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Before Nature

Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science

Francesca Rochberg

Before Nature

Francesca Rochberg

392 pages | 1 halftone, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2016
Cloth $55.00 ISBN: 9780226406138 Published January 2017
E-book $55.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226406275 Published January 2017
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.

Introduction: The Ancient Near East, Science, and Nature
Part I. Historiography
Chapter One. Science and Nature
Chapter Two. Old Ideas about Myth and Science
Part II. Cuneiform Knowledge and Its Interpretive Framework
Chapter Three. On Knowledge among Cuneiform Scholars
Chapter Four. A Cuneiform Modality of Order
Part III. Rationality, Analogy, and Law
Chapter Five. The Babylonians and the Rational
Chapter Six. Causality and World Order
Part IV. The Cuneiform World of Observation, Prediction, and Explanation
Chapter Seven. Observation of Astral Phenomena
Chapter Eight. Prediction and Explanation in Cuneiform Scholarship


Review Quotes
"Before Nature’s formidable erudition will fascinate cuneiformists....For noncuneiformists, the book’s most compelling parts will be its discussions of western civilization’s philosophical attempts to define 'nature', postdating the cuneiform world—from Aristotle to Einstein and his successors."
Geoffrey Lloyd, Needham Research Institute
“The naturalness of the concept of nature has recently been challenged by work in social anthropology, philosophy, cognitive science, and history.  In this brilliant new book Rochberg brings to bear her unparalleled scholarship and analytic skills to examine what light the ancient Mesopotamians can throw on this fundamental issue. They were arguably the first people we know to undertake the systematic observation, prediction, and explanation of a whole range of phenomena, especially but not exclusively in the heavens.  But they did not have ‘nature’ as their target since they had no such concept.  So the aims they set themselves, the methods they used, and the assumptions they made about the world they were investigating are crucial to our understanding of the earliest endeavors to engage in what we can recognize as scientific research.”
Paul Delnero, Johns Hopkins University
“Rochberg makes a forceful, erudite, eloquent, and persuasive case that nature was not conceived as a discrete entity in Mesopotamia and that Mesopotamian scientific practices can only be properly understood and accorded their rightful place in the history of science when it is recognized that these practices were not informed by the goal of understanding nature and how it functions. Her command of the pertinent primary and secondary literature relating to Mesopotamian science is truly impressive and is one of the many strengths of the book. The author navigates effortlessly the most recent scholarship in the history of science, anthropology, and many other disciplines in the humanities in which the topics covered in the book have been treated from different perspectives. Before Nature is the only work to examine systematically and comprehensively the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of the whole of Mesopotamian science from such a remarkable analytic and historical perspective. For this and many other reasons, not the least of which is the depth, breadth, and erudition that informs every page of the study, this book will certainly become the stand-alone reference point for this topic for many decades to come.”
Lorraine Daston, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
Before Nature is a challenging book in the best sense: it invites readers to rethink their most basic categories—including nature itself—through the lens of ancient Near Eastern conceptions of order and practices of observation, interpretation, and prediction. The evidence for an alternative form of knowledge is presented with rigor and imagination, and the result is an enlarged understanding of order, without nature or causes. Before Nature should be read by all historians of science, regardless of their specialties.”
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