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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 78.1 (2004) 201-202



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Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin. The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. xvii + 348 pp. $35.00 (0-300-09297-0).

It is hard not to approach The Way and the Word with great expectations. G. E. R. Lloyd is the most eminent figure in the study of ancient Greek science; Nathan Sivin, similarly, is the leading Western authority on science in traditional China. The fruits of their much-publicized collaboration have been long and eagerly awaited. And indeed, the book has important virtues. It is clearly written and accessible, wide-ranging yet compact, richly informative but not ponderous. Its organizing logic is transparent at a glance: sandwiched between an opening chapter on "Aims and Methods" and a final chapter summarizing conclusions are two chapters on the "Social and Institutional Framework" of Chinese and Greek sciences, respectively, and two chapters on the "Fundamental Issues" of science in each tradition. The discussions of ancient China and Greece are thus scrupulously symmetrical, and marked by a concerted effort—and this is the book's most appealing feature—firmly to situate ideas and modes of reasoning in their social and institutional contexts. As an introductory text of orientation, The Way and the Word has much to offer.

One virtue that is not much apparent in the work, however, is synergy. The authors open by declaring their aspiration "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" (p. xi)—but they do not, it seems to me, quite find this way. Although their project draws on a wonderful reservoir of expertise that no scholar working alone could possibly match, this pooling of knowledge does not, in the end, spark fresh insights or open new horizons. Collaboration has allowed Lloyd and Sivin to compare and relativize features of Greek and Chinese science with special crispness; but it has not stimulated them—nor does it inspire us—radically to rethink what the key features might be. In this respect the book is a disappointment.

The Way and the Word spotlights above all the contrast between an intellectual life in ancient Greece centered around fierce argument and polemical confrontation, and traditions of knowledge in ancient China favoring lineages of authority and harmonious accommodation. Elaborated by the authors with subtle qualifications and careful attention to its institutional moorings, the contrast itself, while neither particularly new nor surprising, is entirely reasonable. What is doubtful, however, is the wisdom of invoking it as an interpretive key.

Not least, the emphasis on the debate/accommodation divide undermines one of the book's prime ambitions—namely, to portray two equally tenable, if [End Page 201] quite different, approaches to knowledge. For placing this divide at the heart of comparisons inevitably makes Greek endeavors appear more compelling and scientific. True, Lloyd and Sivin briefly suggest at the end—and this is a suggestion that they needed to develop much more vigorously, with substantiating case studies, at the core of their study—that there are certain disadvantages to Greek argumentativeness, and some advantages to Chinese traditionalism. But most readers, presented with a choice between searching debate and reverence for authority, will surely regard the latter as an obstacle to scientific progress, while identifying the former with the very lifeblood of science. Contrary to the aims of the authors, that is, many readers (particularly those unfamiliar with the achievements detailed in the Science and Civilization in China series) may, I fear, finish The Way and the Word more entrenched than ever in their misconception of Chinese culture as ultimately stunting scientific inquiry. To foster a genuine sense of pluralism, of viable, alternative styles of knowledge, the authors needed to invent a new comparative frame, a focus other than the Greek-inspired accent on debate.



Shigehisa Kuriyama
International Research Center for Japanese Studies



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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3176
Print ISSN
0007-5140
Pages
pp. 201-202
Launched on MUSE
2004-03-04
Open Access
No
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