisans, scientists such as Ernst Brücke, Hermann Helmholtz, and Emil DuBois-Reymond, I will argue, also urged the adoption of their standards for a "natural aesthetic" as a counterweight to elements of high art at the end of the century which they regarded as decadent.

Michael Gordin (History of Science, Harvard), "Loose and Baggy Spirits: Reading Dostoevsky and Mendeleev."

Prasenjit Duara with Juliette Chung (History, Chicago), "Spirit and Spirituality: Discourses of Science and Eastern Civilization in China, 1900-1960s"

This paper discusses the status of science in the new discourse of civilization that appeared globally around the end of World War I. This conception of civilization delinked state sovereignty from the imperialist conception of a singular Enlightenment Civilization, and posited multiple civilizations--each associated more or less with a national society. This new civilizational discourse was torn between an impulse towards nationalization and another towards a universal, redemptive model. The notion of Chinese science in the first half of the 20th century was typically associated with this East-West or Chinese-Western civilizational binary, whereby China possessed the spirit or the moral ethos required for the development of science. Even after the appropriation of Needham's "discovery" in the ROC and PRC, the question of a distinctive spirit and ethos deriving from the civilizational discourse continues to follow the problem of science in the world.

KEYNOTE: Norton Wise (History of Science, Princeton), "Cultural Properties Are Cultural Relations" (4:15-5:30)


COFFEE (8:30-9:00)


This panel include papers offering a critical analysis of East/West comparisons in the context of assertions of a 'Great Divide' between the West and its others. The self-reflexive turn of recent historiography offers, we suggest, opportunities to examine the mutual constitution of knowledge and academic disciplines.

Chair: Haun Saussy (Asian Languages and Comparative Literature, Stanford)

Roger Hart (History and Philosophy of Science, Stanford), "The Problem of 'Culture' in Cultural Studies of Science"

Against histories in the early twentieth century that viewed universal science as radically transcending particular cultures, studies in the 1960s and 70s attempted to re-place science in its cultural context. These studies applied various models of culture to the history of science, including incommensurability, paradigms, the anthropology of science, and gender analyses. As science studies moved toward cultural studies, the question arose what the term 'culture' in cultural studies of science meant, and what explanatory power it was supposed to have. This paper examines some of the theories of culture that have adopted in science studies, returning to one of the most important examples of the interaction between cultures--China and the West in the seventeenth century--to suggest new ways to conceptualize the relationship between culture and science. This talk will develop ideas from his articles "Beyond Science and Civilization: A Post-Needham Critique" (forthcoming in Chinese Science 16 [in press]; an earlier version has been published as "On the Problem of Chinese Science," in The Science Studies Reader, edited by Mario Biagioli [New York: Routledge, 1999]) and "Translating the Untranslatable: From Copula to Incommensurable Worlds" (forthcoming in Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations, edited by Lydia H. Liu [Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press]; an earlier version is being published as "Translating Worlds: Incommensurability and Problems of Existence in Seventeenth-Century China," Positions 7, no. 1 [in press]).

Lydia Liu (Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages, UC Berkeley), "Legislating the Universal: The Circulation of International Law in the Nineteenth Century"

This paper examines the translations by the American missionary W. A. P. Martin and his students at the Imperial College in the late 19th century of three popular works of international law: Henry Wheaton's Elements of International Law, T. D. Woolsey's Introduction to the Study of International Law, and Bluntschli's Das Moderne Volkerrecht der Civilisierten Staten als Rechtsbuch dargestellt. These translations marked a turning point in the Chinese government's diplomatic dealings with the outside world in the 19th century; the Chinese translation of the Elements of International Law traveled to Japan in the 1870s, directly impacting the rise of Japanese imperialism, Sino-Japanese relations, and Korean-Japanese relations in the years to come.

My research uncovers a fascinating area of translated knowledge in which the interpretation of international law from 1864 on began to introduce an epistemic rupture in China's perception of itself as a civilization. I argue that China's entrance into the family of modern nations must be re-examined not only as a chapter in world diplomatic history but also in light of these important shifts in knowledge, language, and so-called global consciousness. This study reflects my continuing interest in translingual practice and in the rise of modern nationalism in East Asia. The emphasis on the translation of international law provides a new angle for me to place this much debated subject of the national in dialectical relation with the international, thus linking it up with the critique of nationalisms in other parts of the world. I hope to be able to show how the act of translation performs the script of this dialectic as it plays the "diplomat" between nations, languages, and cultures.

Wang Hui (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences), "Scientism and Some Questions in Social Theory and Modern Chinese Intellectual History"

CATERED LUNCH (11:30-1:00)


This panel will offer critical analyses of the conceptualization of science in 'non-Western' civilizations and the problem of culture in comparative studies. What are the contributions of personification, teleology, metaphor, antithesis and other rhetorical operators to the histories of science and civilization?

Chair: David Palumbo-Liu (Comparative Literature, Stanford)

Vincent Pecora (English, UCLA) "The Myth of 'die Jetztzeit' and the Critique of Empty Time"

Mark Schneider (Sociology, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale), "Rethinking the West as Scientific"

Science is institutionally strong but culturally weak in modern Western societies. It is the product of culturally insignificant but highly organized and interdependent groups of inquirers who are institutionally central and have access to impressive resources. The appearance of modern Western cultures as more broadly scientific depends upon a synecdotal halo through which the scientificity of these groups spreads out, without much warrant, to imbue largely non-scientific domains of understanding that differ in few important respects from those of premodern Western societies or from past and present non-Western societies where science is institutionally weaker. Thus as measured by modal cultural habits, the West should not be distinguished from other civilizations.

The continued narrow cultural scope of science in the West belies the Weberian prediction of an evolving "iron cage" of rationality. It also presents several potential puzzles. In the first place, it is unclear how science became so institutionally central. It is also unclear why, as central, it has not had broader cultural influence. Given that science is the high status form of appreciation of nature in modern Western societies, as measured by allocation of resources, we might assume it would spread more broadly through the population by means of emulation. Yet organizational studies of the social bases of science imply that it is not in fact transmissable through emulation, whether downward in the status hierarchy or across cultural boundaries. Indeed, science is not culturally transmissible at all, because it can only survive within its specific organizational milieu. Science spreads, to the extent it does, only with the expansion of this milieu, and not through individual appreciation of its beauty or emulation of its methods across cultural boundaries. This means that its direct effect on culture is negligible. Appreciating the relative cultural insignificance of science allows us to place in perspective both arguments (such as Edmund Husserl's) that see in science an engine for Western cultural imperialism, and arguments that see in science warrant for a portrait of Western ways of life as intrinsically hostile to the lifeworlds of other cultures.

Haun Saussy (Asian Languages and Comparative Literature, Stanford) "Print and Permeability: The Micro-Politics of Scientific Communication between China and Europe, ca. 1600"

The early circulation of scientific and technical ideas between the extremes of the Eurasian continent occurred under unusual conditions. Not only were the interlocutors few, but their modes of interaction were determined by the particular cultural context of the late Ming. The meaning of the sciences of astronomy, mathematics, logic and cartography in this milieu is, as this paper seeks to demonstrate, closely bound up with the connotations of the Daoist canon (particularly Zhuangzi) and with the technical and social conditions surrounding Chinese xylographic printing. This talk will develop ideas from his article "In the Workshop of Equivalences: Seventeenth-Century Globalism and the Comparative Pursuit."


This final panel will explore the implications of critiques of earlier conceptualizations of science and civilizations for further studies of sciences in non-Western cultures.

Chair: Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (French & Italian, Stanford)

Francesca Rochberg (History, UC Riverside), "A Consideration of Empiricism in Mesopotamian Divination"

Classification of the sources for Mesopotamian divination as scientific texts has been rooted in a broadly logical empiricist approach to the nature of empiricism. Babylonian omen texts, which derive predicted events from observed natural phenomena, provide an opportunity to consider the nature of these observations as well as the overall domain of Babylonian inquiry into mantic phenomena. This paper reevaluates the empirical content of omen protases (if-clauses) in the light of more recent discussion of the relation between observation and theory. The goal of this paper is to derive criteria of observation from omen texts to form the basis of an evaluation of the 'empirical' nature of Mesopotamian divination in the wider framework of the history of science.

Lisa Raphals (Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages, UC Riverside), "Quantities and Categories: On the Rhetorics of Demonstration"

The development of physical methods and mathematical techniques for "accurate" measurement and the manipulation of the data of such measurement is widely accepted as one of the bases of the European "scientific revolution." Accuracy itself has become a kind of qualitative but infinitely refinable assertion of truth. The cachet of measurement and calculation has extended from the physical sciences to far more interpretive contexts; contemporary examples include psychological testing and computer simulations of human behavior. These developments are typically contrasted with a universal "premodern" science based on categorical thinking rather than extrapolation from accurate measurement. In this paper I use two case studies from Chinese and Greek science to explore the status of quantification and epideictic demonstration as claims for true knowledge. The first compares several Chinese and Greek geodesic and interstellar measurements and calculations. Several of these use remarkably similar techniques to draw divergent conclusions based on divergent a prioris and priorities. The second study further explores the problem of quantification in China by examining the interaction of categorization, quantification and prediction in the Han dynasty physician Chunyu Yi's "defense" of his yin-yang based system of medical diagnosis.

George Saliba (Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia),"Mediterranean Crossings: Islamic Science in Renaissance Europe"



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