Review article about Le Secret de l'Occident by Lewis Pyenson, published in December 1999 in Isis, the journal of the History of Science Society (Isis, vol 90, no4, Dec 99, pp.787-788). The hyperlinks lead to my reactions and comments.
Typed Aug 00. Reference.
Other article by Lewis Pyenson on this site.
The Secret of the West

Book Reviews: David Cosandey. Le secret de l'Occident: du miracle passé au marasme présent. 469pp., figs., tables, bibl., Paris: Arléa, 1997. Fr 175 (paper).

The secret behind the rise of science and technology in Western Europe, David Cosandey contends in this engaging survey, is a tradition of competition among stable, independent, and prosperous political entities (a méreuporie) located on a relatively large land mass with a highly articulated coastline. Land wars facilitate competition and encourage the transmission of new technologies. Ready access to the high seas allows for large-scale commerce, on which prosperity and invention depend.

Cosandey pursues this thesis relentlessly, from antiquity to the present, invoking a great deal of recent scholarship in French, English, and German. He elaborates the importance of river valleys and sea-borne commerce. He revisits many features of the usual, Eurocentric story: the flowering of Hellenic civilizations, the stalemate of the Islamic Mediterranean, and the relative poverty of science and technology in pre-Columbian America are all measured by his scale. The form of the argument recalls Scholastic disputes. Africa, for instance, does not enjoy a sufficiently articulated coastline (as calculated by its fractal dimensions according to Cosandey's technique of thalassographie) for sustained innovation in science and technology (pp. 312-313). When the coastline and other conditions are present and science absent, Cosandey attributes the absence to a major deficiency: no science in the Arctic because it is too cold; no science in the eastern part of aboriginal North America because the continent is too vast.

In the discipline of the history of science, theses are children of their era. Paul Tannery's triumphalist account of the Western world and its origins in classical antiquity emerged at the high-water mark of European imperialism; the social-constructivist view of science as an expression of human relations became popular when relativism swept through liberal arts colleges. In Le secret de l'Occident, Cosandey has given us a thesis for the 1990s. Science (whose unchanging disciplines rise and fall together across the ages) is not fundamentally distinguishable from technology. Science emerges when the unfettered activity of merchants releases an innate pressure; once the bottle is uncorked, innovation spreads through war. At its origin, university learning is ascribable to lawyers, medicine enters the picture for its commercial appeal (p.125). A typical application of Cosandey's premises is the decline of science in fifteenth-century China: "No longer needing to maximize its revenues for sustaining war against powers that were equal in force, the Universal State could allow itself to jeopardize the mercantile class, even to persecute it. That class became useless, or dangerous because of its dynamism and its financial power" (p.248). From this point of view, the MBA is the summum of higher learning.

Charles Gillispie has recently reminded us, "One of the mercies of being a historian instead of a practitioner of a more rigorous discipline is that somehow our books turn out to be better than our theories" (Technology and Culture, 1998, 39:742). David Cosandey has provided a rare exception, a history whose thesis matches its marshaling of evidence. His honest and straightforward narrative (dedicated to the memory of Arthur Koestler and Denis de Rougemont) merits a place in methods seminars. After having plowed through Sandra Harding, Bruno Latour, and Martin Bernal, students would receive Le secret de l'Occident as a tonic.


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