Joseph Needham on Feng Shui and Traditional Chinese Science

  • Michael R. Matthews
Part of the Science: Philosophy, History and Education book series (SPHE)


Joseph Needham was the greatest and most influential twentieth-century student of premodern Chinese science. In his multivolume Science and Civilisation in China (Needham, J. & others. (1954–2004). Science and civilisation in China (Vols. 1–7). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.), he exhaustively documented the interplay of science, technology, philosophy, metaphysics, and Chinese culture. He posed the famous Needham Question: Why did Chinese science always remain empirical and restricted to theories of primitive or medieval type? What were the inhibiting factors which prevented the rise of modern science in Asia? He held that Chinese natural philosophy lacked entirely a tradition of formulating theories verifiable by experiment. There was no attempt to formulate ‘mature hypotheses couched in mathematical terms and experimentally verifiable’. China certainly had technology and had it in abundance, but the enormous array of Chinese discoveries and inventions were disconnected, seldom refined, and little connected to the development of science. Crucially, there was no independent ‘research’ culture or infrastructure to coordinate, disseminate, and exploit the technology. The widespread view that common sense plus experience plus technology give rise to science cannot be sustained. Needham documented at great length the internal philosophical, intellectual, and cultural factors inhibiting the appearance and growth of Western-style science in China. Needham maintains that the Chinese simply could never embrace, even provisionally for the sake of doing science, the mechanical worldview that underwrote Europe’s Scientific Revolution. But with the passage of half-a-century, philosophical criticism of the Needham project has emerged. Feng shui existed and expanded in what was, for centuries, a non-science environment, and so it was the default worldview of China and Southeast Asia.


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael R. Matthews
    • 1
  1. 1.University of New South WalesSydneyAustralia

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