Technology and Philosophy in China and the West: Explorations in Comparative Cultural History

History 103U.002

Spring 2009
Instructor (text): 
2070 VLSB
Day & Time: 
Thurs 12-2

Why did technological development follow such very different paths in China and the West? There were many reasons, but I believe that the most fundamental one has to do with the radically different ways that educated Chinese and Europeans thought about man and the world. The goal of this course is to partially survey those different paths and to learn more about what those different world-views actually were. Toward this end we will compare specific examples of Chinese and Western achievements in three areas: naval architecture and navigation, which relate directly to the ability of European nations to impose their will on distant places, including China, in the age of imperialism; power technology, whose supreme expression before the twentieth century was the steam engine; and precision measurement, symbolized above all by the clock. It will be seen that Chinese attitudes about both power and precision were very different from those of Europeans. We will consider several recent attempts to account for the differences in the history of science and technology in China and Europe and then turn to Greek and early Chinese philosophy in an attempt to understand the deepest roots of those differences. Throughout we will weigh, implicitly or explicitly, the human costs and benefits of pre-modern China's ritual-centered civilization and of our own science-centered one.