In the preface to Science in Traditional China Needham writes: ..
The engagement with India in Joseph Needham's historiography of China
Critics who saw in Needham an exaggerated attempt to rehabilitate Chinese science ignored his ultimate reaffirmation of modern science as uniquely Western--Needham did not dispute the radical break between the scientific and nonscientific, but only the manner in which the boundary was drawn. For Needham, this break derived directly from accounts which asserted a radical divide in the West between the ancient and modern by appending to "science" the even more amorphous term "modern" (14-16): "When we say that modern science developed only in Western Europe at the time of Galileo in the late Renaissance, we mean surely that there and then alone there developed the fundamental bases of the structure of the natural sciences as we have them today, namely the application of mathematical hypotheses to Nature, the full understanding and use of the experimental method, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, the geometrisation of space, and the acceptance of the mechanical model of reality" (14-15). And indeed Needham's central concern is this supplemental term "modern": "Hypotheses of primitive or medieval type distinguish themselves quite clearly from those of modern type. Their intrinsic and essential vagueness always made them incapable of proof or disproof, and they were prone to combine in fanciful systems of gnostic correlation. In so far as numerical figures entered into them, numbers were manipulated in forms of `numerology' or number-mysticism constructed , not employed as the stuff of quantitative measurements compared " (15). Thus against schemes that posited a radical difference between civilizations East and West, Needham insisted on preserving the uniqueness of modern Western science by claiming the premodern world--including China and Greece--"must be thought of as a whole" (16); the radical break for Needham was the boundary between the modern and the primitive.
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It was to disprove such claims that Needham began his , which soon developed into a multivolume series documenting the developments in China in chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, physics, and other sciences. Needham too shared the assumption that civilizations were to be a fundamental starting point in studies of the history of science: in place of science versus non-science, he offered his own set of four major contrasts between China and the West (organic versus mechanical philosophies, algebra versus Euclidean geometry, wave versus particle theories, and practical versus theoretical orientations); his "grand titration" was to redistribute credit for scientific discoveries among civilizations; he proposed to restore for China its pride, correcting its slighting by making it an equal contributor among the tributaries that flowed into the river of modern science; ultimately, he sought to discover the social and economic reasons that Chinese civilization was more advanced than the West before the sixteenth century and later fell behind. Needham's project was from its inception formulated not as one component of, but rather in opposition to mainstream history of science which asserted that science was unique to Western civilization. Yet Needham's project adopted many of the features of these histories of [Western] science of the period: against catalogues of scientific achievements claimed for the glory of the West, he offered achievements now claimed for the Chinese; against exaggerated claims of Western contributions to other civilizations, Needham asserted Chinese influence where the evidence was incomplete.