- The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece
The authors of this book, Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin, are probably the most eminent (and prolific) historians of Greek and Chinese science, respectively, in the Atlantic world today. Hence, their long-awaited comparative study of science and medicine in early China and Greece should evoke wide interest from scholars in both fields, as well as from anyone interested in comparative historical or cultural studies. Indeed, the clarity and sophistication with which the authors approach their comparative enterprise, especially as outlined in chapter 1, “Aims and Method,” is one of the strong points of the book. Rather than limiting themselves to comparing concepts or factors one at a time, the authors ambitiously propose to investigate what they call “cultural manifolds,” based on the observation that “scientific ideas or medical insights do not occur in a vacuum” (p. xi). In other words, Lloyd and Sivin intend to treat “intellectual and social dimensions of every problem” as “parts of one whole” (p. 3), a procedure that they say makes their work different from previous comparative studies.
But if investigation of the cultural manifold in which early Greek or Chinese science was enmeshed is the main goal of this study, why take the trouble to systematically compare and contrast one such manifold with another that is historically unrelated to the first? The answer offered by Lloyd and Sivin is that such a comparison offers “a way out of parochialism” (p. 8). Delineating a particular manifold, they argue, is actually much easier when there is a dissimilar one for comparison, one that will serve to problematize what might otherwise seem to be natural and inevitable in the base tradition. To paraphrase Niels Bohr, clarity is best achieved through breadth.
The principal aim of this comparative work is thus not so different from that of a monographic study that focuses on one or the other of the two traditions compared: to explain “why the various sciences that the Chinese and the Greeks developed took the form they did” (p. 9). This in itself is a worthy goal for a book in the history of science, one that should be ambitious enough to appeal to almost any scholar in that field. But Lloyd and Sivin, having reached the conclusion that early Greek and Chinese science were radically different from one another (p. 239), do not develop another possible avenue of comparative cultural studies: using the two (or more) cases examined as a basis for constructing a more general or universal theory (or narrative) of the development of the subject (in this case ancient science and medicine). Such an approach might well entail privileging similarities over differences. But while Lloyd and Sivin do identify some apparent [End Page 170] similarities (as in ideas of cosmological correspondence in early Greek and Chinese thought), they most often proceed to argue that such similarities are only superficial, masking more fundamental differences that appear upon deeper study or reflection. They end their book with a comparative concluding chapter devoted primarily to summarizing important similarities and differences between the Chinese and Greek cultural manifolds in seven areas (pp. 239ff.). But here again the differences far outweigh the similarities, from the “Concepts,” which were “strikingly dissimilar” between Greece and China (p. 241), to “Persuasion,” where “Open disagreements with fellow philosophers and scientists . . . [in China] were negligible by comparison with Greek practice” (p. 249). The four chapters intervening between the first and the conclusion treat “the social and institutional framework” of Chinese and Greek science (chapters 2 and 3) and the “fundamental issues” of Greek science and Chinese science” (chapters 4 and 5).
Given the subtlety and sophistication of the comparative framework formulated by the authors, to say nothing of the vast knowledge they possess of the intricacies of their subjects, their main findings (or perhaps I should say “finding”) are remarkably simple. Repeatedly, albeit with various ingenious (and...