Chinese science and technology stagnated – Latour’s visualization and cognition

The Chinese are used to do everything within a framework. Confucianism, the empire, communism, the Chinese language characters, the culture. You were called a Chinese when you lived by the rules of Chinese identity, no matter where you were from, from which race or class.

The empire was one of the first frameworks where scholars and officials were ruling, organized by the learnings in civility and social behavior of Confucius. Everything that entered the wall got assimilated or adjusted into something typically Chinese. Much later Marx’ dualistic class struggle becomes Mao’s eternal struggle and so on; This ability to adapt came to a standstill somewhere in the 19th century till Mao’s rule.

latoeurAs said before, the Chinese invented a lot of things. Technological and social innovations especially from the Tang Dynasty used to change the world. But why did these Chinese innovations and technological discoveries stagnate at a certain point in time? Why did it not evolve into a real science with a clear to transmit scientific method? There are a lot of theories one of them being the fact that a lot of these so called inventions, especially in medicine, were deeply rooted in religious or philosophical thinking. They combined metaphysical and empirical elements that were difficult to collect and preserve. In an interesting paper the French phenomenologist and thinker Bruno Latour, tries to explain where our obsession to visualize, write, print and publish comes from. These abilities exist in a lot of cultures, especially in the Chinese. They came up with most of the innovative tools for it, but they were passed on to the next generation in a non specific, pragmatic way. Latour claims that when the Western world started to discover new lands East and West, they needed a method or way to preserve those discoveries and bring them back to their rulers. Firstly, so they could pass on their knowledge to other navigators. Secondly, they needed a convincing, undeniable way to present things, this to prove that they were right.

Latour claims that these two needs were at the origin of what we call the scientific method, but they also incentivized a new way of looking at things. The emergence of a new visual culture that resulted in a lot of new innovations.

So in a way this explains the Chinese science and innovation culture we have today. They have all the abilities and knowledge at hand to come up with ideas, but they need to find the right format or framework to concretize and monetize these ideas.

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Dr. Jari Grosse-Ruyken’s Lecture was given during the Asian residency of the EMBA program at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership in Shanghai – May 2016. This is my personal view on what he talked about that day.