Scientific Inquiry and the Missionary Enterprise

  • David N. Livingstone


The juxtaposition of the adjectives in my title may strike some readers as bizarre. The conception of science as a progressive enterprise does not sit easily with the received image of missionaries as backward-looking, anti-intellectual, fundamentalist. It is precisely this supposition, when conjoined to modernist neuroses about the West’s colonial past and the sense that the only science that really counts is professional science, that has conspired to write missionary knowledge out of scientific history. As John Stenhouse (forthcoming) points out, historians of modern scientific disciplines have, like Malinowksi, ‘depicted the missionary as an arrogant, self-righteous destroyer of indigenous cultures, a benighted Other over against whom the enlightened, modern, secular, professional’ self-defines. Like all ‘othering’ devices, such a priori exclusionary tactics fall foul of historical particularity. If the achievements of missionary science run counter to our expectations that scientific history is the story of grand theorists and experimentalists, that scientific rationality is necessarily at odds with religious commitment (see Chapman, this book), or that scientific inquiry is divorced from the messiness of cultural politics, then it is time to revise our notion of what constitutes scientific knowledge.


Missionary Science Christian Mission Spatial Practice Jesuit Mission Royal Geographical Society 
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© David N. Livingstone 2005

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