by Oana Baboi
Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology
University of Toronto
On September 6, 2017 Gordon McOuat inaugurated the 2017 IHPST Colloquium Series at the University of Toronto with the talk: Cosmopolitan objects – reconstituting some things in the history and philosophy of science.
The presentation examined the notion of “cosmopolitanism” as a recent development in the history and philosophy of science and highlighted the latest contributions made by the SSHRC Cluster Project “Situating science”. To bring the audience up to date on the long-term project, prof. McOuat summarized the ideas debated by the Indian and Canadian scholars who participated in the Shimla Workshop held at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in 2016.
Cosmopolitanism has always been positioned as an alternative to globalisation, but providing an exhaustive definition of cosmopolitanism proved challenging. The usefulness of cosmopolitanism as a category has also been questioned. While some of the participants openly doubted the usefulness of this scholarly approach, others discussed historical examples, case studies, in the attempt to nuance or to caution how the concept of cosmopolitanism borrowed from political philosophy ought to be applied to the history of science. It occurred to me that these case studies examined by the workshop participants were taken from both the colonial period (during the British Raj) and the post-colonial period (after the Indian Independence). And I wondered if the definition of cosmopolitanism as applied to history of science should consider the political context. Just as the concept of cosmopolitanism in the political sphere had undergone changes in time, shouldn’t historians of science define a colonial cosmopolitanism different from a post-colonial cosmopolitanism?
Prof. McOuat offered his own views on cosmopolitanism as openness to strangers that occurs at the next local. Referring to objects brought into the ‘trading zones’, the question he aimed to answer was what kinds of things become cosmopolitan objects? The recipe for making cosmopolitan objects entails an openness to strangeness at the local and the kinds of things that have a predisposition for transportability across borders and to gather otherness around them. For instance, the Newtonian instruments taken by the Scottish astronomer James Dinwiddie (1746 -1815) on the first British mission to China in 1792 could be considered “cosmopolitan objects”. Initially, the instruments failed to impress the Chinese emperor and the mission was unsuccessful, but some of them ended up in India where they were used in the local scientific circles. Aside from other political and cultural factors, Dinwiddie’s mission failed because earlier in the 17th and 18th century Jesuit missionaries had already brought advanced astronomical instruments to equip the Observatory at the Peking Court and effectively explained their uses to local astronomers. By comparison, the Jesuits’ mission was a success. The very different outcomes of the two missions draw attention to the contribution of local and its openness to strangeness to making “cosmopolitan objects”. They also raise questions about the case studies historians of science choose to focus on when discussing “cosmopolitan objects”. According to the proposed definition, the astronomical instruments brought by the Jesuits are examples of “cosmopolitan objects”. Could Dinwiddie’s instruments still be considered examples of “cosmopolitan objects” even though they were rejected by the local?
In the end of his presentation, prof. McOuat suggested to borrow the concept of cosmopolitanism not from the political philosophy sphere but to apply the concept of “cosmopolitan species” from natural history to investigate the history of science. Unfortunately, time constraints prevented him from developing this interesting idea.