Roger Hart


I propose to take as my starting point an observation that I hope will be uncontroversial: “civilizations” are no less imagined than “nations.” From this starting point, with the aim of encouraging discussion about the implications for envisioning the future of science and globalization in Asia in the twenty-first century, I propose to reexamine a range of issues related to the history of science and civilizations:

(1) Representations of “China,” “the West,” and the “Great Divide”: I will begin by examining seminal grand narratives of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries that championed Protestantism over Catholicism in the rise of modern science (Merton), capitalism (Weber), and modernity (Hegel); by the second half of the twentieth century, these narratives were increasingly transfigured into assertions of a “Great Divide” separating the West and the rest.

(2) Science and civilizations: I will then turn my attention to the role played by twentieth-century history of science in imagining the West through purported oppositions to its other(s).

(3) The postmoderns’ “West”: An significant lacuna in the late-twentieth century turn to critical theory was, I will argue, a continued credulity towards an imagined “West.” In particular, while the term “imagined communities” (Anderson) gained prominence in critiques of various forms of nationalism, assertions of the reality of “the West” were often reinforced in these same critiques (Anderson) and sometimes aggressively promoted (Gellner). This continued credulity towards an imagined “West” often underwrote over-dramatized conclusions in post-structuralism (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze), post-colonialism (Prakash), and science studies (Latour).

(4) The “first encounter” of China and the West: I will then propose a critical, historical approach to analyzing the role claims about science have played in imagining civilizations, focusing on claims made about “Western science” in narratives recounting the “first encounter” of China and the West. In these narratives, the Jesuits, who had often been vilified in conventional European histories as conservative defenders of the declining Catholic order, were exalted as missionaries of Western science, civilization, and religion in seventeenth-century China. My work focuses on the Chinese perspective, which provides a perspective startlingly different from that found in previous studies based on Jesuit sources: while the Jesuits claimed them as converts, Chinese officials represented the Jesuits as “men from afar” who had traveled to China to serve the emperor; the writings of the Jesuits, they argued, preserved lost doctrines from ancient China; adopting these doctrines would help the dynasty return to the perfected moral order of ancient China, which they imagined existed in “the West,” where for over a thousand years there had been no wars, rebellions, or changes in dynasty.

(5) Civilizations as ideological constructs: As an alternative to grand narratives about civilizations, I propose to historically contextualize statements about civilizations as performative acts of collective self-fashioning. That is, in more traditional terms, “civilizations” are not analytic categories, but rather actors’ categories that we must critically analyze in their historical context. In particular, I will argue that the fundamental mistake of Joseph Needham’s seminal Science and Civilisation in China, and the ensuing debates about why the scientific revolution occurred only in the West, lies in adopting civilizations as a central analytic category.

(6) A microhistorical approach to the world history of science: Finally, I will propose a possible new approach to the world history of science through an inquiry into the global circulation of scientific practices before the scientific revolution: (i) I will first outline what I will call a microhistorical approach to the world history of science, building on recent approaches in the history of science. (ii) I will then follow this microhistorical approach to briefly examine a very specific example for which we have sufficient extant historical records to demonstrate the dissemination of mathematical practices from China to Europe by the thirteenth century, namely, certain distinctive forms of linear algebra problems. I will argue that extant treatises, which were often compiled in pursuit of patronage, record only traces of these practices. I will suggest that the circulation and shifting centers of these practices at different times in history demonstrate the irrelevance of what we now call “civilizations” to the analysis of the distribution of these practices. (iii) I will argue we must place this specific example in the larger context of recent research on the “global Middle Ages”—by examining known global circulations of this period, including commerce, art, and other material goods, we can then inquire into the extent to which patterns of the circulation of scientific practices may be similar. (iv) Using known global circulations of the period, together with the example demonstrating the circulation of mathematical practices, we may then inquire more broadly into the possible global circulation of other scientific practices during this period. (v) I will propose to further develop this microhistorical approach as a way to begin to rethink several legacy questions in the world history of science. More specifically, I will propose to consider ways in which we might further question conventional assumptions about authors, texts, science, and civilizations.

In conclusion, I would suggest that a revised understanding of the history of science and civilizations might have important implications in the increasingly global twenty-first century. This might lead us to critically reflect upon the role played by an imagined West in authorizing a wide range of discourses—including science, democracy, capitalism, civil society, and the rule of law—in an age in which the West will increasingly be decentered in multiple ways. Foucault’s Les mots and les choses reminds us of just how suddenly discourses shift.



Roger Hart. “Science as the Measure of Civilizations,” chapter 2 of Hart, Imagining Civilizations: China, the West, and Their First Encounter (Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming 2012). Earlier versions published as “Beyond Science and Civilization: A Post-Needham Critique,” East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine 16 (1999): 88–114 and “On the Problem of Chinese Science,” in The Science Studies Reader, edited by Mario Biagioli (New York: Routledge, 1999), 189–201. Translated into Chinese by Wan Yiji 万一己, in Zhongguo kexue yu kexue geming 中国科学与科学革命 [Chinese Science and Scientific Revolution], ed. Liu Dun 刘钝 and Wang Yangzong 王扬宗 (Shenyang: Liaoning jiaoyu chubanshe 辽宁教育出版社, 2002). (PDF)

———. “Translating the Untranslatable: From Copula to Incommensurable Worlds,” chapter 3 of Hart, Imagining Civilizations. Earlier versions published in Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations, edited by Lydia H. Liu (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 45–73, and as “Translating Worlds: Incommensurability and Problems of Existence in Seventeenth-Century China,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 7, no. 1 (spring 1999): 95–128. Reprinted in Han yi Ying lilun duben 汉译英理论读本 [Theoretical Reader on Translating Chinese into English], ed. Yu Shiyi 余石屹 (Beijing: Science Publications [Kexue chubanshe 科学出版社], 2008). (PDF)

———. “Universals of Yesteryear: Hegel’s Modernity in an Age of Globalization,” in Global History: Interactions Between the Universal and the Local, edited by A. G. Hopkins (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), 66–97. (PDF)

———. “The Great Explanandum,” essay review of The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250–1600, by Alfred W. Crosby, American Historical Review 105, no. 2 (April 2000): 486–493. (PDF)