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Practice and Cultures of Mathematics

Questioning the Concepts of Culture, Diversity and Comparison in the History and Philosophy of Science
Paris, France
11 July 2015


Position Statements of Panelists

Karine Chemla, Université Paris 7/CNRS (France): I begin by outlining some ways in which in the past historians of science have discussed "cultural diversity" and which part this has played in their practice of historiography of science. Emphasis placed on cultural diversity, I suggest, has often been correlated with an emphasis on features distinguishing between different social groups in a given society. Finally, I will outline how diversity of scientific practice could be useful in HPS in the present day.

Irfan Habib, National University of Educational Planning and Administration (India): During the past few decades historians and philosophers of science have seriously engaged with the Eurocentric nature of modern science. Needhamian historiographical intervention is one major attempt to see science as culturally diverse and not exclusively European . However there is a vibrant scholarship within Islamic tradition which questions Eurocentrism with their alternative essentialism. I will try to question this through the writings of two major Indian scholars of the twentieth century.

Kenji Ito, The Graduate University for Advanced Studies (Japan): Informants sometimes present their own cultures to researchers from outside as something exotic and essentially different from other cultures. I call this tendency "self-Orientalism." This causes a problem to those who study scientific cultures because their informants might be exaggerating and essentializing  their scientific cultures. This talk will discuss this methodological problem by examining a few examples of self-Orientalism in writings of some Japanese scientists.

Lei Hsiang-Lin, Academia Sinica (Taiwan): I would like to suggest that viewing science as culture can help make the history of techno-science and medicine into a crucial tool for understanding the modern transformation of East Asia. I will provide two examples to show how this approach can reveal some important "cultural" transformations that remain invisible to scholars if they are conceived narrowly as science and medicine.

Benedikt Löwe, Universiteit van Amsterdam (The Netherlands) & Universität Hamburg (Germany): It is one of the convictions of the scientific community (and of the funding agencies) that diversity is a good thing for research training: we send students and junior researchers abroad, and many of the funding instruments highlight the values of mobility for the development of future researchers. A proper analysis of the notion of "diversity" and an analysis of the underlying value systems is needed to clarify the status of convictions like the one about the benefits of diversity and mobility.

Takashi Nishiyama, State University of New York, Brockport (USA): After surveying major works in the history of technology, this talk will argue for the importance of using gender as a way of engaging in comparative history across different units of study. More specifically, I will briefly present different meanings attached to suicide, gender, and technology in the military forces of the Soviet Union, Germany, and Japan during World War II, exploring ways to connect comparative history with counter-factual history to better understand the (inter)national dimension of technology, culture, and war.

Lisa Raphals, University of California, Riverside (USA): The prospect of making a statement on issues of comparative history is a challenge and an opportunity. As someone who has centered an entire career on comparativism, I propose to review some of the achievements and benefits and costs and dangers of comparative history, in both its intellectual and social contexts. Comparativism has advanced to the point where we do not need to spend half our time justifying its existence. We can see the benefits of "provincializing" our primary area of study in many areas, including the history of medicine, mathematics, philosophy and mantic practices. But we face real drawbacks and dangers. One is the very real difficulties in securing employment for scholars who are centrally comparativists. The other is in our ability to train students in an age of increasing strictures on the humanities.

Dagmar Schaefer, University of Manchester (England):

Justin Smith, Université Paris 7/CNRS (France): In my brief presentation I will focus on the global political context of the emergence of debates in the 19th century concerning the existence or non-existence of non-Western philosophy. I will begin by considering some earlier texts, including works by Leibniz, Brucker, and Lafitau, in which philosophy is treated as part of the common 'patrimoine' of humanity. This maximally liberal approach fell victim in the 19th century to what may be called the 'Europeanization of philosophy', spearheaded notably by G. W. F. Hegel in his Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie of 1825-26, where the German philosopher proposes, perhaps for the first time, the influential definition of 'philosophy' as a free activity of the mind that is entirely autonomous from cultural forms such as religion or myth, and claims that it is only in classical Greece and its cultural descendants that such autonomy had been attained. Finally, I will show how, in the late 19th century, national discourses about non-European philosophical legacies, particularly throughout Asia, emerged both in defiance of the Hegelian narrowing of philosophy, but also in paradoxical conformity to a conception of philosophy as defined in Europe largely over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Jeremy Tanner, University College London (UK). Very few art historians identify themselves as comparativists, but in this paper he will argue that such central concepts of art history as "style" and "context" presuppose a comparative logic. He will explore the explicitly comparative approaches of such classics of art history as Johann Joachim Winckelmann's History of Ancient Art and Alois Riegl's Group Portraiture of Holland, and consider the eclipse of comparativist approaches to art in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly in light of Ernst Gombrich's classic article Norm and form, and the broader linguistic turn in the human sciences, both of which informed a strong cultural relativism inimical to cross cultural comparison in art history. The last part of the paper will explore the underlying rationale, and the tools, for comparative approaches to art history developed in recent contributions such as David Summers's Real Spaces.

Koen Vermeir, Université Paris 7/CNRS (France): As a complement to recent interesting work on the concept of culture as an analytical methodological tool in HPS, I will argue for the need for a continued historicization of the concept.