Abstracts "Sciences and Narratives of Nature: East and West"

Actively updated. Last updated Dec 13, 2011
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"Why Doesn't my Baby Look Like Me? Expectations and Surprises in Ancient Theories of Reproduction"
Daryn Lehoux, Queen's University

This paper looks at the roles certain facts play in ancient theories of heredity, in particular the ways in which 'unexpected outcomes' (in this case babies who look radically different from their parents) shape ideas about how traits are passed from parent to offspring. By paying particular attention to how ancient authors employ ideas of 'likeness,' we find that trait heritability must be carefully distinguished from sex determination in ancient theories. I will also argue the ways in which Aristotle's idiosyncratic inheritance theory was a clear reaction to, and in many ways a point-by-point reversal of, something very like the theory we find in the Hipppocratic text "On Generation".

"Eastern Mathematics, Western Mathematics: Never the Twain Shall Meet?"
George Gheverghese Joseph, University of Manchester

A widely accepted view  among  certain historians of mathematics is that mathematics outside the sphere of Greek influence, such as Indian or Chinese mathematical traditions  was algebraic (or algorithmic) in  inclination,  empirical  in  practice and containing no (or ‘informal’ proofs), which  provided  a marked contrast to Greek (Western)  mathematics  which  was geometric,  anti‑empirical (or abstract) and emphasized  rigorous proof.  At a  deeper  level, however,  what  is  often  absent  from  a discussion of  different mathematical traditions is an awareness  of  more  fundamental  contrasts  in  cognitive  structures  and in   methodological  conceptions  regarding  the  nature   and   ways   of  establishing  mathematical  truths. An examination of these differences  is  often  compounded  by certain  deeply seated historiographic bias in Western scholarship,  a complex product of colonialism and hellenophilia.  While there  is   no  intention  to  rehearse  the arguments relating to the nature and  origins of this bias,  it  is  important that the bias be recognised and countered in any attempt to "recover and  reclaim  the  world history of science". In this paper, we examine  the similarities and differences between the Western and Eastern  mathematical traditions and how a dialogue between the two contributed to the creation of modern mathematics. 




The Role of Map-Making and Mathematical Practitioners, in early modern contacts and the Scientific Revolution"
Lesley Cormack, University of Alberta

The scientific revolution has long been a central explanatory concept in the history of science.  From the seventeenth century on, analysts of this change to modernity have argued for the fundamental importance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in creating a new construction of the world.  In recent years, however, the term and the coherence of the ideas and events encompassed within it have been brought under incredible scrutiny.  In this paper, I wish to argue that we can think of a scientific revolution taking place, if by that we mean a sociological change in who, where and why the world was investigated.  Indeed, I think that a crucial category of scientifically-inclined men downplayed by most historians of the period, the mathematical practitioners, was crucial to this transformation.  Mathematics was a separate area of investigation from natural philosophy and those interested in mathematical issues had usually tied such studies to practical applications, such as artillery, fortification, navigation, and surveying.  These mathematical practitioners became more important in the early modern period and provided a necessary ingredient in the transformation of nature studies to include measurement, experiment, and utility. Nowhere was this blend of utility, curiosity about nature, and political agendas more overt than in the study of geography and cartography.  Thus geography and map-making provide particularly good examples of the transformation of science taking place in this period. 


"Why did Exchange of Knowledge Across Eurasia Generate a Scientific Revolution in the West?"
Arun Bala, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore

Recent histories of science have shown how the Scientific Revolution that led to modern science could not have happened without dialogical exchanges with the East. Such exchanges allowed the West to draw on Eastern resources of practices and ideas which made it possible to accomplish this task. Particularly in the area of astronomy, which was central to the revolution, the influence of ideas from the Arabic Maragha school of astronomy, the Indian Kerala School of astronomy, and Chinese theories of infinite empty space and a changing cosmos, came to make crucially indispensable contributions. But it is also widely recognized that it was not only the Europeans who participated in this Eurasian dialogue. Indeed such dialogue was prevalent in all Eastern civilizations in the period 500-1500 CE when the different regions of Eurasia came to be connected by a trading network that linked them both through the land corridor of the Eurasian steppes and the sea corridor across the Indian and Eastern Pacific Oceans. In this millennium preceding modern science the Arabic tradition had drawn on the resources of Indian, Greek and Chinese astronomical practices and ideas, the Indians on Greek practices and ideas, and the Chinese on Indian and Arabic traditions. These ubiquitous exchanges between civilizational sciences create a puzzle. Why did the dialogue of civilizations across Eurasia promote a Scientific Revolution in the West, but not in any of the civilizations in the East? This paper will attempt to provide an answer to this question.  


"Nineteenth Century Science and Western Materialism"
Bernard Lightman, York University

In this paper I will discuss how two Victorian scientists, T. H. Huxley and John Tyndall, incorporated elements of materialism into western science by redefining the methodology of science.  To grasp how this strategy worked, and how critics responded to it, I will pay careful attention to the rhetoric of the scientific naturalists and to their efforts to communicate their new vision of science to fellow scientists and the British public.  Fortunately, the historian of science’s toolkit has expanded in the past few decades.  Unlike scholars working before the 1980’s, we can now take advantage of developments in the study of science and culture, science and literature, and the history of publishing.

"Nature of Mathematics and Mathematics of Nature in Indian Tradition"
M.D.Srinivas, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai  mdsrinivas50@gmail.com

While there have been several extensive investigations on the history and achievements of the Indian tradition of sciences, there has not been much discussion on the foundational methodology of Indian sciences. Traditionally, such issues have been dealt with in the detailed bhashyas or commentaries, which continued to be written till recent times and played a vital role in the traditional scheme of learning. 

As regards Indian mathematics, it is in such commentaries that we find detailed upapattis or “proofs” of the results and procedures, and some discussion of methodological and philosophical issues. The notion of upapatti seems to be significantly different from the notion of ‘proof’ as understood in the Greco-European tradition of mathematics. According to the Indian mathematical texts, the purpose of upapatti is mainly: (i) to remove confusion and doubts regarding the validity and interpretation of mathematical results and procedures; and, (ii) to obtain assent in the community of mathematicians. Further, in the Indian tradition, mathematical knowledge is not taken to be different in any fundamental sense from that in natural sciences. In fact, valid means for acquiring and validating mathematical knowledge are the same as in other sciences: Pratyaksha (perception), Anumana (inference), Sabda or Agama (authentic text or tradition).

While the upapattis are presented in a sequence proceeding systematically from known or established results to finally arrive at the result to be established, there is no attempt made to caste them in an axiomatic system. Nor do the Indian mathematicians subscribe to the ideal of mathematics being a body of infallible eternal truths. 

Another significant feature of Indian mathematical tradition, which perhaps stems from the world-view of the Naiyayikas or Indian logicians, is that the method of indirect proof (known as tarka in Indian logic), can be employed only for proving the non-existence of certain entities, but not for proving the existence of an entity, which existence is not demonstrable (at least in principle) by other (direct) means of verification. In this way, the Indian mathematical tradition may be seen as adopting what is nowadays referred to as the ‘constructivist’ approach to the issue of mathematical existence.

To understand the methodology of Indian sciences, one has to perhaps start with the foundational works on Indian linguistics, not only because linguistics is the earliest of Indian sciences to have been rigorously systematised, but also because this systematisation became the paradigm example for all other sciences. It is now generally appreciated that the Ashtadhyayi of Panini, gives a systematic way of generating all the valid utterances of Sanskrit, in terms of about 4000 grammatical rules supplemented by an inventory of about 2000 verbal bases (Dhatupatha) and some 261 lists of lexical bases (Ganapatha). In his famous commentary Mahabhashya on Panini’s Astadhyayi, Patanjali explains that the purpose of grammar is to give an exposition of all valid utterances. An obvious way to do this is to enumerate all valid utterances individually. Since that is humanly impossible, one should attempt to encapsulate larger and larger class of valid utterances by means of a set of general and exceptional rules. Patanjalifurther emphasises that the utterances and their meanings are actually established in the world –one does not go to a Grammarian to make utterances for him as one goes to a potter for pots.

In thus characterising Paninian grammar, Patanjali expounds what is perhaps the basic understanding of the Indian scientific effort: That truth resides in the real world with all its diversity and complexity. For the linguist, what is ultimately true is the language as spoken by the people in all their diverse expressions. Linguists make generalisations about the language as spoken in the world. These generalisations are not the truth behind or above the reality of the spoken language. These are not idealisations according to which reality is to be tailored. On the other hand what is true is what is actually spoken in the real world, and some part of the truth always escapes our idealisation of it. Many of these issues are further discussed by the great philosopher Bhartrihari in his treatise Vakyapadiya. Texts of Indian astronomy often cite his dictum that the procedures taught in sciences are only means (upaya) to easily accomplish desired objectives in the world and they are not constrained or regulated in any other manner.

The tradition of astronomy in India goes back to the ancient texts of Vedangajyotisha which give simple algorithms for fixing the elements of Indian calendar (Panchanga). The Vedangajyotisha texts, as well as the later elaborate treatises on Indian astronomy, declare the raison d’êtreof the science of astronomy to be the determination of time (as well as position and direction) by means of the motion of the celestial bodies. Hence, it is the pragmatic concerns ofcalculating the positions of the various planets and eclipses of the Sun and the Moon reasonably accurately, which informed the efforts of the Indian Astronomers and in this they seem to have been eminently successful at least from the time of Aryabhata.

Thus, the Indian astronomers were in the business to calculate and to compute, not to form pictures of the heavens as they ought to be. Indian astronomers do employ various models, analytical as well as geometrical, but as the texts themselves emphasise, these are no more than artefacts in their calculations. Indian astronomers are also aware that their astronomical parameters and even theoretical procedures could get out of tune with reality sooner or later, and the Indian texts repeatedly emphasise the need for updating and revising the parameters and theoretical schemes so that their computations conform to observations.

In their attempt to achieve concordance between their calculations and the observed planetary motions, Indian astronomers were sometimes ready to accommodate inexplicable or even seemingly contradictory procedures as component part of their models. In fact, while attempting to resolve one such seeming contradiction in the traditional method of calculation of the latitudes of the interior planets, the celebrated astronomer Nilakantha Somayaji came up with a far more accurate formulation of the equation of centre and the motion of interior planets – than was available till then in the Indian, Islamic or the Greco-European traditions of astronomy – in his seminal work Tantrasangraha. In his other great works, Aryabhatiyabhashya and Jyotirmimamsa, Nilakantha has highlighted the importance of preparing the practitioners of this science for the onerous task of continuously observing the skies, continuously checking their computations against observations and repeatedly re-adjusting their parameters and theoretical procedures so as to make their calculations accord with reality.


J.K.Bajaj, “The Indian tradition in Science and Technology: An Overview”, in F.Robinson Ed., Cambridge Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, University Press, Cambridge 1989, pp. 496-7.

M. D. Srinivas, “The Methodology of Indian Mathematics and its Contemporary Relevance”, in G. Kuppuram and K. Kumudini (eds.), History of Science and Technology in India Vol. II, Delhi 1990, pp. 29-86.

K. Ramasubramanian, M. D. Srinivas and M. S. Sriram, “Modification of the Earlier Indian Planetary Theory by the Kerala Astronomers (c. 1500) and the implied Heliocentric Picture of Planetary Motion”, Curr. Sc. 66, 784-790, 1994.

M. S. Sriram, K. Ramasubramanian & M. D. Srinivas, Eds., 500 Years of Tantrasangraha: A Landmark in the History of Astronomy, IIAS, Shimla 2002.

G.G. Emch, R. Sridharan and M.D. Srinivas, Eds., Contributions to the History of Indian Mathematics, Hindustan Book Agency, Delhi 2005.

K.V. Sarma, K. Ramasubramanian, M.D. Srinivas and M.S. Sriram, Ganita-yuktibhasha  of Jyesthadeva,2 Volumes, Hindustan Book Agency, Delhi 2008 (Rep. Springer, New York 2009).

C.S.Seshadri Ed., Studies in History of Indian Mathematics, Hindustan Book Agency, Delhi 2010.

K.Ramasubramanian and M.S.Sriram, Tantrasangraha of Nilakantha Somayaji, Springer, New York 2011.



"Feminism, Science, and Values"
Kathleen Okruhlik, The University of Western Ontario

It has been more than thirty years since “feminist critiques of science” began to emerge as a separate genre.  In this paper, I provide a brief summary of the way that this genre has evolved within analytic philosophy of science, with an eye to evaluating our present situation and prospects for the future.  Among the questions to be examined are these:  How has Sandra Harding’s tripartite taxonomy of feminist epistemologies held up over the years, and where do we stand now on the “values” question?  What role has been played by case studies in the development and testing of more theoretical work in philosophy of science?  As more “mainstream” philosophy of science jumps on the values bandwagon, what are the potential losses?  And what are the gains?  I have a particular interest in the relationship between values and voluntarism and will use some of Bas van Fraassen’s recent work on epistemic voluntarism to illustrate differences and possible grounds for concern.

"Nature, Body and Woman: An Indian perspective on Value Dualisms"
Meera Baindur, Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities

Eco feminists claim that both environmental and feminist issues have their basis in the logic of domination that underwrites patriarchy. While the voices of the various groups and fractions are diverse, most ecofeminists agree that the twin dominations of nature and women occur through certain discourses. Two such prominent analyses are the “logic of domination” proposed by Karen Warren in 1996 and the process of dualistic construction of hierarchies as proposed by Val Plumwood (1996).

As these dualisms are a product of historical conceptualisations of the mind, the body and nature in western thought, it is worthwhile looking at these conceptions in Indian traditions. In this paper the question is raised about the possibility of such a mind-body dualism or a reason-senses dualism within Indian philosophical and literal traditions.

Beginning with descriptions of the concept of the mind and the body in these various traditions, I examine how the relationship between them gives rise to a different understanding of embodiment. For example, textual references from philosophical schools such as ṃkhya, Nyāya and others do not state that the mind is the seat of reason and the body, the seat of senses. I discuss some of these various conceptualisations of mind-body to locate if there are possible “value dualisms.” The notion that the mind has prominence over the body is not easily found these traditions. Examining some of these alternative ways of understanding the relationships between mind, body and gender may clarify for us, the very different conceptualisation of the woman and her historical exclusion within discourses of knowledge in philosophy and literature. I propose that within these alternative narratives one cannot clearly engender the mind or the faculty of reason to establish the “logic of dominance” clearly.

If the association of women with the emotion and men with reason is not really clear in these traditions, to what narratives can we then trace the origins of suppression of women? In the final part of my paper, using various original textual sources and historical studies on the status of women, I posit that perhaps the hegemony of men over knowledge has been created through narratives of the woman’s body as banal and/or sexually vulnerable. The body of the man, especially the upper caste body was exalted as sacred and special thereby allowing them access to rituals and practices associated with the oral transmission of knowledge such as the chanting of the Vedas allowed after the investment of sacred thread, etc.

Most women (and even the lower castes) were denied access to these rituals as they were considered incapable of transcending their bodily limitations. References from some texts such as the Manusmŗiti show that the Vedas as the sacred locus of all knowledge were not accessible to women because of the narratives about their bodies. It was not the ‘mind – body’ dualism but the ‘body – banal body’ dualism that caused the logic of domination to help the system of patriarchy to take hold of Indian society.

References and reading suggestions

Plumwood, Val. “Nature Self and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism in Ecological Feminist Philosophies, edited by Karen J. Warren. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Roy, Kumkum. “Introduction.” In The Power of Gender and the Gender of Power: Explorations in Early Indian History. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Roy, Kumkum. “The Other Ḳstetra.” In The Power of Gender and the Gender of Power: Explorations in Early Indian History. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Waren, J. Karen. Editor. “The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism.” In Ecological Feminist Philosophies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.


"Placing and Moving Knowledge: East and West, North and South"
Stephen Bocking, Trent university

In recent years numerous science studies scholars have examined the apparently contradictory character of science.  On the one hand, scientific practices and knowledge are situated in particular places, where they are shaped by specific institutional, political, and social contexts.  On the other hand, these practices and knowledge are mobile: they have the capacity to circulate, and to be considered authoritative beyond the sites of their formation.  For their part, environmental historians have examined the reciprocal relations between science and the environment: how the environment influences scientific activities, and, reciprocally, how activities guided or justified by science have affected the environment.  In my paper I explore ways of combining the insights of science studies and environmental history, so as to construct a better understanding of the historical relations between science and the environment, and of the character of science itself as both situated and mobile.  I draw on a varied literature, including the history of the field sciences and of science in imperial and postcolonial contexts, regional environmental history, and my own work on the history of environmental science and politics.

"Post-Humanist 'Narratives of (non-)Nature' and the Sciences"
Stephen Healy, University of New South Wales
The Scientific Revolution, and complementary rise of modern humanism and thoroughgoing secularisation of western societies, witnessed the emergence of Œnarratives of nature¹ that segregated, what came to be understood as, the domain of nature from that of humans, variously labelled society or culture. This segregation, witnessed in such foundational oppositions as that between Œobjectivity¹ and Œsubjectivity¹ and in the institutional structures of places such as modern universities, define the way relationships between human and non-human things are understood and practiced today. Recent decades have, however, seen a rapid growth in perspectives that dispute these foundational conventions and argue that they underpin many contemporary challenges, most notably those of an environmental character. This paper will outline these developments and explore their implications for the structure and practice of contemporary science.


"God in the Laboratory of the Mind"
Yiftach Fehige, University of Toronto

Given that thought experimentation is part of accepted scientific practice, it is surprising that philosophers of science did not seriously engage with it for a very long time. The situation changed in the 1990s, resulting in a highly intriguing debate over thought experiments. This change happened parallel, yet completely unrelated, to the emergence of  'Science and Religion' as an academic field in its own right. This field is dedicated to the interdisciplinary investigation of the complex relationship between 'science' and 'religion.' Initially, the discussion on thought experiments focused mostly on instances of thought experimentation in physics, philosophy, and mathematics. Other disciplines have since become the subject of interest. Yet, nothing substantial has been said about the role of thought experiments in non-philosophical theology, like Christian theology. In order to deepen the renewed interest in the complex relationship between science and religion, this paper discusses the role of thought experiments in physics and Christian theology. We first look briefly at the reasons for the emergence of 'Science and Religion', 'Christianity and Science' in particular. We then briefly recapitulate the history the inquiry into thought experiments. In a third step, we focus on the work of the physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne. Of particular interest are his views about the role of thought experimentation in quantum physics and Christian theology. In order to determine the actual importance of thought experiments in Christian theology a number of new examples are introduced in a fourth step. In the light of these examples, in a fifth step, we address the question what it is that explains the cognitive efficacy of thought experiments in quantum physics and Christian theology.


"Is Food Natural or Cultural? Body, Society and Nature in Indian Medical Traditions"
V. Sujatha, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi -110067

Food is an extremely crucial factor in health; this is a well known fact. But less noted is the fact how systems of medicine understand both, the physiology and the ecology of food.  On the one hand, we have digestion and metabolism, and the anatomical details of these processes. On the other, we have concerns such as the effect of different kinds of foodstuffs on the lived body and the relation between food, environment and forms of human activity.    Not all systems of medicine deal with all these issues; for instance, in the division of labour between modern disciplines, biomedicine assigns the latter set of questions to ecology and, at times to sociology. The present paper is an attempt to show how medical traditions in India, address this issue. Based on fieldwork in South India, this paper focuses on folk medical knowledge about food and tries to explain how folk knowledge complements the explanation offered in the medical texts. In the process, the paper highlights the significance of the relation between expert and non-expert knowledge of body, food, environment and social habits in the medical traditions in this part of the world.


"Orientalism in Science Studies: Should We Worry?"
Gordon McOuat, Director of Situating Science: Canadian National Cluster for the Humanities and Social Studies of Science.
Professor, University of King’s College

Orientalism will forever be associated with Edward Said’s provocative 1978 book. Simultaneously catalyzing the field of post-colonial studies and polarising a generation, the project’s aim was to critically examine the encounter between so-called “Western” scholarship and “Eastern” thought, by focusing on the former in order to liberate the latter from its procrustean squeeze. Ironically, though, in its attempt to overcome binaries, Orientalism excessively fetishised them, blinding us to nuanced encounters and exchanges across those binaries. We’ve now rightly come to appreciate the porousness of “East/West” and perhaps even suspect the very idea of such a continental divide. But what about science? This paper will follow up on recent encounter literature regarding the circulation of science, focusing on two main natural philosophers/scientists who stand as bookends of the colonial and post-colonial project. James Dinwiddie (1746-1815), first professor of natural philosophy at the College of Fort William, Calcutta brought instruments and itinerant experimental philosophy to the burgeoning early 19th Century colonial enterprise in India.  J.B.S Haldane (1892-1964), maverick geneticist and mathematician, embraced the newly independent India in the 20th Century as a place to fully realise a liberated biopolitical project. This paper will introduce these bookends of the colonial and post-colonial project, and offer some suggestions regarding our own narratives of nature and science, East and West.



"Knowledge Engrafted. Concepts Entangled: Reflections on Radical Break and Discontinuity in 19th Century South Asia"
Dhruv Raina, Jawaharlal Nehru University

The encounter between the encounter between "modern sciences" and the knowledge forms of the sub-continent date back to the beginnings of modernity itself. Scholarship over the last decade has pointed out how the later has been constitutive of the identity of modern science. Both imperial history and postcolonial history of science have frequently played upon the radical break or discontinuity that marks eclipse of the so called traditional knowledge systems of India and the ascent of modern science that came to be institutionally anchored from the period of early to late colonialism. Running against these trends are the interpretive frames of “engraftment” and “entanglement”. Recognizing the limitations of epistemological or osmotic explanations for the circulation of knowledge, theories of engraftment focus upon the  the varied uses traditional or modern  knowledge resources were put to by equally  varied learned communities. On the other hand, the idea of entanglement operates at the level of social theory and interrogates the very categories that structure the histories of science premised on the standard dichotomies such as tradition-modernity, or East-West.This paper reflects on what this historiography means by taking up a couple of mathematical works in English, Hindu and Urdu published between the second half and the end of the nineteenth century.


"On Political Economies of Scientific Knowledge"
Sergio Sismondo, Queen’s University

Among other things, STS examines political economies of knowledge: the production, distribution and consumption of knowledge. Traditional history, philosophy and sociology of science assumed that sciences approximate free markets of knowledge. That is, they assume that, roughly, production, distribution and consumption of knowledge are voluntary, and that they are free from regulation, interference or fraud. However, the sciences do not contain many free knowledge markets, or at least many large ones. The sciences are importantly regulated by cultures and practices, by individual and institutional gatekeepers, and they are responsive to a variety of internal and external demands and forces. This presentation will discuss political economies of knowledge in abstract terms, and then turn to some concrete issues in the production of pharmaceutical knowledge.


"Bhadralok Physics and Indian Science: The Case of Satyendranath Bose"

Somaditya Banerjee, University of British Columbia (student)

This paper examines Indian physicist Satyendranath Bose’s (1874-1974) rationale behind pursuing science in colonial India and what made it possible for him to become so closely involved with modern quantum physics while being a colonial scientist. Bose was part of the first generation of Indian scientists, who was mostly trained in India and worked there, rather than in Europe or North America. I argue that emergent narratives of anticolonial nationalism in twentieth-century India were inextricably interwoven with conceptions of scientism and bhadralok cosmopolitanism , and that scientists like Bose saw their work as part of the nationalist agenda of creating indigenous bhadralok modernity.

"The Sense of Belonging: The Changing Historiography of Science, Technology and Nation, East, West and In-Between"
David P. Miller, University of New South Wales
This paper examines the evolution of approaches to the senses in which science and technology might 'belong' to Nation. It concentrates on developing the contrast between diffusionist approaches to scientific and technological contact between nations, East and West, and what in the light of recent work (that of Kapil Raj in particular) we might call 'relocationist' approaches. The latter place great emphasis upon the co-construction of science in the contact zone rather than its production in one place and then its transfer to another. Although it was developed primarily as applied to sciences of the open air I examine the possibilities of applying the relocationist approach to technological co-production normally studied as a process of 'technology transfer'. I use the example of steam engine technology in China and India to work these ideas through.