East Asian Science, Technology and Medicine

TitleNeedham's grand question revisited: on the meaning and justification of causal claims in the history of Chinese science
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsDe Saeger, D, Weber, E
JournalEast Asian Science, Technology and Medicine

The Needham Question (i.e. the question why modern science has not developed in Chinese civilization but only in Europe) has drawn a substantial amount of criticism. Despite its apparent innocuousness, influential sinologists have written devastating critiques of it. These criticisms fall into two main categories. The first denies the validity of the central concepts by means of which the question is formulated (e.g. 'science’ or 'civilization’). The second calls into question (1) the legitimacy of asking for explanations of absences (i.e. of events that did not occur), (2) the legitimacy of citing absences as explanations (i.e. citing negative facts in explanations), and (3) whether the Needham question can be answered, even if asking for explanations of absences and citing absences as explanations are both legitimate. In this article, we take into account the former criticism, in order to arrive at a new starting point: dividing the Needham Problem into its various sub-questions. We then tackle the latter criticism by calling upon the contemporary philosophy of causation. We will argue that, according to certain theories of causation, the subquestions under discussion can be answered, and we will clarify how they can be argued for.

Citation Key2020633