In praise of Geoffrey Lloyd

Helen King

  • Methods and Problems in Greek Science: Selected Papers by G.E.R. Lloyd
    Cambridge, 457 pp, £45.00, May 1991, ISBN 0 521 37419 7

Geoffrey Lloyd has held the position of Professor of Ancient Philosophy and Science in the University of Cambridge since 1985. The creation of this personal chair not only honoured a great and generous scholar, but also gave a much-needed boost to the growing interest in ancient science: a subject which, over the last two centuries, had been pushed to the margins of Classical scholarship while simultaneously being eclipsed by the rise of modern science. As Lloyd points out, the antipathy between the Classics and the sciences is such that Latin and Greek have long been the traditional escape routes from the sciences at school.

For the Greeks, what we call science was ‘the inquiry into nature’, an inquiry carried out hand in hand with philosophy – so far as it is ever possible, or even desirable, to separate the two. For Lloyd, science is ‘what some’ of a society’s ‘members claim to know’. Every term of this definition is important, and it offers the key to Lloyd’s unique contribution to the history of science. First, it avoids any hint of ethnocentricity. Western science is not privileged as the yardstick by which other sciences should be measured, nor, in consequence, is science to be treated as a fixed object known partially to the Greeks and more fully to us. Second, and following on from this, Lloyd succeeds more than most in resisting what he describes as ‘the temptation to exaggerate the continuities in the history of science and represent it as a matter of a single, linear development’.

A rigorous rebuttal of the Whiggish approach also has important implications for the way in which we read those relatively few ancient scientific authors of whose work a substantial amount survives. How can we avoid misunderstanding their ideas by wrongly assuming that their thought and its expression developed in a linear fashion? For example, in ‘The Development of Aristotle’s Theory of the Classification of Animals’, Lloyd looks at attempts to set up a chronological sequence within Aristotle’s work. When one can distinguish between two opinions in Aristotle as superior and inferior, does this necessarily mean that the position allegedly superior – because closer to our own – is the later? Or do such discrepancies only indicate that he was writing for different audiences?

Third, Lloyd’s definition of science recognises that not all members of a society necessarily agree on what is known. One of the great enemies in Lloyd’s world is the grand generalisation; the label ‘Greek science’ itself runs the risk of covering over not just wide variation but hard-fought battles existing in different periods and between groups or individuals. Finally, it accepts that different societies know different things, not because some are ‘primitive’ and others ‘advanced’, but because knowledge is socially constructed. Claims to knowledge are validated in different ways in different societies, and different roles given to those who ‘know’.

Within this framework, why should we study the science of ancient Greece? Most obviously, because it is the ancestor of our own science. Here we come up against a major obstacle: the very depth of our debt to Greece makes it difficult to stand back and appreciate what is going on. Instead we tend to see the Greek achievement either as inevitable – and as thus needing no explanation – or as miraculous. The Greeks become just like ourselves, or a glorious race of virtual demi-gods. Lloyd shows that, because we assume that the cosmos is intelligible, we fail to appreciate how extraordinary such an assumption is, and thus fail to acknowledge its significance in Greek cosmologies. Yet it is possible for a culture to believe that there are no natural laws, and that the world is instead part of a vast game played by no fixed rules. The continuity between our cultures may thus hinder a proper appreciation of Greek science.

The solution, Lloyd proposes, is for the history of Greek science to be carried out only in the context of careful comparison with other societies’ science: not in order to show how one is superior but to develop a keener sense of the ways in which Greek science is, and is not, distinctive.

Not only data but also theoretical models and questions can be taken from studies of other cultures. Lloyd’s paper on right and left in Greek philosophy was inspired by Robert Hertz’s anthropological work on the distinction. Today, when far more Classical scholars are aware of work in the social sciences, and when, since the mid-Seventies, it has even been possible to take a first degree in Ancient History and Social Anthropology at University College London, it is noteworthy that Lloyd was contributing to cross-fertilisation between the disciplines as early as 1962. Lloyd regards the ancient Greeks as a test case for the opposing claims that, on the one hand, a right/left opposition is found in all societies – and is thus either innate to the human mind or learned from ‘nature’ – and, on the other, that it is only characteristic of hierarchically-structured social systems. What is most significant to him now as he looks back on this paper is the way in which the Greeks reflected on their own conceptual schemata: this is, for Lloyd, one point at which Greek thought was truly exceptional. Many peoples prefer right to left, and graft onto this pair others such as male/female, good/evil, light/dark, hot/cold. However, in Classical Greece it became possible for this classification to become explicit and even to be criticised, actors becoming observers of themselves. To employ the terms of Pierre Bourdieu (Outline of a Theory of Practice, published in this country in 1977), right/left moved out of the doxa, the universe of the undiscussed and undisputed, into the field of opinion, the universe of discourse and argument. How was this breakthrough – or even revolution – possible? Under what social conditions?

Some have looked for an answer to culture contact with the civilisations of the ancient Near East. Lloyd, however, is cautious: in the introduction to his lecture on ‘The Debt of Greek Philosophy and Science to the Ancient Near East’ he suggests that we should pay equal attention to failures of transmission of ideas. Others have seen the decisive factor as literacy, regarding improvements in the technology of communication as necessary precursors of intellectual change. For Lloyd, the most important factors are political: in ‘The Social Background of Early Greek Philosophy and Science’ he looks to the ferment of legal and political debate and the critical attitude to evidence of the Classical Greek city-state.

Lloyd’s method throughout is to proceed by refining questions to the point where it becomes possible to answer them. He therefore has little patience with what he regards as pointless questions leading to wasted effort: for example, the ‘Hippocratic question’ which still absorbs a considerable amount of scholarly energy in the search to identify, within the multi-author collection known as the Hippocratic corpus, some ‘genuine works’ of the great Father of Medicine. Lloyd notes that his own highly sceptical article of 1975 did nothing to diminish the fervour of this quest, even though there is no way of knowing whether the grail exists and scholarly knights differ on what it would look like even if it did. Like Galen, we identify as ‘genuine’ those works we most admire.

Lloyd concludes one of the previously unpublished papers with the provocative statement: ‘If Hippocrates had not existed, Galen would have had to invent him. But then, in a sense, he did.’ As Wesley Smith has argued in The Hippocratic Tradition, it is largely Galen who invented the pervasive image of Hippocrates as the ideal doctor, combining scientific method, moral principles, accurate physiology, pathology and psychology, and superior prognosis and therapy. Lloyd shows how, in order to produce this picture, Galen had to resort to unscrupulous scholarship, rejecting as inauthentic those passages in the ‘genuine’ works which did not fit the image. When accused by his rivals in second century AD Rome of using trendy new techniques, Galen claimed that he was merely a faithful follower of the divine Hippocrates. A selected past became ammunition in his contemporary battles, validating his own claims to knowledge.

Failure to experiment is an allegation sometimes levelled at Greek science. Lloyd shows, first, that different branches of science had different opportunities to experiment and responded differently to such opportunities: thus optics could and did, while astronomy couldn’t and didn’t, and chemistry could have but didn’t. A monolithic explanation will therefore be of little value. Secondly, he argues that experiments were not necessarily carried out for the reasons we would assume, given the ideals and practice of our own science. Rather than being used to discover the truth or to decide between two theories, experiments were most commonly undertaken in order to corroborate a hypothesis or to refute an opponent.

A further area in which we wrongly assume that we understand the motives behind a scientific technique is that of dissection. The first Greek to perform dissection, Lloyd has argued, was the early fifth century BC investigator Alcmaeon, who may have discovered the optic nerve by excising the eyeball: however, the practice did not catch on until after Aristotle. Far from being used as a research tool and as a prime method of medical instruction, dissection in the ancient world was above all employed as a spectacle, in order to increase the reputation of the practitioner. We even read of bets being laid by the audience on its outcome.

Dissection and experiment thus show the constraints imposed by the highly competitive social context of ancient medicine, where, in the absence of formal training and licensing procedures, it was a case of every healer for himself. They are also important in the context of the debate in the philosophy of science on whether research is led from theory or from observation. Lloyd’s paper on whether Popper or Kirk provides the best model for the origins of ancient science is reproduced here, and once more it is argued that generalisation is unhelpful. In the case of dissection, the technique is of little use unless there is a theory to test: but, once used, what is observed may generate more questions requiring new theories. Then there is the status of theory and of observation themselves. Are theories calculating devices – the instrumentalist view – or, as the realists would have it, true representations of the underlying physical realities? Both positions were held within ‘Greek science’. Again, should reason or perception be seen as the more trustworthy? Do those occasions on which perception misleads undermine all perception, or can reason explain these apparent anomalies?

In a previously unpublished lecture on ‘The Invention of Nature’ Lloyd develops some of the points made in his 1985 inaugural lecture, feeding them into the nature/culture debate within the social sciences. He shows how the Greeks forged their concepts of nature in controversy. Again, it is argued that rivalry between groups and individuals engaged in ‘the inquiry into nature’ is the instigator of change. In medical texts, the claim that all diseases are natural – rather than being sent by the gods – is a calculated attempt to take clients away from those experts who make a living by providing supernatural explanations: the diviners, soothsayers, priests and sellers of charms. However, the medical claims that diseases are natural, and that each has its own nature, were not usually accompanied by any success in understanding, let alone in controlling disease. Nature is used by Aristotle in a teleological sense, the nature of humanity being the adult male. Although the Greeks saw humans and animals as part of the same genus of ‘living creatures’, humanity was for Aristotle the truly natural species. Since in humanity the male is, Aristotle claimed, the longer-lived of the two sexes, it must be natural for the male in every species to live for longer than the female. He maintained this position despite finding species for which it was not the case. Aristotle’s concept of nature was thus profoundly normative.

If anything is to be criticised in this wide-ranging, detailed collection of pieces of rigorous scholarship and vigorous polemic, it must be the title. The whole enterprise in which Lloyd is engaged may make it impossible ever again to speak of ‘Greek science’ without at least imagining the inverted commas. Instead, the Greek ‘inquiry into nature’ can be seen to have been a pluralist quest, every generalisation about which carries deep risks. The institutional context within which the inquiry was conducted originated in, and led to, critical debate. Experiments and dissection were performed to counter opponents and impress the audience from which potential clients would perhaps come. Lloyd makes out a thoroughly persuasive case for the need to defamiliarise the material by immersion in other cultures, in order to minimise the stifling effects of undue deference to our ‘heritage’. At the same time, he shows that, despite the many infuriating gaps, the Greek ‘inquiry into nature’ is sufficiently well-documented to provide test cases for hypotheses formulated in the philosophy of science. His lead in setting the agenda for studies in the field may not always have been followed – witness the stubborn refusal of the ‘Hippocratic question’ to lie down and die – but it is nevertheless an honest and consistent lead.