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

History 39I

Fall 2010
Day & Time: 
Tu 2-4P

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 not with economic, social, political, legal, or environmental factors, but with the radically different intellectual-emotional presuppositions which educated Chinese and Europeans used to frame the natural world and man's place in it. The goal of this course is first to chart the very different trajectories of technological development, and second to understand the presuppositions that help account for the differences. Toward this end we will compare specific examples of Chinese and Western achievements in three areas: naval architecture and navigation, which make it possible for nations first to explore and then to impose their will on distant places; 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 read some important attempts to account for the differences in the history of science and technology in China and Europe and, finding them inadequate, will turn to Greek and early Chinese philosophy in an attempt to identify the most fundamental causes. 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.