The Scientific Revolution in Global History

The Scientific Revolution is a massive anomaly for anti-Eurocentric, anti-Western theorists.

On the one hand, it was one of the most important advances in the history of the world. For the first time there began, and still continues, a substantial growth in real knowledge.

On the other hand, the Scientific Revolution was thoroughly Eurocentric. It was created by Europeans. It occurred in Europe. It was centered upon Europe.

How to handle an incongruity like this? Here are a few strategies for anti-Eurocentrics trying to make it seem less anomalous:

Strategy One: Ignore it completely. The strategy here is “if we don’t mention it perhaps the inconsistency will somehow disappear by itself.”

This I am tempted to call the Pomeranz gambit: his famous book The Great Divergence comparing England and China omitted to describe how one had a revolution in knowledge and the other did not.

Strategy Two: Deny that a revolution happened. The strategy here is “if we portray it as just one step in a long process from the dawn of history to the present, then we can point to the many premodern contributions of peoples across Eurasia (if not quite the whole world) to producing knowledge. At least, they produced some kind of thing we could generously call knowledge even if it was not quite up to the standards of the knowledge yielded by so-called modern so-called science.”

I am tempted to call this the Goody gambit: Jack Goody wrote a series of books denying everything from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution were actually any big deal at all.

Patrick O’Brien, a strong proponent of global history, tries this denial strategy by calling the Scientific Revolution a “Scientific Revolution” in very scary scare quotes. (In a long, not very lucidly titled or written, but open-access article in Journal of Global History.)

Strategy Three: Talk down the existing historiography on the subject as “Eurocentric and provincial”. Here the strategy is to try and delegitimize the vast majority of scholarly inquiry on the subject. Never mind that narratives of the Scientific Revolution should be centered upon Europe because the Revolution itself was centered upon Europe.

I don’t know what to call this gambit since so many choose to employ it. O’Brien also tries this delegitimizing strategy.

Strategy Four: Try to talk down the Western origins and sources of the Revolution and try to talk up any non-Western antecedents or influences one can find. The strategy here is: “try to find any non-Westerners who might have had a hand in important innovations pioneered by the West. If they contributed, even if only by the West borrowing something, then the West cannot take credit.”

Again, the gambit is so common, it is hard to find a name for it.

O’Brien also tries this strategy of casting about looking for non-Western involvement. First move is to downplay ancient Greece and medieval Christianity as precursors and influences (contra the most reasonable interpretation of how it arose). The second move is to talk up the influence on Europe of Arab-Islamic science (never minding that Europeans had learned what there was to be learned from that quarter long before).

So, using just a few simple strategies the anomaly is successfully de-anomalified! Let the Paradigm continue to reign!

(Hat-tip to RD.)


Patrick O’Brien (2013). Historical foundations for a global perspective on the emergence of a western European regime for the discovery, development, and diffusion of useful and reliable knowledge. Journal of Global History, 8, pp 1-24. doi:10.1017/S1740022813000028.


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One response to “The Scientific Revolution in Global History

  1. Anonymous

    I highly recommend a book called “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond. The book is a lengthily explanation of the phenomena mentioned in this post. Its informative in its efforts to explain why some societies developed to such advanced levels, while others stayed “primitive”. Very much worth the read.

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