greatest historical minds of our century, Max Weber, Lynn White, Eric Jones, Joseph Needham, Nathan Sivin, and David Landes, to name just a few.
It would be as pretentious as it would be pointless to survey or add to this debate in this paper. But the evolutionary framework I proposed before may help to place one or two issues in sharper perspective. The argument I am making is not that for most of the time the epistemic base of technology in Europe was broader than in the Orient. As late as the middle of the seventeenth century, the diffe- rences between the epistemic bases on which technology rested in the West and China was probably not large.57 It is rather that the culture and institutions that generated and diffused useful knowledge in Europe and the institutions that supported it, eventually developed characteristics that allowed the epistemic bases of technology to become eventually ever wider in part as a result of the techniques that it supported. This created a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle that created the huge gap between West and East in technology in a relatively short time in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.58
In reflecting on this question, it is important to realize that not only the social environment of knowledge differed. In the West, the selection environment of useful knowledge was more stringent than elsewhere. The physical world was viewed as orderly, that is, the same causes lead to the same effects, and one could separate between the logical and comprehensible sphere of the natural world and the theological issues of creation. These views have clear medieval roots and link back to Plato’s Timaeus.59 But it is hard to see why such interpretations themselves would be inevitable.60 Western science did have a large random component in it. Not everything that could have been discovered was
57Derk Bodde makes this point verystronglywhen he claims that by 1668, “the traditional technologies of Europe and China alike were both based more on practice than on theory and had both reached approximately the highest point possible for such technologies before the advent of modern science.” Theory, however, was not really the issue. By 1700, Europeans had already vastly expanded the horizons of their useful knowledge in geography, hydraulics, optics, the manipulation of domesticated animals, graphical representation, astronomy, scientific instruments, crop rotations, and so on. Like Needham, Bodde seems too closely wedded to the linear connection between “scientific knowledge” and technical progress. His notion that “in 1687 Newton’s Principia was published ... less than a century after, steam was beginning to turn the wheels of Britain” implies a linear causal connection between the two that cannot be defended. See Derk Bodde, Chinese Thought, Society, and Science. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.1991, p. 235.
58Bodde (Chinese Thought, p. 362) provides a list of Chinese inventions such as the astronomical clock, mathematical navigation, and the seismograph which became “magnificent dead ends” (to use David Landes’s term) and were not further developed. Bodde ascribes this to a Chinese lack of interest in theory. In my view, they all represent examples of singleton inventions or at least inventions with very narrow epistemic bases.
59The twelfth centurymini-renaissance that included such writers as Peter Abelard, William of Conches, Hugh of St. Victor, Adelard of Bath, and others, might be thought of as “neo-platonist” in this regard, as it laid down the foundations of a rational and mechanistic view of the Universe that became the foundation of seventeenth century natural philosophy.
60Indeed, Huff (Rise, p. 105) notes that twelfth century Islamic writers developed philosophical views that were Platonist enough to be offensive to the Islamic religious elite but did not elaborate the rationalistic and mechanistic world view that Western Europeans built on Plato’s edifice.