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Theme of the Conference

Between Orient and Occident: Transformation of Knowledge

6. und 7. November 2009, Deutsches Museum, München

The transmission of knowledge from one period or cultural area to another is an extremely important topic in the history of science. Only a detailed investigation of the precise paths along which scientific knowledge was transmitted allows us to understand, for example, how 6th-century Indian astronomical materials could become available in 15th-century England. The various instances of transmission of scientific knowledge between East and West that have been investigated extensively by historians of science include the following:

  • the transmission of Indian astronomical models to the Islamic world in the second  half of the 8th century;
  • the Arabic translation movement that made numerous Greek scientific works available to Muslim scholars, especially in Baghdad, during the 9th century;
  • the translation activities from Arabic into Latin, most importantly in 12th-century Toledo;
  • the reception of Arabic scientific works in Sicily under the Norman Kings and under Frederick II (1130-1250), and that of Greek sources in southern Italy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and
  • the translation of Arabic and Persian works into Byzantine Greek by Greg¬ory Chioniades and various other scholars in the early 14th century.
  • Each of these instances of transmission has directly or indirectly contributed significantly to the shaping of science in western Europe.

In particular during the last fifteen years, a number of symposia and conferences have been held on topics related to the theme of transmission of scientific knowledge between cultural areas. These meetings took a rather wide variety of perspectives on transmission. Thus some of them concentrated on the already well-studied transmissions from the Greek world to Islam and on Islam into Western Europe. Others focused on the transmission through particular geographical regions, for example, the contacts between India, China, the Islamic world and Europe that took place across the Indian Ocean, and the transmission between the Islamic world and medieval Europe that occurred through the Crusader Levant in the 12th century. One meeting was devoted in particular to establishing to what extant the similarity of mathe¬matical techniques in different cultures may be assumed to point to an actual connection. Two meetings at Oklahoma dealt in close detail with various important aspects of the trans¬mission from Greece to the Islamic world and from the Islamic world to Europe up to the Renaissance. These aspects included, among others, the extent to which the received knowledge was adjusted to the scien¬tific attitude of the receiving culture and the role of language in the appropria¬tion of the re¬ceived material.

The conference “Between Orient and Occident” in Munich will take a much broader approach to the topic of scientific transmission than most earlier meetings by placing next to each other a wide range of cases of transmission involving the Eastern world and Europe over a period of nearly 2000 years. In this way it is hoped to obtain more insight into the general process of transmission of scientific knowledge than is possible by means of studies dealing with specific instances. The speakers at the conference are encouraged to consider the following question in connection with the particular case of transmission they are dealing with:

How was knowledge transformed in the process of transmission as a result of the differences between the originating culture and the appropriating culture?

  • The differences that may be considered here are of a wide variety and include:
  • differences in scientific models and methodology (e.g., Babylonian arithmetical vs.   Greek geometrical planetary models);
  • differences in the forms of representation of scientific knowledge (e.g., use of notation, text, tables, instruments, maps);
  • differences in the way scientific knowledge was used (e.g., theoretical vs. applied science, use for religious purposes, popular science);
  • differences in the types of institutions in which scientific knowledge was produced and used (e.g., Babylonian temples, Greek academies, Islamic libraries and religious schools, the early European universities, Islamic and European hospitals); and
  • the positions of the people involved in producing, consuming, and passing on scientific knowledge (e.g., in the service of secular or religious authorities, independent scholars).

By focusing on the changes that take place in the perception and use of knowledge as the result of the differences between two cultures, it is hoped to open ways for new theoretical positions from which to approach and investigate the complex phenomena of cross-cultural (and also cross-regional) transfer of knowledge. Particular efforts will be directed towards elucidating the ways in which the different kinds of actors involved in processes of transmission (e.g., scholars, patrons, administrators, users) contributed to, and worked together in order to make possible, the translation of knowledge from one cultural context into another.


The programme of the conference consists of 16 presentations of 30 minutes, each followed by ten minutes of discussion. The conference will be concluded by a round-table dis¬cussion in which the central theme will be examined on the basis of all presentations given. We are considering the possibility to publish a selection of the papers presented at the conference, for instance as a special issue of a journal for the history of science.

The conference is organized as part of the project “Wissenstransfer zwischen Orient und Okzident”, which was granted under the “initiative of excellence” of the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. Besides Benno van Dalen as a researcher, this project allows the appointment of two guest professors for half a year, currently Prof. Charles Burnett (Warburg Institute). Additional financial support for the conference has been obtained from the German Research Foundation (DFG).

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