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Before Nature

Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science

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.

392 pages | 1 halftone, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2016

History: Ancient and Classical History, History of Ideas

History of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


"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."


“Rochberg examines knowledge about the non-human world embodied in Assyrian and Babylonian cuneiform texts. This volume is concrete, detailed, and scholarly in descriptions of how these texts treat observations, regularities, and explanations; the author also teases out an enormous range of implications for the history and philosophy of science. The contrast between the ways in which these texts describe and conceptualize knowledge of the world highlights the manner in which more familiar modern Western concepts of science and knowledge are cultural constructs rather than necessary or inevitable. Precise and clear writing eases an intrinsically challenging work that calls presuppositions into question and raises subtle but consequential distinctions. Scholarly footnotes and a wide-ranging bibliography will facilitate further work, and no doubt some revisions of the author's conclusions. This work will stand as a fundamental reference in any good library of history, philosophy, or cultural studies. Recommended.”


"A significant addition to current conversations on scribal knowledge and intellectual traditions in the ancient Near East. . . . Before Nature is a must‐read for scholars of the ancient Near East and the Classical world, as well as historians of science and philosophy."

The Historian

"Positing the absence of a Mesopotamian concept of 'nature' as a fundamental discontinuity between Mesopotamian and later Western approaches to the phenomenal world, Rochberg offers a compelling case that they nonetheless display sufficient kinship to grant—indeed, necessitate—a place for cuneiform knowledge in the history of science. . . . Rochberg’s formidable command of ancient sources and modern theoretical literature yields convincing arguments for specific continuities and discontinuities, shedding new light on the conceptual frameworks of Mesopotamian scholarship. . . . Before Nature is at once an innovative analysis of the intellectual output of a specific culture and a thought-provoking take on a perennial question: How can we approach the knowledge traditions of societies that conceive of the world in a fundamentally different way from ourselves? . . . Important reading not only for specialists in ancient scholarship but for all intellectual historians."

Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society

"Rochberg weaves together primary sources from the ancient Near East and classical world alongside concepts and themes from a wide array of modern disciplines—from Assyriology, Classics, and the history and philosophy of science to anthropology, sociology, and economics—creating a dense network of authors and ideas that help to illuminate her many arguments. . . . Before Nature is a very important work that re-conceptualizes science in ancient Mesopotamia. This monograph is a major contribution to both Assyriology and the history and philosophy of science, and will certainly become a central work to those interested in the intersection of these disciplines."

Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

"Rochberg is a leading figure in the study of Mesopotamian science. . . . Before Nature is her boldest attempt to characterize how the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians thought about their world. Her book is an erudite meditation on what understanding the world might have meant to Mesopotamian scholars. . . . A thoughtful and detailed overview of this world, and the ways in which cuneiform scholars systematized and understood the disparate phenomena they found there."

Inference: International Review of Science

“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.”

Geoffrey Lloyd, Needham Research Institute

“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.”

Paul Delnero, Johns Hopkins University

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.”

Lorraine Daston, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

"This book is an extremely important landmark for the understanding of Mesopotamian thought and the history of science in Antiquity. . ."

Cadmo: Journal for Ancient History (Translated from Portuguese)

Table of Contents

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


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