The Grand Question: The Rise Of The West
Joseph Needham formulated the
central interrogation which was to be dubbed after him "the Grand Question":
"Why, then, did modern science, as opposed to ancient and medieval
science (with all that modern science implied in terms of political
dominance), develop only in the Western world?"
(The Grand Titration, Science and Society in East and West, p.11).
The Grander Question:
The Rise, Fall and Rise Of The West plus the falls and rises
of the Middle East, India, China, Central America...
The Grand Question looks pretty vast. In fact, the issue at stake is
even larger, much larger.
One must "not only" explain the astonishing success of the West
in science & technology over the last centuries. One should also
explain the astonishing regression of the West from 300 to 1100
(the Dark Ages), and its nonetheless amazing stagnation in the
And what about the Greek miracle? It needs an explanation as well:
why did it start, why did it go on for four centuries, and why did
it stop? Thus the mystery to unravel, the grander question,
is, to put it shortly, the "rise-and-fall-and-rise" of the West.
In the same vein, a good theory should be able to shed light over
the question of why Chinese science and culture flourished in
Antiquity (Spring&Autumn and Warring States periods), then receded
after 200, then flourished again after +200 for a few centuries,
then crumbled around +1300, to take off again around 1890.
To put it shortly, one has to explain the rise-and-fall-and-rise
of the West, as well as the rise-and-fall-and-rise-and-fall-and-rise
of China... And the similar changes observed along the course
of history in India, the Middle East, the Mesoamerican civilizations...
We shall call this the "Grander Question".
Ever grander questions
And there are other dimensions of flourishing of civilization
to account for; not only scientific and technological, but as well
artistic and social, even if "technological creativity was
at the very base of the rise of the West", as Joel Mokyr puts it
(The Lever of Riches, p.vii).
How is it that literature, music, painting underwent such
flourishings, during both the Greek and the European miracles?
And in the Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese etc. miracle periods?
Are science and the arts correlated, in some way? Or are they
proceeding from the same causes?
The Need for a Grander Answer
In the end, what is needed is a Grander Answer to a Grander Question:
Why does a civilization flourish, why does it recede? The issue is
naturally of daunting difficulty, due to the sheer mass of information
that the historian has to manage.
Let's emphasize once again that there is much more to it than just the
Grand Question of the West-Rest divergence after the XIVth century.
Any theory willing to explain the rise of the West in the last centuries
must in the end, if it is to be taken seriously, be able to explain
all rises and falls of the West as well as the rises and
falls of other civilizations. There are indeed many such mind-boggling
evolutions throughout history.
In particular, periods of stagnation or decline will become nice testing
grounds for candidate theories of the evolution of civilizations
instead of being embarrassing exceptions like they are in the realm of
usual linear-progress view of history.
"Western technological superiority has deep historical roots,
and can only be understood if at all by an analysis
that is willing to look back centuries, even millenia".
(Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches, p.vii)