Avner Ben ZakenAug 11, 2012
Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560-1660
Johns Hopkins University Press 2010
In Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560-1660 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010) and Reading Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan: A Cross-Cultural History of Autodidacticism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), Avner Ben Zaken introduces readers to a wonderfully diverse cast of characters and texts to show how fundamental notions of modern science (and modernity in general) were established in cross-cultural exchanges across the globe. Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560-1660 is a study of the ways that early modern science traveled among localities and cultures and was constituted by those travels, focusing on the example of post-Copernican cosmologies. In the course of this fascinating study, Ben Zaken considers what it means to talk about "incommensurable" cultures, and champions the historical power of the mundane and the marginal. Reading Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan: A Cross-Cultural History of Autodidacticism traces the composition, travels, and translation of Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan as a way get at a history of debates about autididacticism in twelfth-century Marrakesh, fourteenth-century Barcelona, Renaissance Florence, and seventeenth-century England. This is an elegantly written and exhaustively researched world history of a single text on wildness, childhood, and nature, among many other themes that emerged and transformed in the very different contexts that the Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan was studied and engaged. Since these two books represent parts of a coherent intellectual project in progress, we spoke about them in both in terms of the broader issues that underpin Avner's scholarly work. We talked a great deal about the craft of historical writing. Topics ranged from the opportunities and challenges of working at different historical scales and bringing micro- and macro-history into the same project, to how academic training leads young historians to study local cultures in a particularly monadic way. It was a very stimulating conversation for me, and I hope you'll enjoy!