- The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science
'If it hadn't been for you, if it hadn't been for me, / If it hadn't been for all of us I don't know where she'd be,' sings the whole cast of Anne of Green Gables. It turns out that absolutely everyone has contributed something to Anne's development, and recognizing that fact has the heartening effect of making them all friends and averting a teacher-centric account of Anne's education. Modern science ought to sing its own inclusive song, if Arun Bala's 'dialogical' theory is correct. We could avoid Eurocentrism and become better friends if we took account of how much the rise of modern science owes to a historic dialogue between the West and Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, and Arabic cultures.
Professor Bala raises some difficult questions about any Eurocentric history of science: can it legitimately ignore the influence of Arabic optical theory and mathematical realism, or the mechanistic conception of the universe pioneered by the Chinese, or Indian mathematical atomism? Bala finds in these and other places unacknowledged debts, and one of the most interesting aspects of his book is its account of the mechanism by which Eurocentric histories overlook borrowings.
Bala thinks the West conceals its cultural debts by pretending that major influences of other cultures are developments of minor, but indigenous, Western traditions. To help historians weed out false attributions of this kind, Bala introduces a bold new multicultural conception of scientific development, centred on a new criterion of intercultural influence. Adopting this criterion he believes will give us a clearer indication of when one culture has transmitted one of its big ideas (Bala calls them 'themes') to another. [End Page 142]
If, shortly after a new corridor of communication opens between culture A and culture B, and great interest is shown by A to understand B, a theme becomes dominant in A similar to a dominant theme in B, then we can presume that the development of the theme in A was due to the influence of B, even if the new theme had existed as a recessive theme in A prior to contact between the cultures.
Does the proposed criterion 'presume' too much? Certainly its antecedent can be true and its consequent nevertheless false. What if culture A could have learned from B but didn't? But Bala, who attempts to be even-handed in his discussion, would no doubt concede that a ceteris paribus clause needs to be added to his criterion. He surely would be content to say that, unless there is evidence to the contrary, influence can be assumed under the conditions stipulated. The qualification takes nothing from his point. Even in its weakened form it would make a multicultural and dialogical model of the development of science of the kind Bala advocates the logical default model. Departures from it would require special justification.
After motivating and introducing the transmission criterion, the balance of this book is devoted to applying it and revealing thereby potential non-Western sources of modern science.
There can, of course, be no justification for reflexive and unargued Eurocentrism, but Bala's alternative leaves me with a couple of questions. One is whether, as he takes for granted, the real interlocutors in the development of science are cultures. I doubt it. Though it is sometimes useful to call the practices of different groups of people 'cultures,' to reify cultures and treat them as if they were themselves individuals who practise science and write histories about it is to participate in intellectual mischief.
Also, even if we overlook the talk about cultures, much scholarly investigation is necessary before it will be known whether the 'themes' that Western culture is supposed to have adopted from others really were important and, if they were, whether they were actually adopted in toto from the parent culture. In that respect Bala's book reminds me of Leibniz's theory of 'petites perceptions,' by which he meant perceptions of infinitesimal faintness that nevertheless influence...