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Rochberg, Francesca. Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science
2016, Chicago University Press
, Contributed by: Quentin Pharr
Publisher’s Note:
In the modern West, we take for granted that what we call the “natural world” confronts us all and always has—but Before Nature explores that almost unimaginable time when there was no such conception of “nature”—no word, reference, or sense for it. Before the concept of nature formed over the long history of European philosophy and science, our ancestors in ancient Assyria and Babylonia developed an inquiry into the world in a way that is kindred to our modern science. With Before Nature, Francesca Rochberg explores that Assyro-Babylonian knowledge tradition and shows how it relates to the entire history of science. From a modern, Western perspective, a world not conceived somehow within the framework of physical nature is difficult—if not impossible—to imagine. Yet, as Rochberg lays out, ancient investigations of regularity and irregularity, norms and anomalies clearly established an axis of knowledge between the knower and an intelligible, ordered world. Rochberg is the first scholar to make a case for how exactly we can understand cuneiform knowledge, observation, prediction, and explanation in relation to science—without recourse to later ideas of nature. Systematically examining the whole of Mesopotamian science with a distinctive historical and methodological approach, Before Nature will open up surprising new pathways for studying the history of science.

Comment: For students wondering whether or not "philosophy" was done before Socrates and the Pre-Socratics, this text is a fairly comprehensive overview of how ancient Assyro-Babylonians conceived of "nature," their place within it, studied it, and recorded their findings about it. But, more than anything else, this text also shows that ancient Near Eastern cuneiform texts are not to be ignored by budding scholars of ancient philosophy or historians and philosophers of the sciences and their methodologies. Some prior engagement with ancient Greek philosophy, as well as the history and philosophy of science, will help to understand this text.

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