Historiographical Refutation of Patrick O’Brien’s
Global Perspective on the Scientific Revolution
The current issue of The Journal of Global History (March 2013) has an opening article by Patrick O’Brien, Professor of Global History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, with a long title, “Historical foundations for a global perspective on the emergence of a western European regime for the discovery, development, and diffusion of useful and reliable knowledge,” which concludes, rather diffidently, that “historians of global economic development might wish to retain the ‘older’ view of the ‘Scientific Revolution’” (15). The global historians O’Brien has in mind are Ken Pomeranz, Bin Wong, Jack Goldstone, Prasannan Parthasarathi, Ian Morris, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, A. Gunder Frank, Patrick Manning, David Christian, and indeed almost the entire world and global history professoriate and the multiculturalists who dominate our educational institutions. The research of these historians has been invariably about the so-called “similarities” — economic and institutional — between Europe and Asia before the Industrial Revolution, not the Scientific Revolution.
Nevertheless, altogether they have generally insisted that the rise of modern science was a global phenomenon. For example, Frank has written that Newtonian science was not peculiar to Europe but “existed and continued to develop elsewhere as well” (1998: 188–89). Armesto has shown no hesitation stating that the science and philosophy of Copernicus, Kepler, Laplace, Descartes and Bacon was no more original than the neo-Confucian “scientific” revival of the seventeenth century — both were “comparable in kind” (2007: 630). Morris has also said that an intellectual movement in 17th to 18th century China known as Kaozheng “paralleled western Europe’s scientific revolution in every way – except one: it did not develop a mechanical model of nature” (2010: 473)—a rather large difference given that nature can’t be understood scientifically without such models. Parthasarathi, in his recent book, Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850 (2011) has rejected the ‘older’ claim that Europe possessed superior markets, rationality, science or institutions, tracing the divergence instead to different competitive and ecological pressures structured by global dynamics.
Now, while O’Brien thinks that these historians have been “successful” in their “assault upon a triumphalist tradition of European global economic history” (2), he questions, guardedly, their claim that the rise of modern science was a global phenomenon. The Scientific Revolution, he writes, was “something less than a short, sharp discontinuity in the accumulation of scientific knowledge, and more a profound conjuncture locatable for its time in the history of western Europe” (23). Yet, O’Brien accepts the idea that world history should be the study of “connections in the human community,” the story of humanity’s “common experience” (Manning, 2003), an idea which precludes seeing historical transformation in terms of the “internal logics” of nations or particular civilizations. The result is one of the most convoluted, awkward, befuddling, and unscholarly papers I have read. This paper is part of a “project funded by the European Research Council”. In an earlier “Proposal to the European Research Council” (2009),
Continue reading “The Scientific Revolution: A Reappraisal”