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!