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"Science" in Deep Antiquity

Page history last edited by Marek 15 years, 10 months ago


Summary of Today's Topic


Defining Pre-1800s “Science”



     The term “science” is vague and can have varied meanings depending on the context, especially with regards to early and modern science. For example, pre-1800s "science" included religion,  a component modern science, overall, has rejected.  It follows, then, that ancient science cannot be studied through a modern point of view without falling into historian's fallacy. One definition of science states that “science is [an] organized systematic knowledge of the material world.” However, this definition would be too restrictive for historical studies. Some argue that genuine science should be recognized by its methodology- the experimental method. According to this method a theory must be built upon and tested against the result of observation and experiment to be truly scientific.

      “Natural philosophy” or the “philosophy of nature" are the closest terms that actually capture the essence of ancient science. These terms help incorporate the fact that for ancient civilizations theology and science were meshed together, one and the same. They were applied by the ancients for “investigation of nature that concentrated on questions of material causation.”  Ancient methods of exploring and investigating nature and factual and theoretical claims can be regarded as predecessors of modern science and thus an integral part of the history of science.



Beginning of Science


     Science has changed tremendously in content, form, method, and function since its early origins. The first human societies had a very different approach toward experience and understanding. The primitive people experienced events individually and in all their complexity. This is reflected in creation myths, which do not describe any gradual change but isolated events resulting in the present order. The only possible archive of events was memory so even comparisons were difficult, and sometimes contradictory myths were accepted without any reflection. It was from these humble beginnings that modern reasoning had evolved.


     With the invention of writing came a revolution in the process of reasoning. Written ideas allowed comparison, inspection, critisicm etc., which were not possible when memory was the only archive of experience. Writing means lists of observations can be analyzed and searched for patterns. Beginnings of mathematical astronomy and astrology can be taken as an example. Lists of celestial observations assembled by early Babylonians in written form enabled them to be minutely examined and compared thus leading to the discovery of intricate patterns in the motion of the celestial bodies. Writing was a pre-requisite for the development of philosophy and science in the ancient world. The efficiency of the alphabetical writing system allowed the advancement and wide distribution of science and philosophy in Ancient Greece for example.



     Science can be said to have begun with the Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, though their theoretical developments were geared toward practical use rather than any attempt to rationalize why certain phenomena occur.  While there are several reasons as to the limited purposes of Ancient scientific exploration, one of the most important to mention is the nascent writing systems established by both the Egyptians and the Babylonians.  Both civilizations used their writing systems for administrative purposes (census, archives, etc.) and neither contained a moderately literate public thus confining input into many subjects of education and inquiry to only a few.  The modes of recording written data (stone tablets and some papyri) certainly discouraged the recording of any extraneous discourse. 




Science in Early Civilizations



     The roots of Western Science are found in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Egyptians utilized their mathematical skills to establish an effective religious and political calendar. They divided the solar year into twelve months of 30 days each. This totalled 360 days to which five days were added to the end of the year in order to account for the discrepancy. They watched for the rise of the star Sirius each year to ensure that their calculations for the year were correct. 

     In addition, the Egyptians developed a system of multiplication. They had no concept of zero or a times table and a limited understanding of fractions - only the concept of unit fractions existed (eg: 1/12, 1/27, etc).  The Egyptians also made considerable use of geometry, especially in the fields of surveying and construction.  This includes the ability to calculate the area of circles by utilizing pi, which they estimated to be 3.17 (appx. 22/7). Nevertheless, while their feats in engineering and celestial observation are indeed awe-inspiring, their purpose was merely practical. 


     During the age of Hammurabi (c.a. 1800-331  BCE), the Mesopotamians developed a highly sophisticated base 60 (or sexagesimal) number system, an order higher than the Egyptians.  Though it may sound confusing, this numbering system actually follows the same logic as our familiar base 10 (or decimal) system of numbers. The Babylonians would press a stylus shaped from a reed into a clay tablet, creating clusters of symbols. These clusters would then be interpreted, based on their placement, as corresponding powers of 60. So for example 3 4 could mean 3 times 60 (to the first power) 'plus' 4 units, as for us it means 3 times 10 plus 4. The way the Babylonians counted would reflect the way a modern stopwatch records time: 1, 2, 3,..., 56, 57, 58, 59, 1'00, 1'01,..., 1'59, 2'00. They would not have a concept of 100, but something akin to 1 minute 40 seconds. This system simplified operations on fractions. Mesopotamian mathematics, like its Egyptian counterpart, also lacked a concept of zero.

     The Babylonians were keen on the study of astronomy.  They read what they thought to be the messages of their gods through natural phenomena in the sky, a process of horoscopic astrology known as divination.  From 900 to 200 B.C.E., they observed planetary movements and recorded them in order to discover patterns. They used their observations to make simple astronomical tables called ephemerides, from which various astronomical occurrences such as the different phases of the moon could be forcast.  This is the essence of the Mesopotamian achievement - numerical extrapolation of past observations to make astronomical predictions. They did not inquire about the causes of celestial events or attempt to develop cosmological models. This raises the question of whether or not the Babylonians were in fact the earliest "natural philosophers," or whether that position is held by the pre-Socratic philosophers of Ancient Greece.





Primary Sources



Ancient Egypt: inscriptions and limited amounts of papyri, most having disintegrated over time

Mesopotamia: clay cuneiform tablets which were eventually deciphered ca. 19th century, cuneiform tabs (sources for Mesopotamian science).

Greece: Papyrus manuscripts; copies written by following civilizations.

Medieval Sources: manuscript copies (Arabic, Latin, Sanskrit, Greek)


Secondary Sources



Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western Science : The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A. D. 1450. New York: Chicago U.P, 2008.



Key Terms and Definitions


Natural Philosophy - systematic study of nature

"Science" – organized systematic knowledge of the material world

Divination - the skill used to retrieve messages from natural phenomena. (Used by people of Mesopotamia; started Astronomy)

Ephemerides - astronomical tables created by the Mesopotamians which allow one to predict celestial events. It was primarily used for their lunar calendar as well as aiding in horoscopic astrology.

Cosmology – study of the origin and nature of the universe

Cosmogony- studies the origin and evolution and structure of the universe

Contexualism- understanding past in its own terms

Theory- a set of claims about the natural or social world

Epistemology- study of knowledge

Presentism- projecting modern ideas to the past

Induction- moving from specific examples to general

Deduction- moving from general examples to specific

Ontology- study of being; materialism, idealism, spiritualism

Empiricism- knowledge based on experience

Rationalism- knowledge based upon reason and thought


Historian’s fallacy- logical fallacy that occurs when one assumes that decision makers of the past viewed events from the same perspective and having the same information as those subsequently analyzing the decision

Chronological snobbery- a term coined by C.S Lewis describing the erroneous argument that the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior when compared to that of the present

Historiography- study of the processes by which historical knowledge is obtained and transmitted



Relevant Links


Zero and its history 



Some more on Babylonian astronomy



A neat little interactive site on Babylonian astronomy




Comments (13)

Garry Polley said

at 3:35 pm on Aug 29, 2008

I added the definition because I didn't really feel equipped to fill out the full summary. I believe what I have put is correct. Edit it if it is not or if you find a better way to say or do it.

Grant Berry said

at 2:39 pm on Aug 30, 2008

I just added a little bit on science and its definition. I also added an MLA source citation for the Lindberg book in case anyone wants it. If I find some time this weekend I may make an outline of topics covered in class. If anything I've said is incorrect or could be better stated, please fix it.

Nicole Hagstrom said

at 4:03 am on Aug 31, 2008

I really liked your opening comments on the definition of science, Grant. I thought it was excellently well-put. I went ahead and posted a summary, though since it is 4:00 a.m., it is probably riddled with errors in both fact and construction. I also added in some of the extra definitions, which may or may not deemed relevant. Also, I slightly altered the "Primary Source" section on the grounds that primary sources are typically original manuscripts or whatnot and secondary sources are the commentary on such sources. In any case, thank-you for posting it; I know I will make use of it this semester.

Douglas Elliott said

at 8:00 am on Aug 31, 2008

I had no major objections to the summary. I noticed two spelling errors, "discrepancy" and "prowess" were both misspelled. I highlighted other words that I suspected were misspelled or misused, but I didn't change them. I also added a sentence about how the concept of zero was absent in Mesopotamian mathematics and other ancient mathematical systems. I included a Wikipedia link which discusses zero and its history. I defined the word "cosmology", since it was used in the last edited version.

Also, I was confused about whether or not it would be appropriate to include Dr. Ramberg's lecture in the sources, and also how to cite a class lecture.

This summary was well written overall.

Douglas Elliott said

at 8:03 am on Aug 31, 2008

My last edit involved a slight rewording of the segment that discusses the concept of zero.

Grant Berry said

at 10:04 am on Aug 31, 2008

As far as citing Dr. Ramberg's lectures, I don't think he would expect that. He knows we're all in his class and that the majority of this material will come from what we talk about that day. If it turns out that we need to site lectures, I can take care of it. By the way, thanks a lot Nicole. You're totally right on the primary/secondary source thing. Totally slipped my mind. Good catch.

jonathan stutte said

at 4:17 pm on Aug 31, 2008

'anomalies' is the correct spelling, but the wiki is marking it anyways. so just ignore that. otherwise, I felt that since the opening summary of science is a paragraph distinct from the actual chapter/lecture summary there shouldn't be a transition as though one thought is directly following the other.

jgm829@... said

at 11:17 pm on Aug 31, 2008

I added some info about Egyptian multiplication. I also added the fact that the Mesopotamian stylus was made from a reed.

Keriann Collins said

at 6:01 pm on Sep 1, 2008

The summary was great already; I just added a few notes on the Babylonians religious purposes for studying the sky and brought up the possibility that maybe they aren't the first philosophers of science, despite their advances in math and astronomy. I thought it important to add a bit about the religious aspect in view of the fact that for early peoples, science and religion were part of the same thing, equally studied and influenced by each other.

jonathan stutte said

at 6:06 pm on Sep 1, 2008

p.s., i threw in the bit about writing.

Alyson Collins said

at 6:55 pm on Sep 1, 2008

I added some to the beginning paragraph to try to mesh together the fact that science and religion were inseparable to ppl. before the 1800s. I think this fact is essential to the definition of science. Feel free to make the paragraph more fluid.

Alyson Collins said

at 1:10 pm on Sep 2, 2008

I changed the first paragraph to make it more concise/straightforward. Still doesn't seem quite right, though.

Kristy Carey said

at 1:14 pm on Sep 2, 2008

I added a couple of interesting Babylonian links I found.

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