- The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science
The call for acknowledging the birth of modern science as a result of the integration of several civilizations rather than the unique genesis of Western civilization has been made over the years by many prominent scientists, philosophers, and historians. Among those scholars one could list Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyeraband, Joseph Needham, and Martin Bernal. In one way or another, they and their colleagues—including, but not limited to, postmodernists, multiculturalists, and cultural pluralists—contend that the origin of modern science as a method and body of knowledge is neither a uniquely European cultural achievement nor one of which the ancient Greeks could solely boast, but, rather, those origins can be found in different ancient civilizations.
Arun Bala draws upon and contributes to that argument in his eminently readable The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science. His intellectual debt is owed most strongly to scholars of ancient Egyptian-African, Arabian, South Asian, and Chinese culture, intellectual life, and science. On the other hand, this is probably the first full-length monograph to cover the unique achievement of the “moderns” as the result of the dialogical integration of ancient Greece with those non-Western civilizations and their ideas. In other words, while it is true that Bala challenges the argument that the birth of modern science is a uniquely European cultural achievement, he also challenges [End Page 552] the complementary arguments that any other “great” civilization of the past can lay claim to those origins. Instead, he finds that Chinese, Indian, Arabic, and ancient Egyptian ideas all played an indispensable role in making possible the birth of modern science in the West.
That hypothesis rests in good part on timing. Bala shows that the European Renaissance, an era nearly always assumed to be a key turning point in the history of ideas and culture, cannot be understood as a moment in the history of science if one ignores the intellectual consequences of European overseas exploration; that is, the conquest of and contact with non-European societies and civilizations. The Portuguese among others not only opened corridors of trade and war, but also corridors of intellectual communication between India, China, Arabia, and Europe. Bala contends that the exchanges of ideas and texts provide the major intellectual context not only for explaining the phenomenon of the Renaissance, but also for the birth of modern science and philosophy in Europe.
In this revisionist narrative, a central episode, such as the Copernican Revolution, is reinterpreted to include the profound influence, if not the absolutely necessary influence, of non-Western ideas and discoveries. The multicultural contributions led not only to the articulation and perhaps acceptance of the heliocentric theory, but also the longer-term and more widely felt consequences of that Revolution represented by Galileo (1564–1642), Kepler (1571–1630), and Newton (1643–1727), including the latter’s unification of cosmological and physical theory.
That line of argument is only one of many considered by Bala in this broad-ranging history of the birth of modern science. In addition to pondering specific civilizations, he also ponders how many, if not all, of them held ideas about specific problems, such as optics, the atom, universal mathematical laws, and solar and stellar cosmologies. In this way, Bala poses the possibility that the presence of themes and problems in modern science were not found only in ancient Greek intellectual life and that their existence in many different civilizations presents the possibility that modern science emerged from a “dialogue” among them.
The author acknowledges the presence of modern science in Europe around the time of the Renaissance, so what explains that historical phenomenon? Why did such scientific method and knowledge not develop in other places at that time? Bala recognizes some of the distinctive religious, geographic, political, social, and economic characteristics of Europe in that era, including unique institutions that [End Page 553] might have been sufficient and necessary for modern science to be born (p. 5). There was also good...