Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 14, No 3 (2018)

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The Grand Titration: Revisiting the Work of Joseph Needham to Address Ethnocentrism in Contemporary Philosophy and Society

Aaron Grinter

Abstract


Understanding different cultures has long been a hurdle for philosophy. In 1954, Joseph Needham commenced the most substantial literary example of such an undertaking, titled Science and Civilisation in China. The multi-volume historiography (currently 25 books) represents an awe-inspiring triumph of painstaking scholarship and remains one of the most significant western efforts to document Chinese thought to date, systematically detailing 25 centuries of Chinese discovery in mathematics, physics, chemistry, technology, medicine, and metaphysics. As well as documenting Chinese history, his magnum opus asks a major question: “Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses… with implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West?” Needham sought to uncover why, despite centuries of prolific discovery, China was overtaken by the west and, consequently, why Asian thought is seen to be antiquated in comparison? Through answering this question, Needham's goal was a better understanding of Chinese language, culture, religion, and philosophy, with the hope of better understanding Western culture in turn. To this extent, Needham was immensely successful, and the implications have an immense potential for philosophy today. With this in mind, this article has two aims, firstly to recapitulate Needham's work in order to bring his valuable insight back to the attention of contemporary philosophy. Secondly, the article aims to assess if the immense potential of Needham's cross-cultural analysis can be used to overcome current problems stemming from the ubiquitous reach of Western culture. Even though Needham himself was also deeply entrenched in European thought, and overcoming this bias was never his explicit aim, he nonetheless constructed a powerful and prolific exchange between diverse cultures. With the spread of neo-liberalism and the abuse of democratic systems, there has been a resulting increase in political disempowerment, economic inequality and environment devastation, thus this article will analyse whether such a dialectic of diverse cultures can lead to the construction of a post-Eurocentric philosophy with a greater appreciation for the biosphere.

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