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.


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