The Problem of 20(k): What’s Chinese Astronomy Good For?

22 Mar 2018
4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Florence Hsia
Professor of History of Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Rereading Joseph Needham’s studies of ‘science and civilisation in China’ nowadays is usually a prelude to one of two diametrically opposed exercises: answering the perennial ‘Needham question’—why did modern science develop in Renaissance Europe, and not elsewhere?—or denying the question’s premises (Eurocentric, counterfactual, comparativist, civilizational) in order to launch an alternative approach to global history; the study of science, medicine, and technology in China “on its own terms” no longer depends on either move.

Such fissures reflect the still unresolved challenges that the sociologist Robert Cohen summarized decades ago as “The problem of 19(k)” (1973), his assessment of the ‘Needham question’ as posed in an early volume (1959) of Science and civilisation in China (1954–). Concluding a lengthy treatment of mathematics in China and preceding the investigation of the natural sciences, section 19(k) was the conceptual hinge in Needham’s historical project, signalling the critical role Needham saw in mathematics for transmuting “culturally-bound sciences into universal science.” Today, section 19(k) is the symbolic hinge in Needham’s historiographical legacy, joining disparate responses to a question whose persistence depends in good part on its uncanny resonances with ongoing debates over how HSMT can productively toggle between local and global, specificity and universality.

In this paper I look beyond the problem of 19(k), its anchoring role in Needham’s SCC project, and its shaping force on subsequent scholarship. Coming at the end of an extensive discussion of astronomy—the first of the subjects Needham examined in his effort to restore Chinese knowledge-making traditions and practices to their proper place—section 20(k) provides better purchase on current historiographical issues. In this paper I reread Needham on ‘Chinese astronomy’ as a prologue to exploring past and future approaches for HSMT.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  CSTMS