Announcement: On New FSTC Historiography

1.     Introduction

The 1001 Inventions exhibition and accompanying literature and film have met with success and have been very popular. The Foundation for Science, Technology, and Civilisation (FSTC) now seeks to build on this success and improve its historiographical approach, use of primary and secondary sources and tighten the focus on science.

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1st July 2015


2.     Historiographical approach

FSTC has, in some of its publication, followed a traditional approach to the history of science, engineering and medicine in which knowledge was seen as progressing in a linear manner through continuous and cumulative advances that lead up to today’s situation. Modern historians view the exchange of ideas between different civilisations as more of multifaceted process of cross-pollination that cannot be restricted to such linear progression.

FSTC and its subsidiaries are implementing an historiographical approach that is informed more consistently by modern scholarship. The approach seeks to understand past societies on their own terms, and not view them through the lens of modern concerns. It will approach the history of science, technology and medicine as an epistemic system that is socially construed. It will consider this system on its own terms, and highlight innovations, developments, debates that are interesting and intriguing in their own right, rather than from just a modern perspective. It will also pay greater attention to the historical context in which these debates and developments unfold. It is in this sense that FSTC will highlight the achievements of the Arabo-Islamic civilisation and point out significant innovations. More attention will also be given to the contribution of other non-European cultures such as Chinese and Indian.

3.     Use of Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary sources—critically established and philologically interpreted—will underpin all content; in other words, philology and historical criticism will consistently provide the interpretative framework in which to analyse the primary sources. This applies to both texts and visual representations.

The expert opinions of modern professional historians of science, technology and medicine will be fundamental to the generation of FSTC content, before passing to media producers and science public writers. The emphasis will be to rely on publications in excellent peer-reviewed journals, or by academic and commercial presses that have a track record for high-quality peer review. FSTC will also favour relatively recent work, thus moving to the cutting edge of scholarship.

4.     Shared Heritage

FSTC intends to further explore the scientific cultural interactions between the Muslim world, India and China, and bring to the public domain informative stories following the similar outreach initiatives to those about interactions with Greek civilization. 

The Arabo-Islamic medical, scientific, and philosophical tradition was an integral part of what some call the Western or European civilisation. They are generically linked in that scientists, philosophers and physicians writing in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, or Syriac all partook in the same discourse that transcended country and creed. They often referred to the same authorities, be it Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates or Galen; or Avicenna in the later tradition. Alain de Libera poignantly spoke about a ‘forgotten heritage’ when referring to the Arabo-Islamic contribution to the history of philosophy in the West, and one could equally speak of a forgotten heritage regarding science, technology and medicine. The multifaceted exchange of ideas between the different shores of the Mediterranean is a potent testament to the dynamism and the thirst for knowledge in the East and in the West. It is for this reason that Roger Bacon advocated the study not only of Latin and Greek, but also Hebrew and Arabic in thirteenth-century England, as many of the texts on philosophy, science and medicine were written in these languages.

5.     Summary

The Foundation aims to bring the best scholarship to a much wider audience, and thus to achieve two main goals:

  1. To show that the scientific tradition of non-European cultures is both interesting in its own right and innovative in numerous ways.
  2. To demonstrate that this heritage is very much part of the medieval legacy of ‘Western’ science as it developed in the universities of Europe during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period.

The new approach highlights instances where the medieval Islamic tradition – although drawing on Greek ideas – went new ways by recognizing new phenomena, developing new applications, and progressing methodologically and epistemologically. Importantly, however, the yardstick by which we measure innovations will not just be whether or not modern science recognises its usefulness or effectiveness, but they will also be judged on their own merits in the context of their time.

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