Project (2017-)

The Origin of Theoretical Science in Ancient China

While all ancient societies have produced artifacts from which one can infer the actions and the knowledge associated with them, not many ancient societies have witnessed an emergence of theoretical knowledge resulting from reflections on practical and elementary experiences. Of particular interest are experiences related to orientation in space and time and the handling of cultural artifacts, such as the use of mechanical and optical devices. While such reflections are well known in ancient Greek society, a striking parallel case in Chinese antiquity is much less well known. Roughly simultaneously to the writings of Aristotle, Euclid, and Archimedes, but probably independent of them, there is one particular document, the so-called Mohist Canon, a Chinese source from around 300 BCE contained in the Mohist corpus, that documents this type of reflection.

A book on Theoretical Knowledge in the "Mohist Canon" is nearing completion (William G. Boltz, Matthias Schemmel). It contains a new annotated English translation of the 57 sections of this corpus that deal with matters of mechanics, optics, and spatial relations. It further contains commentaries and interpretative chapters, in particular positioning the Mohist Canon in the wider context of a global long-term history of knowledge.

Under such a perspective, later Mohist science can be viewed as an independent emergence of a particular type of theoretical knowledge, and by way of comparison with the Greek case, defining characteristics of the rise of theoretical science can be distinguished from contingent ones. Thus, an example for a cross-cultural aspect of these early instances of theoretical reflection consists in the shared interest in paradoxical mechanical or optical phenomena. At the same time, the discursive backgrounds on which the paradoxes are resolved differ widely, yielding distinct patterns of explanation and the emergence of diverging theoretical terms.