Project Overview

The Needham Questioning: An Integrative Philosophy of Knowledge

Faculty Sponsor

Jing Wang (


East Asian Languages and Literatures


This book project revolves around the so-called Needham question (named after him but not first raised by him): Why did modern science happen in Europe, but not in China? Scholars have provided various explanations from their respective disciplinary perspectives for over a century now, yet none seems to be more plausible than others. Experts in the field agree that Joseph Needham, the renowned British biochemist who rewrote the history of science by bringing to light traditional Chinese contributions in a twenty-seven-volume series titled Science and Civilisation in China, did not offer any answer to the question. My project looks at the ideology behind the Needham question and explores Needham's system of thought as an integrative whole in order to highlight his methodological questioning regarding knowledge. Hopefully, understanding who Needham is as a cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary thinker would help reveal the logic of Needham’s work, which would in turn resolve the paradox of the lack of an answer to the question why China fell behind Europe in modern science.
This project grew out of my sustained efforts to address my intellectual perplexities in teaching Chinese language and culture through Western-centered discourse. Ways of gaining new knowledge are my ultimate concern, and Needham’s handling of the Needham question - instead of simply answering it as expected - serves as a good example.
The hired student will help me take and organize notes, compile bibliography, read some of my draft for discussion, and otherwise research as needed. The student will be asked to: a. take notes (typing) on original Chinese sources or on sources in English as needed; b. discuss sources worked on; c. reading some of my drafts and respond with questions and comments; d. compile bibliography. 

Student Qualifications

The student is expected to: (1) be motivated, disciplined, and flexible, (2) demonstrate native or near native familiarity with an East Asian culture, preferably China, (3) be a strong reader.  While it is likely that the student selected will be a major in philosophy, history, education, or biology / biochemistry, and have a strong interest in scientific thought, applications from all interested students are welcome.

Number of Student Researchers

1 student

Project Length

10 weeks, hopefully from Monday May 10 to Friday July 23. weeks

Applications open on 01/03/2021 and close on 03/22/2021

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If you have questions, please contact Karyn Belanger (