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When Science Became Western: Historiographical Reflections

Marwa Elshakry
Isis
Vol. 101, No. 1 (March 2010), pp. 98-109
DOI: 10.1086/652691
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/652691
Page Count: 12
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When Science Became Western: Historiographical Reflections
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Abstract

ABSTRACT While thinking about the notion of the “global” in the history of the history of science, this essay examines a related but equally basic concept: the idea of “Western science.” Tracing its rise in the nineteenth century, it shows how it developed as much outside the Western world as within it. Ironically, while the idea itself was crucial for the disciplinary formation of the history of science, the global history behind this story has not been much attended to. Drawing on examples from nineteenth-century Egypt and China, the essay begins by looking at how international vectors of knowledge production (viz., missionaries and technocrats) created new global histories of science through the construction of novel genealogies and through a process of conceptual syncretism. Turning next to the work of early professional historians of science, it shows how Arabic and Chinese knowledge traditions were similarly reinterpreted in light of the modern sciences, now viewed as part of a diachronic and universalist teleology ending in “Western science.” It concludes by arguing that examining the global emergence of the idea of Western science in this way highlights key questions pertaining to the relation of the history of science to knowledge traditions across the world and the continuing search for global histories of science.

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