Can a "wretched subject" like divination be seen as part of the history of science? The example of ancient Chinese planetary astronomy.


In his note of 1951 on " The Study of Wretched Subjects" (Isis 42(2): 111), Otto Neugebauer called attention to the important role that 'unscientific' material could play in the history of science. He had in mind a review by George Sarton, which characterised a study by E. S. Drower of the Mandean "Book of the Zodiac" as "a wretched collection of omens, debased astrology and miscellaneous nonsense." For some time it has been widely accepted that the history of the ancient astronomical traditions of the Mediterranean world cannot be fully understood without reference to their divinatory context. This talk will apply this approach to the study of planetary astronomy in early imperial China around the beginning of the Common Era, making use of evidence drawn from my own recent studies of excavated manuscript material as well as evidence from transmitted texts.
In conclusion I shall reflect briefly on some possible implications for the wider teaching of the history of science.
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Christopher Cullen