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5. The Scientific Revolution: The Big Picture

Was science born/invented and, if so, when?

‘There is no such thing as the Scientific Revolution and this is a book about it’.1 With this somewhat baffling sentence Steven Shapin begins his scrutiny of the movement which, as I argue, came into its own in certain European countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That is, a universal mode of producing natural knowledge materialised, one that did not exist anywhere before and that is still practised now. It merits to be designated as the Scientific Revolution.

My approach to this thing called the ‘Scientific Revolution’ is not part of the historiographical mainstream. Indeed since the 1980s, a view has been gaining ground to the effect that the concept itself should be blotted out of the historiographical landscape altogether. This is certainly the message conveyed by Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams in a thoroughly revisionist paper that works from the unchallengeable principle, advanced in the first sentence, that ‘Like it or not, a big picture of history of science is something which we cannot avoid’.2 The point deserves to be taken up.

The concept of the so-called ‘scientific revolution’ [sic], the authors contend, proved double-edged. It was useful, before and after the Second World War, insofar as it became a unifying concept in the history of science, and helped to establish the subject as an independent scholarly and teaching discipline. But it became obsolete insofar as it promoted a big picture that anchored the origins of modern science in the seventeenth century – as distinct from medieval and ancient science. While conceding that ‘there is no reason why science should not have originated at that time’, they believe, ‘this happens not to be the case’. Instead, they suggest ‘the period 1760-1848 is a much more convincing place to locate the invention of science’.

In preferring the period 1760-1848, they acknowledge that they were influenced by E. J. Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (1962). This book is about the transformation of the world impelled by the French Revolution of 1789 and the contemporaneous (British) Industrial Revolution. Cunningham and Williams enlarge the narrative by adding a German dimension which they call the ‘post-Kantian intellectual revolution’. As a result of these three simultaneous and linked revolutions, they argue, ‘a new middle-class was constituted wielding the political power, the industrial power and the intellectual power’. It is to these social transformations, as one aspect of the Age of Revolutions, that Cunningham and Williams trace the origins of science – ‘with England as partial exception, in that changes there took place later and more gradually than in Continental Europe’. To sum up, they state:

historical relationships over the last twenty years enable us to identify the Age of Revolutions as the period which saw the origin of pretty well every feature which is regarded as essential and definitional of the enterprise of science: its name, its aim (secular as distinct from godly knowledge of the natural world), its values (the ‘liberal’ values of free enquiry, meritocratic expert government and material progress), and its history.

The summary of Cunningham and Williams’s thesis raises questions that need to be pursued further. All the more so since they justify ‘the invention of science’ in the period 1760-1848 as follows:

This term ‘invention’, which is our preferred term, helps to fix the revised view of science as a contingent, time-specific and culture-specific activity as only one amongst the many ways-of-knowing which have existed, currently exist, or might exist; and for this reason the phrase which we propose for the fundamental changes which took place in this period is ‘the invention of science’. And we can of course now drop the qualifier ‘modern’, since the term ’science’ can only be properly applied in our own time, the modern era. What we are speaking of is therefore not the origins of modern science, but the modern origins of science.

‘Natural philosophy’ and ‘science’: what’s in a name?

The history of science is nothing if it is not about how our knowledge of nature (variously termed) came to be what it is today.3 In the English context the substitution of ‘science’ for ‘natural philosophy’, made around 1800, should not obscure the fact that the terms cover common pursuits.4

Take the anti-Trinitarian Newton, deeply concerned with God, and his great successor P.-S. Laplace, who (reputedly) dismissed Him peremptorily. Whatever the grounds and impulses for their quests, godly or ungodly, both inquirers were engaged in the same enterprise: the comprehension and explanation of natural phenomena. The implication of Cunningham and Williams’s proposition is that Newton’s work was neither ‘modern’ nor ‘scientific’. Patently, this is problematic, since Newton’s theory, in John North’s telling phrase, ‘even on a cosmological scale … is not yet worn out’.5

To distinguish between ‘natural philosophy’ and ‘science’ along ‘godly’ and ‘secular’ lines is to adopt a narrow standpoint. In 1931, the Soviet physicist Boris M. Hessen (1893-1936), inspired by the Marxist approach to history, first suggested that to understand Newton’s work and worldview required one to see them as the product of a specific period. He characterised this historical moment as the period of the feudal economy’s disintegration, of the development of merchant capital, of international maritime relationships and of heavy (mining) industry. Hessen presented his ideas in a paper, given at the 2nd International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London (1931). Contentious from the beginning, it proved to be highly influential.6 It gave the study of Newton’s life and work a twist which eventually brought to light a Janus-like Newton, engaged in ‘scientific’ and ‘unscientific’ pursuits. This apparent contradiction still provides food to be digested by the ‘Newton industry’.

The paper effectively launched the persistent debate regarding ‘externalism’ and ‘internalism’ in the history of science. As it turned out, a young historically- and philosophically-minded biochemist attended the Congress and became a controversial participant in the debate. He was Joseph Needham, who forty years later re-affirmed his allegiance to Hessen’s seminal ideas as follows:

The trumpet-blast of Hessen may … still have great value in orienting the minds of younger scholars towards a direction fruitful for historical analyses still to come, and may lead in the end to a deeper understanding of the mainsprings and hindrances of science in East and West, far more subtle and sophisticated than he himself could ever hope to be.7

Needham’s two ‘Grand Questions’

To paraphrase Cunningham and Williams: like it or not, a big picture of the history of science cannot avoid Needham’s two ‘Grand Questions’. This is not to say that they ignore Needham’s ‘Grand Project’, Science and Civilisation in China (1954-), but that they err in ascribing to him, for example, the reductionist view ‘that science was [sic] human civilization’.8 Needham’s opposition to gross reductionism emerges from an autobiographical piece (1972) in which he clearly declares that, after many intellectual struggles, he has reached the conviction that life consists in several

irreducible forms or modes of experience. One could distinguish the philosophical or metaphysical form, the scientific form, the historical form, the aesthetic form and the religious form, each being irreducible to any of the others, but all being interpretable by each other though sometimes in flatly contradictory ways.9

And a year later, he states no less clearly:

For myself I want to say I have not lost faith in science as a part [MT] of the highest civilization, and in its development as one single epic story for the whole of mankind.10

While the Grand Project has been widely acclaimed, Needham’s approach has been criticised if not rejected. Both the relevance of the historical issue that first motivated Needham and the way he proposed to deal with it have come under fire. In the course of his work, Needham discovered that actually there were two questions to be answered. This is what he wrote, a quarter of a century or so after he formed the idea of what became Science and Civilisation in China:

I regarded the essential problem as that of why modern science (as we know it since the +17th century, the time of Galileo) had not developed in Chinese civilization (or in Indian) but only in Europe. As the years went by, and as I began to find out something at last about Chinese science and society, I came to realize that there is a second question at least equally important, namely why, between the -1st century and the +15th century, Chinese civilization was much more efficient than occidental in applying human natural knowledge to practical human needs?

The answer to all such questions lies, I now believe, primarily [MT] in the social, intellectual, and economic structures of the different civilizations.11

Here, for the purpose of this book, we must consider why Needham’s case for the Scientific Revolution happening in Europe, and not in China, should not be excluded from a serious debate about the Revolution’s make-up. The provision of chapter and verse may stand as an excuse for the number and length of quotations. Loose censures and generalised antagonistic assertions, born of politics and ideology, should not pass unnoticed either.

Nathan Sivin

Among the critiques of Needham’s approach, Nathan Sivin’s essay ‘Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China – or Didn’t It?’ has attracted particular attention for understandable reasons.12 Sivin had worked with Needham, who thought of him very highly, calling him ‘a brilliant investigator of medieval Chinese astronomy and alchemy’.13

As far as I can make out, Needham’s name appears in the text twice. First, in the introductory paragraph in which it is stated that ‘Joseph Needham has given the “Scientific Revolution problem” its classic formulation’.14 Second, in the fourth section of the essay (Fallacies), in the context of Needham’s discussion of the Book of Changes, containing a classified system of symbols explaining all natural processes. By and large, Sivin prefers to refer to Needham in the notes. ‘Because of his knowledge of the Chinese sciences and the breadth of his hypotheses’, we read, ‘Needham’s is the earliest discussion of the Scientific Revolution problem that still commands attention, and is still the best’.15

This comment is in stark contrast to what we encounter in the text. True, Needham is not named but can there be doubt that his approach is the target of unmistakable disapproval if not rejection:16

...Why didn’t the Chinese beat Europeans to the Scientific Revolution? – happens to be one of the few questions that people often ask publicly about why something didn’t happen in history. It is analogous to the question of why your name did not appear on page 3 of today’s newspaper. It belongs to an infinite set of questions that historians don’t organize research programs around because they have no direct answers.

Fig. 12 A page from Song Dynasty (960-1279), printed book of the I Ching (Yi Jing), Classic of Changes or Book of Changes. National Central Library, Taipei City, Taiwan.

While the object is not explicitly identified in the text, the essay constitutes a massive assault on Needham’s approach to the history of science and technology in China. Indeed, authored by a leading scholar in the field, it is frequently cited as a valid critique of Needham’s answer to his two questions.

The point here is not to dispute Sivin’s unquestionable sinological expertise. What is open to discussion is his belief that the distinction between external and internal factors has no objective reality but exists only as something perceived by historians subjectively.

I call it into question in the light of my long-standing interest in the history of fermentation, possibly the earliest biochemical process used by man in daily life. What has emerged from the historical study of the phenomena of fermentation is that they belong as much to the history of biochemistry (and other sciences) as to the technological and economic history of several industries. Another feature of the history of fermentation is that it was intimately connected with endeavours to answer the perennial question of the origin of living matter and the nature of the processes underlying it. A full historical treatment of the connection between extra-scientific and intra-scientific influences on fermentation theory and practice would require, for example, a consideration of patriotism. National feeling certainly prompted L. Pasteur’s (1822-1895) work on beer after France’s defeat by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).

This does not mean that the pursuit of ‘external’ and ‘internal’ aspects of the history of sciences respectively is meaningless. Both are justified provided we understand that the questions asked and the answers given are, by their very nature, partial and limited. The point at issue for an historian is how to amalgamate them, because history is in reality an integral process, not divided into ‘external’ and ‘internal’ compartments, but governed by a multitude of circumstances deriving from and belonging inseparably to spheres ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ science.17

The line taken by Sivin conforms to Steven Shapin’s cogent observation regarding the externalism-internalism issue: ‘Instead of clarifying and engaging with the problematic, I think over the last ten or fifteen years we rather turned our backs on it and wished it away’.18

A. C. Graham

The sinologist A. C. Graham also queries the relevance of asking why an event such as the Scientific Revolution did not happen in China. While expressing highest admiration for Needham, Graham cannot resist revealing that his proficiency in the Chinese language is not up to par.19

Graham’s target is Needham’s original historiographical sin. That is, Graham’s assumption that the absence or presence of one set of conditions – the rise of capitalism – underlies the non-genesis or genesis of modern science in seventeenth-century China and Europe respectively. Out of the many features of capitalism, Graham chooses capitalist profit as ‘the only conscious goal that anyone has been able to find in the social processes that led to modern science’.20 Whatever historiographical errors Needham may have committed, the absence of capitalist profit was not central to his analysis of factors that inhibited the rise of modern science in China. Graham’s version of Needham’s general emphasis on the social and economic factors greatly simplifies the latter’s approach to history.

Sivin and Graham’s reasonable starting point is that historians have enough on their plate without focusing on events that did not even happen. Nevertheless, as the great historian Eric Hobsbawm observes:

Conjectural history has a place in our discipline, even though its chief value is to help us assess the possibilities of present and future, rather than the past, where its place is taken by comparative history; but actual history is what we must explain. The possible development or non-development of capitalism in imperial China is relevant to us only insofar as it helps to explain the actual fact that this type of economy developed fully, at least to begin with, in one and only one region of the world. This in turn may be usefully contrasted (again in the light of general models) with the tendency for other systems of social relations – for example the broadly feudal – to develop much more frequently and in a greater number of areas. The history of society is thus a collaboration between general models of social structure and change and the specific set of phenomena which actually occurred. This is true whatever the geographical or chronological scale of our enquiries.21

Using conventional intellectual criteria, Sivin suggests China had its own scientific revolution (lower case!) in the seventeenth century. This is intriguing on three accounts. First, Sivin bases his suggestion on the same kind of comparison as Needham, who is criticised for expecting China to follow the same route as Europe. Second, the term scientific revolution/Scientific Revolution is commonly associated with radical transformation in the human perception of the motions of celestial and terrestrial bodies in the context of a unified theory. But Sivin limits the meaning of the term to changes amounting to a conceptual revolution in astronomy. Last but not least, Sivin still admits:

That revolution did not generate the same pitch of tension as the one going on in Europe at the same time. It did not burst forth in as fundamental a reorientation of thought about Nature. It did not cast doubt on all the traditional ideas of what constitutes an astronomical problem, and what significance astronomical prediction can have for the ultimate understanding of Nature and of man’s relation to it.

Most important, it did not extend the domain of number and measure in astronomy until it embraced every terrestrial phenomenon (the Jesuits were obliged to conceal from the Chinese the development in Europe). What happened in China bears comparison with the conservative revolution of Copernicus rather than with the radical mathematization of hypotheses Galileo precipitated.22

Consequently, I would say the two movements are different beasts.

H. Floris Cohen

It is remarkable how authors who go out of their way to sing Needham’s praises are also at pains to demonstrate flaws in his approach to the history of science. A telling exemplar is H. Floris Cohen’s ambivalent treatment of Needham’s answer to his own Grand Question. To this theme, Cohen devotes seventy pages (out of 662) in a historiography of the Scientific Revolution stimulating not least for its combative style. Combative in the sense that, while wishing to be fair and giving his due to scholars from A(iton) to Z(ilsel), Cohen is unsparing with censures right and left. This gives the impression that Cohen has a viewpoint on Needham and the Grand Question. Regrettably, that is not the case: what he offers is ‘a highly provisional sketch’ in the last chapter of the book:

Has the time come for answering the Grand Question? I would not so easily bring up the question just put, which I am in the end not qualified to answer, if it had not in effect been asked by some of Needham’s most knowledgeable critics. Although they have not said so in quite so many words, it has been suggested by Nakayama and Sivin in particular (and much in our preceding account tends to support such a suggestion) that just about everything Needham has ever written to answer his Grand Question should be regarded as one giant projection of Joseph Needham’s collected preconceptions upon China’s society and world of thought.23

When all is said and done what separates Needham from Sivin, Graham and other critics (on whom Cohen draws) is the weight he gives to the part played by social and economic factors in the generation of the Scientific Revolution in Europe:

Whatever the ideological inhibiting factors in the Chinese thought-world may turn out to have been, the certainty always remains that the specific social and economic features of traditional China are connected with them. They were clearly part of that particular pattern, and in these matters one always has to think in terms of a package-deal. In just the same way, of course, it is impossible to separate the scientific achievements of the Ancient Greeks from the fact that they developed in a mercantile, maritime, city-state democracy … It may be that while ideological, philosophical and theological differences are never to be undervalued, what mattered most of all were the facilitating pressures of the transition from feudalism to mercantile and industrial capitalism, pressures which did not effectively operate in any culture other than that of Western, Frankish Europe.24

Robert Finlay

Last but not least, let us turn to Robert Finlay’s portrayal of Needham’s perception of the Scientific Revolution. That emerges in the context of Finlay’s presentation of Needham’s perspective on the celebrated sea-voyages that took place during the early years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).25

Between 1405 and 1433, seven vast fleets sailed into the Indian Ocean and reached the eastern shores of Africa. Each fleet comprised over 200 sailing ships with about 27,000 men on board. Some of these vessels were the longest wooden ships ever built (117-134m long).26

Fig. 13 Zheng He’s Treasure Ship. Model at the Hong Kong Science Museum.

Both the purpose of the state-directed voyages, under the command of the eunuch Zheng He (Chêng Ho) (1371-1433), and the reason why they were terminated have been much debated in the West. Indeed, Finlay states, they are

now renowned in the West precisely because Needham made them known to a wide audience for the first time. His dramatic contrast of these Ming expeditions with those of the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century captured the imagination of his readers. Rarely has a historical study been so widely applauded and universally accepted. It has been integrated into influential interpretations of world history… But the context which Needham establishes for the voyages and the part they play in his conception of world history remain unrecognized.27

Finlay’s intent is to put the record straight. Needham’s primary offence is that ‘[he] regards the “proto-scientific” motive as most significant ... stemming from his determination to present the Ming expeditions as embodying the virtues of China in contrast to the vices of the West’.28

Finlay’s claim is not supported by the list of motives that Needham names one by one. There the pursuit of natural and medical knowledge occupies fifth place among seven.29

In fact, Needham’s view of the purpose of the voyages, stated in 1970, accords with Mirsky’s summary of the ‘state-of-the-art’ 37 years later:

While it is true that Zheng He brought back, for the exclusive use of the Ming household, lions, leopards, ostriches and giraffes, spices and minerals – his largest vessels were called Treasure Ships – the purpose of the voyages, as the main authorities now agree, was to enfold distant rulers, some of whom sent their envoys to China on Zheng He’s ships, in the ancient Chinese ‘tribute system’. According to this tradition the Emperor, ruling from the centre of the world, by his virtue and splendour attracted foreigners to his Court. There they presented him with their goods, deemed to be ‘tribute’ and performed the kowtow.30

Finlay’s flawed presentation of Needham’s position on the purposes of the voyages is not an isolated error. His account abounds with inaccuracies. Some are trivial, such as blaming Needham for casting Zheng He as the ‘Vasco da Gama’ of China. In fact, Needham attributes this designation to Frank Debenham, the author of Discovery and Exploration: An Atlas of Man’s Journey into the Unknown (1960). More serious is Finlay’s assertion that ‘Science and Civilisation is a product of the Cold War’, conceived ‘when the People’s Republic was proclaimed’. Oddly, Finlay contradicts himself because a few pages previously he writes:

Liberated by his exposure to Chinese culture in 1937, Needham first conceived of writing a book on Chinese science and technology in 1942, after completing Biochemistry and Morphogenesis and before leaving for China.31

As it happens, we can date more precisely Needham’s announcement, in the essay ‘On Science and Social Change’, of his intention to investigate after the war the failure of science

to arise in China [which is] one of the greatest problems in the history of civilization, since no other culture, accept the Indian, equals that of the West in scope and intricacy more closely than that of China. 32

This essay was composed in September 1944, when Needham found himself

in a vacuum within a vacuum, cut off from all communication with the outside world by landslides and rockfalls, without telegraph or telephone, awaiting the clearing of the road.33

Ostensibly written for a collection on social organisation, the essay is about many things: science, philosophy, religion, social orders, their history in the West and in China. More specifically, it is about the intrinsic incompatibility of science with Nazism and Shinto-fascism because of the inherently democratic nature of science. Needham then describes democracy as ‘that practice of which science is the theory’.34

Finlay refers to this essay several times without due care to chronology. That is, without noting that Needham was then clearing his mind for the composition of Science and Civilisation, while waiting for the clearing of the road to Burma. The theme of the correlation between science and democracy had surfaced in Needham’s previous historical work, including The Levellers and the English Revolution (1939), published under the pseudonym Henry Holorenshaw (with a foreword by himself).35 Along the lines discussed above, Needham observes in 1944 that the rise of the merchant class to power, with their slogan of democracy, was the indispensable accompaniment and sine qua non of the rise of modern science in the West. But in China the scholar-gentry and their bureaucratic feudal system always effectively prevented the rise to power or seizure of the State by the merchant class, as happened elsewhere.36

This approach is anathema to Finlay. He worries that

Needham’s conception of world history has gone unnoticed, however, and most readers certainly are not aware of a large-scale scheme informing the massive detail of Science and Civilisation.37

In the unremitting quest to alert and enlighten the ignorant reader, Finlay, like other critics, damns with faint praise.38

Finlay and Needham have different takes on China, the West and world history. But that does not justify him in misrepresenting Needham’s view of history. Needham believed that the rise of modern science was connected with the rise of mercantile capitalism in Europe, constituting an aspect of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This does not warrant Finlay’s attribution to Needham of the reductive worldview that

the rise of modern science in Europe was not merely the outcome of developments within Western civilization but was a direct result of the diffusion of Chinese technology; hence, if China did not give birth to the Scientific Revolution, it at least was responsible for its conception. In other words, the transition to modernity sprang from the long-distance influence of China on the West.39

It is noteworthy that Finlay refrains from citing any of Needham’s writings as support for this statement – although he refers to them copiously.

Chinese society, agriculture and technical progress

Needham’s accent on the divergence of the Scientific Revolution in Europe and China connects with broader questions.

It was due to Marxian ideas that Needham regarded the Scientific Revolution as an aspect of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe. He held the fact that ‘the development of modern science occurred in Europe and nowhere else’ to be part and parcel of European historical singularity.40 This perspective has been recently addressed by the distinguished Austrian social historian Michael Mitterauer, who points to contemporaries of Max Weber (his great inspiration) acknowledging as ‘valid’ science only the one developed in the West.41

Mitterauer does not concern himself with either the Scientific Revolution or the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Nevertheless, what emerges from his account is that a string of factors operating within Frankish feudalism (agriculture and technical innovations, manorial/estate system, commerce, crusades, printing) had generated, by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, circumstances conducive to the rise of capitalism in some Italian and Flemish cities. Pushed forward by the incipient world market economy, these factors may be (following Marx) identified: growth of trade, employment of free labour in mining and manufacturing, separation of the peasantry from the land, and coercive accumulation of surpluses (‘primitive accumulation of capital’).

Medieval China did not participate in the burgeoning world market economy, associated with the global expansion of trade by European powers.42 This had something to do with its underdeveloped money economy and the non-maturation of its capitalist relations, two sides of the same coin. Moreover, the size of the country and its population put a premium on self-sufficiency in food production, demanding both extension of the cultivated area and intensive agriculture; these, in turn, required more labour. This is where, in Needham’s terms, the ‘bureaucratic feudal state system’ distinguished itself by not driving the agricultural producers from land. The intensification of agriculture doubtless stimulated inventions, such as the water-powered blowing engine for the casting of iron agricultural implements. The tendency to rely on self-sufficiency encouraged technical developments, but it also derived momentum from them.

Before the impact of microelectronics, it can be said that machinery essentially consisted of three elements: the driving, the transmission and the actual operational mechanism. In the light of this assortment, the characteristic Chinese achievements, such as the gear-wheel, the crank, the piston-rod and the method of inter-conversion of rotary and longitudinal motion, belong to the category of the transmission mechanism. Revolutionary changes in production, in the European context of the transition from feudalism to capitalism at any rate, appear to have been connected with the working element of the machinery, which had replaced manual operations in the production processes. The flying shuttle and the spinning jenny preceded Watt’s steam engine, but they were hand-powered.

Chinese inventions, such as the humble wheel barrow, were labour saving in an agrarian society which needed labour to produce food in order to satisfy the basic requirements of a very sizeable population; but they could hardly become the starting point of radical changes in production, since, paradoxically, no surplus labour existed. Given that in China the monetary system was underdeveloped, the Chinese bureaucratic feudal state organisation collected taxes and paid its apparatus in kind, but proved to be incompatible with the creation of surplus capital. This then reinforced the immobility of the agrarian society, hindered its social stratification, and, despite the existence of a tremendous reservoir of technical skill, retarded the stimuli to the commercialisation of agriculture and the development of productive forces.


1 S. Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 1.

2 A. Cunningham and P. Williams, ‘De-centring the ‘Big Picture’: The Origins of Modern Science and The Modern Origins of Science’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 26/4 (1993), 407. For the citations that follow, see 409-10, 412, 425, 427-28.

3 I draw on Eric Hobsbawm’s thesis ‘that history is engaged on a coherent intellectual project, and has made progress in understanding how the world came to be the way it is’. See E. Hobsbawm, On History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), p. x.

4 According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of ‘science’ in the English language goes back to the fifteenth century. By 1830, when Charles Babbage (1792-1871) publishes his highly critical Reflections on the Decline of Science and on Some of its Causes, the word had come to mean what it means today. According to the same source, the ‘cultivator of science’ became a ‘scientist’ thanks to W. Whewell, in 1840. Babbage played a major role in the foundation of the British Association of Science (1830). It took its cue from the annual Versammlung Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte (Assembly of German Naturalists and Physicians). Note that the literal translation of ‘Naturforscher’ is more like ‘investigator’ or ‘explorer’ of nature. ‘Naturwissenschaftler’ as an equivalent to the English ‘scientist’ is of later date. For a nuanced ‘Note about “Science”’, see the informative D. E. Harkness, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. xv-xviii.

5 J. North, Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 417.

6 B. Hessen, ‘The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s “Principia”’, in Science at the Cross Roads, 2nd ed. (London: Cass, 1971), pp. 151-212. For relatively recent re-appraisals of Hessen and the Congress, see C. A. J. Chilvers, ‘The Dilemmas of Seditious Men: The Crowther-Hessen Correspondence in the 1930s’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 36 (2003), 417-35; idem, ‘La signification historique de Boris Hessen’, in S. Gerout (ed.), Les Racines sociales et économiques des Principia de Newton (Paris: Vuibert, 2006), pp. 179-206; G. Freudenthal, ‘The Hessen–Grossman Thesis: An Attempt at Rehabilitation’, Perspectives on Science, 13/2 (Summer 2005), 166-93.

7 Needham, Science at the Cross Roads, p. ix.

8 Cunningham and Williams, ‘De-centring’, p. 412.

9 H. Holorenshaw [J. Needham], ‘The Making of an Honorary Taoist’, in M. Teich and R. Young (eds.), Changing Perspectives in the History of Science (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973), p. 7.

10 ‘An Eastern Perspective on Western Anti-science (1974)’, in J. Needham, Moulds of Understanding a Pattern of Natural Philosophy, ed. by G. Werskey (London: Allen and Unwin, 1976), p. 297.

11 J. Needham, ‘Science and Society in East and West’, in M. Goldsmith and A. Mackay (eds.), The Science of Science Society in Technological Age (London: Souvenir Press, 1964), pp. 127-28. I am referring to this publication not because it originated as a letter to me, but because it contains what is regarded as Needham’s ‘classical’ formulation of his Grand Question. Indeed the German version, ‘Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft in Ost und West’, heads the collection that Needham sanctioned of his own essays: J. Needham, Wissenschaftlicher Universalismus Über Bedeutung und Besonderheit der chinesischen Wissenschaft, ed. and trans. by T. Spengler (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979), pp. 61-86. Later Needham re-iterates that there was not one question but two: ‘Not only why modern science originated in Europe alone, but why, during the previous fifteen centuries, China had been much more advanced in science and technology than the cultures of the West’. See ‘Man and His Situation (1970)’, in Needham, Moulds, p. 282.

12 N. Sivin, ‘Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China – or Didn’t It?’, in E. Mendelsohn (ed.), Transformation and Tradition in the Sciences: Essays in Honor of I. Bernard Cohen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 531-54.

13 Needham, Moulds, p. 283.

14 Sivin, ‘Why’, p. 531.

15 Ibid., p. 552, n. 7.

16 For the following paragraphs, see ibid., pp. 536-37, 539, 540, 543.

17 M. Teich with Dorothy M. Needham, A Documentary History of Biochemistry, 1770-1940 (Leicester and London: Leicester University Press, 1992), pp. xxii-xxv.

18 S. Shapin, ‘Discipline and Bounding: The History and Sociology of Science Seen through the Externalism-Internalism Debate’, History of Science, 30 (1992), 333-69 (p. 334).

19 A. C. Graham, ‘China, Europe, and the Origins of Modern Science: Needham’s The Grand Titration’, in Nakayama and Sivin (eds.), Chinese Science: Explorations of an Ancient Tradition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1973), p. 46, n. 2.

20 Ibid., p. 67.

21 Hobsbawm, On History, p. 80.

22 Sivin, ‘Why’, p. 540.

23 See H. F. Cohen, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 471.

24 Needham, Moulds, pp. 285-87.

25 R. Finlay, ‘China, the West, and World History in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China’, Journal of World History, 11 (2000), 265-303. See J. Needham with Wang Ling and Lu Gwei-Djen, Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 4/3: ‘Civil Engineering and Nautics’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 487-535. For a convenient roundup (also referred to by Finlay), see J. Needham, ‘Abstract of Material Presented to the International Maritime History Commission at Beirut’, in M. Mollat (ed.), Sociétés et Compagnies de Commerce en Orient et dans L’Océan Indien (Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N, 1970), pp. 139-65 (pp. 146-54).

26 For an acclaimed account, see E. L. Dreyer, Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty (New York and London: Pearson Longman, 2007). ‘It will be’, so the knowledgeable Jonathan Mirsky claims, ‘the last word for some time to come’. See his review ‘Tribute, Trade and Some Eunuchs’, The Times Literary Supplement, 26 January 2007, 11.

27 Finlay, ‘China’, 269.

28 Ibid., 293, 299.

29 Needham, ‘Abstract’, 147.

30 Mirsky, ‘Tribute’.

31 Finlay, ‘China’, 301, 273-74.

32 ‘On Science and Social Change’, in J. Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969), pp. 123-54 (p. 148). The essay first appeared in Science and Society, 10 (1946), 225-51.

33 Ibid., p. 123.

34 Ibid., p. 145.

35 I concur with Finlay that there was no intention to deceive by presenting ‘Henry Holorenshaw’ as the author of ‘The Making of an Honorary Taoist’, in Teich and Young (eds.), Changing Perspectives in the History of Science. Originally, the publishers expected me to write on Needham. After considering the idea, it occurred to me that a contribution by Needham’s alter ego would be of greater interest. Finding the suggestion intriguing, Needham accepted the invitation to contribute.

36 Needham, Titration, p. 150.

37 Finlay, ‘China’, 267.

38 For example: ‘Even though he employs many outdated concepts and makes countless unsupported assertions, his rendering of world history is remarkable for its synoptic vision’; ‘Although not without internal coherence and a grain of truth, his depiction of European history amounts to little more than a mechanical application of Marxist clichés that were outdated before the first volume of Science and Civilisation appeared’. Ibid., 268, 301.

39 Ibid., 281-82.

40 Needham, Titration, p. 193. For a recent thoughtful reappraisal of Needham’s ‘settled/outdated’ position, see P. K. O’Brien, ‘The Needham Question Updated: A Historiographical Survey and Elaboration’, History of Technology, 29 (2009), 7-28. O’Brien finds Needham’s point intact about the divergent attitudes of European and Chinese natural philosophy to ‘laws of nature’. At the top of the agenda for historical research, he concludes,

must be the Chinese stance of incredulity towards the paradigm that had gripped the imagination of European natural philosophy, namely that all natural phenomena, including the human body, could be investigated, comprehended and interrogated as cases or instances of universal laws of nature. Furthermore, these laws (which explained how and why things operated as they did) were the manifestations of the intelligent design of a divine creator. They could be exposed by transparent experimental methods and explicated rigorously in mathematical language. Natural laws that could be represented as divine in origin provided the West with a cosmology and a culture for elites of aristocrats, merchants, industrialists and craftsmen that rested on an acceptable, unproveable, but ultimately progressive supposition that God created a natural world that was rational and explicable, that its tendencies to afflict the lines of people’s everywhere could be fixed or ameliorated and that matter could be manipulated to provide technologies to raise the productivities of labour.

Confucian cosmology neither restrained nor promoted the interrogation of nature or the search for technological solutions to problems of production. What it did not provide for, even during the continued economic advance of the Qing empire, was that powerful promotional confidence that entered into the cultures of Western elites of a natural world that was the rational and explicable work of their God. As Needham observed, ‘there was no confidence that the codes of nature could be read because there was no assurance that a divine being had formulated a code capable of being read’. His point is intact and remains open for research and discussion.

Ibid., 28. The Epilogue will further discuss the conundrum of European natural philosophers faced with harmonising their findings and explanations of natural phenomena with the words of Scripture.

41 M. Mitterauer, Why Europe? The Medieval Origin of its Special Path (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. xx.

42 What follows draws on my comments on the manuscript of the public lecture by J. Needham at the University Hong Kong on 30 April 1974. See J. Needham and R. Huang (Huang Jen-Yü), ‘The Nature of Chinese Society – A Technical Interpretation’, Journal of Oriental Studies, reprinted from Vol. 12/1 and 2 (1974), 1-16. See also J. Needham, with Wang Ling, Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 4/2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), p. 262.