How Western Europe Developed a Full Scientific Method


A meeting of doctors at the university of Paris. From a medieval manuscript of “Chants Royaux”, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

by Christopher Beckwith

The lone survivor of traditional Western European ‘scientific’ culture is science.

It has survived because it is now the handmaid of technology, without which contemporary civilization would collapse utterly. Anyone who doubts this should try to get a research grant for genuinely “pure” research.

Today, in European cultures, and in other cultures that have borrowed it, science per se is strictly peripheral at best. It is not only inseparable from technology; it is all but completely divorced from philosophy. This is a far cry from the Middle Ages. The centrality of science in all spheres of Western European culture was ensured when the crucial elements — all of them — were borrowed during the Crusades, more or less simultaneously, from Classical Arabic civilization. There, science had never become integrated into Islamic culture, but was considered “foreign” to Islam, and so fell to the onslaught of anti-intellectualism that swept the Islamic world at its peak in the Middle Ages. By contrast, Western Europeans were enthralled by science from the 13th century down to the 20th, when Humanism — now redefined specifically as a collection of ‘non-scientific fields’ — replaced science as the default mode of higher education. Science has come under attack not only by fundamentalists, but even by philosophers and other scholars, who seem not to understand science. What happened?

Warriors of the Cloisters is about the origins of the medieval ‘scientific method’: the medieval ‘disputed questions’ method of argumentation used in oral disputations and written works by some of the most famous scientists and theologians of the Middle Ages, which is the ancestor of the ‘ideal’ modern ‘scientific method’. It is also about the origins of the college, and what we now call the university. Other scholars have already shown that the disputed questions method, which I call the recursive argument method, was the ‘scientific method’ par excellence of medieval science. It is recursive, and was not an independent invention of Western Europeans, as has been argued; it was borrowed from Classical Arabic civilization, along with the college, in the mid-12th century.

But the recursive argument method and the college were not inventions of Classical Arabic civilization.

Both were first developed many centuries earlier in the ancient Central Asian Buddhist civilization, and appear as physical texts and buildings in the Kushan Empire period. When the Buddhists of Central Asia converted to Islam, evidently around the tenth century, their institutions were not abandoned by the people (the former Buddhists) and then miraculously reinvented by the very same individuals (the new Muslims); the institutions and practices were simply converted to Islam along with the people themselves.

There are examples of the recursive argument method from ancient to early medieval Central Asian Buddhist texts, medieval Central Asian Islamic texts, and medieval Western European Christian texts. The key person involved in both translations was the brilliant Central Asian philosopher-scientist Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā). He is the first scholar so far identified who learned the recursive argument method (he tells us exactly how in his autobiography), which was then transmitted to Western Europe via the Latin translation of his works — especially his Psychology and Metaphysics, which had a powerful effect on Western European thought from the late twelfth century on.


Ibn Sina. From medieval manuscript entitled ‘Subtilties of Truth’, 1271

Alongside this story is that of the transmission of a key institution for the perpetuation of science, the endowed residential college, from Central Asian Buddhism to Central Asian Islam. This happened, again, via conversion, and after it spread across much of the Islamic world, it was transmitted to Western Europe too.

In 1180, the first college in the West was founded in Paris by a wealthy English merchant who had just returned from the Holy Land. It spread very rapidly across Western Europe and merged with the native European institution, the universitas, which was at that time a trade guild and almost unrecognizable. It was only when the two institutions merged that what we now know as the university appeared in Western Europe.

These two cultural elements, the recursive argument method and the college, were crucial to the unique development of what I call a “full scientific culture” or “scientific culture complex” in Western Europe. But in my book, I think I do not set out clearly enough what I mean by a “full scientific culture,” and how exactly Western Europe — alone among all Eurasian cultures — developed one. This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the book, so I would like to explain a little more what I mean by a “full” or “fully” scientific culture, and what has happened to it.

With the rapid merging of the college and the universitas guild underway in the 13th century, the nascent universities and the Church set the scientific works of Aristotle, along with the works of the Classical Arabic scientists and their Aristotelian commentaries, as the standard core curriculum for all bachelor’s degree students. In other words, all college students, whatever their eventual specialization, learned science (in the Middle Ages it was called “Arts”) as the foundation of their education. The adoption and wide use of the recursive argument method went along with science.

Over time, the medieval scientific approach to the world spread throughout European culture. But the scientific mindset was not limited to scientists, physicians and theologians, its most famous practitioners. In the Renaissance even painters were obsessed with ‘scientific’ perspective and chiaroscuro; poets wrote sonnets using the ‘scientific method’; and musicians scientifically analyzed the structure of music. This pervasive ‘scientific’ attitude is — or rather, was — a distinctive, unique characteristic of Western European culture both in Europe and in the many colonies founded by Western Europeans around the world. Scholars today seem to have trouble with it, but that is because in the twentieth century the movement called “Modernism” (in my 2009/2011 book Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present) destroyed the European ‘high’ art tradition, along with much else. The destruction of Modernism continues down to the present day, but it remains more or less completely unnoticed by historians. I must ask, what is their problem? Has not enough been destroyed yet, or what?

As a result of Modernism and its offspring (including the equally uncritically-examined hypermodernist dogma known as ‘Postmodernism’), philosophers of science nowadays can no more define science than artists or aestheticians can define art, musicians or musicologists can define music, and so on. This suggests that to some extent, at least, they do not know what it is that they are supposedly doing. It should be no surprise to learn that most do not know why they are doing it either, or what it means, or much of anything else about it. It seems not to have occurred to anyone to explain how and why this has happened, what is wrong with it, and what (if anything) can be done to fix it. Is this a “Duh…” moment in history? An “Oh, well…” moment? Or a “Gosh!” moment?

If this were the Middle Ages or Renaissance, scholars in the college-universities would be debating these and other problems exhaustively using the recursive argument method. The contrast with the situation today, in our modern college-universities, is staggering. The reaction to the discussion of Modernism in my book Empires of the Silk Road was partly, one might say, violently negative. But even more significantly, sympathetic scholars told me that though they agreed with me, they did not think the topic was relevant. Both thought it should not have been included. It should not be discussed. Why not? I personally cannot think of a single more relevant topic. The title, Warriors of the Cloisters, originally referred to other conflicts, but it may just as well, or even better, be taken to refer to “the undisputed country” — or rather, the empire, or universe — of Modernism. What is it? What has it done and is still doing? Why and how? What should we do about it? It is time to wake up, perhaps even time to revive the recursive argument method or one of its relatives, but it is definitely time to do some serious thinking (first) and arguing (second) about culture, before we lose even the memory of what little we have left.


About the Author:

Christopher I. Beckwith is a Professor in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. He has received MacArthur, Guggenheim, Fulbright and other fellowships. His publications include: The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages (Princeton 1987/1993); Koguryo, Language of Japan’s Continental Relatives (Brill 2004/2007); Phoronyms: Classifiers, Class Nouns, and the Pseudopartitive Construction (Peter Lang 2007); Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton 2009); Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World (Princeton 2012, in press); several edited volumes; and over sixty research articles.

His recent work focuses on early Central Eurasian and East Asian history and linguistics, Buddhism, Pyrrhonism, Tibetan and Indic epigraphy, and Old Chinese reconstruction. His current book-in-progress is provisionally entitled Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia and India and the Reshaping of European Thought.