A New Survey of the Needham Question*

LIU Dun**

Institute for the History of Natural Science, CAS, Beijing 100010

    Abstract    "Why did modern science not develop in China?" Nowadays, the "Needham question" as historians have come to refer to this subject is still a widely-discussed topic among historians of science throughout the world, and its full implications go well beyond the more specific matter of science and China. This article does not discuss the various dynamic factors related to this subject, whether internal or external to science. Instead, it provides a broad survey of recent research concerning this problem, and places special emphasis upon the origins and development of the "Needham question", as well as its significance in the historiography of world science.

    Key words    Needham question, Science and Civilisation in China, Scientific Revolution, lagging behind, traditional science, modernity

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1.    TheNeedham Questionand theLagging BehindIssue

It is well-known that Joseph Needham1900-1995was the first to propose the inclusion of anSfor science in UNESCO. When this supranational organization was created in 1945, Needham had just finished his term as Chief Science Adviser for the British Government in China, and was subsequently appointed as the first Head of the Natural Sciences Section of UNESCO [1] . It was shortly thereafter that he began to consider a project that would eventually occupy the rest of his life, namely writing and editing the multi-volume Science and Civilisation in Chinahereafter SCC

For years Needham had been puzzled by an historical question, a question that in turn became the strongest motive for him to carry out his monumental project. The question he had to face was: why did modern science, especially the mathematicization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, develop only in the West at the time of Galileo?

Needham also formulated this question in an alternative way: why was Chinese civilization, between the first century B.C. and the fifteenth century A.D., so much more efficient than the West in applying human natural knowledge to practical human needs? In other words, what had happened to explain why this lead never led tomodernscience in China?

In fact, many of Needham's writings concerning the scientific achievements of ancient China are devoted to these and related issues. Numerous answers, including several from Needham himself, have been proposed over the past half century. Nowadays historians of science call this comparative problem of the Scientific Revolution and the status of science and technology in China theNeedham question. It has been a subject of great interest to historians of science generally, and its significance goes well beyond the subject of science in China. However, the various dynamic factors, both internal and external to science, that have been used to help answer the Needham question, will not be discussed here. Instead, special emphasis will be given in what follows to the origin and development of the Needham question, and to its significance in the historiography of world science.

In the People's Republic of China, this question has been discussed repeatedly, especially after the 1980s. In October of 1982 a colloquium was held at Chengdu, Sichuan Province, with the title of Why China’s Modern Science Lags Behind 中国近代科学落后原因 [①] , and about 50 papers were presented and discussed. Some of the selected papers were later published in a volume of proceedings entitled Scientific Tradition and Culture科学传统与文化 [2] which in turn stimulated substantial interest in the Needham questionthroughout the Chinese academic community. On the occasion of Needham' s ninetieth birthday in 1990, the Shanghai journal Nature devoted a special section to theNeedham question. Furthermore, a Foundation for studying the “Needham question ”was established at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou to encourage studies of this topic. Of the most recent research on this matter in China, the most interesting and detailed report is Fan Dainian' s Discussions of the Reasons of for the Lagging Behind of Science in Modern China [3] .

It seems that the current Chinese scholars have been inclined to treat the lagging behind issue as an equivalent of the Needham question. Is this a kind of misreading of Joseph Needham, or is it inevitable that once people discuss the Needham questionthey have to face the lagging behindissue?  

As a matter of fact, the “Needham question” was formed within the context of a firm belief in the inevitability of general human progress, culturally, politically, scientifically and technologically. This belief was shared by many intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century, who never doubted that all mankind was ultimately on its way to somewhere better, and that they knew roughly what that "somewhere" would be like. Therefore the best thing people could do was to try to move in that direction as quickly as possible [4] .

    Once this concept of inevitable progress is adopted, it is very hard to avoid looking at the history of every culture with the question in mind "how fast are they moving forward?" For the universalizing beliefs of people like Joseph Needham, and their strong sense of the unity of humanity, this meant that no-one could be left out. The question was not whether all mankind would one day get to the bright and promised future, but when and by what route. A society that was not progressing towards that goal in a recognizable sense was held to be in some way faulty -- in Joseph Needham's embryological terms, some "inhibiting factor" must be at work [②] .

2.    The Discussions Before the SCC Was Published

As early as the 17th century, the Jesuits who came to China had already noted thelagging behindproblem in Chinese science, and consequently in the 18th century, some European thinkers and scientists had tried to find appropriate explanations. Moreover, during the first half of the 20th century, a number of Chinese scholars devoted attention to thelagging behindissue. All these arguments emerged before the impact of SCC on academic circles.  

2.1        The Jesuits’“lagging behind”issue

Generally speaking, the European conception of China in the first half of the 16th century, had not changed essentially compared with the views expressed in the Travels of Marco Polo1254-1324. In 1585, a Spanish writer J. G. de Mendoza published Historia de las cosa mas notables, ritos y costumbres del Gran Reyno dela China [③] , which considerably broadened Europeans’visual field on China. However, European understanding of Chinese science and civilization should  mainly be ascribed to the Western missionaries, especially the Jesuits who came to China in the 16th - 17th centuries. Their works not only introduced China’s history, geography, its political system and social customs, but also mentioned Chinese science and crafts. For example, De Christiana Expeditione apud Sinas1615 [④] by Matteo Ricci1552-1610 was the first comprehensive work about China since Mendoza, and it was considered as one of the main resources on Chinese science for 17th- century European scholars.

    The French Jesuits who arrived after the time of Ricci paid much attention to Chinese science. Not only were they deeply impressed by Chinese governance and Chinese crafts, but such positive impressions made them feel even more perplexed. What factors had stunted the growth of Chinese science? Dominicus Parrenin1665-1741was the first who seriously raised thelagging behindissue in earlier times.

    Parrenin came to China in 1698 and thereafter maintained a frequent correspondence with Dortous de Mairan (1678-1771), then President and later Permanent Secretary of the French Academy of Science. From 1728 to 1740, de Mairan wrote numerous letters to Parrenin inquiring about the chronology, astronomy and other aspects of Chinese civilization. Among Parrenin’s various replies, one dated on August 13, 1730, mainly concerned causes of the “lagging behind” of Chinese Science [5] .

At the beginning of this letter, Parrenin wrote:“Sir, it would  appear inexplicable that although the Chinese had committed themselves to pure theoretical science for a very long period, they had never gone further. I agree with you that the fact is incredible. I do not think it should be imputed to the Chinese mind. If they really lacked for brightness and vigor in questing for knowledge, would their talents and diligence have been exhibited in other disciplines any more than what was requisite in astronomy and geometry? There are many causes entangled together, which have prevented science developing along its expected course, and as long as these causes still exist, movement forward would be blocked.” In regard to these causes, Parrenin believed,“firstly, those who might hope to show their abilities could have no expectation of any reward”; “the second cause standing in the way of scientific development is the lack of competition, no matter whether it might come from inside or outside of the country.” [⑤] And he pointed out that astronomers living in neighboring countries had no competence to reveal mistakes in Chinese astronomy, while the Chinese Emperor just wanted his people to keep silent and accept the dynastic orthodoxy. The road leading to wealth and power was to recite the classics and speak in a bookish way rather than do research on astronomy. 

1.2        The analysis of European scholars in the 17th-18th centuries

From the Jesuits’ initial accounts of China and from the favorable gloss they put on those accounts, there arose aChina crazein 17th- and 18th-century Europe. Some leading thinkers and scientists, such as R. Boyle (1627-1691), G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716), J. Cassini (1677-1756), F. Voltaire (1694-1778), F. Quesnay1694-1774, D. Hume1711-1776, D. Diderot (1713-1784), and S. Montesquieu (1689-1755), all paid attention to Chinese science [6] .

    However, Leibniz had differed in his judgement and analysis of the “lagging behind”issue from the Jesuits. In the Preface of his  Novissima Sinica1697, he pointed out that although the Chinese had developed their own learning for thousands of years, and miraculously applied it to practical needs, for which Chinese scholars should receive bountiful credit, their comprehension of human reason and of the art of demonstration are utterly deficient. He argued that the basic reason was that the Chinese lack the insights that Europeans had gained into mathematics. This was because mathematical research should properly be regarded as a  matter for philosophers rather than craftsmen, whereas it appeared the Chinese were ignorant of the art of demonstration and just satisfied themselves with mathematics acquired from practical experience [7] .

    Obviously, Leibniz analyzed this question from the point of view of science itself. In contrast to this, Hume adopted a sociological point of view. He believed that several neighboring and independent states connected by trade and intercourse would be more beneficial for the advancement of cultivation and learning, while China was severely lacking in this respect. Externally, China was lacked commercial organizations that might promote trade and cultural exchanges; internally, China was under a dynastic regime, and all of Chinese spoke the same language, lived in the same life-style, and were ruled by the same system. This situation forced every Chinese to hold authorities in reverence and made them lose vigor and courage, thus stunting development in the past several centuries.

In the 18th century, French thinkers of the Enlightenment showed the strongest interest in Chinese science and civilization. This was not only the after effect of the “Rites Controversy” at the beginning of that century, it also reflected the hope of some thinkers that they might find in China a model for the reformation of Western society. Under these circumstances, their analysis naturally emphasized the influence of social custom and ethics. In Le siecle de Louis XIV1751, Voltaire remarked that Chinese ancestor worship was just like European worship of Aristotle [⑥] . In his Dictionnaire Philosophique1764, he further claimed that ancestor worship had stunted the progress of Chinese physics, geometry and astronomy [⑦] .  

    Among French thinkers of the Enlightenment, Diderot also analyzed the reasons for “the absence of the European genius” in China. He believed that it should be imputed to the Oriental spirit, which tended towards easiness and laziness, only concerned with one’s immediate interests, and lacked the courage to challenge traditional common sense. It fell short of a passionate pursuit of knowledge, and of the spirit of exploration that was essential for the development of science. Although these remarks did not surpass the depth of those of Leibniz and Hume, they did indeed touch on many of the links connecting the social system and scientific research[5], pp. 295-297.

    2.3  The arguments by Chinese scholars in the first half of the 20th  century

At the beginning of the 20th century, when the New Culture Movement approached its climax, the lagging behindissue also became one of the more heated topics discussed among Chinese scholars. In 1915, Ren Hongjuan任鸿隽 (1886-1961), one of the forerunners of Chinese modern science as well as the founder of the Chinese Society of Science中国科学社 and the journal Science科学, published an article “On the Reasons Why China Does Not Have Science” in vol. 1 of Science. In this he claimed that the main reason was that the Chinese did not employ the method of induction [8] .

Following this, many Chinese scholars joined the discussion and proposed different solutions in the light of their background and experience. In 1920 Liang Qichao梁启超(18731929, in his Introduction to Learning in the Qing Dynasty清代学术概论, claimed that the method of philology in the Qing Dynasty was quite “scientific”, and the underdevelopment of natural science should be mainly imputed to traditional ethics which laid little stress on science. Four years later in The History of Learning in China in the Past Three Hundred Years中国近三百年学术史, he further emphasized the evil consequence of the imperial examinations. At the same time, Feng Youlan冯友兰(18951990 published his English paper “Why China Did Not Have Science — an explanation of the history and consequences of Chinese philosophy” [9] . In this article, Feng claimed that, since the Han Dynasty, Chinese had lost the ideal of conquering nature and completely withdrawn from the external world.

The enthusiasm for science was ascending in pace with the growth of scientific organizations in China in the 1930s and 1940s. During the course of those years a number of scholars began to consider problems about science and modernity. This tendency reached its summit in 1944.

First, a collection of paper with the title Modern China and Science现代中国与科学 was published in 1944 [⑧] . Among others there are two articles in particular exploring the reasons that modern science did not occur in China [10] [11] .

Second, a paper titled“Why Natural Science Did Not Rise in China”was published in Science Times科学时报, which was actually translated from the book Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft ChinasLeipzig, 1931, written by a German Marxist historian K. A. Wittfogel, who had a strong impact on Joseph Needham [⑨] .

Third, when the Chinese Society of Science celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its foundation [⑩] , as an honorable member of the Chinese Society of Science and the President of the Legation of Scientific Cooperation between China and the United Kingdom, Joseph Needham participated in the Society’s annual meeting which took place in Meitan, Guizhou, on October 24, and he gave an address entitled“Science and Culture in China”. In this lecture, Joseph Needham first criticized the arguments previously raised by some Western and Chinese scholars that there was no science in ancient China. As he said, ancient Chinese philosophy was very close to scientific explanation, and Chinese inventions and creations in later ages had produced a tremendous influence on the culture of all the world. Therefore, the fundamental problem is why modern experimental science and related theoretical systems were produced only in the West rather than in China. Here Needham had in fact proposed that the so-called “Needham question” very clearly. And he suggested that we should look for the reasons based on a material foundation. 

Zhu Kezheng竺可桢(18901974, a meteorologist and one of the close friends of Joseph Needham, also took part in this meeting. In his diary that day, Zhu explicitly recorded Needham’s answers to the question, which refer to the four inhibiting factors -- geography, climate, economy and society, the last two also relating to the fact that there was no commercial class in China [12] .

In 1945, Zhu published his own study on this topic, “Why Did Natural Science Not Rise in Ancient China?”, and he concluded that the structure of agricultural society and feudal ideas had hindered the rise of modern science in China [13] . 

As Fan Dainian pointed out, it is interesting to note that the majority of the discussions concerning the lagging behindissue in the 1940s dealt with the social and economic factors shaped by China’s specific geographical circumstances, while most of those that appeared in the 1920s focused attention on the context of traditional politics and philosophy[3], pp.18-21. In To what extent Chinese scholars concerned with this lagging behind issue in the 1940s had been influenced by Marxism, or in to what extent they and Joseph Needham had been interplayinginteracting [?], these are questions should that deserve be inquired furtherfurther investigation.

3      The Global Significance of theNeedham Question

According to the new humanism that we recognize in George Sarton1884-1956and Needham himself, like art and literature, science is the common heritage of the whole humankind. In other words, the unity of nature was reflected in the unity of science and the latter was an affirmation of the unity of mankind, and therefore every nation or civilization would have its own contribution to general human progress [14] .  

In an article which was praised as being “of immense value” for “scholars who are not specialists onScience and China, but who are interested in the transfer of scientific knowledge between different cultural areas”[1], p.152, Joseph Needham wrote:

The standpoint here adopted assumes that in the investigation of natural phenomena all men are potentially equal, that the oecumenism of modern science embodies a universal language that they can all comprehensibly speak, that the ancient and medieval sciencesthough bearing an obvious ethnic stampwere concerned with the same natural world and could therefore be subsumed into the same oecumenical natural philosophy, and that this has grown, and will continue to grow among men, pari passu with the vast growth of organisation and integration in human society, until the coming of the world co-operative commonwealth which will include all peoples as the waters cover the sea [15] .

    Not only did Joseph Needham believe unequivocally in progress, he also thought he knew pretty clearly where such progress was going – forwards more and better science, democracy, social equality and plenty for all in a planned society, and the abolition of war through the replacement of the nation-state by such larger and better entities as what Joseph Needham called the "world co-operative commonwealth" [11] .

    However, this idea has come to be considered outdated and problematic in the wake of crises in the rapid development of science and society, and especially attempts at the sociological deconstruction of science [12] . On the other hand, theNeedham questionstill remains heuristically relevant to historiography in the world-wide history of science.

As Maurice Goldsmith pointed out, the ultimate goal of Needham' s SCC was to promote mutual understanding among different cultures [16] . The fundamental contribution of Needham' s SCC is generally deemed to lie in pioneering the integration of non-Western traditions and achievements into world history of science. In one word, science is the common heritage of all humankind.

As an advocate of continuity and universality in science, Joseph Needham argued that modern science cannot be identified as European ethnoscience. Knowledge of Nature is no one’s private property. The world is like a holy vessel, says the Tao Te Ching道德经. Whoever grabs at it will lose it irretrievably. [13] [17] Therefore non-Western cultures should no longer to be treated as lagging behind and modern science should be considered as a great conglomeration of the scientific knowledge of different civilizations. As Needham expressed it:

    There is an old Chinese expression about the Rivers going to pay court to the Sea [14] , and indeed one can well consider the old streams of science in the different civilisations like rivers flowing into the ocean of modern science. Modern science is indeed composed of contributions from all the peoples of the Old World, and each contribution has flowed continuously into it, whether from Greek or Roman antiquity, or from the Arabic world and from cultures of China and India [18] .

On the other hand, he also warned against an absolutization of the notion of ethnoscience, used to underline the achievements of non-Western cultures, like ancient Egypt, India, and China. As Elzinga pointed out: “That would be to deny the universal validity of certain scientific findings independent of geographical and cultural meridians. Relativism on the one hand, and the claim for a need for a fundamental resacralization of science, in tune with the value of some other civilization made absolute, Needham, it appears, saw as twins on the tree of ethnocentrism, where Eurocentric scientism is a further branch, also to be rejected. A distinction is made between values and science, and between scientism and science.” [19] Thus Needham writes in theAuthor's Notein the fifth volume of SCC:

There is a danger to be guarded against, the danger of falling into the other extreme, and of denying the fundamental continuity and universality of all science. This could be to resurrect the Spenglerian conception of the natural sciences of the various deador even worse, the livingnon-European civilizations as totally separate, immiscible thought patterns, more like distinct works of art than anything else, a series of different views of the natural world irreconcilable and unconnected. Such a view might be used as the cloak of some historical racist doctrine, the sciences of pre-modern times and the non-European cultures being thought of as wholly conditioned ethnically, and rigidly confined to their own sphere, not part of humanity's broad onward march. Moreover, it would leave little room for those actions and reactions that we are constantly encountering, deep-seated influences which one civilisation had upon another [20] .

Needham' s works are not only regarded as important by contemporary scholars in China., Hhis heuristic question has also caused a lasting interest among historians of science in the world. In September 1996, a conference conceived as an homage to Joseph Needham took place in New Delhi, India. As the organizers pointed out,Science -- the Refreshing River, the theme of the conference, was inspired by and reflecting Needham' s lifelong engagement with crossing disciplinary and institutional boundaries, drew on the constituencies of academic and professional colleagues with varied intellectual and political concerns. [21] [15]

At the 20th International Congress on History of Science held in July 1997 in Liege, Belgium, a symposium with the titleGlobal History of Science was dedicated to Joseph Needham. We chose to focus on some aspects of the history ofnon-Westernscience, Catherine Jami, the organizer wrote,on which an impressive amount of literature has appeared since the first volume of SCC was published. Besides bringing to light adark continent, this literature raises fundamental methodological and historiographical issues that could and should inform the work of the majority of historians of science, who study theWest. We thus intended to enlarge upon Needham 's contribution to the construction of a new history of science, which strives to take into account its multifaceted development in all civilizations. [22]

Helaine Selin, the editor of the Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures1997, attributed her inspiration to Joseph Needham: All of us in the field of non-Western science owe him an enormous debt for bringing the intellectual worlds of the East and West together. In a sense all of our work follows from him. [23]

Recently a number of articles, more or less dealing with theNeedham question, have been dedicated to the discussion of the social contexts of different cultures. For example, concerning science in East Asia and particular in Korea, Jeon Sang-Woon has studiedTraditional Korean Science and East Asia -- science and technology drawn from East Asian experience [24] , while Park Seong-Rae has written aboutSome Indices of the Rise of Modern Science in Korea [25] . From Japan, Togo Tsukahara, Keizo Hashimoto and Noriaki Matsumura have publishedNeedham' s Impact on Japanese History of Science [26] . With regard to Islamic science and its relation to Western science, Steve Fuller provided some remarks in his Prolegomena to a World History of Science [27] , and Pascal Crozet made a case study on “Modernization of Science and Its History Outside Europe: Egyptian projects in the nineteenth century” [28] ; both were contributed to the New Delhi conference.

In the eyes of those who study the history of science in other ancient civilizations, perhaps the most interesting paper isThe Missing Picture: the non-emergence of a Needhamian history of sciences in India, written by Dhrun Raina and Irfan Habib. Despite the fact that A. K. Bag published Science and Civilization in India in 1985 [29] , the two Indian historians of science asked why has an Indian equivalent (of SCC) not been produced?In answering this question the authors raised some questions about Needham's historiography that were problematic for the history of science in India, and discussed the conditions relating to the non-emergence of the Indian equivalent of the SCC [30]

    Diversity is a topic of considerable interest in today’s world. No matter whether it refers to the diversity of life embodied in the Natural natural world, or to cultural diversity in human society, the principle of  diversity is like a hymn to the riches of the material world and the variety of humankind. Through his lifelong contribution to the conviction of continuity and universality in science, especially through his  monumental SCC, Joseph Needham deserves the title of the 20th-Century Renaissance Man. Meanwhile, keeping pace with the concept of cultural diversity as a trend-setting popular idea in the new century, the full implications of the Needham questionshould be reevaluated by all scholars who study science and civilization.   

 

4      Science and Modernity

Another question concerning modern historiography and the influence of Joseph Needham is: was the concept of inevitable progress inevitably Eurocentric? One has to say that it tended to be so, but we cannot ignore the question of whether this was a matter of historical contingency rather than a necessity. When a late 19th-century British person held views of this kind, it would have been hard to find many contemporary examples of recent "progress" in his or her most probable sense of the word outside Europe and North America. But if on the other hand one had been able to give such a person the necessary information, it is conceivable that he or she would have admitted that China in the eleventh century was a much more "progressive" place than England at the time of the Norman Conquest.

The triumph of modern science initiated in 17th-century Europe has caused a widely disseminated mythology: science is a heritage that only came from Western civilization, the civilization that was held to have originated from Greece and to have been rediscovered in Renaissance Europe [16] ; hencemodernizationis simply equated with science, and even to theWesternization.

The most profound criticism of theNeedham questionrelates to this kind of mythology.Why do people keep asking why the Scientific Revolution did not take place in China when they know enough not to waste time explaining why their names did not appear on page three of today's newspaper?Nathan Sivin used a metaphor to show the meaninglessness of the did not take placequestion. On the other hand, he admitted that the Needham questionis a heuristic one. Why is the Scientific Revolution problem discussed so much more often than other heuristic questions? Sivin asked, and then he argued that the assumption of Western cultural superiority might cause misunderstanding, so that many people want to see in Chinese science a confirmation of Western cultural superiority in the evolution of universal modern science. The assumption  also means that civilizations which had the potential for a scientific revolution ought to have had the kind that took place in Europe. But the assumption is not correct, for instance, as Sivin explains:A revolution in Chinese scientific thought and practice took place in the seventeenth century as a number of major thinkers responded to Western astronomy and cosmology. [31] Here he actually refers to the so-calledconceptual revolution” in the Chinese  context, which was the conversion to modern science and a little copyof the Scientific Revolution of Europe [32] .

In his article‘Traditional’vs.Modernin the Japanese Context, Tadashi Yoshida concluded that Japan's modernization had occurred in the Meiji period1868-1912under considerable Western pressure [33] . Similarly, based on the research on Egyptian projects in the nineteenth century, Pascal Crozet gave a study ofModernization of Science and Its History Outside Europe [34] . Men Yue recently provided another case study on the practice of the Jiangnan Arsenal江南制造局(1864-1897which she called “Hybrid Science versus Modernity” [35] . All these authors suggested that there were different approaches to modernization, which varied from that described in most textbooks of the history of science.

The problem is: Did China, or other non-Western nations, experience something that we could call modernizationwhen they were unfamiliar with what is normally considered modern science? In his Modernization Less Science, Pierre-Etienne Will introduced this more broadly conceived concept of modernity, based on his analysis of some examples in China and Japan before Westernization. He concluded: If there was not much real sciencein pre-1850 East Asia, at least not in our sense, there occasionally were interesting moves in that direction; and there definitely was an amount of modernisation -- an amount fairly variable in nature and according to country or region, to be sure, but sometimes an impressive amount. [36]

In past decades, the concepts of modernityand modern science have been frequently attacked by various groups of critics: from post-modernists to feminists, and from ecologists to humanists. They object that humankind only uses modern science to conquer nature, but does not care for it, which has led to natural resources being exhausted and the ecological environment being damaged. Therefore they deny that science is a cause of continuing progress. On the other hand, they have pointed out that scientific activities are too often dominated by the power of authorities, which unfairly suppress the humanistic spirit and all non-Western cultures.  

Nevertheless, science has never gone to its end, as some ultra-radicals claimed -- science, as a potentially positive social force, has not [?]  become exhausted due to its many branches havinge approached to their limitsIn a lecture presented to a conference organized by the Canadian Association of Asian Studies in Montreal in 1975, Joseph Needham evaluated the so-called anti-culture and anti-science movement [37] as characterized in the writings of Theodore Roszak [38] [39] . Recently a radical form of opposition to "scientism" has appeared, which makes the claim that we are nearing "The End of Science". This would mean (for instance) that in physics we can expect no significant additions to the sum of human knowledge beyond relativity and quantum theory [40] . I reject such claims on various grounds. Firstly, the history of science shows that all earlier claims to have reached the limits of human understanding have proved to be entirely misconceived. Secondly, the very nature of scientific knowledge means that it can never be a closed and complete system. But most of all, it is clear to those of us who share some of Joseph Needham' s belief in the possibility of human progress that science as a positive social force has much more to contribute to humanity than we have seen so far. [41] . Nevertheless, tHowever, tThere is no border barrier to prohibit mankind from exploring the secrets of nature and developing even better intelligenceunderstanding

In developing countries, people should not only explore the reasons  for anylagging behind; more importantly, they may also need to find a way of maintaining the coexistence of modern science and traditional science, and promoting their prosperity together, as an Indian historian of science has recently said: “Even now in India, traditional astronomy coexists with modern astronomy; traditional medicine with modern medicine; likewise traditional technology. The past resides in the present providing a sustainable future for both modernity and tradition.”41

Can people really find a way of keeping harmony between mankind and nature, science and society, industrial development and a healthy ecological environment, global economic integration and cultural diversity? This is a crucial issue for mankind in the new century. In this sense, theNeedham question will continue to evoke divergent responses from different parts of the world; and of course, its significance will extend far beyond the more specific matter of science and China.       

重审“李约瑟问题”

刘钝

(中国科学院自然科学史研究所)

摘要 “为什麽近代科学没有在中国产生?”这个被历史学家称作“李约瑟问题”的命题今天仍然是全世界科学史家们关注的热点之一,它的意义已经超越了“科学”和“中国”这两个特定范畴。本文的目的不是对这一问题再添加一个或数个特解,即不讨论与此有关的种种动力因素 —— 无论是从科学内部还是从科学外部;相反,它将对国际上有关“李约瑟问题”的近期研究提供一个广角俯瞰,着重分析这一问题的来源和发展,指出其在世界范围内科学编史学上的作用,进而将“李约瑟问题”置于人类文化多样性的角度来审视它的现代意义。

关键词  李约瑟问题”  《中国的科学与文明》  科学革命  “落后”  传统科学  现代性



* This paper was originally presented to the World Conference on Science which took place in Budapest, Hungary, from 26 June to 1 July 1999. The author is grateful to the International Council for ScienceICSUfor inviting him to attend the Conference. He also expresses appreciation to Joseph Dauben and Christopher Cullen for their many useful comments and for help in revising the English draft during the writing of this paper. 

** Professor of the Institute for the History of Natural Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

[①] Quite a long time ago, European anthropologists used the words "backward" or "stagnant" to describe peoples whose cultures were in their view not so "advanced" as their own. Hence the words had all kinds of negative connotations, although nowadays nobody would think of using them in the old way, and these expressions are really much more descriptive of a condition or state rather than condemnatory of basic nature. Nevertheless, as Christopher Cullen pointed out in one of his letters to me:“once one starts talking in Needham terms, one needs to find some equivalent of ‘backward’ or‘stagnant’ unless everybody is advancing together at the same rate”, and according to his advice, I use the phrase "lagging behind" to describe the state of luohou落后 in this paper. My warmest thanks to Wang Yangzong王扬宗for bringing the subtle meaning of luohou to my special attention.  

[②] I am indebted to Christopher Cullen who provided his heuristic comments on the relationship between Needham’s terms and his belief in the inevitability of human progress in general.

[③] Chinese translation: Zhonghua dadiguo zhi中华大帝国志,He Gaoji何高济 trans., Beijing: Zhonghua Press, 1998.

[④] Chinese translation: Limadou zhongguo zaji利玛窦中国扎记,He Gaoji et al. trans., Beijing: Zhonghua Press, 1983.

[⑤] These three quotations are all translated from the Chinese ([5], pp. 293294) ; and according to Han Qi, the original letter was published in L. Vissiere ed., Lettres édifiantes de la Chine par des missionaires1702-1776, Paris, 1979.

[⑥] Chinese translation: Luyi shisi shidai路易十四时代,Wu Moxin吴模信 et al. trans., Beijing: Shangwu Press, 1982.

[⑦] Chinese translation: Zhexue cidian哲学辞典,Wang Yansheng王燕生trans., Beijing: Shangwu Press, 1991.

[⑧] My thanks to Wang Yangzong who introduced me to this book.

[⑨] K. A. Wittfogel had been the German Communist Party’s authority on China during the Weimar Republic period, and his Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas provided an eloquent argument for Marx’s Asiatic mode of production, although Wittfogel later bitterly criticized Marxism in the US during the McCarthy period. Christopher Cullen told me, that amongst what he remembers Joseph Needham saying in the year of his death about the things that had influenced him was a reference to his being “very interested by the early Wittfogel”.    

[⑩] In fact, the Chinese Society of Science was formally founded in 1915 in Cornell University by a group of Chinese students studying there, while in the previous year they decided to publish a Chinese journal Science.

[11] The term“world co-operative commonwealth” came from an old friend of Joseph Needham, the socialist and Anglican priest Conrad Noel, of Thaxted, who promoted the organization of agricultural workers into trade unions in the 1920s, and led them in strikes and demonstrations. As for Needham’s final phrase, compare these words:

God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year,

God is working his purpose out and the time is drawing near;

Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,

When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

…(by A. C. Ainger, in Hymns ancient and modern, no 271, Norwich, 1994

As Christopher Cullen indicated to me, Joseph Needham often “embedded” such references in his prose without making them explicit, in order to express his own combination of socialism and Christianity and might have put offwithout repelling those who did not share his religious belief. 

[12] For details, see A. Elzinga, Revisiting theNeedham Paradox, 73113; and S. Visvanathan, The Strange Question of Joseph Needham, 198219, in I. Habib and D. Raina eds., Situating the History of Science -- Dialogues with Joseph Needham. The earlier two criticisms on Needham’s concept of “historical determinism”, see C. C. Gillispie, Perspectives, American Scientist, 45 (1957), 169176; and A. F. Wright, Review of Volume 2 of SCC, American Historical Review, 621957, 918920.

[13] The Chinese text is “天下神器,……不可执也。……执者失之。

[14] The Chinese text given by Needham is朝宗于海; another similar expression is百川纳海. However, this recalls the waters cover the seain that Anglican hymn mentioned in a previous footnote, which Joseph Needham certainly knew very well.   

[15] My thanks to Catherine Jami and Dhruv Raina for their generosity to in provide providing me with all references about this conference. 

[16] One of the most provocative criticisms of this mythology is given by Xi Zezong席泽宗in his GuanyuLiyuese nanti he jindai kexue yuanyu xila de duihua关于“李约瑟难题”和近代科学源于希腊的对话 (A Dialogue on the Needham Puzzle and the View that Modern Science Originated in Greece, in Song Zhenghai宋正海et al. eds., Bianyuan didai边缘地带(Borders, Beijing: Xueyuan Press, 1999,  7379.



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