History of Science in Non-Western Traditions: Introduction

Douglas Allchin and Robert DeKosky

In recent years all disciplines and all levels of education have recognized the increased significance of Non-Western perspectives. This publication  aims to introduce the pursuit of science in Non-Western traditions through a series of brief essays and reading lists, in the style of a richly annotated course syllabus. It is an outline and guide to resources, not a complete survey text.

Delving into “non-Western science,” one quickly finds that the very concepts of “Western,” “Non-Western” and “science” are problematic—as many of our contributors note. If science is itself defined by practices that emerged from the Scientific Revolution in Europe, how can one possibly characterize alternative forms of “science” in other traditions?  In addition, given the blending of cultural traditions in the past several centuries, what constitutes the “West” or “non-West”?  Our interpretation here is very much shaped by the purpose of this volume in supplementing historical material that is already readily available.  For example, we are eager to highlight the astronomy of the early Chinese, the navigational techniques of Pacific islanders and the ancient medical knowledge of sub-Saharan Africans. In such cases, science often blurs into technology, as conventionally defined; by being inclusive, we hope to promote healthy consideration of the relationship between science and technology. By contrast, we exclude Arabic science (though clearly non-European) because historians of science already acknowledge its role in contributing to the rise of science in modern Europe. Good texts and resources are widely available here. For similar reasons, we include contemporary science in many other non-European regions, such as Latin America and Japan; even though science here may follow a “Western” model, it has frequently been overlooked by historians of science. In addition, the adoption or integration of Western science in cultures where it did not originally develop often poses striking issues about power, culture and how each affects how science is done.

The reader will find contributions on China, India, Latin America, Native America, Australia and the Pacific, and Japan. Each chapter begins with an introduction that aims to address the scope, noteworthy scientific achievements and major  figures in each particular tradition. Here, too, you will find listed major references:  these might serve as recommended first purchases for those who plan to pursue the topic in more depth. This list is coupled with a list of major sources for addressing current scholarship:  significant journals, newsletters, websites, listservs, study centers, or professional organizations  where someone can update the sources on the reading lists, review the latest research, or contact professionals in the field.

Each chapter then presents a six-day “syllabus” with a brief synopsis for each day’s theme or focus. Each day includes a list of student readings–1-1.5 hours of introductory material. There is also recommended extended reading for the student or teacher interested in pursuing the topic in more depth. Where appropriate, audio-visual materials are mentioned, along with suggested topics for further research. These last two items are sometimes grouped together at the end of the chapter.

We hope that this small volume will prove useful to seasoned historians of science, as well as to graduate or undergraduates students in the history of science who want to expand their repertoire.  In addition, we hope that it will prove useful to ethnic/minority students who want to deepen their knowledge of science in a particular tradition and to college or K-12 science teachers who want to engage students in the humanistic dimensions of science.

Finally, we owe many thanks to our contributors, who volunteered their efforts, often amidst crowded schedules. In addition, we would like to acknowledge the support of Keith Benson and the staff of the History of Science Society in helping to foster this project from its initial conception to the published volume.