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Golden Ages: Universal Histories and the Origins of Science

General Programming

Cosponsors
  • Columbia University Seminars
  • Department of History
  • Center for International History
  • Blinken European Institute
  • Middle East Institute
  • Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Notes
  • Free and open to the public
  • No registration necessary
  • First come, first seated
  • Photo ID required for entry
View of Delphi with a Procession by Claude Lorrain, painting

The idea of a Golden Age is as old as history itself. Many religious and dynastic communities of the past constructed visions of a prelapsarian world. Often times this was central to authorizing the very nature of their own knowledge-claims. As early as the 9th century, for instance, medieval writers and translators in the Abbasid empire considered the sciences of the Ancients – from the Egyptians and Babylonians to the Indians and Greeks – to have been received from some universal, Arcadian past. That was one way of condoning their own translations, and their creative philosophical and linguistic borrowings from foreign texts.

Yet this concept was critically refashioned in the 18th century and after, helping to reshape conceptions of science both within Europe and outside it. The eighteenth century in particular gave rise to new narratives of progress, and helped to rewrite sacred universal histories in Europe themselves. It also gave rise to a new discourse on the power of invention and industry. Saint-Simon and Comte, for instance, constructed universal narratives of science of just this kind. Past temporal and sacral discourses were thus unraveled in light of a new sense of the present.

Just as Europeans began to deliberate the rise of their own Golden Age(s), between the Ancient Greeks, on the one hand, and the "Scientific Revolution" on the other, so too did they also began to construct narratives for the demise of other Golden Ages, such as the Arabic or Islamic, Sanskrit or Buddhist “Golden Ages.” Yet, outside Europe, recovering one’s ancient past also became increasingly important for shoring up one’s place in the new order of civilizational progress. Finding one’s past in the present served as the ultimate means of endorsing what it meant to become modern: namely to return to one’s true origins. European imperialism only intensified this trend, and there were numerous variations upon it.

While Arabic, Turkish, Chinese and Sanskrit scholars constructed their own narratives of civilizational rise and decline, often disrupting Enlightenment narratives of universal history, they typically still cast European science and technology as the final eschaton of civilizational knowledge. This led to a common dilemma. Yet on the question of why these former civilizations had declined, there was vast disagreement. In place of arguments about the lack of a rationalist tradition, ideas of causation or empirical methods of deduction or historical verification, came counter-narratives of moral decline or communal corruption. In this sense, Golden Age narratives could serve as reworked Fall stories on a number of different registers.

Much of the historiography of science can itself be understood as part of the search for a narrative of universal history. As in the past, twentieth century versions of this story saw new narratives come together both for the understanding of Europe’s place in history, and for the contributions of other civilizations or cultures. Take the example of Alexander Koyré who helped to popularize the term "Scientific Revolution" in the late 1930s while supervising Egyptian Ph.D. students in Cairo working on their own recasting of a narrative of the Muslim Golden Age. Indeed, the very beginnings of the professional history of science are indebted to the search for universal narratives. Both George Sarton and, later, Joseph Needham, for instance, helped to cast new narratives for the history of science as forces for the new internationalist humanism and as part of the ecumenical march of progress.

Program

time9:30am EDT

Coffee

time10:00am - 11:30am EDT

Internationalism
“George Sarton, the Virtues of Print, and the Origins of Progress”

Alex Csiszar

Assistant Professor of the History of Science

Harvard University

“Diplomacy and Historiography: Andrew Dickson White"

Geert Somsen

Senior Lecturer

Maastricht University

Discussant

Steven Shapin

Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science

Harvard University

time11:45am - 12:30pm EDT

Cold War Universalism
“Historiography of Chinese Science in 20th-Century China: Science, Nation, and Civilization”

Fa-ti Fan

Associate Professor

Binghamton University

“Benjamin Franklin's 18th and 20th Century Enlightenments"

James Delbourgo

Associate Professor: History of Science and Atlantic World

Rutgers University

Discussant

Samuel Moyn

Professor of Law

Harvard University

time12:30am EDT

Lunch

time9:30am EDT

Welcoming Remarks by Marwa Elsharkry

time9:45am - 11:15am EDT

Oblivion and Progress
“Post-Diluvian Oblivion”

Tamara Griggs

Research Scholar

Harvard University

“'The Golden Age is Before Us': Saint-Simon and the Natural History of Science”

John Tresch

Associate Professor, History and Sociology of Science

University of Pennsylvania

Discussant

Pamela H. Smith

Seth Low Professor of History

Columbia University

time11:30am - 1:00pm EDT

Invention and Industry
“Pastoral Productivity: Images of Industry and the Dutch Golden Age”

Lissa Roberts

Development of Science and Technology

University of Twente

"Invention, Mere Imitation and Virtuous Emulation in the Eighteenth Century”

Matthew L. Jones

James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization

Columbia University

Discussant

Harold Cook

John F. Nickoll Professor of History

Brown University

time1:00pm EDT

Lunch

time2:00pm - 3:45pm EDT

The Problem of Decline
“Beyond the Golden Age of Arabic Science”

George Saliba

Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science

Columbia University

“On the Global Loop of Scientific Golden Age (and Decline) Narrative for Muslim Societies”

Cemil Aydin

Associate Professor of History

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“Architecture, Modernity, and Sacrality in India”

Michael S. Dodson

Associate Professor of History

Indiana University, Bloomington

Discussant

Projit Mukharji

Assistant Professor of the History and Sociology of Science

University of Pennsylvania

time4:00pm - 5:30pm EDT

Knowledge in China
“Changing Orientations: Perceptions of the Nexus between Knowledge and Antiquity in China, 1670-1930”

Ori Sela

Lecturer of East Asian Studies

Tel Aviv University

“Buddhist Promotion of Science-as-Revolution in post May Fourth China”

Erik Hammerstrom

Department of Religion

Pacific Lutheran University

Discussant

Eugenia Lean

Professor of East Asian Language-Culture

Columbia University

Participants
  • Cemil Aydin Associate Professor of History University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • Harold Cook John F. Nickoll Professor of History Brown University
  • Alex Csiszar Assistant Professor of the History of Science Harvard University
  • James Delbourgo Associate Professor: History of Science and Atlantic World Rutgers University
  • Michael S. Dodson Associate Professor of History Indiana University, Bloomington
  • Marwa Elshakry Associate Professor of History Columbia University
  • Fa-ti Fan Associate Professor Binghamton University
  • Tamara Griggs Research Scholar Harvard University
  • Erik Hammerstrom Department of Religion Pacific Lutheran University
  • Matthew L. Jones James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization Columbia University
  • Eugenia Lean Professor of East Asian Language-Culture Columbia University
  • Samuel Moyn Professor of Law Harvard University
  • Projit Mukharji Assistant Professor of the History and Sociology of Science University of Pennsylvania
  • Lissa Roberts Development of Science and Technology University of Twente
  • George Saliba Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science Columbia University
  • Ori Sela Lecturer of East Asian Studies Tel Aviv University
  • Steven Shapin Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science Harvard University
  • Pamela H. Smith Seth Low Professor of History Columbia University
  • Geert Somsen Senior Lecturer Maastricht University
  • John Tresch Associate Professor, History and Sociology of Science University of Pennsylvania