• Email
  • Print

Joseph Needham’s Big Question

In response to:

Why Didn't Science Rise in China? from the November 6, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

In response to Alan Goodman’s letter [NYR, November 6] about his essay on Joseph Needham, Jonathan Spence suggests that “the Needham question” might better be reformulated as “Why did science rise in the West?” Among his many attempts to tackle the basic issue at stake, Needham himself did in fact reformulate the question along these lines. “Europeans,” Needham wrote,

suffered from a schizophrenia of the soul, oscillating for ever unhappily between the heavenly host on one side and the “atoms and the void” on the other; while the Chinese, wise before their time, worked out an organic theory of the universe which included Nature and man, church and the state, and all things past, present, and to come. It may well be that here, at this point of tension, lies some of the secret of the specific European creativeness when the time was ripe.*

This creative “schizophrenia of the soul” originated in the unique step taken by Greek thinkers starting with Thales of Miletus circa 600 BC, who inaugurated Western science and philosophy by divorcing the natural from the supernatural. And behind that splitting of a previously undifferentiated world lies the radical assumption that nature operates according to regular laws.

From this perspective, we can at least sketch an answer to Needham’s question however it’s formulated. The assumption of natural laws allowed the rise of science in the West, by splitting natural from supernatural in Western attempts to explain the world; the absence of the concept of natural laws helped inhibit science in China, by perpetuating a holistic approach that braided natural and supernatural explanations together.

Obviously, this simplifies complex historical processes, but hopefully not to the point of distortion—particularly if we hold in our minds the specific, ever-changing historical circumstances that constantly shaped and reshaped both traditions. Needham himself always remained sensitive to such complexities, as do the admirable Jonathan Spence and Alan Goodman in their carefully considered contributions to this fascinating and important discussion.

Colin Wells
Westport, New York

  1. *

    Quoted in H. Floris Cohen, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry, p. 462.

  • Email
  • Print