would we know one if we saw one

Thu, 9 Jun 1994 00:18:33 EDT

preoccupation of the Franciscans, was as of the early fourteenth century
still about 200 years behind China in mathematics, metallurgy, chemistry,
just for starters. [As promised, I am falling asleep, pardon deteriorating
syntax.] Empirical study of captive demons was accorded epistemological
status quite equal to optics, say. The fructifying impact of translations
of Greek and Arab texts from the Arabic in Toledo was just beginning to
permeate the intellectual climate, which underwent a sharp turn toward
the repressive after the death of St Thomas Aquinas.

These European protoscientists commenced the empirical-experimental
component of the Western Tradition, which at this time was an anachronism,
the West having not socially constructed itself. And wouldn't until 1750
or so, actually. The commitment to the empirical-experimental was combined
with training in formal logic (trivium and quadrivium) as canonically laid
down in antiquity; while at this very time there was being erected the
capstone of the medieval edifice of scholastic theology and systematic
metaphysics. (Contemporary with analogous achievements in Islam and neo-
Confucianism in China.)

In China, the Confucians monopolized both formal education and habits
of well-mannered reasonableness with associated ritual behavior. Even during
the peak of Buddhist and Daoist permeation of Chinese society, Confucians
continued to write the histories, unthinkable in Europe (where this was
relegated to monastic chroniclers, each successive one reinventing the trade
of Historian). In China, empirical-experimental practice was the monopoly
of Daoists, who aggregated mystical illumination with immersion in the
phenomenal world. The result was a science which, had it been given a chance
to develop, which it wasn't for the same reason the economy regressed, that
is, social collapse brought on by Bubonic Plague, might have developed a
fully comparable science, but one we would have had as much difficulty
recognizing as such: Much the same way we cannot recognize Chinese protocapi-
talism for what it was, and that was a commercial and industrial market
economy, using paper currency, far more advanced than Europe before the
plague, and difficult to recognize for the achievement it was given European
preconceptions as to what protocapitalism normatively should have been.

Had mesamericans more time, a hell of a lot more time, they might have
developed something still more alien, to us, than the Chinese achievements
were to the Europeans. What else? People are equally smart everywhere, right?

Daniel A. Foss