- Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective
This is a relatively short book devoted to a gargantuan and labyrinthine question. In the first thirty millennia or so of human history, planet Earth contained as many different accounts of the natural world as distinct human civilizations. Human knowledge of the celestial and terrestrial world was also diverse and ephemeral with systems of natural knowledge rising and falling in step with the human civilizations that gave birth to them. After 1500, however, this situation changed. Today we have only one authoritative account of the natural world—science—and this account is accepted by every modern person regardless of geographic location. So overwhelming, in fact, is the modern confidence that science offers us the final, eternal account of the cosmos that we imagine it as the only understanding that we would share with extraterrestrials were an encounter with them ever to occur. Moreover, while the ancient ebb and flow of civilizational change continues apace, the history of science appears to present us with a picture of a historical development completed. Science, the modern person says, will continue to discover new things, but the methods of science, have now been achieved once and for all and will never again be altered.
Toby E. Huff’s project in Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective is to explore what happened after 1500 to trigger this singular convergence and climax. He articulates his argument this way: “The seventeenth century was one of the most dynamic and eventful centuries in the history of the modern world. It can be called the great divide that separated Western Europe developmentally from the rest of the world for the next three and a half centuries” (p. 3). “Developmentally, Western Europe took off in the seventeenth century,” Huff argues, because of its “science and technology.” “In this book,” he continues, “I lay out the comparative tracks of scientific development and educational practice in Europe and in the three other great civilizations of the world: China, Mughal India, and the Ottoman Empire” (p. 4). The result is a history that makes “the narrative of Europe’s scientific ascendancy . . . palpably visible,” while showing that the “sparks” generated by the new science “ignited a great divergence that was to last all the way to the end of the twentieth century” (p. 5).
Presented with this project, many, including this reviewer, would first want to ask a lot of questions about the categories assumed in these breathless statements of purpose. What, for example, is science and [End Page 686] technology, and upon what foundation exactly has its global dominance been built? Is science a single thing or a collection of heterogeneous practices, and however we define it, is science globally hegemonic because it’s truth is simply obvious to everyone once the evidence in support of it is evaluated without prejudice? Or should other factors (cultural difference, empire, global capitalism, politics, and society) be considered when comprehending the arrival of Western science as world hegemon? What is a “civilization,” and how are civilizations connected to geographic designators like “Western Europe” or political creations like “the Ottoman Empire?” And no matter how one accounts for the rise and eventual hegemony of “science” and “Western civilization” in the world today, what gives this duo its seeming self-evidence, its quality of appearing to stand outside of history as the only human creation (for science, after all, is a mere work of man) apparently impervious to future historical change?
All of these questions are implicit in Huff’s project in Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective, yet none of them are actually posed with any precision or depth. Huff instead takes it for granted that we know what we are talking about when we speak of the rise of “science” in “Europe” and then its encounters with the other “civilizations” around the globe. Accordingly, he makes quick dispatch in an eighteen-page introduction of the...