Spiv v. Gentleman

Jonathan Barnes

  • The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece by Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin
    Yale, 348 pp, £25.00, February 2003, ISBN 0 300 09297 0

Already hailed in America as ‘climactic’ and ‘monumental’, The Way and the Word is the product of a collaboration between an eminent Hellenist and an expert Sinologist. It compares ancient Greek thought and ancient Chinese thought. The period of comparison is officially the six centuries from about 400 BC to about 200 AD, but in fact a considerable part of the Greek material is taken from the fifth century BC. Although the area of comparison is officially the physical sciences, together with the ‘physical’ part of philosophy, from which ethics and logic are excluded, a substantial part of the Chinese material deals with political and moral reflections.

The work has two ambitions. First, ‘it aims . . . to find a way of gaining from the joint study of two cultures understandings about each that would be unattainable if they were studied alone.’ Second, ‘the ambitious aim we have set ourselves is to explain why the various sciences that the Chinese and the Greeks developed took the form they did.’ Since ‘the key notion which guides our work is that the intellectual and social dimensions of every problem are parts of one whole,’ the joint study of the two cultures does not confine itself to philosophy and science but considers also the social and political backgrounds of the philosophers and scientists; and it is those backgrounds which provide the explanations for the different development of science and philosophy in East and West.

Hence the structure of the book, which – between an introductory chapter on ‘Aims and Methods’ and a conclusion called ‘Chinese and Greek Sciences Compared’ – is elegantly chiastic: a chapter on ‘The Social and Institutional Framework of the Chinese Sciences’ is followed by one on the Greek ditto; and then a chapter on ‘The Fundamental Issues of Greek Science’ is followed by one on the Chinese ditto. An idle reader may wonder why ‘sciences’ is plural in the titles of the Chinese chapters and singular for the Greeks; and why ‘framework’ is singular in both cases.

What do the comparisons between the Eastern and the Western backgrounds show? Well, there is a lot in common (otherwise a comparison of the two would be futile); but there are also numerous differences – and what at first looks like a common feature often turns out to be a subtle difference. And in any event, it is the differences which matter. The chief of them are these. First, ‘compared with their Chinese counterparts, Greek intellectuals were far more often isolated from the seats of political power.’ Second, in Greece there was a ‘lack of bureaucratisation: there was no institution analogous to the Chinese astronomical bureau.’ Third, a Greek was not required to produce any ‘formal qualifications’ in order to teach or to practise as a philosopher or scientist or doctor. These three differences had ‘important repercussions on the nature of the scientific work done in these two societies’: not merely on the form which that work took, but also on the substance of the ideas which it promoted.

The repercussions were sometimes direct: in China, ‘state support and the control that resulted from it strongly influenced intellectual endeavours’; and ‘the symbology of the emperor as mediator affected mathematics, alchemy, medicine and materia medica as strongly as, though in a different fashion than, it did astronomy.’ But the indirect repercussions were the more important. For the three institutional differences underlie and account for a general difference in temperament, or at any rate in behaviour, between Chinese and Greeks. This is the difference to which the title of the book alludes: the Chinese were collaborative, the Greeks competitive; in China agreement was sought out or else assumed to exist, in Greece rivalry flourished and was promoted; the Chinese contemplated, the Greeks reasoned. Greek thought is marked by ‘strident adversariality’ and ‘rationalistic aggressiveness’. The turbulent Greeks had to make their way in the ‘competitive hurly-burly of the Hellenic world’, whereas in gentle China an intellectual’s concern ‘was first and foremost persuading a ruler or his surrogates to want their advice’. When Chinese meets Chinese, then comes no tug-of-war.

How do these sociological facts bear on the history of science and philosophy? In several ways. First, the adversariality and aggression manifest themselves in a certain philosophical style. ‘There is no record of public philosophical arguments in ancient China . . . The philosophic focus remained on writing.’ But in Greece, dialectic and viva voce debate were the breath of philosophy. There was public argument and public polemic; and as for private reflection, did Plato not declare that thought is the soul bickering with itself?

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