Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science

Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science

by Francesca Rochberg


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Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science by Francesca Rochberg

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226406138
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/01/2017
Pages: 392
Sales rank: 1,289,195
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Francesca Rochberg is professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Before Nature

Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science

By Francesca Rochberg

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-40627-5


Science and Nature

pirišti ilani rabûti "secret knowledge of the great gods"

Modern universalism flows directly from naturalist ontology, based as it is on the principle that beyond the muddle of particularisms endlessly churned out by humans, there exists a field of truths reassuringly regular, knowable via tried and trusted methods, and reducible to immanent laws the exactness of which is beyond blight from their discovery process. In short, cultural relativism is only tolerable, indeed interesting to study, in that it stands against the overwhelming background of a natural universalism where truth seekers can seek refuge and solace. Mores, customs, ethos vary but the mechanisms of carbon chemistry, gravitation and DNA are identical for all.

PHILIPPE DESCOLA, "Who Owns Nature?"

Where the social world of another culture is at issue, we have learned, against our own deep-seated ethnocentric resistance, to take shock for granted. We can, and in my view must, learn to do the same for their natural worlds.

THOMAS KUHN, "The Natural and the Human Sciences," in The Road since Structure: Thomas S. Kuhn


There is nothing self-evident about nature. Neither the phenomena of nature nor the environment as such have always been understood in the way we now understand them, and yet we tend to assume that what we call the natural world with its myriad forms, regularities, and irregularities confronts us all and always has. Haven't we always stood and still stand "before nature," observing, inquiring, and seeking to understand it as a whole, or in its parts? There is a serious question of reference that fails to justify such an assumption. Neither the sense nor the reference of the word is absolute across cultures and history. What we make of "the natural world" is a direct function of our particular moment in history, our particular cultural idiom and imagination. R. G. Collingwood concluded his extended historical essay on the idea of nature with the observation that

nature, though it is a thing that really exists, is not a thing that exists in itself or in its own right, but a thing which depends for its existence upon something else ... that natural science is not a tissue of fancies or fabrications, mythology or tautology, but is a search for truth ... but that natural science is not, as the positivists imagined, the only department or form of human thought about which this can be said, and is not even a self-contained and self-sufficient form of thought, but depends for its very existence upon some other form of thought which is different from it and cannot be reduced to it.

At issue in the following chapters is not the ontological problem of whether there is a mind-independent universal state of physical reality that we call nature, a realm apart from human interaction with it, operating in accordance with its own immutable and universal laws. Nor is it the historical problem of the development of the conception of that universal nature. Neither are the various naturalisms relevant to the study of cuneiform knowledge and the world to which it refers — methodological naturalism, where the supernatural has no place in scientific explanation; metaphysical naturalism, where the supernatural does not exist and all supervenes on nature; epistemological naturalism, where knowledge is attached to things such as natural kinds; or ontological naturalism, where only science ascertains what exists (sometimes but not always equated with physicalism). None of these positions will help us gain purchase on the cuneiform world of inquiry about phenomena.

The effort to understand the world of our perception and experience of phenomena might be a basic way to define the impetus for science, even though quite different ways of construing objects of inquiry and different methods of knowing have been historically encompassed by what we call science. There have been any number of claims as to when and where science emerged, from the beginnings of European modernity, to the European Middle Ages, to the classical Greek period, and even in ancient Babylonia. A claim that parts of the ancient cuneiform corpus contain evidence of the thinking and doing of science may well be an affirmation that Theseus's ship retained at least something of its identity after having had all its planks replaced. At the same time, and whether one agrees or not that the "ship of science" was launched from ancient Mesopotamia to be utterly changed by the modern period, it seems plain that the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian scribes of the cuneiform world had no stakes in knowing nature as such.

From a modern Western scientific perspective such a world is difficult to imagine. But as Philippe Descola stated the matter: "Seen from the point of view of a hypothetical Jivaro or Chinese historian of science, Aristotle, Descartes, and Newton would not appear so much as the revealers of the distinctive objectivity of nonhumans and the laws that govern them, rather, they would seem the architects of a naturalistic cosmology altogether exotic in comparison with the choices made by the rest of humanity in order to classify the entities of the world and establish hierarchies and discontinuities among them." So too did Assyrian and Babylonian scribes engage with the entities of the world from a perspective different from that which lies at the basis of science in its later Western forms. The scribes' engagement with the world, as preserved in learned cuneiform texts, was not presumptive of nature, consequently not open to the possibilities for methodological, epistemological, ontological, and metaphysical naturalisms. In that sense, "before nature" is meant to represent the perspective before the conception of nature was formulated, a perspective wholly open to reconstruction and interpretation. What is offered here is but one such reconstruction and interpretation.

In the cuneiform world, ominous phenomena in general, and astral phenomena in particular, were observed, analyzed, calculated, and predicted by learned and specialized scribes. Entities of the external world were of interest, for example, to diviners, and to medical practitioners, who knew about the efficacy of plants used in administering the sick by mouth, aromatic woods for his or her fumigation, and stones used in making amulets to aid in conjuring evil spirits viewed as responsible for disease. As well, lists and descriptions of objects in the physical environment are attested in extensive bilingual Sumerian and Akkadian lexical lists of the writings of words for trees, birds, domestic and wild animals (from the series Ura Tablet XIII, for example), or, indeed, in the simile-filled descriptions of landscape and terrain traversed by the Assyrian army as well as the flora and fauna encountered and described in the highly literary accounts of Neo-Assyrian annals. All of these texts are evidence of the interest in, awareness of, and observance of all kinds of things that exist in the topographies of heaven and earth. But as Niek Veldhuis said in reference to the Sumerian lexical corpus, "the aim of this scholarship was not to understand nature or geography but to understand Sumerian and Sumerian writing." To better represent the interests and aims of cuneiform scribal culture vis-à-vis the physical environment, it seems that we ought to divest ourselves of nature as a heuristic category.

Functioning as a posit for the discussion to follow, therefore, is that a sense of nature in our or any other historical terms, such as in Greek or Roman antiquity — in which already there were multiple meanings of nature, including that which encompassed the divine — was not a factor in cuneiform sources bearing on the study of phenomena. And yet a great many phenomena that we would classify as natural exerted a strong pull on the intellectuals of cuneiform society, seen most sharply in the areas of what we designate as astronomy, celestial divination, natal astrology, as well as other kinds of divination, where many different phenomena were taken as signs from the gods.

Cuneiform texts seeking to know about the phenomena were not alone in antiquity in their interest in the connection between divinity and the world. Ancient Greek astronomy and cosmology exhibit a strong commitment to the idea of the heavens as divine. Even among the philosophers of the Old Academy entities such as demons and spirits, somewhere between human beings and gods had to be fitted into the world as a whole. As P. Merlan put it, "We should call them supernatural, but for a Platonist, as for many other Greeks, the concept of nature was much wider than for us and simply included such entities. We must not forget that in the philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus even gods become 'natural' entities and are simply nature's products." It is, therefore, not simply a matter of the gods versus nature. It is the question of how to reimagine a framework for phenomena that does not involve all-encompassing nature, and how methods of knowing can function within such a framework through the use of empirical, deductive, associative, and analogical reasoning. The relationship between what we think of as natural phenomena and what the Assyro-Babylonian scribes thought of as signs will be a principal point of entry into these questions.


Signs, or omens, in cuneiform texts are to be distinguished from anomalies, prodigies, or what later might have been seen as marvels or wonders. Unlike the miraculous, signs in the cuneiform omen corpus are not limited to anomalous occurrences, although certainly anomalies were an important part of the vast divinatory enterprise. An entire omen series was devoted to anomalous births (Šumma izbu). Anomalies were, however, not defined against nature, or as preternatural, but against certain patterns within which phenomena were observed to occur in an ordered world.

A phenomenon such as a solar eclipse, before its regularity and periodicity were known, must assuredly have been a wonder, and a terrifying one at that. But by the time such signs were recorded and systematized into textual series, Babylonian and Assyrian treatment of solar eclipses as signs is no longer explainable wholly in terms of wonders. Given that by the middle of the first millennium BCE, the Saros period governing eclipse possibilities, both lunar and solar, was understood by Babylonian astronomers, the response to a solar eclipse, for those who could calculate one, can hardly be explained in terms of wonders. At the same time, however, to count the Saros cycle texts as testimony to an understanding of, or even interest in, the laws of nature would be an anachronistic way of viewing them.

The biblical passages making reference to the "signs and wonders" (Deut. 26:8 and Neh. 9:10) that accompanied the Israelites' exodus from Egypt refer to divine miracles sent by God against the regular order of nature, the plagues that affected only part of the population, people speaking in "tongues." When Joshua commanded the sun to stand still over Gibeon, and the moon to do likewise over the Valley of Aijalon, and Yahweh stopped the celestial bodies in their tracks "in the middle of the sky" for an entire day (Josh. 10:12–14), these too were divine miracles, decisive for the Israelite army against the Amorites. Each miracle demonstrated the power of God to disrupt cosmic order at will and also to drive the narrative about the Israelites' successes against their enemies.

The demonstration of divine power by manipulation of celestial bodies was not unknown in the cuneiform literary tradition. In the Akkadian poem "When Above" (Enuma Eliš IV 19–26), authorization of Marduk's supremacy among the Babylonian pantheon is based precisely upon such a demonstration:

They set up among them a certain constellation,
To Marduk their firstborn they said (these words),
"Your destiny, O Lord, shall be foremost of the gods,"
"Command destruction or creation, they shall take place.
"At your word the constellation shall be destroyed,
"Command again, the constellation shall be intact."
He commanded and at his word the constellation was destroyed,
He commanded again and the constellation was created anew.

And it was upon this demonstration of limitless power that Marduk was entitled to make the world (from the body of the slain Tiamat) and establish order in the celestial universe, maintaining the courses of the stars by shepherding them like sheep (Enuma Eliš VII 130–31).

The examples of "wondrous signs" in the biblical passages, as well as the destruction and creation of the constellation in the Akkadian poem, were one-off events in literary contexts, reflecting not empirical but metaphysical value, which is to say, not facts but truths. They had a didactic, if not a political, agenda, focusing on the power of God/Marduk. As such the literary texts are to be distinguished from the cuneiform omen texts. The literary texts tell of wonders in a didactic (or politically informed) narrative framework about God, or a god, whereas the omen texts compile the phenomena classified as ominous for the purpose of interpreting both regularly and anomalously occurring phenomena in an observable world.

The understanding of signs as compiled in omen texts was intrinsically related to the notion of divine action in the world. An ominous phenomenon seems to have been understood as part of a divine plan, a design (usurtu), for human events, not as a demonstration of divine disruption of world order. The relation between the miraculous in the literary context of Enuma Eliš and the signs in omen texts does not indicate discrepant worldviews but different aims of different texts and textual categories (religio-historical, literary-scholarly, divinatory-scholarly). Having pragmatic rather than literary or didactic value, omen texts provided a systematic scholarly reference compilation of the various ways to read the meaning of phenomena in heaven and on earth for the events of human life.

The attention to signs and wonders in the later history of science is the subject of Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park's Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750, where they noted that "wonders as objects marked the outermost limits of the natural," and they read a history of the orders of nature in the "history of wonders as objects of natural inquiry." Their book focused on wonders, not miracles, that is, on what they called preternatural wonders, not the supernatural, employing a distinction theologians and philosophers of medieval Christian culture make between two ontological orders, one in which the laws of nature can be suspended by the Almighty, the other, as Daston and Park described it, "suspended between the mundane and the miraculous." These early views on the order of nature precede the formation of naturalism and were firmly rooted in antiquity. What may functionally resemble an "order of nature" in the cuneiform tradition, the "designs of heaven and earth" (usurat šamê u erseti), however, is not to be so readily assimilated to its medieval and early modern counterparts.

Even when an anomaly in the world of cuneiform divinatory signs was construed in relation to a notion of right order, laid down by the gods as a part of the "designs of heaven and earth," there seems to be a qualitative difference between that notion of a divinely determined right or ideal order and the Greek conception of anomaly with respect to the essential character of something (its "nature," as expressed in the term phusis). It is because of the absence of the background idea of nature that in the cuneiform world the category "sign" (Sumerian GISKIM, Akkadian giskimmu,ittu) had a different sense from the wonders observed and studied by the medieval Christians and Renaissance natural philosophers that form the subjects of Daston and Park's Wonders.

Concerning extispicy, the inspection of the entrails of the sacrificed animal, the Assyrian scribes addressed the sun-god Shamash, saying "in the exta of the sheep you (Shamash) write omens," and the liver is referred to as the "tablet of the gods." In reference to celestial signs, the final paragraph of Enuma Anu Enlil Tablet 22 refers to the three great cosmic deities, Anu, Enlil, and Ea, drawing the constellations as though on a road map of heaven, and describes that "When Anu, Enlil, and Ea created heaven and earth, they made known the ominous signs (giskimmu), they set up the stations (nanzazu), secured the positions (gisgallu) of the gods of the night ... divided the (celestial) roads of the stars their (the gods') likenesses, drew the constellations." The great gods' drawing of the constellations (expressed with the verb eseru "to draw") upon the heavens and the establishment of the cosmic "designs of heaven and earth" (expressed with the derived noun usurtu/usuratu) are conceptually related.


Excerpted from Before Nature by Francesca Rochberg. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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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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