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    hack bullshit..., 2012-01-24 09:44:51 | Main | in life as in death..., 2012-03-01 11:29:53

    stones, levers, glass houses, etc.:

    Toby Huff (Professor Emeritus, UMass Dartmouth) reviewed rather negatively, a while back, a book on Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, by George Saliba (Professor, Columbia University). Recently coming across the former's censure I thought I'd pick the latter up from the library. It's a slim but dense little volume, 255 pages ex footnotes, pretty fascinating. Reading it, Huff's review becomes retrospectively more and more bizarre.

    The central thesis, which Huff articulates poorly if at all, is that the Abbasid translation movement had it's beginnings in the linguistic and monetary reforms of the 5th Umayyad Caliph, which created an extremely competitive and well endowed environment between Persian, Syriac, Arab, et.al., bureaucrats that fostered the subsequent Abbasid endeavor, which it is argued helps explain various dynamics and whatnot therein. There's a lot to be said about that, but I just want to quickly comment on two of Huff's complaints:

    Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance will disappoint a reader seeking a subtle, probing discussion of Islamic thought and Greek philosophy, or an understanding of how these two worlds came together. One significant defect is the author's reluctance to discuss the religious affiliations of his protagonists. Astonishingly, he makes no mention of "Muslims" in the book, nor of Christians or Jews.

    Confessional identity is not only somewhat besides the point of the book -- which granted devotes most of the reader's time to probing the subtleties of equants, eccentrics, and epicycles -- but the complaint is categorically false. The demographic make up of the class of functionaries in question is discussed extensively in the first two chapters, e.g. on p.56, "the arabization of the diwan seems to have led to the loss of the administrative jobs that were held by Persian and Greek speakers of the empire, who were mostly either Zoroastrian or Christian". There's seven other "mentions" of Christians, about the same as for Muslims. I don't know why that's important but I'm told on good authority that it is. A brief perusal of Toby Huff's recent book on the same general topic, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective reveals zero "mentions" of Jews or Zoroastrians, but a great deal about Jesuits, whatever this strange scoring method is supposed to reveal to us.

    Huff continues:

    All the participants engaged with science and natural philosophy are anachronistically called "scientists" (a term not invented until the nineteenth century). That there is no Arabic word for "scientist," nor indeed for science itself other than ‘ilm (knowledge), raises the fundamental question of how one can speak of "scientists" everywhere when the basic terms are absent in Arabic.

    I'm not going to say anything about how petulant and nitpicking this complaint is, seemingly to fill the word count of a non-responsive review, I'm just going to give you every example available of these two scholars committing this grievous sin of calling some ancient philosopher or physician a "scientist". Let the heavens sort out who has the greater responsibility to address this "fundamental question":

    Islamic Science, Saliba:

    1. p.56 "the famous scientist, Abu al-Wafa al-Buzjani (d.998)"
    2. p.92 "Muhammad b. Musa b. Shakir (d.873), who was not only one of the major patrons of the translation of Greek scientific and philosophical texts, but was also himself a scientist in his own right."
    3. p.115 "The next century witnessed the production of the prolific scientist Baha al-Din al-Amili (d.1622)"

    To say the least, Saliba discusses more than just three, er, "participants engaged with science and natural philosophy", and the text is littered abundantly with discussion of the Arabic terms used for this or that field of study.

    Intellectual Curiousity, Huff:

    1. p.79 "Johannes Schreck [b.1576]...was an outstanding scientist"
    2. p.100 "The other leading missionary scientist besides Schreck was Giocomo Rho, who died in 1638."
    3. p.205 "Antoni van Leeuwenhoek [b.1632] did not get everything right, nor should we expect any scientist to do so in the early stages of investigation"
    4. p.216 "one of Galileo's students, an accomplished scientist in his own right"
    5. And last, but not least, p.122, "That was the age of such outstanding scholar-scientists as al-Biruni, Ibn Sina, and Ibn al-Haytham." "Scientists" everywhere!

    It is perhaps worth pointing out that Huff was writing that book when he wrote that review. I for one find it easy to ignore the occasional chronological inconsistency, especially when it serves brevity, but only if it's not coming from somebody who gets up on his high horse anytime a foreign language adapts an old word to a new purpose, cleverly evading anachronism, instead of bandying about neologisms.


:: posted by buermann @ 2012-02-02 02:00:53 CST | link





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