Knowledge Actor-Networks, The Influence of Culture, and Confucianism’s Effect on Technological and Scientific Progress in China
December 23, 2015
Recent modern views of distinction between scientific and technological progress made in the West versus that made in the East are eager to credit the Scientific Revolution as the basis of current human advances in science and technology. Joseph Needham, during his investigation into the scientific history of the East, brought light to this misconception as parallels between ancient Western and ancient Eastern thought began to surface. Knowledge grew in both countries simultaneously, separately and in unison.
Science and technology are often considered the basis of human progression. Knowing more and being able to do more demonstrates a control over the world that philosophers have attempted to deduce for thousands of years. Science and technology affect society and are affected by society. This cycle, upon repetition, would give each society a type of cultural identity. Knowledge, science, and technology allow humans to optimize and become more efficient. Essentially they allow a continuous progression of the human race. This progressed human will then discover new knowledge, create new science and new technology and allow further progress. The reciprocal relationship of between knowledge, science, technology, and society will continue to shift this cultural identity of the whole.
Defining science as curated knowledge and defining technology as the practice of that science creates a path for knowledge to flow into science and then to technology. Knowledge becomes science when there is a large enough consensus in its truth. That knowledge, science, and technology then go on to affect society and the cycle repeats. The interaction is not necessarily this clearly defined, but all of these actors influence knowledge.
The intricacy of these interactions is the interesting part. The general public may view science as an explanation of reality but who deemed that knowledge good enough to be ‘science’? Human error plays a larger role in science than incorrect measurements in an experiment.
Social Constructivism asserts that science and knowledge occur in a social setting, that they are dynamic, and that science and technology “do not provide a direct route from nature to ideas about nature, that the products of science and technology are not themselves natural “ (Sismondo, 77). Institutions and structures only exist because a significant number of people believe that they do but this does not completely discredit their reality because once these structures exist, we cannot wish them away. In this way we create “reality” as we attempt to understand it (Sismondo, 79). When science is being performed to prove or disprove X, and the public understands and communicates X, then we cannot wish away the existence of X (Sismondo, 79). Exploring knowledge through the lens of social constructivism allows us to visualize knowledge in a 3D time-space.
Agreeing upon the existence of knowledge allows that knowledge point to be plotted on an axis. Knowledge is built off a of this existing knowledge point. As a society we agree upon the foundation, therefore this foundation is fluid and allows reasonable expansion.
Figure 1 shows how knowledge can build off a specific point and spread. Color has been added to the idea sphere to indicate the influence of an author on an idea. Because humans define science, we must take into account the actor network at play.
Actor network theory describes the mesh network created by humans and non-humans in any technological or scientific situation. This approach allows a political economy to become clear in the context of science and technology. The human and non-human actors have motives that guide their influence on the overall network (Sismondo, 171–172). This web of associations gives actors the power to pull one string and by doing so pull another one. Understanding that humans perform science and create technology is critical. Human motivation will always play a role, and the idea that history is written by the victors should be applied just as wholeheartedly to science.
Figure 2 demonstrates how “knowledge” about the world can be influenced by inductive logic (Science), deductive logic (Philosophy), and superstition (Religion). Understanding science as an attempt to ask questions about the world, we must wonder at the origin of these questions. If these questions are going to form the foundation of the pursuit of knowledge, then they inevitably influence the ‘scientific’ outcome. Philosophy — or attempts to understand the world in a deductively logical way — works on the premise of base knowledge and then attempts to apply these concepts to other aspects of life. There’s a sense of unity or hierarchical structure due to the deductive nature of philosophy. Philosophizing often leads questions and questions burn for answers. Answers usually come in the form of religious or scientific assertion. People will believe something if it can be proven to them successfully enough — especially through rigorous testing and empirical data. If science cannot be created to explain a phenomenon, then it is often attributed to the supernatural.
The flow between induction and deduction seems especially important because induction aims to understand each individual data point while deduction attempts to understand each data point as part of the whole. Religion seems to operate between the two, giving us a deductive reason when we cannot create one on our own. Actors from each of these factions have the ability to influence the actor-network to emphasize a certain ideology. Where a philosopher may read the inductive data points of a scientist in order to make an assertion about the natural world, a religious man may give credit for patterns in nature to a higher power.
This cycle of ideas between philosophy, religion, and science brings knowledge through different hoops — forcing ideas to be altered by different lenses. Scientific knowledge that is developed to answer a question that religion has already attempted to answer will inevitably be tainted by the religion and philosophy that gave way to the issue in its current state. Society’s influence on knowledge, forces any type of intellectual assertion to lie in a constant balance between philosophy, religion, and science. Historical foundations always influence and somewhat limit future additions to a structure of thought. Figure 2 lays out this balance, demonstrating the unity and continuity between philosophy, religion, and science. Depending on the situation at any particular point, the underlying nature of knowledge may be predominantly influenced by deductive logic (philosophy), inductive logic (science), or acceptance of the supernatural (religion).
While this type of interaction may lead to concern in the authenticity of knowledge, we must accept this type of interaction as necessary to further our understanding of the natural world. Without people to ask questions and develop hypothesis, society could never progress scientifically and technologically. Even misplaced faith in knowledge can lead to future enlightenment by forcing the other perspectives to question its authenticity and therefore focus on developing new ways of understanding and thinking about reality.
Figure 3 continues the development of Figure 1 while drawing attention to the idea of motivated knowledge (see Figure 2). Darkness of color speaks to the compounding effect of society. Ideas that are built on top of a foundational idea are constrained within a reasonable range from that foundation (see the foundational circle in the bottom right of Figure 3). Interaction between knowledge spheres is already limited by geography and technology, adding foundational constraints shows how knowledge may stagnate within a certain line of thought at some points in history.
These foundational frameworks, or paradigms as deemed by Thomas Kuhn, allow knowledge to exist upon a unifying reality or idea (see the white sphere in Figures 1 & 2 as an example of a foundational point within a paradigm). While this creates a playing field for knowledge to flow, it also limits the breadth to which knowledge will be accepted by society as real or valuable.
Visualizing knowledge production like this allows us to conceptualize an idea as a product of previous ideas and to consider the influence of actors through color. Idea spheres become more deeply colored when they are created by actors who operate with social intent (this can occur consciously and unconsciously). Notice the depth of color in Sphere C in Figure 3.
Social intent during knowledge production occurs when an actor — at any point — in the knowledge production process alters the information to fit his societal needs and/or to bring social power to him. Consider the king of Qi in 314 BCE who utilized the teachings of Confucian philosophy and practice by Mencius for his own agenda. After appearing to show strong interest in Confucianism, the King tricked Mencius into appearing to condone his subsequent attack into the bordering state of Yan (Eno, Mencius, 2). The conquests of humans are resource driven and knowledge is a resource that carries power just as gold and infantry do.
In this way, powerful individuals like the king of Qi can influence a school of thought or understanding of the world. In a way he has tainted the paradigm of Confucianism. By using knowledge without genuine intent, one exerts societal influence over the knowledge.
Science and knowledge are defined differently by different cultures. The method of their progress differs. We must ask at what point is observed knowledge worthy of being deemed science? Mo Ching Geometry defines a point as a line that cannot be cut any shorter in 370 BCE (Needham, 155). How do we compare this to atomism in Europe from the 5th to 2nd century BCE? We must consider science and knowledge within their socieo-historical contexts in order to grasp their impact. Human error is inevitable, consciously and unconsciously. Society invariably has the power to accelerate and to hinder the progress of knowledge, science, and technology.
This societal taint in knowledge manifests itself in culture — a tacitly existent representation of the history of our knowledge as influenced by previous societies.
Knowledge in society can be subjected to this type of treatment by a powerful ruler or even by a society as a whole. Societies, as networks made up of individual actors who both influence and are influenced by the network, can be compounding in the way that they perform Social Constructivism of reality. The actors within the network are creating inductive points that attempt to understand reality.
But once actors have created these points, they have unintentionally created a boundary for future points (see Figure 4). The boundary can expand to include new points, but to do so the idea must meet or change societal expectations about knowledge boundaries.
This activity must be recognized as a necessary step of knowledge acceptance and distribution. Adding points to the boundaries when done successfully can change the limits of knowledge acceptance.
But who adds the points? And what motives could they have that would lead to social intent in knowledge production? Changing the network as an individual is not easily done. Most individual human actors are at the mercy of the societal network, influenced by it far more than they realize. They do not have enough influence in the grand network to subject other members of society to their views.
Powerful historical figures are exceptions to this commonality. Their view of the world has lived beyond their own existence. Chinese society as a whole seems to operate on a foundational belief in Confucianism. As Chinese society is highly influenced by one philosophical foundation, much can be inferred about the knowledge production process in China by reading into Confucius’s beliefs and following the development of his beliefs as later influenced by his followers. Continued validation of Confucius’s ancient philosophical beliefs has done nothing more than to increase his influence on the entire knowledge actor-network in China.
Figure 6 highlights the Neo-Confucian Movement in China that occurred during the Western Renaissance and Scientific Revolution in Europe. Recognizing the Neo-Confucian Movement and therefore the earlier Confucian teachings as a foundation for science and technology in China, allows us to make assertions about the knowledge production process in China. Special attention is given to the Neo-Confucian Movement because the West saw extreme knowledge expansion during this time and created the foundation for modern science — distinguishing the East and the West from each other.
Diving into The Analects of Confucius, as translated by Robert Eno from Indiana University, gives us insight into the aspects of Confucianism that were critical to its existence. Eno highlights specific aspects such as ren, junzi, dao, li, and filiality. These words are common throughout The Analects… and speak to its nature as a whole. Their definitions are provided Table 1 below.
These terms can give us insight into underlying beliefs held by Confucian philosophy. Confucius believed that ritualistic revival of the ancient Zhou traditions — li — would bring order to the world. Confucius mastered the practice of these social conducts that mandate one’s behavioral activity in public and even alone. Confucius passed these learning on to his disciples and his expertise in such behavior led to social connections that gave him power and stature in Lu, his home state (Eno, iii).
Confucius’ wished to return Lu to the Zhou ways, and passages from The Analects… speak directly to the concept of Confucian philosophy as a societal structural mandate:
“The Master said: Guide them with policies and align them with punishments and the people will evade them and have no shame. Guide them with virtue and align them with li and the people will have a sense of shame and fulfill their roles.” (Analects, 2.3)
Confucius speaks about a society that is built on respect and duty; society that revolves around emphasis on the idea of filiality. One of Confucius’s disciples,
“Master You said: It is rare to find a person who is filial to his parents and respectful of his elders, yet who likes to oppose his ruling superior. And never has there been one who does not like opposing his ruler who has raised a rebellion” (Analects, 1.2)
Confucian ideology about filiality relates all interaction between societal members to that which occurs between parent and child. Emphasis on understanding one’s position in respect to another’s, guides Confucian beliefs about societal structure. This passage speaks to the importance of respectful relations beginning with the family unit and resulting in a well-respected hierarchy of superiors that need not fear rebellion or questioning from an actor of a lower societal stature.
Returning to our visualization of knowledge production, Figure 7 (next page) demonstrates how knowledge builds on itself into a clump. Ideas built on previous ideas fall inside of the boundaries of social acceptance and are more influential. The compounding factor of society results in cultural taint, unifying the knowledge upon its foundational basis.
Science, however, is nothing more than a defined attempt to understand reality. Because humans create science and act within norms that they construct, authentic observations of reality may sometimes occur in a manner that exists outside of these norms. Ideas that existence beyond this limit of reasonable acceptance struggle to gain credit due to their outsider nature. These are anomalies. Because anomalies are not as widely cited or utilized by the actors within the network, they can escape the overwhelming cultural taint that accumulates over time.
These anomalies are the precursor of paradigm shift. A foundational shift that allows already accepted knowledge and new anomalies to coexist within a deeper foundational framework. Figure 8 shows how this deeper foundation can exist, highlighting a wider foundation that allows for a greater breadth of knowledge to be accepted and worked with. Not only do these paradigm shifts provide a larger vocabulary of knowledge to work with, they also allow the rise of a new dominant cultural identity.
Figure 9 (next page) explains how induction and deduction work symbiotically to define the limit of reasonable acceptance and therefore grow knowledge in a conical way. Building off a specific point of foundation means that the greatest structural support will exist directly above that point. Knowledge built on previous knowledge will lean towards the center, the underlying unifying foundation.
Anomalies and paradigm shifts keep the knowledge cone from growing into a true cone that comes to some sort of fascist universal definition of reality. As anomalies accumulate and deeper foundations are embraced, the structure of the knowledge production can waterfall over onto the new foundation and the structure can grow. The limit of reasonable acceptance becomes more tolerant as boundary work between the foundations performs the process reassessing the value of previously agreed upon knowledge. This work is often performed by actors with a new cultural identity; working to unlatch the hold of the previous cultural identity.
Each time a new cultural identity rises to the top, the centering of the entire system is shifted somewhat. These continuous shifting’s should theoretically lead to an ever growing acceptance of knowledge — a continuous rebalancing.
If we must accept that knowledge is continuously influenced by its authors, and that science is socially filtered, then we can agree that fast and often rebalancing of the societal influences will result in the most authentic representation of reality. Rebalancing in the form of constant cultural power shift can ensure that no culture overwhelms the system to the point of no longer accepting anomalies. Stagnation in this process results in slowed progress toward scientific and technological sophistication and a knowledge cone that is trapped within an ever-stiffening cultural ideology.
Confucianism as a mandate for societal structure now helps to shed light on why China struggled to make the same progress recognized in the West during the Neo-Confucian Movement. Respect for elders and for historic knowledge could blind society to the possibility of anomalies recognized by non-elder members of society or through non-traditional methods. Lack of anomaly recognition would slow the process of paradigm shift in China and therefore the knowledge production process becomes stagnant and overwhelmed in culture. Figure 10 demostrates how knowledge is dealt with post paradigm shift.
Using the the anomalies to dictate the limits of the new paradigm, the existing knowledge cone is constrained within this deeper foundation. The new foundation is both less culturally tainted (notice the lighter colors) and off center of the existing knowledge cone. Some of the existing knowledge must be so tainted that is it inauthentic.
The value of this existing knowledge must be assessed within the context of the new paradigm. What aspects of the previous paradigm are strengthened by the deeper foundation? What aspects of the previous paradigm are shown to be nothing more than a product of society and culture — a biased, inauthentic view of reality?
The weight of the existing cone will weigh upon the framework of the new foundation, discoloring it as long as it is socially accepted as a valid framework of reality. Eventually, boundary work between these foundations will both weed out the value of the initial knowledge cone and provide the basis for the new cultural taint. Refer back to Figure 9 and notice the rise of lime green and yellow spheres beginning to sorround the initial paradigm cone (contained in the blue cube).
Considering China and Europe as two sperate actor networks that contribute to a whole may allow us to visualize China’s scientific and techological stagnation as a paradigm stuck within another paradigm — a paradigm refusing to shift. Ancient paradigms lie at the center of the structure so even when some of their inauthentic idea spheres are discredited, they can still influence the way that the network acts and grows in the future.
My answer to the Needham question about the reasoning for distinction between the value of modern Western and Eastern sciences is that China’s knowledge actor-network stagnation is the result of continued misguided belief in an ancient paradigm that is compoundingly fueled by the mandate of societal structure that discourages disruption and encourages acceptance of that which is.
“The Master said: When the father is alive, observe the son’s intent. When the father dies, observe the son’s conduct. One who does not alter his late father’s dao for three years may be called filial.” (Analects, 1.11)
Extreme respect for elders and fathers calls for a son to continue the ways of his father for at least three years past the father’s death. In this way the son is indoctrinating himself to see the world and interact with it in much the same way as his father did. Obviously a son cannot absolutely and totally take on his father’s view of the world, his view of the world will be influenced significantly by his father’s view and by the view which society elicits from him. Repeated culture refinery over nearly 2000 years from Confucius’s time (551–479 BCE) through the Neo-Confucian Movement that acted in China during most of the previous millennium could have generated a network where all sons are taking on world view influenced by their father who took on similar world views from their fathers and so on. Because actors have been tacitly encouraged throughout their whole live to maintain the status quo, the status quo has been maintained.
In later consecutive passages, The Analects… makes statements about contributing to a whole and about understanding one’s place within the whole.
“The Master said: One who sets to work on a different strand does damage.” (Analects, 2.16)
“To know when you know something, and to know when you don’t know, that’s knowledge.” (Analects, 2.17)
Societal knowledge in China is built on self-awareness, understanding one’s place within a greater network, and working within that network to strengthen the network. In this way Confucian philosophy is especially responsible for continued compounding of social intent in the Chinese knowledge actor-network.
This type of innate philosophical and deep foundational Confucian belief in acceptance allows paradigms to stagnate. While China stagnates, the accelerating progress of another actor-network, such as Europe during the Scientific Revolution, is able to influence the cultural identity of the grand network. Confucianism slowed the production of scientific knowledge in China because societal hierarchy was respected and knowledge actor networks were not allowed to flourish at an accelerating rate.
Eno, Robert, trans. The Analects of Confucius. N.p.: Indiana University, 2015.
Eno, Robert, trans. The Book of Mencius. N.p.: Indiana University, 2015.
Needham, Joseph. “Conditions of Travel of Scientific Ideas and Techniques Between China and Europe.” In Introductory Orientations, 150–71. Vol. 1 of Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge University Press, 1956.
Needham, Joseph. “The Fundamental Ideas of Chinese Science.” In History of Scientific Thought, 216–345. Vol. 2 of Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge University Press, 1956.
Sismondo, Sergio. An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010.
Note: diagrams created using Google SketchUp and Powerpoint