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Geoffrey Lloyd & Nathan Sivin: The Way And The Word:
Science and Medicine in early China and Greece
(Yale: 2002)


“This book is about the beginnings of science and medicine in early China and Greece. It aims to explore comparison, 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.... [And,] as our study proceeded, we found that we were investigating what we have come to call, for want of an established term, a cultural manifold. Rather than comparing concepts or factors one at a time, we begin with the commonplace assertion that scientific ideas or medical insights do not occur in a vacuum.... Ideas are part of a continuum that includes what thinkers want out of life, who they consider their colleagues to be, how they agree or disagree with them, how they make sense of the world around them, and what political and social choices they make. Because these are the dimensions of what intellectuals in every culture do, exploring their interconnections is fruitful... For the sum of all these dimensions we use the term ‘manifold.’ Its content is unique to every society, and to some extent to each stratum within it. It is constantly changing, but cultures do persist.... Delineating a manifold becomes a great deal easier when their is a dissimilar one with which to compare it. We wish to show in this this book that that kind of comparative enterprise is not only feasible, but illuminating.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.xi-ii)

Comparative work has, in general, been disparaged of late in the Humanities, due to the excessive impact of relativistic pieties under postmodernism. Thankfully, however, certain distinguished scholars have seen this as a challenge, and taken it upon themselves to demonstrate that (genuinely informed) comparative approaches - contra the critics - provide us w/our very best tools for understanding just how ideas are embedded in social institutions...and exactly how genuinely complex such matters are:


“We do not think of social factors as determining thought, nor of ideas as changing society. These are not external causes. Thinkers respond to, but also influence, institutions and prevalent values. Thus, we do not speak of inquiry in context. Context is not an autonomous setting that may or may not be connected to inquiry. Technical work and its circumstances are parts of one thing, even though the specialization of modern scholarship encourages dismembering it.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, p.3)

And, of those who’ve seriously tackled comparative work of late, no project has been more truly impressive than that of G.E.R. Lloyd & Nathan Siven...in which two leading scholars of ancient science (Greek and Chinese, respectively) have sought to correlate their work - over the last decade - so as to mutually-illuminate both their subject matters, and the fraught question of the relation between ideas and social forms. Another unfortunate victim of relativism is also addressed here - albeit indirectly - the question of why it was “Western” science that made the breakthrough into genuinely cumulative (collectively self-correcting) learning, rather than some other tradition. As Lloyd & Sivin argue, that tradition itself was highly pluralistic in its origins - something far too little known - and hence had already benefited from the input of a whole range of cultural traditions before its adoption/adaptation in divided (and hence pluralistic) Europe...


“If no culture, including the Greek, aimed toward modern science, it is idle to ask why anyone, obviously including the Greeks, did not get there. The historical questions that interest us are, rather, In what circumstances did inquiries about the world outside human society begin? and What paths did those enquiries open up? Questions about which of the two cultures discovered more facts or methods similar to today’s knowledge tend not only to be distracting, but to yield misleading answers. They are misleading because small similarities between past and present are almost always irrelevant to the big picture, and what seem to be striking likenesses tend to fade and disappear under close examination.... As a corollary, modern natural science is not the unilinear descendent of Greek natural philosophy. That myth evaporated long ago, as historians came to understand the context of enquiry. Instead, they trace the ancestry of modern specialities to the cosmopolitan blend of Syriac, Persian, ancient Middle Eastern, Indian, East Asian, and Greco-Roman traditions that formed in the Muslim world. This blend entered Europe beginning about A.D. 1000, bringing many powerful components of which the Greeks had not even dreamt. It stimulated change that has accelerated up to the present day.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, p.xiii)

The Way And The Word treats social frameworks before ideas - and China and Greece in separate chapters - albeit the text is full of comments drawing our attention to correlations and contrasts, while the final chapter does an admirable job of drawing the threads together. Nonetheless, Lloyd and Sivin are surely correct to start w/society...particularly society before such intellectual traditions had really developed...


“The most fundamental difference in early Chinese society was between those who were eligible for office and those who were not.... [And] even before the six centuries we are studying, a common label for those whose livelihood depended on their hearts and minds was ‘shih.’ The evolving meanings of this label as society changed are very much to the point. In the eighth century B.C. it referred to the lower strata of hereditary aristocrats entitled to bear arms. They expected each other to be more or less literate, but not learned. In the endless political convulsions from that time on, peasant armies on foot took over the fighting from wellborn warriors in their chariots. The nobles who inherited ministerial posts dropped out of the local courts as civil servants subservient to the rulers took their place. Because members of bureaucratic families regularly inherited office, their clans formed a new, mostly lower aristocracy. As wars wiped out state after state, and ruling families and powerful rivals struggled within states, the losers lost their status. ‘Shih’ came to designate all sorts of wellborn men, no longer bred to fight, no longer heirs to power, supporting themselves by official employment, patronage, and other pursuits that required literacy or other expertise. As some fell in the world, others rose from obscurity. The result was greater social diversity in a no longer closed (but far from very open) elite.... The Han dynasty changed the equation by instituting a central civil service, but authors continued to use ‘shih’ for the pool of those potentially qualified to join it. By 100 B.C. (four centuries after Confucius), shih were likely to be landowners, wellborn but seldom titled and usually literate...[and] by A.D. 200 shih tended to come from wealthy families (now wellborn by definition) and to be educated in the classics; many disengaged themselves from the [now] failing central government.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.16-18)

“Throughout Greco-Roman antiquity, the first and fundamental social division was between slave and free...[and] the free included more or less aristocratic and more or less well-to-do families...but with the rise of the institutions of the city-state at the beginning of the classical period (from the end of the sixth century B.C.) their influence declined...because of changes in warfare. The use of hoplites (heavily armed infantrymen) in massed formations meant that  victory in battle depended less on individual prowess than on disciplined coordination. Their increasing military importance weakened the grip the ancient families had on political power (as analogously it did in China)... If, in theory, the Greeks recognized distinctions between occupations that bear some resemblance to the conventional Chinese schematization of gentleman, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants...in practice, in most Greek city-states of the classical period there was no soldier class. The fighting was done by the same body of men who had taken the decision, in the Assembly, to go to war, and had elected the generals to lead them. The soldiers accordingly might also perform one or more of the further functions of farmers, craftsmen, traders [and] quite a high proportion of the citizens may have owned some land....[while] the main divisions within the state actually observed in Solon’s constitution (early sixth century B.C.), for instance, were based on property.... Wealth, then, was more important than occupation.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.82-5)

Here we can see, right from the start, major differences in relevant aspects of the two societies. For, although Chinese social differences were not as wide as those in Greece - due to the lack of a major place for slavery in Chinese society - those differences that did exist were much more firmly marked, and corresponded with a literate divide that did not really exist in the Greek world, with its much simpler and more flexible alphabetic system. Furthermore, as Jared Diamond has argued, geographic factors have tended to unify China & divide Europe...while the ancient Greek world is undoubtedly an exemplar of political division.

So, already - well before the traditions under investigation emerged - we have an inter-related cluster of differences (in geography, social divisions, writing systems) all of which will prove significant. At this point, however, these may perhaps best be focused by the observation that the legitimating principal in the Chinese order was, from a very early date, ritualistic/unifying...whereas in Greece, legitimacy was always a fundamentally contested notion, agonistic/divisive in essence. We can even see this connection - as well as a geographical one - in the origins of their respective writing systems: the Chinese symbols originating (sui generis) in the oracle records of ritual, and the Greek system borrowed (and substantially improved) amid the agonistic competition of trade. And, whilst trade was also significant in China, it never seriously competed w/the ritual order at the level of ideas:


“Wealth was regularly changing hands [in China]. With a landowning, office-holding elite eager to consume and purveyors ready to oblige, its redistribution was inevitable. In the second half of our period, members of families who had made large fortunes from trade or manufacture were becoming officials, and scions of clans with traditions of civil service were going into business. Independent small farmers were unwillingly becoming tenants on large estates exempt from ruinous taxation. The traditional boundaries between the social strata were thoroughly blurred. [But] the conventional key to status and thus privilege remained education, and access to it continued to depend largely on birth.... A bookish family at a given time might or might not have a member in office or might lose its land. Poor shih families understood that literacy kept them respectable.... Within occupational groups, the Greeks sometimes asserted literacy as a mark of prestige. But in China by 400 B.C. it was too common among the elite and too sparse outside it to signify exceptional status. What played the corresponding role was fastidious ritual behavior and moral sentiments.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.19-21)

“Throughout our six centuries, in independent states and then in the imperial court, [Chinese] governments employed a good many literate functionaries.... Patronage supported a few eminent intellectuals before the Han, and employment gradually supplanted it afterward. ‘Patronage’ can mean a great many things...[but] only a handful of the clients that patrons supported were inquirers after wisdom. Guests were more likely to be masters of useful arts, advisors on rulership and strategy, trainers in military techniques, persuaders, confidential messengers, assassins, or experts in dirty tricks. Among the unlikely clients who turned out to be indispensable in emergencies were an expert in shouting loudly, a man whose only special skill was crowing like a rooster, and a burglar who pursued his calling as a dog.... Patrons wanted neither basic research nor innovative perceptions, but...the secrets of effective rule. They wanted rational solutions to problems of policy and administration - to impose order on disorder. They wanted justifications of government that would build support for the state. And, not least, they wanted widely-admired people at their beck and call, ready to entertain their courtiers and confound their enemies.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.27-30)

“Compared with their Chinese counterparts, Greek intellectuals were far more isolated from the seats of political power...[and] the ambition to advise a ruler, commonplace in China, was exceptional in the Greek context. [Moreover,] Greco-Roman rulers were not famous for gathering intellectuals around them to tell them how to restore order...nor did those rulers need to collect intellectuals to provide them with what would pass as an orthodox cosmology to legitimate their rule. If they had tried, they would in any case have failed, for no Greek cosmology won out against its rivals.... [In addition,] there is a lack of bureaucratization...[and] no formal [educational] qualifications in ancient Greece.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.102-3)

If the solution in China was felt to be unity - and, therefore, the most pressing problem was how to ensure stability w/in same (hence ritual) - such a solution was never really seen as feasible in the Greek world. In consequence, winning one’s independence (a never-ending struggle) was the closest thing to a “solution” that could be envisaged. It’s also important to note that the Chinese writing system - being ideographic - required much more in the way of interpretation than did the alphabetic Greek...reinforcing traditionalism over innovation in transmission. Unfortunately, one would need to read Havelock in conjunction w/Lloyd & Sivin to discover this fact, since they do not discuss the impact of the (very) different writing systems here...yet another example of how this question is generally ignored by most scholars. Still, this is the only major lacuna I could find in their argument...a considerable feat when one stops to consider just how many factors they have to deal with in this book.


Individuality - personal character, original points of view, iconoclasm, and idiosyncrasy - was not at all rare in early China. Every philosopher down to 250 B.C., and most of those later, spoke with a characteristic voice about a personal vision.... Even those who wanted to conform were critical about what one should conform to. They were, in other words, no less complicated than Greeks, or us.... [But,] if you use ‘individuality’ less broadly, for thinkers who refuse to identify themselves with any group, we find few of them. As soon as one of those few became influential, a lineage tended to grow out of his teachings and to aim for their permanent transmission.... The Chinese norms, then, were identification with a group and aspiration toward an imagined orthodoxy.... They were the mirror image of the Hellenic emphasis on a thinker’s own ideas even when he nominally belonged to a group.... In considering what social relationships underlay education, it will be well to ponder some advice...‘In studying it is essential to progress in learning in such a way that there will be no confusion in the mind. Memorize [the texts] avidly. Respectfully wait for a break in [what the teacher is saying], and if you see that he is in a good mood, ask about the meaning of the book. Make your ears and mouth obedient so that you do not contradict his intentions. When you have left him, ponder what he has said.’ This ideal of learning, although it stresses person-to-person teaching, is centered on the written book. The key is the pupil’s receptivity as the teacher expounds the text. The notion is authoritarian, but it anticipates the teacher’s solicitude in response to the discipline’s devotion and obedience.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.42-5)

“Changing career patterns over six hundred years affected members of an elite that valued harmony and tended to worry that disagreement would verge on heterodoxy. Although disagreement in fact played fruitful roles in every department of thought, it did so indirectly and in most cases without direct confrontation... The Chinese mirror image of Greek public debate was a tendency to seek agreement and to claim it even when it did not exist.... Acerbity entered when the issue was orthodoxy, seldom otherwise.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.80-1)

“Argument and debate were essential to the activity of the Greek schools in their competitions with one another both for pupils and for prestige. In those circumstances, it helped to have allies, and you relied on your comembers for support. Yet you were not necessarily able to rely on them completely, for the possibility of their defection was always there...[still,] all sects acted as more or less stable, more or less well-organized and close-knit alliances for defensive and offensive argument. The Greek schools were there not just, and not even primarily, to hand over a body of teaching, let alone a canon of learned texts, but to attract pupils and win arguments with their rivals.... These structural and organizational aspects of the way most Greek philosophizing was conducted help to explain two of its distinctive features: its pluralism and its strident adversariality. When differences of opinion existed, on fundamentals or on matters of detail, they were certainly not minimized but explored and exploited.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.110-11)

“Much Greek philosophy and science...seems haunted by the law court - by Greek law courts, that is, where there were no specialized judges, no juries limited to a mere dozen people, but where the dicasts could number thousands of ordinary citizens acting as both judge and jury. No one who has a philosophical or scientific idea to propose in any culture can fail to want to make the most of it. But a distinctive Greek feature was the need to win, against all comers, even in science, a zero-sum game in which your winning entails the opposition losing.... It was not the usual style to think of everyone having insights worth preserving, of everyone making a contribution to the truth.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, p.138)

As the authors go on to argue, neither of these approaches to argument is without major flaws. Quite simply...the Chinese found it v.difficult to discard unproductive ideas, and the Greeks found it equally difficult to agree on any sort of fundamental framework of shared ideas and terms. It’s quite noticeable that these two problems were to be corrected in the very foundation of modern science, leading to the creation of a genuinely critical yet consensual approach to knowledge - albeit to achieve this, the questions under consideration had to be strongly limited to those susceptible to empirical enquiry.

On thing quickly noted about The Way And The Word is the wide range of insightful arguments which tie together social factors and intellectual concepts/methods, including many examples little known to non-specialists. A marvellous example of same are the following two strongly contrasting treatments of mathematics...an area one would think would be relatively immune from such:


“The corpus of work written by or ascribed to Euclid represents one extreme of the spectrum from the point of view of impersonality.... Nothing, we might say, could be further from rhetoric than mathematics. Precisely. The mathematicians cultivated a style of argument as different as could be from those of the orators, not just persuasive or plausible but demonstrating incontrovertible conclusions by deduction from self-evident axioms.... Yet rhetoric and dialectic may, paradoxically, still be present...though as negative models.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.132-3)

Mathematical Methods in Nine Chapters...is a collection of solved problems, with the answer to each and step-by-step instructions for solving it...[and] reflects the inverse of the Greek effort to deduce many true propositions from a few axioms...[offering] algorithms without proofs...[and no] explicit concepts or contexts.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.229-30)

In fact, the axiomatic approach was highly attractive right across ancient Greek science...even, amusingly, in areas (such as medicine) where it had no natural purchase. On the other hand, incontrovertibility was no such grail in China, where synthesis better matched the gentlemanly philosophical ideal, and where manners were quite liable to trump learning when advising absolute rulers. This had other effects as well:


“Chinese philosophy, lacking the competitive abrasiveness that underlay the Greek variety, remained narrower in its range of exploration and more inclined to seek general agreement on basic issues. This makes it easier to understand another basic difference. Hellenic thinkers fundamentally redefined rare words or coined new ones to take the initiative away from their opponents...[whilst] Chinese cosmologists instead adapted or combined familiar words to fit new technical contexts, which their older meanings still influenced. Thus they built up a comprehensive account out of materials that were already part of courtly discourse. This was a less disruptive tactic, better suited to an environment in which discretion counted.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, p.238)

And, interestingly, while Greek unification made for a less political philosophy, the reverse was probably true in China...albeit both cultures moved towards more unified intellectual worlds, with the Chinese clearly moving further in this direction...


“The aftermath of the Ch’in unification transformed scholarship. The First Emperor tried to destroy proscribed books in private hands, and...from then on, many [scholars] saw a primary object of education to be ensuring that the classics of their tradition were not lost. That made memorization of the exact text and meticulous copying of manuscripts all the more important.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, p.46)

“The Han state imagined and worked out ideal, rational, invariant structures of government. If a bureaucracy is a formal structure that endures, and aims to function identically, regardless of what individuals fill its posts, then a bureaucracy is what the Han instituted. Appointment still depended heavily on birth, but the government did take a large step toward the mature system of a thousand years later.... The government mainly needed functionaries trained to carry out routine court functions and experts on precedent who could maintain established usages. Those responsible for significantly technical tasks were a decided minority...[and] most positions required little rational analysis and no original thought.... [Furthermore, with] only one emperor whose fancy one could hope to strike, innovations that did not appeal to him were generally abortive...[and] even those who opted out of the system largely responded to its terms.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.34-41)

“Here are the official qualifications, from the founding document of the [Chinese] Grand Academy: ‘those of seventeen years of age or older, of serious manner and deportment...fond of cultivation through study, respectful toward elders and superiors, with a respectful attitude toward the government’s enactments and its moral teachings, compliant in their native places, not contrary in their goings and comings.’ These attitudes and modes of conformity were preparation for the education of a bureaucrat, not an innovator.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, p.50)

“When classical annotation gained prestige from the first century B.C. on, the [Chinese] government began to register lineage models of masters and disciples. This official gesture, though more often a matter of graft than of actual supervision, encouraged the mass movement of scholars into scholasticism of a highly stereotyped kind.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, p.80)

By this stage, even in this short account, the reader can see just how different the early worlds of Chinese and Greek science were...even though I have (deliberately) included little here on the actual ideas under discussion. I have also concentrated more upon the Chinese example, since it is much less well-known to most that early Greek science. But, when it comes to their Conclusion, this approach is hardly required:


“The fundamental concepts in play in China and Greece were strikingly dissimilar. The Greeks focused on nature and on elements, concepts that seem familiar and obvious to those educated in modern science. They invented the concept of nature to serve distinct polemical purposes - to define their sphere of competence as new-style investigators, and to underline the superiority of naturalistic views to the traditional beliefs of poets, wise men, and religious leaders, [while] element theory concerned what ultimately constitutes material objects.... Chinese investigators had a very different set of fundamental concerns, not nature and the elements, but the tao, ch’i, yin-yang, and the five phases. Where Greek inquirers strove to make a reputation for themselves as new-style Masters of Truth, most Chinese Possessors of the Way had a very different program, namely, to advise and guide rulers. They, too, had to be more persuasive than their rivals, with means and aims that differed from those of the Greeks. To that end, they took over and redefined existing concepts, such as ch’i, to produce a synthesis in which heaven, earth, society, and the human body all interacted to form a single resonant universe. A comprehensive understanding of cosmic order undergirded the advisors’ insistence on orderly behavior even from rulers. Some rulers accepted, to a greater or lesser extent, the role their counsellors cast them in. All accepted the institutions that surrounded them with advisors.... [And] in both instances, the concepts that scientists and physicians used were closely linked to what they aimed to accomplish in the world around them.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.241-2)

“Neither China nor Greece had a monopoly of the wherewithal to develop science. Both had ample conceptual tools and institutional frameworks to engage in systematic inquiries into the sky, the human body, the cosmic dispensation as a whole. Each exhibited its own distinctive potential for the pursuit of such investigations. The dominant, but not the only, Greek way was through the search for foundations, the demand for demonstration, for incontrovertibility. Its great strengths lay in the ideals of clarity and deductive rigor. Its corresponding weaknesses were a zest for disagreement that inhibited even the beginnings of a consensus, and a habit of casting doubt on every preconception. The principle (though not the sole) Chinese approach was to find and explore correspondences, resonances, interconnections. Such an approach favoured the formation of syntheses unifying widely divergent fields of inquiry. Conversely, it inspired a reluctance to confront established positions with radical alternatives.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, p.250)

Geoffrey Lloyd & Nathan Sivin’s The Way And The Word is a marvellously thoughtful & clearly written work which insightfully explores one of the key questions in human history - just what relationship does enquiry have to broader social arrangements (and, just why was it that “Western” science that made the key breakthrough)? And, in doing so, it also provides a marvellous case study for comparative work, by directly embodying the best current thought which seeks to avoid the distortions inherent in both “idealistic” and “materialistic” approaches to cultural history/the history of ideas...

By tackling each w/in its “manifold” - and by refusing to idealize either - Lloyd & Sivin show us what it really means to do serious comparative work...in an age when such is conventionally-attacked as being “biased” in some way. And, by directly comparing the two most advanced societies of their time - at least on scientific/technical grounds - the authors immeasurably enrich our understanding of the varied origins of our modern world, as well as of the cultural complexities that birthed the same.


“If the comparative history of ancient science is peculiarly demanding, it can also be especially rewarding. The chief prize is a way out of parochialism.... Scholars whose work is confined within a single cultural area easily suppose that its ways are natural and inevitable. Looking across borders at other cultures or traditions reveals how mistaken that may be. People familiar only with traditions of European science naturally assume that physical thought could not have evolved through several early stages without some notion of elements. Greek element theories claim that things are composed of basic constituents that do not necessarily resemble what they constitute. This claim built on the idea that reality is hidden at some deeper level than human senses can apprehend. But that fundamental claim had no counterpart in China. Chinese discussed change in terms not of rearranging basic materials, but of the dynamic mutation of a unitary ch’i, which they sometimes analyzed as two complementary, opposed, aspects of a process in time or configuration in space (yin and yang), or sometimes as five aspects (wu-hsing, “five phases”).... [So,] just as starting with European preoccupations is bound to distort the understanding of Chinese science, the converse is equally true. There is no justification for assuming a counterpart in Greek physics or medicine to the Chinese notion of ch’i, which is not only the material stuff in everything, but the vital energy that makes it possible for things to grow and change, and the fine, essential matter that is the vehicle of consciousness.”
(Lloyd & Sivin, pp.8-9)


John Henry Calvinist