Golden Ages: Universal Histories and the Origins of Science—a two-day conference

Friday, December 9, 2011 - Saturday, December 10, 2011  9:30am The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room


Free and open to the public

No registration required

First come, first seated

Photo ID required for entry


Heyman Center for the Humanities

Columbia University Seminars

Department of History

Center for International History

Blinken European Institute

Middle East Institute

Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies

The idea of a Golden Age is as old as history itself. Many religious and dynastic communities of the past constructed visions of a prelapsarian world. Often times this was central to authorizing the very nature of their own knowledge-claims. As early as the 9th century, for instance, medieval writers and translators in the Abbasid empire considered the sciences of the Ancients – from the Egyptians and Babylonians to the Indians and Greeks – to have been received from some universal, Arcadian past. That was one way of condoning their own translations, and their creative philosophical and linguistic borrowings from foreign texts.

Yet this concept was critically refashioned in the 18th century and after, helping to reshape conceptions of science both within Europe and outside it. The eighteenth century in particular gave rise to new narratives of progress, and helped to rewrite sacred universal histories in Europe themselves. It also gave rise to a new discourse on the power of invention and industry. Saint-Simon and Comte, for instance, constructed universal narratives of science of just this kind. Past temporal and sacral discourses were thus unraveled in light of a new sense of the present.

Just as Europeans began to deliberate the rise of their own Golden Age(s), between the Ancient Greeks, on the one hand, and the "Scientific Revolution" on the other, so too did they also began to construct narratives for the demise of other Golden Ages, such as the Arabic or Islamic, Sanskrit or Buddhist “Golden Ages.” Yet, outside Europe, recovering one’s ancient past also became increasingly important for shoring up one’s place in the new order of civilizational progress. Finding one’s past in the present served as the ultimate means of endorsing what it meant to become modern: namely to return to one’s true origins. European imperialism only intensified this trend, and there were numerous variations upon it.

While Arabic, Turkish, Chinese and Sanskrit scholars constructed their own narratives of civilizational rise and decline, often disrupting Enlightenment narratives of universal history, they typically still cast European science and technology as the final eschaton of civilizational knowledge. This led to a common dilemma. Yet on the question of why these former civilizations had declined, there was vast disagreement. In place of arguments about the lack of a rationalist tradition, ideas of causation or empirical methods of deduction or historical verification, came counter-narratives of moral decline or communal corruption. In this sense, Golden Age narratives could serve as reworked Fall stories on a number of different registers.

Much of the historiography of science can itself be understood as part of the search for a narrative of universal history. As in the past, twentieth century versions of this story saw new narratives come together both for the understanding of Europe’s place in history, and for the contributions of other civilizations or cultures. Take the example of Alexander Koyré who helped to popularize the term "Scientific Revolution" in the late 1930s while supervising Egyptian Ph.D. students in Cairo working on their own recasting of a narrative of the Muslim Golden Age. Indeed, the very beginnings of the professional history of science are indebted to the search for universal narratives. Both George Sarton and, later, Joseph Needham, for instance, helped to cast new narratives for the history of science as forces for the new internationalist humanism and as part of the ecumenical march of progress.


  • Cemil Aydin

    Associate Professor of History

    University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

  • Harold Cook

    John F. Nickoll Professor of History

    Brown University

  • Alex Csiszar

    Assistant Professor of the History of Science

    Harvard University

  • James Delbourgo

    Associate Professor: History of Science and Atlantic World

    Rutgers University

  • Michael S. Dodson

    Associate Professor of History

    Indiana University, Bloomington

  • Marwa Elshakry

    Associate Professor of History

    Columbia University

  • Fa-ti Fan

    Associate Professor

    Binghamton University

  • Tamara Griggs

    Research Scholar

    Harvard University

  • Erik Hammerstrom

    Department of Religion

    Pacific Lutheran University

  • Matthew L. Jones

    James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization

    Columbia University

  • Eugenia Lean

    Professor of East Asian Language-Culture

    Columbia University

  • Samuel Moyn

    Professor of Law

    Harvard University

  • Projit Mukharji

    Assistant Professor of the History and Sociology of Science

    University of Pennsylvania

  • Lissa Roberts

    Development of Science and Technology

    University of Twente

  • George Saliba

    Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science

    Columbia University

  • Ori Sela

    Lecturer of East Asian Studies

    Tel Aviv University

  • Steven Shapin

    Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science

    Harvard University

  • Pamela H. Smith

    Seth Low Professor of History

    Columbia University

  • Geert Somsen

    Senior Lecturer

    Maastricht University

  • John Tresch

    Associate Professor, History and Sociology of Science

    University of Pennsylvania


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