Chinese Thought, Society, and Science: The Intellectual and Social Background of Science and Technology in Pre-Modern China, and: The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West (review)
- Journal of World History
- University of Hawai'i Press
- Volume 7, Number 1, Spring 1996
- pp. 137-141
- Additional Information
Journal of World History 7.1 (1996) 137-141
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These two books both address the question why it was that modern science emerged in Europe alone, despite the many remarkable discoveries and inventions in premodern Asian civilizations. Although various objections can be made to this question, discussion of it remains important, both because of the privileged place of science in most notions of modernity and because some answer to it has underpinned almost every program of modernization during the past century and a half.
Derk Bodde is one of the doyens of Chinese studies in the United States. He has written on a wide range of subjects pertaining to Chinese history and is recognized as one of the world's foremost authorities on the history of Chinese law and philosophy. The present valuable work had its origin within the framework of Joseph Needham's project on science and civilization in China. Although the parameters of Bodde's contribution were thus originally set within the division of labor of that project, in which his work concentrated on "philosophical and ideological" topics, this learned and readable volume nevertheless stands well on its own. The product of a career of scholarly engagement with Chinese culture and grounded fundamentally in primary sources, it represents a thorough-going attempt to think through Chinese intellectual culture in terms of scientific potential.
The body of the work is divided into six substantial chapters, dealing respectively with the dynamics of written Chinese; the ordering of space, time, and things; the role of religion in premodern Chinese society; conceptions of government, society, and social classes; values and morality; and approaches to nature. The discussion of the written language, like the work as a whole, is informative and measured, though some readers might question the extent to which ideological conservatism was necessarily determined by the literary tradition. The chapter on religion addresses the Weberian theme of connections between religious world views, economic ethics, and science. Bodde depicts the holistic neo-Confucian philosophy dominant from the Song dynasty as having had the effect of "freezing officially sanctioned thought and drying [End Page 137] up scientific interests"—another judgment that some scholars would now find too categorical. Bodde is at his best in those sections where, on the basis of comparative analysis, he provides informed and reasoned assessment of the solidarity and fruitfulness of particular lines of inquiry. An admirable example is his treatment of the relationship between sexual repression and the potential for take-off to modernity. Another important discussion, and one that is helpful for combatting notions of essentialism, is the identification and treatment of seven major contrasting attitudes toward nature within Chinese culture. (Incidentally, neither Bodde nor Huff shows any engagement with the orientalism debate, or any interest in postcolonial discourse analysis. No doubt some readers will take that as a fault, while others will think it a virtue.)
One underlying theme of Bodde's work is that the construction of modern science and the rise of European capitalism are closely linked and that conditions facilitating or inhibiting the latter act similarly on the former. Another key concept is that of "inhibitory factors"—that is, social or intellectual structures that might have tended to counteract possible tendencies toward a more scientific orientation. Like Max Weber, Bodde takes as his main focus the elite culture of the Chinese literati. His basic argument is that throughout the imperial period, the literati were the social class that decisively shaped Chinese culture. He depicts the characteristic outlook and culture of this elite as stiflingly formalistic, conservative (indeed traditionalistic), authoritarian, oriented toward literary refinement...