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Book Review: The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West
(Toby Huff)

This is a magisterial book, pulling together innumerable threads into a coherent, cohesive whole. It is actually a different book than I expected—it spends much more time on the sociology and philosophy of science, in the abstract and as tied to and generated by each society, and much less time on individual scientific inventions and advances. Those do appear, of course, but more by way of illustration than discussion. So if you’re looking for a catalog of inventions, you may be disappointed (though Huff apparently has a later book that is more that), but you’ll probably learn more with this book written the way it is.

The core question Huff’s book attempts to answer is why, given that both the Muslim world and the Chinese were more advanced in raw, technical scientific knowledge at the beginning of the Middle Ages, it was Europe, rather than either Islam or China, that took all the next steps to develop modern science. Huff is not a political writer and this is not a political book. It is closer to a work of applied philosophy. But Huff’s conclusion, that Europe developed modern science and others did not, along with most of the reasons he concludes resulted in this end, is contrary to the dominant multicultural “wisdom.” It’s somewhat surprising a modern academic would come to this conclusion, given the attacks certain to be launched upon him, but it’s certainly refreshing in that Huff’s analysis is completely unbiased. (For the types of attacks made upon Huff, see the 2007 exchange between George Saliba and Huff, available on the Internet, which features Saliba’s total inability or unwillingness to comprehend Huff’s arguments.)

By “modern science,” Huff means not merely “the science we have now,” which would be circular. Instead, he means the application of the changed approach to scientific thinking brought about in Europe by specific new approaches in reasoning, law and religious authority, starting with cosmology (Huff’s main historic and comparative focus) and spreading to all scientific inquiry. He also does not mean “mere” technology, which can develop by iterative tinkering but is not modern science without certain thought patterns, understanding of the principles of the natural world, and institutions and processes that universalize what science does. “The modern scientific worldview rests on certain assumptions about the regularity and lawfulness of the natural world and the presumption that man is capable of grasping the underlying structure.” This is an evolved view, not one universally held, and more specifically one not ever held to any significant degree in Islam or Chinese thought, until those cultures adopted the Western scientific approach whole in recent decades.

To begin, Huff places heavy emphasis on the history and theory of universal application of rational thought, the pivot on which all things in modern science turn. He says explicitly (citing Max Weber, on whom he’s an expert and apparently a disciple) that the West differs from the “Middle East and Asia not just in the successful birthing of modern science, but in its rationalizing pursuit of all forms of thought and action, art and music included. . . . Modern science is but one domain in which we should look for the embodiment of rationality.” This includes rationalization of theology and jurisprudence as well. From this basic focus flows the rest of the book.

The core of Huff’s analysis is to consider what the theology and philosophy of nature of each society, combined with the law and legal systems of each society, implied for the approach to reasoning and rationality of that culture. From that analysis Huff shows how each society’s approach to science results, both directly and as mediated by institutional structures (which are mostly shaped by the same drivers as law and philosophy in that culture). Huff shows how, over time, this resulted in both Islam and China falling short of achieving modern science, while the same drivers resulted in Europe crossing the bridge to modernity.

The first fifty pages of the book are very heavy going. There is a lot of technical sociological analysis of the role of the scientist, the ethos of science, and so on. Huff then begins by considering specifically Arabic science, or more precisely, why it is, given that “from the eighth century to the end of the fourteenth, Arabic science was probably the most advanced science in the world, greatly surpassing the West and China,” in “astronomy, alchemy, mathematics, medicine, optics, and so forth” Arabs (i.e., “Middle Eastern individuals primarily using the Arabic language,” including many non-Muslims) did not take the next step to modern science.

Huff then examines the limitations placed on the study of “natural sciences” (i.e., non-theological sciences) in Islam. Islam as it developed exalted law (fiqh) and denigrated “speculative theology.” “In general, the structure of thought and sentiment in medieval Islam was such that the pursuit of the rational or ancient sciences was widely considered to be a tainted enterprise.” It could have developed otherwise, but it did not. Arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, because they were religiously useful, were partially exempt—but not enough to permit the development of modern science. “Scientific inquiry was generally tolerated [at the margins of intellectual life], even sometimes encouraged by rulers for brief periods of time, but in no case was it officially institutionalized and sanctioned by the intellectual elite of Islam.” This is what Huff calls the “marginality problem.” “Thus within the Muslim world of the late Middle Ages, the utility and usefulnesss of knowledge is narrowly construed to mean knowledge useful in a strictly religious context.”

These limitations in Islam on the natural sciences were only one result of the Muslim approach to rationality in general. As is well-known, after a period of some centuries of philosophical ferment, Islam “closed the gates of ijtihad.” As a result, Islam concluded that no new legal (or religious, for they are essentially the same thing in Islam) principles could be legitimately enunciated. The role of reason and rationality was therefore sharply constrained to interpretation of existing principles, based on the Sunnah, and their application to new problems. Natural sciences were therefore wholly marginalized as suspect due to being outside this structure. Similarly, such newly developed core Western elements as collective bodies with independent rights, a law of civil negligence, rules of evidence, or a modern penal code were made impossible under the now-frozen structures of Islam.

Another hindrance to Islamic rationality, in the sense of reasoning leading to modern science, is particularly fascinating to me. This is a distinction between mainstream Muslim and Christian theology, little known in generalist circles, in the view of how God relates to the physical world. In Islam, the dominant view is variants of the occasionalist/determinist view of Ash’ari and al-Ghazali, “according to which God holds the world together from moment to moment by willing it,” and “there is no necessary connection between what is usually believed to be a cause and what is believed to be an effect.” This undermines the rational, mechanistic view of the natural world necessary for a modern scientific worldview. In the Ash’arite view, “no such thing as natural causality existed. The apparent relation between cause and effect was a delusion of the sense, and all actions and phenomena were immediately caused by the prime cause which was God.” This obviously undermines a rationalist approach to any kind of science. (Related to this is the conclusion that God is bound by no limits—He can be irrational and unjust if he so chooses. In Islam, it is regarded as a heresy that God CANNOT do the unreasonable and unjust, though He chooses not to. In Christianity, God cannot be unreasonable and unjust, any more than He can create a square circle, because it is a contradiction in terms.) The idea that any focus on cause and effect is, at best, nearly heretical, and at worst, an offense worthy of execution, doubtless crimps most scientific minds.

Huff counterpoises this Islamic closing of rational thought, and its prevention of finding a path to the development of new principles of natural or religious philosophy, to the Western reaction, starting in the twelfth century, to the new Greek and Arab learning (much of it gained from their self-confessed “Arab masters”). In Europe, as reason and rationality was being denigrated in Islam, it became exalted in Europe. Effects of this ranged from coming to see nature as “an orderly, integrated whole” (via Plato’s “Timaeus” and more generally widespread acceptance of Platonic rationalism. This was combined with the standard Christian view of man as a morally rational agent capable of and required to making rational choices in the exercise of his conscience (synderesis); “the separation of the miraculous from the forces of nature”; and more generally a new view of the world as a machine. “Most important of all, [Platonic rationalism] established a firm belief in the rational capacity of man to understand and explain nature and, equally important, to interpret and explain the Scriptures.” (This same strong belief in man’s capacity to interpret the Scriptures in a rational way is a key thread of Wilken’s important book, “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought,” which I highly recommend for more details in this area.)

This development in the West was not merely a triumphal march. Huff does not overlook various (ultimately unsuccessful) Western condemnations of what some viewed as overly-naturalistic philosophy, such as those by the Bishop of Paris in 1277. But the ultimate result of all this in the West as far as approach to natural sciences was a new rationality, a new universalism of institutions and thought, and a new approach to science.

Every so often, in passing, Huff explodes common myths. For example, it is commonly believed that the medieval Church was opposed to dissections. Huff shows, in comparing the vastly greater anatomical knowledge and texts of Europeans to the crude and erroneous views of the most advanced Muslim anatomical texts, that this is simply not true (and is true of Muslim religious authorities, who both opposed dissection and resulting drawings of the human anatomy). A converse myth Huff explodes is that Islamic science lacked the scientific method of experimentation—he shows specific experimental traditions in Islam in optics, astronomy and medicine. These did not progress not because Islamic scientists lacked an experimental method, but because the natural sciences and rational exploration generally were denigrated and finally largely suppressed under Islamic law. Finally, Huff notes that the common conception of the “Galileo affair” is simply wrong, and concludes “The eruption of the Galileo affair is thus an anomaly that occurred because of a variety of personal motives, personal vendettas, hubris, and not a little malfeasance.” (Huff himself thinks the greatest threat to the emerging European advance to modern science was instead the 1277 condemnations by the Bishop of Paris, which he mentions in at least three widely separated places in the book.)

Huff also examines the comparative development of European and Islamic legal systems in great detail. As far as Europe, he emphasizes the direct line from twelfth-century accepted centrality of rationality as supreme to the immediate acceptance of Roman law when rediscovered, with its assumption of universalistic application, and the systemization of law as a whole through the efforts of Gratian and others. From this flowed the dialectic of Abelard and similar thinkers and jurists and the creation of an internally coherent corpus of both civil and canon laws, based on rational derivations, rather than, as in Islam, only on the authority of sacred sources. Finally, to draw his analysis toward the point of the book, modern science, Huff shows how in Europe the concept of recognized “collective individual” bodies such as corporations, with their own legal rights, led to the creation of universities as recognized and truly independent bodies for learning and rational thought, and their subsequent creation of modern science. Such bodies were totally lacking in Islam, where the idea of jurisdictional limitations on government actions with respect to collectives as collectives was lacking, and where the closest analogue, madrassas, were nothing like European universities, in that (among other ways), they had no “institutionalization of study of these disciplines [mathematics, astronomy, etc.] in an open and publicly sanctioned fashion.” Nor did they have any universal certification, and they were always subject, under the law of waqf, as charitable trusts, to the domination and control of their founders.

After what is an intellectually bracing, if exhausting, comparative analysis of Islam and the West, Huff turns to a similar, but briefer, comparison of China and the West. Here, he focuses a great deal on Joseph Needham’s works on Chinese science (and China in general). Huff concludes, in essence, that while China had a great deal of tinkering-type technological competence in science, China was far, far behind both Islam and Europe in any kind of modern science. The Chinese did not even have a geometric cosmological model, and employed Muslim astronomers to get accurate astronomical readings for purely astrological, not scientific, ends. The Chinese had plenty of exposure to Muslim science, but declined to take it up. Chinese bureaucracy, Confucian focus on the mythical exemplary past, emperor supremacy, and the mandarin system offered no incentives for either the centrality of rational thought and dialectic, universal legal principles, or experimental scientific inquiry on abstract principles. (Huff also notes that the supposed meritocracy of the mandarin system, which anyway mostly focused not on useful knowledge but uniformity, rote memorization of Confucian classics and regurgitation of stale poetic forms, actually was false, because more than half of the mandarin class was exempt, through “yin privilege,” from the examination system through family or other connections.)

Huff goes further, though, and spends an entire chapter criticizing the impact of Chinese modes of thought for their negative impact on the development of modern science. In Huff’s view, things like yang-yin polarity, rote learning for the mandarin examinations, cut-and-paste writing resulting in bizarre and useless organization of writings, and confining of astronomy to astrology (and that to a state secret, for it revealed the heavens’ favor or disfavor with the emperor), irrevocably crippled China’s ability to achieve modern science.

It’s possible that Huff’s entire analysis is open to criticism. But after reading the book, the reader is overwhelmed by the erudition, to a degree that Huff seems to have definitively proved his case. Maybe he has. Certainly, having read some of his critics, I think none seem to even make headway toward a rebuttal. Either way, a reader who pays close attention and thinks as he reads will come away much better informed about many critical topics.

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