Conference on the occasion of David A. King’s sixtieth birthday

Frankfurt am Main, November 17th and 18th, 2001

The main purpose of the conference is to honour David King’s broad and multi-faceted contributions to the history of science. The organizers hope to accomplish this goal by taking up a programmatic issue formulated by Willy Hartner, David King’s predecessor on the chair for history of science in Frankfurt. Thus, the conference will focus on possibilities for new approaches to the history of science and mathematics in ancient and medieval cultures.

Almost 25 years ago, Willy Hartner wrote that the main task for historians of science in Islamic civilisation is to edit, translate, and comment upon unknown primary sources. [See ref. below] He also claimed that no social contextualisation was possible before our knowledge of such sources was improved tremendously. We believe that the first part of Hartner’s program has largely been achieved by the work of David King and his colleagues. Many important texts have been edited and analysed. New categories of texts are now standard objects of research, such as treatises on folk astronomy or cilm al-hay’a. Given these achievements, we think that this is an appropriate time to take up the second part of Hartner’s agenda and ask: is it now possible to embed the history of science in Islamic and other pre-modern civilisations into cultural contexts, and if so, how?

According to the organizers, it is not only an appropriate time to take up Hartner’s claim, but also much needed to do so given the widespread neglect among historians of science of early modern and modern societies of the results achieved in the last decades by David King and his colleagues. Most historians of sciences of early modern and modern periods think that knowledge of the history of science in Islamic societies is dispensable. This none too new situation has sharpened with the evolution of a number of new historiographical programs within the history of science of early modern and modern periods. Our field neglected these programs in the same way as Hartner believed that the study of social factors shaping Islamic astronomy was superfluous. By doing so, our field became more confined than is good for its own prestige.

In this conference, the organizers wish to explore possible new avenues for analysing scientific texts and instruments and to discuss alternatives how to reach the larger community of historians of science and mathematics. We think a broad variety of questions can be addressed to the history of science in Islamic and other pre-modern societies on the basis of the numerous texts edited, translated, and commented upon in the previous years. We believe it is now possible to investigate, for example, epistemic categories developed by the scholars in those civilisations, the values that guided them in their questioning, the practices they followed, appreciated, or condemned, the modes of justification and legitimation of the works they undertook, the exchanges between writers of scientific texts and makers of instruments on the one hand and courtiers, legal scholars, and merchants on the other hand, or local milieus of the sciences, their twists and turns. In the organizers’ view, these and other similar topics have the potential to enrich our historical perspectives and open the field to outsiders.

The organizers think that the theme of the conference offers many possiblities for entering into the historiographical discussion indicated above. Errors and doubts, although richly present in the source material, have never been a serious, systematic object of study in the history of science in Islamic and other pre-modern societies, neither as epistemic categories or literary conventions nor as objects of social negotiations about truth and reliability. The fact that both Thabit ibn Qurra and al-Ghazali ascribed certainty to geometry was, if at all seen as an explanandum, taken to reflect an intrinsic quality of Euclidean proofs. The very concept of certainty, however, was never questioned as to the values it embodied. Nor has been asked why certainty was important and by which means it was thought to be accomplished. The organizers are convinced that in the material that many of our colleagues have been working with, similar dimensions can be found related to certainty, doubt, and error, whose exploration will deepen our understanding of their specific cultural contexts.

The scientific program of the conference consists of a laudatio, five talks followed by a commentary, and a round table discussion with five participants and a moderator. The talks will all treat aspects of the theme of the conference, namely “Certainty, Doubt, Error”. In the commentary the talks will be placed into a broader historical perspective. The round table discussion will deal directly with the historiographical issues sketched above. The participants are asked to make suggestions for new directions in research on the history of science in pre-modern societies and to discuss the possibilities that the sources they have studied yield for such new lines of research. The texts of the talks and commentary and summaries of the contributions to the round table discussion will be published in a special issue of the journal Early Science and Medicine (Leiden, Brill).

Willy Hartner, “ The Role of Observations in Ancient and Medieval Astronomy”, Journal for the History of Astronomy 8 (1977) 1-11, esp. p. 10. Reprinted in Oriens-Occidens vol. 2, pp. 339-349.

 Sonja Brentjes
 Benno van Dalen
 François Charette