2 comments 16 December 2008



China, 16th century engraving. The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) 
and the Chinese scholar who had converted to Christianity, Xu Guangqi (1562-1633).

Xiaosui Xiao wrote a interesting article on the contribution of Intercultural Communication to the topic of Exchange of Knowledge. He noticed the following problem: Historians would tend to be mainly concerned with the interaction between two cultural systems of thought (bodies of knowledge), rather than with the interaction between the speakers and listeners. He felt that historians were rather impersonal, meaning that the agency in communication of thought was rather neglected. Although I do not fully agree with his observation, I can see that Xiao, coming from a communication background, would like to see more detailed analyses of actual communication processes between people in history. Besides the historical approach, there is the communicative approach, specifically looking at the communication between people and on the use of various technologies in this communication. The topic of how knowledge is/was communicated is rather neglected in this social science discipline.

Having observed this problem, Xiao therefore proposed the following study: Intercultural Communication. The focus in this study would be on the intellectual dimension of intercultural transaction; the communication involved with cross-cultural exchange of ideas and thoughts.

Xiao made a theoretical framework based on historical examples since the Opium Wars. After the Opium Wars (1839-1861), the "assimilation of Western Learning" can be said to refer to the introduction and popularisation of Western ideas in China, which reached its heights during the Reform Movement (1890s) and the May Fourth Movement (1915-1925).

Xiao’s theoretical framework is as follows:
1. The assimilation of Western learning is a process of signification (meaning-building). For example, the concept of rén, having the connotation of hierarchy in Confucianism, was given a new meaning by Tan Sitong, namely the principle that all people are equal.
2. Signification is a site of social struggle. 
The new meaning of rén created a struggle between the new interpretation and Confucianism.
3. Signification inevitably involves the critical role of rhetoric.
 In the same example, rhetoric was applied by Tan Sitong to make his case stronger, namely the argumentation around the interconnectivity of rén in Neo-Confucianism.
4. The role of native interpreters and advocates of a foreign practice of signification.
 Tan Sitong’s initiative and effort was crucial in the assimilation of Western learning and the discussion that followed.

In short: Foreign knowledge was interpreted in China and trough translation and advocated within a long-standing tradition by means of rhetoric and by assigning new meanings to words. This causes strong responses and social struggles.

Although Xiao's examples seem to rule out any 'exchange,' rather suggesting an one-way assimilation of Western learning by Chinese initiative, the idea a signification, use of rhetoric, and the focus on agency can really provide a more comprehensive view on the the phenomenon of circulation of knowledge in history.

0 comments 03 December 2008

I introduce to you: Alan Sokal. A physicist who hoaxed the cultural studies journal Social Text by submitting a parody of postmodern science criticism. It aimed at some relativist positions held by sociologists of science. Sokal states that the sociological study of science can claim some things and that he's no arrogant physicist that 'rejects all sociological intrusion on our "turf," as he calls it. There are three propositions on which he thinks science and its critics can agree: 1)science is a human endeavour 2)there are some external factors to science (f.e. the prevailing attitudes of mind which arise in part from deepseated historical factors) 3)the outcome of science is in part due to external factors to science like politics. So science is done by people, who can be researched sociologically and historically, as can the content and outcome of their work. From the Sokal hoax there can be deduced that some cultural study of science is nonsense, but not all. Its content are for the most part direct quotes from postmodern Masters, whom he 'showers with mock praise.' The article was structured around some of the silliest remarks that were made about mathematics and physics. In two ways postmodernists went wrong; 1) meaningless and absurd statements, name-dropping, and a display of false erudtion were made, and 2) sloppy thinking and bad philosophy made glib relativism. 


Examples: In Science in Action Latour introduces his so-called Third Rule of Method which reads as follows: 'Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature's representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome - Nature - to explain how and why a controversy has been settled.' Latour slips here, without comment or argument, from "Nature's representation" to "Nature". Sokal finds it hard to make sense of the statement, unless applying the First Rule of Interpretation of Postmodern Academic Writing: 'no sentence means what it says.' His conclusion is that Latour has no competence in the field of physics and sociologists like him employ methods that enable them to fathom both the 'inner workings' and the 'outer character' of science without having to be expert in the fields they study. The method used is to achieve by definition what one could not achieve by logic. Old words are used in a new sense which results in conflating concepts. 

The basis of Sokal's argument is that scientists generally don't listen to relativist claims about reality by science studies. And these studies should not waste their time trespassing on the expertise of sciences, ridiculing themselves by thinking they are experts in (quantum) physics and mathematics. 
As for myself; I would much rather sleep in a house built by science. But then again, I would also rather read less bricks and stones statements than more historical relativist stories. It remains interesting and informative to read what someone from the science perspective has to say about those who study science sociologically and historically. Although I am in the confident conviction that I am less interesting than the subjects I study.     

1 comments 28 November 2008

WANG ZHEN’S APPLICATION OF ASTRONOMY IN AGRONOMY IN THE LATER CHINESE EMPIRE
Essay introduction for the course "Chinese and Chinese Culture," Xiamen University
Ruben Verwaal



In the intellectual history of China, one of the most distinguished works among the scientific classics is the Wáng Zhēn Nóng Shū 王禎農書 ("Agricultural Treatise of Wang Zhen," 1313). Written during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), the county magistrate Wang Zhen (1290-1333) had specifically designed this work to serve as a guide to agricultural production. The book consisted of three parts: first, a general outline on the origin of agriculture and on various agricultural aspects and techniques, such as its dependence on weather conditions, terrestrial productivity, and human effort; the second part consisted of discussions on the cultivation, protection, harvesting, storage and utilisation of crops, fruit, vegetables, bamboo and other plants and trees; the last and most extensive part consisted of a collection of about 270 illustrations of various farm tools and instruments (Deng Yinke, Ancient Chinese Inventions, 129). Many of these tools have long been lost, making this agricultural treatise an invaluable source of information. What has often been unexplored, however, was the agricultural calendar included in the Nóng Shū.

This essay will therefore investigate a sophisticated feature in Wang Zhen’s comprehensive work on agriculture, namely the yué lìng 月令 (monthly ordinances) or agricultural calendar. The reason for the neglect of attention to this agricultural calendar in the discourse on Chinese astronomy or on agriculture might be found in the reason that it fell exactly in between the two subject matters. Despite the fact that the genre of agricultural calendar was one of utilitarianism (Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation of China, Vol.6, Pt. 2, 52), I would be of the opinion that Wang’s agricultural calendar deserves special attention because his advanced creation was able to include ancient Chinese concepts of Heavenly Stems, the Earthly Branches and Solar Terms, as well as details for year-round farm management.

In order to show the exceptional standing of Wang’s agricultural calendar, we will first briefly look into the history of this literary form. Considering that China was an agricultural economy, farmers have made use of the study of phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, in an attempt to get a grip on the country’s often unpredictable climate. Second, we will discuss the ancient Chinese philosophical concepts included into the calendar and relate them to their practical use in Chinese society and agriculture. Third, we will investigate the influence of Wang’s agricultural calendar in the continuation of the yué lìng genre.

Ever since the beginning of agriculture in China, farmers made use of natural signals such as blooming in order to decide upon when to begin farming season. For example, before the availability of the calendar, Chinese people would observe the morning and evening stars in order to recognise the seasons. This remained a difficult practice, however. In an attempt to solve this problem, farmers and working people invented a system of the twenty-four jiéqi 節氣 (Solar Terms), with which the seasons could be better indicated and therefore useful for the farmers (Chen Jiujin ascribes the invention of the Solar Terms to the Chinese working people in Jiujin, “Chinese Calendars,” 46 ). Throughout Chinese history, scholars have attempted to perfect the calendar for various reasons, such as to provide new emperors with legitimacy, but the utility of its application in agriculture can be said to remain one of the most important reasons.

1 comments 27 November 2008

?
2 comments 24 November 2008

Could Schrödinger's cat also have been a dog?

4 comments 16 November 2008

2 comments 11 November 2008

The following is a small hand-out I made of our reading of Faraday. As there were two elderly people in my class I added a slightly sneering comment to rouse them. 

 

On  Faraday the ‘Anthology of Nineteenth Century Science’ tells he was of middle class decent. He was a member of the Sandemanians, a group of religious Christians who thought there was no basis in the New Testament for a national church and wanted to go back to primitive Christianity. They believed in the unity and harmony of nature. Rather heroically, Faraday, being an apprentice in a book bindery, educated himself and was able to make a career in a field where being of lower descent made you appear a lesser scientist. The following excerpt is from one of his Friday night Christmas lectures. Interestingly to note in advance is that he tirelessly worked behind the scenes to make the experiments look natural on stage. He even got eloquency lessons to improve his public performance. The lectures were held by the Royal Institution to earn enough money for its endeavours.

 

His public experiments with candles give us an interesting image of science popularized. With crowd pleasers like pop! (ignition of gas) and crunch! (collapse of can after subsequent heating and cooling of inside gas) Faraday was able to excite his audience. Public participation in these experiments build up the entertainment value even more. A lady brings Faraday Japanese candles of luxury to do his experiments with and Faraday says the crowd will be able to make these experiments themselves, which in the case of his experiments with carbonic acid can do not much harm. Faraday uses a simple train of reasoning for explaining what he is doing. Everything is done step by step and in a matter of fact way. This makes the experiments and conclusions evidential, you can see the experiments and even redo them yourself. Faraday unveils the mysteries of nature and makes them intelligible to the public. In one case he even reflects on a social issue when he tells his crowd about the ‘impropriety of many of the arrangements of the poorer classes’  due to bad ventilation. In his chemical explanation of a burning candle Faraday shows how to extinguish the light by putting his mouth over a tube and breathe thereby explaining the necessity of oxygen for combustion. In the end of his experiment with candles Faraday turns his explanation of scientific principles to the public into a kind of sermon. He concludes by stating the beauty of the simple process of the use of oxygen by people. They breathe oxygen which the body turns into carbon dioxide which is used by plants to create oxygen which creates this magnificent circle of dependency. According to Faraday, his listeners are like the candles he used in his experiments. They have this energy to shine, but need oxygen (breathing) to make them live, move, act and do things; they are therefore dependent on their fellow existers, i.e. the plants. He employs his audience to shine as lights to those about them.

 

To whom is Faraday addressing his public display of science? In the introduction to his lectures, Faraday says he means to pass away from the seniors in the audience and instead claims ‘the privilege of speaking to juveniles as a juvenile myself.’ In his first lecture he further informs his audience of what candles are made of, thereby beginning from the basis in his instruction on chemistry. His listeners need little to no background in chemistry. His lectures are accessible and use the clarity of expression needed for public education; no difficult jargon or an explanation to the words used is given. Faraday further uses his lectures to address social questions such as the conditions of the poorer classes and even his Sandemanian background jumps up at the end of the lecture when he teaches his public the harmony of nature. 

1 comments 30 October 2008

Presentation for the course Understanding Chinese Medicine 理解传统中医药
Xiamen University, Ruben Verwaal

Man and Nature in Harmony

The philosophical basis for TCM is the holistic principle of integration of man and nature: the human body is regarded as a whole, and man and nature are regarded as a whole (e.g. the circulation of blood and qi through the body and to the flow of water and rivers in the natural world). Natural disasters and diseases of the human body reflect the lack of harmony between man and the world.

Confucianism

Heaven and Earth were composed of the same substance qi. Mencius: the ‘gentleman’ cultivates qi within himself, which is sufficiently refined to bridge the gab between Heaven and Earth, making the cosmos a balanced whole.

Han Confucianism and the theory of ‘Five Elements’: Heaven employs the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water; and there exist systematic correspondences between these elements and human life. For example, fathers stand to sons in the ‘begetting’ relation of soil to metal, so that an improper paternal relationship would be ‘unnatural.’

Heaven had the yin and yang, while human nature is composed of ‘congenital goodness’ (yang feature) and ‘natural emotions’ (yin feature); thus harmony between the self and Heaven.

Theories
气 (, air, breath): the extremely fine and tiniest substance of the universe.
阴阳 (yīn yáng): two opposite principles of the universe. Yin (feminine, moon, shade) is characterised as passive, earth, cold. Yang (male, sun, positive) is characterised by heaven, light, heat. The opposition is relative, not absolute.
五行 (wǔxíng, five elements): wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These elements are the basic properties of five categories of substances in nature.

Books
The Huángdì Nei Jing《黄帝内经》(Yellow Emperor's Interiors Classic) is from around the Warring States period. The book is written in conversation between the Yellow Emperor and his ministers Qi Bo, Lei Gong and Bo Gao. They discuss the different ideas in medicine: either to adopt the theory of the Five Elements or yin yang.
Also the Huángdì Bāshíyī Nanjing《黄帝八十一难经》 (Yellow Emperor's 81 Difficult Issues Classic) is written as a conversation, compiled in the late Western Han dynasty. Nanjing (Difficult Issues) studies medicine by combining the theories of qi, yin yang and Five Elements together, rather than separate, and by applying pulse diagnosis, channels, and zang fu organs with manifestations with the qi, yin yang, and the Five Elements.

Some Questions:

- “The study of functions and relationships of the five zàng systems can not be confined to the theory of five elements which only works as a naive theoretical tool of TCM” (p. 237). To what extent is the practice of TCM dependent on the theories of qi, yin yang, and the Five Elements?

- The philosophical theories provide explanations to the practice of TCM. Have these theories led to new medical practices and know-how? Are the philosophical theories actually contributing to the medical practice, or are they just means of remembering symptoms and treatments?

- If so, could we simply add a fourth theory in case the theories of qi, yin yang and the Five Elements fall short? In other words, what is the justification for using these three in particular?

2 comments 07 October 2008



An enjoyable read and exciting theory: that the Chinese fleet of the early 15th century would have travelled all the way to Italy and would have ignited the Renaissance. I am halfway now, but no single proof have been offered yet, only more hypotheses.

0 comments 22 September 2008

On the 15th of September, I took the ferry to Macao, an island in front of the coast of China where the Portuguese in the 15th century first went on shore: Vasco de Gama visited the peninsula in 1497. My visit 511 years later felt as a ‘must,’ considering the rich history of the island and the fact that the island was an early ‘contact zone’ for east and west. Of course Macao has changed a lot since Matteo Ricci and Francis Xavier walked around, yet the churches, missionary buildings, and crucifixes reminds of its Christian and Portuguese past. Ironically though, Macao has now turned into the Las Vegas of the east, because it’s one of the few places where gambling is not forbidden. Huge casino’s light up at night; dramatically overdone, but surely gives a nice view from the 68th floor in the Macao tower.


(Ruins of St Paul Church)

To talk about an other museum: the Macao Museum in the centre is most definitely worth a visit, because it’s shows a historical and comparative story of China and Europe, under the title of “Continuous Convergence.” I have yet to find a more suitable application of our master programme in a museum. You walk through an alley, and on your left you see the history of Europe and on your right the Chinese. You could choose just to see the one or the other, but you’re invited to make the comparison yourself. First, examples of the Egyptian, Persian, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin scripts are compared with the evolutionary development of the Chinese script. Second, the Roman empire and Qin empire (first emperor Qin Shihuang and his terracotta army) are shown with their accomplishments. Further comparisons concern schools of thought (Greek philosophers and Confucius), religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism), science and technology, and it keeps on going; as long as it fits in the idea of east and west convergence.

In the museum, the number of houses were rebuild to give an impression of a Macao street through time. The first house is typical Chinese, the last typical Portuguese, and the houses in between combinations of the two. A map of the world show the Portuguese trade routs over the oceans as well as the famous Silk Road through Central Asia towards the west. This comparison technique is practised on practically everything: Chinese and Christian marriage rituals, eastern and western medicine, a Chinese and a Portuguese living-room, which contained a picture of a Portuguese-Chinese couple and their children. The story is at times a bit too romantic, yet very entertaining and interesting.

I couldn’t thus detect any clashes between the Chinese and Portuguese. One violent confrontation is mentioned, which only gave the Macao and the Portuguese a common enemy: the Dutch! It turns out that the Dutch tried to take over control over Macao, and although initially successful, they were defeated by Portuguese soldiers and Macao civilians. Since 1999, Macao passed to China, but is considered a Special Administrative Region so I have an extra stamp in my passport!

[Pictures soon]

1 comments 18 September 2008

On the first day in Hong Kong, I went to the Hong Kong Museum of History. This museum instantly became one of my favourite museums (others being for example the Tate Modern in London). I did not exactly know what to expect, but I have learned that that is usually the best. Sometimes I go visit a museum with big expectations, or just the wrong expectations, and then your experience will usually be a disappointment. But in the case of the Museum of History, everything added up to a great museum experience.




The museum had done a great job in combining all kinds of history into one. It started with the geological features and history of the Hong Kong area. How the different layers in the earth came to be, what effect the ice age had, how the different islands and mountains came to be; everything complemented with the estimated years when it occurred, usually going into the millions of years ago. Of course I don’t know anything about geology, but the fact that the rock we’re sitting on hides an enormous history under its surface is of course amazing to a simple history student.




Anyway, after the geological history of rocks, the next hall in the museum was dedicated to natural history! Suddenly you walk in a small jungle with animals and plants, typical for the region through time. I was just too happy and walked around without reading all the info signs; maybe next time. With the third room you finally enter human history, but it’s still pre-history so no written records. There are mannequins of how the humans a few tens of thousands of years ago probably looked like. The museum explains the discipline of archaeology, a history of archaeological excavations in Hong Kong, and the donor collections of (amateur) archaeologists.




Now we race through the dynasties from Han to Qing and the place of Hong Kong in this history. So only in fourth section did the museum enter my field of study, namely history based on written works. But after the geological, natural, archaeological, and ‘ordinary’ history, it still continues! Now it is time for the people itself: anthropology. It turns out that we can distinguish four kinds of people in Hong Kong. The Boat Dwellers who fish, the rich Punti, the Hoklo who cultivate rice, and the […]. Other cultural riches are shown, such as Chinese opera, theatre, rituals for marriage and birth, etc. Next floor: Opium war, English rule, grow of the city, Japanese occupation, modernisation, and it all finishes with the return to China. All accompanied by pictures, posters, movies, buildings with period rooms, etc. Wow…

So, everyone who visits Hong Kong, go to the Museum of History! But if you plan to visit multiple museums in Hong Kong, go to this one last, to keep your expectations for the other museums low. This museum reaches a high level, making the other museums look, well, less impressive.


1 comments 13 September 2008



As you may know, we've all taken off to explore the world outside Utrecht. Klaas-Pieter is taking classes in Amsterdam, Koen will take philosophy courses in Leeds, Dirk goes to Aberdeen in Scotland and I will go to Xiamen (China). And apparently, there is Aberdeen in Hong Kong too! (see picture). By the way, the Hong Kong Museum of History is a MUST for everyone visiting this great busy city, it's one of my favourite museums now!

0 comments 30 August 2008

As the new academic year is about to commence, the second-years (Dirk, Koen, Klaas-Pieter, and Ruben) would like to welcome all the new students to the HCSSH master.

Unfortunately you won't meet us until we return from exchange in December/January, but you are invited to join this blog of which we're all member. Every now and then we post on what we're writing on or on where we've been for excursion. This way we can sort of keep track of each other :)

Study well and enjoy!

1 comments 14 August 2008


HCSSH student Azadeh Achbari has been awarded the Mosaic Scholarship (NWO) to do research on her proposal “Global science from a Dutch perspective: Dutch participation in 19th-century Humboldtian networks” (see earlier post for complete research proposal).

2 comments 22 July 2008

Tutorial essay under construction:



- Intro

The Dutch doctor and botanist Willem ten Rhijne (1647-1700) was employed by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and sent to Japan on request from the Japanese government. During his stay in Japan from 1674 to 1676, Ten Rhijne was requested to answer to numerous medical questions by Japanese translators on the island of Deshima, and he had to communicate his medical knowlegde to lords and physicians across Japan. Simultaneously, Ten Rhijne learned a great deal about Japanese medicine and natural history. He wrote one of the first European accounts on acupuncture and moxibustion, Dissertatio de Arthritide, Mantissa Schematica de Acupunctura (Dissertation on Arthritis, Schematic Mantissa on Acupuncture, 1683), which contained illustrations of acu-tracts for needles and moxa.

Within a context of trade, this account of Willen ten Rhijne shows the mutual enrichment of two cultures of knowledge: the Japanese initiative to learn European medical practices also led to the appropriation of Asian medical knowledge by European physicians. In contrast to Robert Boyle’s suggestion that it was thanks to European initiatives that they grew familiar with medicines from Asia, “in fact, however, much of what the Europeans learned not only came from other people, but originated as an indirect product of someone else’s agency.”

Because much historical work has already focussed on the European participation in this activity, more recent work emphasises the Asian initiative. For example, in “The Mindful Hand Goes to Japan,” Lissa Roberts makes a convincing case history for the active Japanese appropriation of European knowledge. By looking at a multi-layered context of appropriation and the general trends dominant in Japan at the time, a sophisticated picture is described of how European goods and ideas had contributed to an already ongoing discussion on observations, manipulation, and production. Although this investigation provides new insights in the history of medicine, its focus on Japan rather suggests a local approach instead of the proclaimed global approach. Moreover, the concept of “circulation of knowledge” seems to be lost in the one-way traffic of medical knowledge to Japan.

- Thematic Statement

This essay raises the question of transmission, as it investigates the formation, circulation, and transformation of Asian and European ideas, texts, instruments, and practices concerning medicine in the early-modern period. In opposition to the strict ideas of “the transfer of European science and technology to Japan” and “the Japanese consumption and appropriation of foreign products,” this essay argues that an exchange of medical expertise between Japan and the Dutch arose. In an attempt to answer the question how medical know-how and expertise could reach a level of cross-cultural understanding, this essay shows that this dissemination of knowledge occurred along a number of phases.

First, from the wish to explore, trade, and spread religion, the creation of contact zones between cultures would give opportunity for exchange of goods and interchange of ideas. How were the European and Asian medical traditions characterised by their unique circumstances and cultural values? At the same time, how did the existence of a certain common ground and understanding take shape?

Second, the either passive acquaintance with foreign knowledge to a lesser extent, or the more active appropriation of it to a greater extent, would stimulate the spread of medical expertise in both Asia and Europe. How did the processes of appropriation, translation, and specialisation affect the body of knowledge? After evaluating terms of ‘knowledge’ and ‘expertise,’ which can be widely interpreted and thus need thorough description, important is the terminology used to refer to the medical practices as well as the criteria of validity for an intellectual to be allowed to use this terminology. Moreover, once the two cultures of knowledge came into contact, how was the scientific content shaped by its circulation?

The third phase in the global dissemination of knowledge concerns the reception of the newly acquired information by the general public of both Asia and Europe, which is important to inquire into the extent to which mutual enrichment actually has taken place. A ‘successful’ case of cross-fertilisation appears to meet with a number of conditions: the embodiment of knowledge in books, objects, and other goods; the adoption of cultural values to a certain degree; and the foundation or institutionalisation of educational and medical practices to guarantee a continuation of the appropriated knowledge.

Thoughts?

0 comments 06 July 2008



Gewina's new journal Studium Vol. 1 just got published. Inside four articles:

- Kennis in Meervoud. Voor een Ruimhartige Wetenschapsgeschiedenis ~ Raf de Bont & Kaat Wils
- Dubbelportret: Michel-Florent van Langren (ca. 1600-1675) als Ingenieur en Astronoom ~ Geert Vanpaemel
- Slaapmutsen en Ornamenten? Over het Bestuur van een Universiteit in de Negentiende Eeuw ~ Leen Dorsman
- Een Mooie Koe is een Goede Koe. Wetenschappers en Practici over de Nederlandse Rundveefokkerij, 1900-1950 ~ Bert Theunissen

0 comments 20 June 2008

"Religion, Tolerance, and Science in Early Modern Europe"



Wijnand W. Mijnhardt was promoted to professor in Comparative History of Science during a ceremonial occasion last Thursday. During his oration, Mijnhardt spoke about the intellectual attempt by Jean Fréderic Bernard and Bernard Picart to unite all world religions into one system of tolerance, which was to be based on a scientific foundation (picture shows frontispiece of "Tafereel van de Voornaamste Godsdiensten der Waereldt" by Picart (1727), the main religions of the world).

Mijnhardt argued that the history of science should not only focus on the discovery of new knowledge by astronomical observations or laboratory experiments (which it largely had up until now), but also by intellectual developments in libraries, at sea, and in society.

1 comments



It took a while, it took a new gmail account, of course it also took a strike of artistic genius. Nevertheless, here it is..... my artwork from the Science and modernity I presentation. It is probably the first blogpublished HCSSH artwork, certainly a milestone. And I will name it: 'Man in space', well for now that is maybe I'll come up with something even more telling. Untill the day, watch, interpret, contemplate and let yourself be inspired.

About the work: It was completed in March 2008. Like all great works of art it took considerable time and effort to translate the artist's vision into a meaningful composition, in this case it nearly took an entire hour. Note the movement the artist instilled in the work using various techniques of colouring. Also the figure in the foreground seems to have been kept to a simple outline underlining the universality of the figure's condition. An HCSSH student sharply noted the resemblence to works of Giacometti. Altough, such parallels could certainly be identified, the piece itself could best be categorised as a blend of styles and techniques such as collage, impressionism and existentialist features. Throughout the 2007/2008 year of HCSSH it is regard as the most outstanding piece ever produced by the group. However, this is not only because it is the only piece produced by the group thusfar.

6 comments 11 June 2008

a. Introduction

This proposal aims to fill a conspicuous gap in our knowledge of nineteenth-century Dutch science. It concerns the sizeable Dutch participation in attempts to create global Humboldtian scientific networks in the period 1820-1880. In spite of the scope and importance of these scientific investigations, historians of science have so far tended to focus their attention on the rise of laboratory science culminating in the so-called Second Golden Age, thereby creating a one-sided view of nineteenth-century Dutch science and of its international dimension.
Named after its initiator Alexander von Humboldt, this type of research involved the systematic recording of measurements of natural phenomena across extensive areas, often through international collaboration. Its ultimate objective was to find the natural laws that governed the phenomena under investigation. Dutch representatives of Humboldtian research included Gerrit Moll, contributing to the study of tides by William Whewell in Britain; Richard van Rees, cooperating with Adolphe Quetelet in Belgium on meteorological research; Willem Wenckebach, cooperating in geomagnetic projects by Carl Friedrich Gauss in Germany; M.H. Jansen, collaborating on ocean currents with Matthew Fontaine Maury in the USA; F.J. Stamkart, triangulating The Netherlands as part of the Europäische Gradmessung; and C.H.D. Buys Ballot, engaged in multiple international meteorological networks. These Dutch participants often acted as nodes connecting local and national networks to the international networks. The significance of the Dutch activities within this period can be illustrated by the database of meteorological measurements compiled through the ‘Universal Abstract Log’ initiated by Jansen and Buys Ballot. Between 1854 and 1880 Dutch contributions comprised the bulk of the global meteorological data acquisitioning effort at sea, resulting in vast records that are used up to the present day.[1] The graph bellow illustrates this:

b. Research question(s)

The large-scale participation of Dutch scientists in international Humboldtian networks in the nineteenth century will be submitted to an historical analysis aimed at finding an answer to the following question:

What were the critical technological, social, political and cultural parameters that led to successful international networks of production and circulation of knowledge?

In order to answer this question the research project will address the following three issues. However, it must be stressed that these issues are closely interrelated. Therefore, they cannot be dealt with separately in the execution of the project.


1. The social, political and cultural background

This study will investigate the Dutch cultivation of Humboldtian science in the nineteenth century. In order to do so, the scientific fields in which Humboldtian research was executed will be mapped out. Through a survey of the Dutch scientific community of the period the participants in this type of research will be identified. The main factors in the surge of enthusiasm among Dutch men of science with regard to the Humboldtian study of earthly phenomena will be analysed. Which values did Humboldtian science represent for them and how did these values resonate with contemporaneous cultural shifts? How and where did they obtain the skills to perform precision measurements? To what extent did these measurements serve the interests of centralizing states and expanding commercial enterprises? Here, in short, the political, social and cultural factors in the development and growth of Humboldtian research in the Dutch scientific community will be analysed.
This study will also pay attention to the related issue of the funding of these extensive and often costly Humboldtian projects. This requires an analysis of correspondences between scientists, learned societies, and government officials. The role played by the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences in the funding of projects will be explored. Although most of these Humboldtian projects were state funded, this usually required extensive negotiating. Throughout the nineteenth century the Dutch state proved notoriously unresponsive to pleas for support of scientific research. The case of Buys Ballot’s meteorological enterprises may serve to illustrate a spectre of possibilities. He invested part of his own considerable means, borrowed instruments from the university cabinet, solicited financial support from learned societies and a state subsidy before the government finally adopted his enterprise. In his contacts with the government Buys Ballot played two cards. Firstly, he stressed the practical benefits for seaborne trade by promising shorter and safer journeys. Secondly, he pointed to the international prestige the Dutch would gain by taking the initiative in international meteorology.


2. Establishing local networks

The second issue this research project will tackle concerns the implementation of Humboldtian scientific undertakings. The nature of these sciences typically required the assistance of large numbers of observers in order to systematically take simultaneous measurements and to gather observational data across extensive areas. It appears that scientists used different, often creative, means to recruit observers. In Britain for instance, the meteorologist Glaisher placed announcements in the press to invite volunteer observers in taking measurements.[2] Buys Ballot likewise used the popular press, but he also called upon colleagues and local societies. Moreover, he appealed to seafaring communities to obtain meteorological data at sea.
This study will explore the ways in which various groups of observers were recruited. Typical partners in these Humboldtian projects were university professors, civil engineers, members of learned societies, shipping companies, and navy and army officers. If the state acted as patron, which it often did, either paid experts or military men would be commissioned to execute the project. The extensive and pervasive role of the military in Humboldtian projects of all sorts is a topic that has as yet been hardly explored, a neglect that this study aims to remedy.
Besides the recruitment of observers, this research project aims to investigate how participants were disciplined through the use of common standards and units, the gauging and comparing of instruments, and the reliance on detailed protocols for observation and recording. As Buys Ballot was acutely aware, overly high demands in this regard might scare off possible participants, whereas low demands could result in worthless data.
Data in themselves mean little. A subsequent question, therefore, concerns the way these data were assembled and processed so as to result in diverse products such as books, articles, maps, tables, instruments and warning systems. Without a steady output of useful results the networks would probably be short-lived. This study will also look at the circulation of these products and the context of their use. Who were the intended consumers of the products and how were they approached? Where they given a say in the data collecting or in the making of the finished products? Did they provide any feedback?


3. International cooperation: the establishment of international Humboldtian networks

On a higher level this proposal aims to analyse the cooperation between scientists across the world. It will study the ways Dutch scientists came in contact with international colleagues and worked together in global Humboldtian projects. Starting in 1835, for instance, the Dutch astronomer Gerrit Moll participated in an international scientific project which involved the measurement of the water level at specific times in a large number of locations along the coast of Western Europe with the double purpose of developing both a mathematical theory of tidal movements and guidelines for the improvement of harbours.[3] Analysis of Moll’s correspondence with his colleagues, William Whewell and David Brewster, as well as the ministries of Foreign Affairs and the Naval ministries, will provide answers as to how this European joint venture was established. In the same manner other Dutch contributions to international Humboldtian endeavours will be described. The motives of Dutch scientists to both initiate and join Humboldtian research projects and exchange scientific knowledge across the border will be analysed.
These international endeavours will be analysed in the light of broader contexts such as the politics of imperialism and the economics of worldwide trade. Moreover, the proposed project will address questions as to how the growth of international scientific cooperation related to the rise of nationalism in the new nation states. By exploring the Dutch involvement in Humboldtian projects this study will demonstrate the extent to which national interests and sentiments induced or impeded international cooperation.
International negotiations over common units, standards and protocols posed new and additional problems. One of the driving forces behind the 1875 Metric Convention was the need of the Europäische Gradmessung for common and accurate standards. Berlin was willing to accept the French meter as the basis for the new international standard, but insisted on supervision by an international bureau. One result was the withdrawal of Britain and The Netherlands from the international committee of weights and measures; another was the sabotage of the project by the offended French commissioners who were responsible for the construction of the new standards. Charting and understanding the growth of international standardisation is one of the tasks of this project. Here also, industrial and trade interests interacted with scientific interests.
This study will also explore the role of new communication and transport technologies such as the telegraph and the railways in the exchange of data and people. One of the reasons that Buys Ballot took up meteorology as a field of research was his conviction that new technologies, such as telegraphy, would boost the discipline and turn it into a mature science. Finally, this project will look at the factors that promoted the stability and endurance of the international networks. Some proved to be rather short-lived, whereas others evolved into still existing international unions, such as the International Union for Geodesy and Geophysics.


c. Method/Approach

The proposed historical study of the international Humboldtian scientific networks in the nineteenth century will use recent insights into “the circulation of knowledge and practices”.[4] The central issue is that locally produced knowledge and practices are not of themselves valid or applicable or even understandable outside the context of their production. Circulation is not a process of diffusion, but of translation: to become communicable and transferable, a continuous process of decontextualisation, recontextualisation and appropriation is required. Focussing on the dynamics of this process automatically draws attention to, for instance, means of representation (databases, tables, and graphs), processes of standardisation, of infrastructure (means of communication, locally and between locations), of participation (the different social groups involved and the nature of their relations, i.e. hierarchical, colonial etc.), and to obstacles and mediating factors.
The central question of this proposal directly addresses such issues that concern the circulation of knowledge and practices. The new insights that the growing interest in this theme has begun to generate can thus be fruitfully applied to this study.

Both archival sources and primary and secondary literature will be investigated. The open access to the archives housing valuable historical material from the period 1820-1880 makes this project highly feasible. The Dutch National Archive offers entry to the existing documents from the Department of the Arts and Sciences under the Ministry of the Interior. These documents are a lead in investigating the political and financial support that was asked and given to Humboldtian projects. Some of these sources provide information on the political negotiations with foreign countries such as Belgium and France on cooperation in meteorological, geodetic and other projects.
In ‘Het Noord-Hollands Archief’, which houses the archives of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, nineteenth-century minutes and reports of the physical sciences departments are available. The archive contains dossiers of scholarly correspondences ordered in the fields of meteorology, geodesy, earth magnetism, and other earth sciences. It also offers access to the reports of international earth sciences congresses of the period. Other material from the period such as publications, articles, treatises and lectures in these fields are available.
Foreign archives in London, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Göttingen and Washington will be searched for sources on Dutch connections with Humboldtian networks. At Trinity College Library in Cambridge, for instance, which houses documents concerning the British Association for the Advancement of Science, archival material is available on scholarly correspondences between Dutch scientists with their British colleagues, such as Moll’s exchanges with Whewell. Publications and reports of other learned societies such as the American AAS and the German Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte will also be studied.


d. Innovation

The Dutch contributions to Humboldtian science have remained largely unexplored until now, resulting in an under-appreciation of the significance of Dutch nineteenth-century science. The project will investigate this inattention that may have been caused by the historical impact of the Dutch Nobel laureates of the ‘Second Golden Age’, which possibly overshadowed and obscured the scientific ambitions and achievements of their predecessors. The Nobel laureates were famous individual men working mostly on their own (laboratory based) projects. The great deal of attention they have (rightly) been given may inadvertently contribute to an image of science as an individualistic enterprise of great men working in isolation. The study of Humboldtian networks will draw attention to an aspect of science that is at least as important, yet has received much less attention. Moreover, this study can contribute to the recent historical interest in the circulation of knowledge and practices which aims to analyse the dynamics of knowledge production within a long term perspective in order to discover patterns and structures in these processes.


e. Relevance for science, technology or society

The analysis of nineteenth-century global Humboldtian networks can bring to light the multifarious factors involved in bringing about enduring international scientific cooperation. Furthermore, this study will shed light on the relationships between scientific developments and processes of internationalisation and globalisation, each of them generating and transforming the other. Thus it investigates a phenomenon that can be said to have been at the roots of the development of a knowledge society in the twentieth century, which is predicated, not only on the production of knowledge and know-how as such, but also on its circulation, from the local to the global level. The study of Humboldtian networks can contribute to obtaining a long-term perspective on the role of science in society, which is indispensable for decisions concerning its present and future role.


f. Literature references

Aubin, David, ‘The Fading Star of the Paris Observatory in the Nineteenth Century: Astronomers' Urban Culture of Circulation and Observation’, Osiris 18 (2003) 79-100.

Cannon, Susan Faye, Science in Culture: The Early Victorian Period (New York 1978).

Cawood, J., ‘Terrestrial Magnetism and the Development of International Collaboration in the Early Nineteenth Century’, Annals of Science 34 (1977) 551-587.

Cawood, J., ‘The Magnetic Crusade: Science and Politics in Early Victorian Britain’, Isis 70 (1979) 492-518.

Dettelbach, Michael, ‘The face of nature: precise measurement, mapping, and sensibility in the work of Alexander von Humboldt’, Studies in history and philosophy of biological and biomedical sciences 30C (1999) 473-504.

Everdingen, E. van, C.H.D. Buys Ballot, 1817-1890 (Den Haag 1953).

Haasbroek, N.D., Investigation of the accuracy of Stamkart's triangulation (1866-1881) in The Netherlands (Delft 1974).

Hearn, Chester G., Tracks in the Sea: Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Mapping of the Oceans (Camden 2002).

Home, R. W., ‘Humboldtian science revisited: An Australian case-study’, History of Science 33 (1995) 1-22.

Jardine, N., J.A. Secord and E.C. Spary, The cultures of natural history (Cambridge 1996).

Josefowicz, Diane Greco, ‘Experience, pedagogy, and the study of terrestrial magnetism’, Perspectives on science (2005) 452- 494.

Karvar, Anousheh and Brigitte Schroeder-Gudehus ‘Techniques, frontiers, mediation: transnational diffusion of models for the education of engineers’, History and technology 12 (1995) 79-204.

Kula, W., Measures and Men (Princeton 1986).

Landes, David S., The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (New York 20032).

Lintsen, H.W. ed., Geschiedenis van de techniek in Nederland: de wording van een moderne samenleving 1800-1890 (’s-Gravenhage 1992-1995).

Locher, F., ‘The observatory, the land-based ship and the crusades: Earth sciences in European context, 1830-1850’, British Society for the History of Science 40 (2007) 491-504.

Lunteren, F.H. van, 'De oprichting van het Koninklijk Nederlands Meteorologisch Instituut: Humboldtiaanse wetenschap, internationale samenwerking en praktisch nut', Gewina 21 (1998) 216-243.

Lunteren, F.H. van, ‘Wetenschap voor het vaderland’ in K. van Berkel ed., De Akademie en de Tweede Gouden Eeuw (Amsterdam 2004) 43-106.

Lunteren, Frans van, Bert Theunissen and Rienk Vermij ed., De opmars van deskundigen: souffleurs van de samenleving (Amsterdam 2002).

MacConnell, Anita, No sea too deep: the history of oceanographic instruments (Bristol 1982).

MacLeod, Roy and Peter Collins ed., The Parliament of science: the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831-1981 (Northwood 1981).

Miller, David Philip, ‘The revival of the physical sciences in Britain, 1815-1840’, Osiris 2 (1986) 107-134.

Morrell, Jack and Arnold Thackray, Gentlemen of science: early years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Oxford 1981).

O'Connell, Joseph, ‘Metrology: The Creation of Universality by the Circulation of Particulars’, Social Studies of Science 23 (1993) 129-173.

Porter, Theodore M., Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton 1995).

Pratt, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London 1992).

Raj, Kapil, Relocating modern science: circulation and the construction of knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 (Basingstoke 2007).

Rupke, Nicolaas Adrianus, Alexander von Humboldt: a metabiography (Frankfurt am Main 2005).

Ruskin, Steven, John Herschel’s Cape voyage: private science, public imagination, and the ambitions of empire (Ashgate 2004).

Schaffer, Simon, ‘Metrology, Metrication, and Victorian Values’ in Bernard Lightman ed., Victorian Science in Context (Chicago, 1997) 438-74.

Theunissen, Bert, 'Nut en nog eens nut'. Wetenschapsbeelden van Nederlandse natuuronderzoekers 1800-1900 (Hilversum 2000).

Tucker, Jennifer, ‘Voyages of Discovery on Oceans of Air: Scientific Observation and the Image of Science in an Age of “Balloonacy”’, Osiris 11 (1996) 144-176.

Wise, M. Norton ed., The Values of Precision (Princeton 1995).

Woud, A. van der, Een nieuwe wereld: Het ontstaan van het moderne Nederland (Amsterdam 2006).


[1] H. Walbrink e.a., ‘Sea-level pressure observations from Dutch ships 1854-1938 incorporated in COADS release 1C climatology’, International Journal of Climatology 23 (2003) 471-475, p. 472.
[2] Jennifer Tucker, ‘Voyages of Discovery on Oceans of Air : Scientific Observation and the Image of Science in an Age of “Balloonacy”’, Osiris 11 (1996) 144-176, p. 156.
[3] F. van Lunteren, 'De oprichting van het Koninklijk Nederlands Meteorologisch Instituut: Humboldtiaanse wetenschap, internationale samenwerking en praktisch nut', Gewina 21 (1998) 216-243, p. 219.

[4] For further information on this research programme: http://www.gewina.nl/werkgroep/

0 comments 10 June 2008



Last Monday I attended a workshop on "Local Encounters and the Global Circulation of Knowledge, 1750-1850" in Leiden. Central questions were, how are we to understand transitions of politics, science and economics, situated in diverse geographical and cultural locations? The papers presented during the day tried to connect the local and global, showing science as a dynamically co-evolutionary product of the encounters between representatives of various cultures. The two central concepts were the 'contact zone' and 'circulation of knowledge' as means for transformative production and transmission.

Lissa Roberts's "Introduction: Circulating Concepts as Inter-Disciplinary Contact Zones" presented a theoretical intro to local encounters and global circulation. Early encounters can be found in European discovery travels. Historical retrospection is to reveal that the expansion of England was also the transformation of England. In the 'circulation of knowledge,' there was a trend towards global homogenisation matched by local diversity (eg. Edgerton's "Shock of the Old"). The 'contact zone' was characterised by its temporal element, the involvement of multiple cultures, multiple contacts and exchange.

Kapil Raj presented a case study on "Calcutta: the Historical Geography of a Contact Zone." From its foundation onwards, Calcutta was a multi-coloured, multi-cultural city, quickly growing, and an example for a port of both trade as exchange of knowledge. W. Jones learned the Persian language and gave rise to the translation of many works into European languages. In Jones's work, we see the combination of language, ethnology, ethnicity, culture and religion. Jones developed a theory of a common origin of all men, and how they had spread over the globe. This common origin provided for a justification of British domination. Other topics discussed were the monetary worth of knowledge-exchange and the standardisation of measures, languages, and money. However, how does periodisation work in this story? Raj had chosen the 17th century as the starting point for Calcutta, the workshop looks that 18th century, and the development of the sciences into defined disciplines was only in the 19th century. An other questions concerns whether circulation was a product of centralised masterplan of trade and colonisation or rather a product of ad hoc events. The compromise consisted of the centrality of things within which a level of freedom exists.

Juan Pimentel presented "Stars and Stones. Astronomy and Archaeology in the works of the Mexican polymath Antonio León y Gama (1735-1802)," on the correspondence between Europe and Mexico on astronomical observations. Central themes were the relocation of Mexico in space and time, as maps needed to be connected to each other and as Mexico was relocated in a historiographical sense. Division of labour: European scientists used collected data at the peripheries (such as Mexico) for scientific practice in the centre. Problem of language barrier, the creation of new traditions (eg Mexican combination of local and newly introduced religious beliefs).

Andreas Weber: "A kingdom and its 'imagined' colony? - The Malay Archipelago in the eyes of the naturalist C.G.C. Reinwardt (1773-1854)." The Dutch in Indonesia commenced with the promotion of scientific research and therefore naturalist and Lineaus-admirer Reinwardt was sent. Hypothesised was the the connection with the scientific methodology of von Humboldt. Also central topic was the separation of Reinwardt's fieldwork and the de-contextualised character of the museum back in Holland. Futher questions were Reinwardt's relationship to locals and the infrastructure he was part of.



After the presentation of these papers (planned to be published early 2009) was followed by the fascinating commentaries by Leonard Blussé and Harm Beukers. Multiple points of critic were raised by Blussé, such as the problem of chronology, use of different perspectives, the role of language and systemisation, and the danger of anachronism. Interesting was the suggestion of the oldest form of history writing: the biography. The biography of a person or a city, it would provide the history of science with a new approach.

Beukers started with bringing into question the use of the strict model used at the workshop (contact zone, circulation). What exactly is circulating? In what context? What is the common ground between cultures? What exactly happens there? These questions had remained largely unanswered during the presentation of the papers. In for example medicine, Beukers pointed out, we can already identify various levels on which discussions take place, at the universal-local, traditional-modern, European-Asian, etc. Circulation implies inequality, thus essential differences. What exactly are these? Localisation, where are the connections then? Lastly, Beukers introduced the 'boundary objects'. Objects are the only things really of which we can recognise that they have 'circulated.' Questions we need to answer then are: how are these objects obtained? How are they transformed? How do collections change an object? What books are collected (and which one's not)? So, in the transmission of knowledge, the supposed 'knowledge claims' should be found behind the 'boundary objects.'

Further discussion went on about terminology. Why do we talk about 'circulation'? Why not, for example, diffusion, reception, appropriation, intercourse, cross-fertilisation, and in the case of translation, also transformation, configuration, communication and misunderstanding? Are we talking about knowledge or rather ideas, concepts, beliefs, facts, at contact zones, or trading zones, encounter or exchange or interchange of ideas or persons or objects or other embodiments..? The last issue concerned the question 'why' people engaged in 'circulation of knowledge.' What are people's motivations? Pimentel: it's necessary and it's forbidden!

0 comments 05 June 2008



This afternoon, Harold J. Cook gave a stimulating lecture to the members of the Descartes Centre and the Huygens Institute on the close relationship between science and commerce, specifically looking at the gathering of factual knowledge within a context of trade.

In the 17th century, Dutch physician Jacobus Bontius spent 4 years in Batavia (now Jakarta) during which he appropriated medical know-how from local practitioners, valuing "matters of fact" over belief systems. The extent to which this can be considered an exchange of knowledge remains unclear, however. No evidence has been found to proof that local healers adopted Western medicine in their practice. Only in the case of Willen ten Rhijne in Japan can we recognise an interchange of information, as Japanese scholars intentionally tried to learn elements from European science and medicine. Nevertheless, it seems that this exchange only applied to goods, materials, and elementary therapeutic practices. The philosophical theory or the fundamental scientific system within which these goods and practises of medicine operated appear to be completely disregarded.

Read Harold Cook's latest book: "Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age." Yale UP, 2007

0 comments 02 June 2008


Today, David Baneke had to defend his dissertation on Synthetic Thinking against a body of professors from various universities. After a series of critical questions and considerate responses, David was honoured with the Doctor of Philosophy degree. Congratulations!




Official title of dissertation:
"Synthetisch denken. Natuurwetenschappers over hun rol in een moderne maatschappij, 1900-1940."

3 comments 01 June 2008





Hayden White, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, has been described as "perhaps the premier academic essayist of our times." Compulsory reading for graduate students throughout the humanities, his essays on historical representation and narrative discourse have strongly contributed to a "narrative turn" in the study of historical thought. The author of Metahistory (1973), Tropics of Discourse (1978), The Content of the Form (1987), and Figural Realism (1999), Professor White has also published recent essays on historical fiction, witness literature, and Holocaust representation.

On thursday, May the 29th, White was interviewed in public by Herman Paul, Lecturer in Historical Theory, and Ernst van Alphen, Professor of Literary Studies. They addressed the desire for utopian alternatives, that runs as a leitmotiv through White’s work, and the discursive articulation of this desire in (post)modernist historical writing.

Interesting to see was the contrast between White, an old charismatic erudite intellectual, and Paul, a young intelligent sharp scholar. It would not be an overstatement to say Paul was overshadowed by White, especially on a rhetorical level. Where Paul questioned while having critically read White's work, White answered evasively. Obviously Paul understood White's work better than White did himself according to White.

White's position on the historical discipline was an interesting one. He criticized historians for cutting the past off from the present and the future. A genealogy was a way of justifying the present. More poetically, you were born into a conversation and the conversation was not about you. The past was ever present. But this practical past was something different from the historical past [Oakeshott]. Historians had the authoritarian method of constructing a past which overpowered the practical past in what was to be remembered and what not. This Nietzschean-Foucauldian perspective on historical knowledge as power had its linguistic consequences.

White was asked why he did not write history as a poet or novellist. He answered he was brought up with the scientific method and was too old to change. Importantly, however, White stressed the literary character of the historical discipline. There was de facto not a great difference between an historical novel and a historical study, both were narrative expressions. White brought up the concept of the middle voice [verbum modi]. It was both active and passive. In the Greek world this voice still had a place in discourse, but it was lost to the scientific Western world. A verb like to promise myself was both active towards oneself and was passively endured. This dilemma of life was central to historical writing.

2 comments 29 May 2008

As you can see, I took the liberty to degrade our former title "History of the Sciences and Humanities" to the blog's subtitle. The new title is "In Retrospect" to indicate two things: we not only look back on past events and situations, we especially review our own branch of knowledge and other academic disciplines in connection with past events. Thoughts?

0 comments 27 May 2008


Yesterday, Ed Jonker accepted his promotion to professor in the Foundations and History of Historical Enquiry (Grondslagen en Geschiedenis van de Geschiedbeoefening). Although one may infer history to be literature, based on an individual's personal interpretation of sources, its 'foundations' would be non-existent. Nevertheless, Ed Jonker showed in his oration that the discipline of history has had multiple foundations to base its principles on. Too many foundations, in fact; hence the confusion. Leopold von Ranke had attempted to provide history with a scientific methodology and objectivity, while the Whig interpretation of history was aimed at the continuation and inevitable victory of progress over reaction. Perhaps history will always remain the contemporary interpretation of the past, we surely can find comfort in the fact that the discussion on its foundations can only lead to a more appropriate and more honest historical enquiry.

The HCSSH students congratulate their teacher with his promotion.

0 comments 25 May 2008


Last Friday was one of our last meetings in class. We presented our paper proposals to the class and discussed them with Daan and Bert Theunissen. For relaxation and inspiration we made a very enjoyable stroll through the Botanical Garden at the Uithof.


Dirk will be writing about Austrian philosopher and social theorist Otto Neurath, his position in the Vienna circle, and his role as both a scholar and a socialist.
Koen's essay will discuss the 20th-century avant-garde movement of Surrealism, its opposition to rationality and its search for the creative potential of the unconscious mind.
Klaas-Pieter will perform the daring comparison between Sigmund Freud and the 'pre-scientific' priest. While looking at psychoanalysis as a ritual, an argument will be made to show how science, positivism, and Enlightenment were used as a substitute for religion.
Ruben will write his essay on the perception of late 19th-century decadence, and how it differed from artists, like Wilde, Beardsley, Wagner, and social critics, such as Max Nordau.



0 comments 22 May 2008

Case Histories in Medicine, Anthropology, and Science.

[Tutorial Proposal under construction]

This is a proposal for a joint research project into the comparative history of the trade of knowledge. By cultures of knowledge we mean to indicate those symbolic systems which make a claim to knowledge, whether universally applicable or only in some particular realm; hence the broad range of interest in philosophy, science, anthropology, medicine etc. The case histories presented by each researcher will address the appropriation, dissemination and evaluation of a particular set of knowledge.

The aims and results of this paper will be introduced and summarized jointly, while each sub-topic is expected to elucidate complementary aspects of the history of knowledge in a cross-cultural, geographically diffuse context.

This approach is expected to address questions about the history and nature of knowledge exchange as it pertains to cultural, practical, philosophical, individual, and institutional realms. ‘Western science,’ a loose term which is used in a general sense, will be considered as the primary agent engaged in knowledge exchange; its links to other systems of knowledge will be exposed to clarify the mutual insights and commensurabilities of global knowledge.

A number of questions will be addressed. For example, was the exchange of knowledge mainly harmonious or conflicted? How accurate was its translation? And what forms of authority were exercised at different points of contact? We will of course look at the Who, What, and Where, and the more interesting questions of How and Why to bind the cases together. The intellectual, economic, cultural, and spiritual aspects of the individual case studies will be used to elucidate historical pathways of knowledge transferral.

In the first case study, the historical interaction between Daoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy, and Quantum Mechanics, a twentieth century science, will be investigated. Commensurabilities between these cultures of knowledge were sought and found by modern scientists, leading to popular literature and individual convictions about the practical significance of modern science from a philosophical (if not spiritual) point of view.

The second case study will discuss the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Dutch VOC traders in East Asia as far as their exchange of medical knowledge was concerned. Rich traditions of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ medicine came into contact and eventually led to mutual enrichment in cultures of knowledge. How exactly did this occur? As we shall see, a unique combination of practical investments and theoretical research would lead to new insights into the science of human medicine.

Finally, the third case study is concerned with the science of anthropology in the mid twentieth century. Margaret Mead’s field work in Samoa is the point of departure, where we have a western scientist doing field work in a non-Western culture. What did she learn, and how did she transfer and translate her knowledge to American anthropology and culture? What was her role as an authority on Samoan culture? A historical and comparative study will be able to elucidate the intricate web of knowledge production and development.

As it stands, we want to provide a decentralized notion of knowledge production in the history of western science; not one time, one place, or one method defines science, rather a flowing together of multiple streams of ideas and practices in various places and times. The dynamic processes which connect cultures of knowledge need to be recognized as such. As a comparative study we have several limiting factors to consider, in our choice of what is to be compared, but also from what perspective the comparison is to be undertaken. We therefore expect the different case studies together will provide a more objective and nuanced perception than if they had been presented separately.

2 comments 07 May 2008

The first to guess whom a quote is from gets to pick a new one.

"I have done that," says my memory. "I cannot have done that" -- says my pride, and remains adamant. At last -- memory yields.

2 comments

0 comments 04 April 2008

Floris Cohen's popular science book De herschepping van de wereld ("The recreation of the world") was the topic of today's book symposium, organised by the Descartes Centre. Published in fall 2007, Cohen's book tried to tackle two substantial questions: first, how did modern science come into the world? Second, how was this modern science able to continue to prosper, rather than start declining?

In order to answer these questions, Cohen makes use of a number of techniques unusual to find in ordinary history works, namely a comparative approach and the notion of cultural transplantation among others. The comparative study between the ancient Chinese and Greek cultures provides a new insight into the development their scientific inquiries. Whereas the Chinese were more concerned with observation, search for harmony in these observations, and the utility of possible inventions, the Greeks on the other hand tended to start with an all-explaining theory (world view) out of which generalisations can be reduced (deduction) to particular instances. The fact that Greek science eventually led to modern science, and not the Chinese one, is explained by cultural transplantation. Greek knowledge was translated into Arabic and further elaborated on, translated in Latin and the Middle Ages, and again in the Renaissance. Chinese knowledge did not need translation, because it never got adopted by an other civilisation.

Perhaps Cohen's argument can be extrapolated to the literature traditions in these two continents. While there were clear differences between French, Italian, German, and British literature in Europe, in China the differences were less prominent. Why? Aren't there many dialects in China? True, Chinese dialects can contain linguistic variations to such an extent that oral communication is impossible. However, since the rule of the First Emperor (Ch'in), the Chinese script was standardised; a similar process as the Arabic numerals that were internationally adopted centuries later. All educated Chinese would from then on write using the same script, even though China was at times politically and socially divided. Moreover, the centralised bureaucracy instituted a formal education everywhere, which directly and indirectly promoted a unity and homogeneity to Chinese literature. For example, if your dialect was Canton, you received exactly the same education as the individuals writing in Ch'ang-an or Szechwan, and therefore the literature you wrote was not so much different in subject matter as the one you colleagues were writing about in Honan or Chekiang. Harmony in literature was further established by, on the one hand, the practice of imitation by writers themselves, and on the other, the officials who decided what was considered literature and what not. The Chinese literature, unlike the European, was one corpus.

At the symposium, Cohen was to defend himself against healthy criticism, not only from fellow historians, but also from the side of theology and philosophy. Although we were unable to attend all lectures, because we had class, the did have the opportunity to enjoy the speech by Herman Philipse and the final word by Cohen. As an apology for his less accurate description of theological and philosophical details, Cohen stated that the historian essentially is an amateur in all disciplines. The historian knows a little about everything, never everything about anything. Nevertheless, this enables the historian with a unique skill: to recognise changes and explain them in clear language.

Cohen's more academic and more extensive work on the creation of modern science, How Modern Science Came into the World, will be published 2008/09.

0 comments 01 April 2008


On 1 April 1572, 600 Gueux (Geuzen), under the command of Count Lumey de la Marck, seized the port of Brill (Den Briel/Brielle), making it the first town to be liberated from the Spaniards. These Sea-Beggars had triggered a revolt against the repression of general Alva, which would soon spread to Holland and Zeeland. Alva was the first to be an April fool!

0 comments 21 March 2008

Central in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate are three philosophical doctrines that would have dominated 20th century psychology: empiricism (the Blank Slate), romanticism (the Noble Savage), and dualism (the Ghost in the Machine).

In “An Essay concerning Human Understanding” (1690), John Locke argued that all reason and knowledge is derived from sense-experience. Everyone would be born with a blank mind, except for a few basic instincts. Locke’s empiricism would have significant social implications. The doctrine would undermine hereditary royalty and aristocracy as well as the institution of slavery, as both groups could neither be considered innately inferior nor superior; rather, all are equal. From this point, Pinker showed by results from cognitive neuroscience that innate mechanisms exist in the genetically determined brain and that therefore the Blank Slate is incorrect. Pinker forgot, however, that Locke never denied the existence of human nature. Every human has basic instincts, innate properties, and sense organs to be able to obtain knowledge about the world. Pinker’s assumption that the Blank Slate and human nature exclude each other is therefore incorrect.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that civilisation corrupts the fundamental goodness of human nature. The ill effects could be moderated by active participation in democratic consensual politics. In other words, Rousseau claimed that ideas about good and evil, right and wrong, are social constructions that form the conscience of the individual. This 18th century romanticism continues to be influential, as it provides an argument in favour of anything natural and against anything artificial. Showing results from evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural genetics, Pinker argued that humans are not peaceful, but in fact, have and can inherit brain mechanisms associated with aggression, violence, and mental illness. But do these results really contradict Rousseau’s doctrine? Rousseau merely showed that nurture influences how the conscience of humans is shaped, and Pinker showed that nature can also influence the either good or bad behaviour of people. Moreover, Pinker’s anthropological argument that conflicts and wars are human affairs in all cultures only seems to support Rousseau’s.

The oldest doctrine is dualism by René Descartes, who regarded the domain of reality in terms of two independent principles: the mind and body. Although the body is subject to mechanical laws, the mind or soul would be free, indivisible, and will survive the death of the body. The term “Ghost in the Machine” was coined by Gilbert Ryle, who, like Pinker, attempted to undermine Descartes’ ideas on mind and matter, which gained wide appeal nonetheless. This dualist idea underwent the supposedly contradictory results from cognitive neuroscience as presented by Pinker. Emotions, motives, and goals can be understood in terms of cybernetics, namely mechanisms of feedback and control. Pinker showed that all human experiences, thoughts, and emotions correspond to physiological activity, electrical impulses, in the tissues of the brain. But does that mean that all is biological? There still are physical and mental processes that have both mental and mechanical causes. Indeed, certain behaviour is caused by physical causes, but people can be mentally ill whereas they are physically fine. Pinker’s argument therefore only proofs that one should not separate mind from body as extremely as Descartes might have done.

Pinker, S., The Blank Slate. The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.

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