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Reorienting comparative studies of intellectual histories

Posted 2/1/2016

Traditional comparative studies of premodern intellectual histories have one fixed component: a so-called 'Western' society/culture/continent, be it ancient Greece, medieval Latin Europe, early modern Europe or "The WEST". Per se, nothing speaks against choosing "Europe" as the comparative Other. What devaluates such comparisons is their one-sidedness plus the presuppositions that form the basic platform for later comparative results and judgments. Looking for other possibilities to compare premodern knowledge cultures, I am now engaged in building a new research project on the material cultures of the heavens in Asia and North Africa together with Dagmar Schäfer, a sinologist, historian of science and technology and the managing director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. The idea is to collect images of the heavens as a whole or in their parts: the Universe, the Zodiac, divinities, angels, spirits, superhuman forces, clouds, rainbows, winds, the elements, forces, energy and so forth. We wish to study the material forms, cultural meanings, practical use and theoretical explanations  of such images across Asian and North African societies and cultures. Our goal is to determine their particularities, to trace interconnections between them and thus deduce contacts between different communities in Asia and North Africa. It will perhaps even be possible to locate instances of dialogue and exchange as well as substantive difference. Our first insight is: the ancient Babylonian zodiac was not only transferred to ancient Greece and from there Rome, the Latin Middle Ages and Islamicate societies. It came, probably through Greek successors of Alexander's armed forces, to India, where it was adopted by Buddhist monks and adapted to their iconography. With the Buddhists the Babylonian zodiac moved further East to Japan in the 10th century, resurfacing in tombs built during the Sung and Liao dynasties in the 11th and 12th centuries in China. This transfer and transformation also included the replacement of the standard equal-armed balance for Libra by the Roman steelyard, the unequal-armed balance with one or more counterweights and scales. This shift is all the more surprising as there is no evidence that the steelyard was ever used on market places East of Iran.