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?
But second, ‘the very adversariality of Greek modes of inquiry seems to affect also the content of theories.’ Just as in the particular case of Plato, ‘the form of his writing affects its philosophical content,’ so in general the manner of Greek philosophising determines its matter. After all, ‘the great variety of Greek cosmological accounts is to be expected, in view of the systematic competitiveness of Greek philosophy and science.’ The cosmologist must sell his wares in the intellectual marketplace; and if he is to outsell his rivals, he had better put a few novelties in his window. Not only that, he must talk up his own goods and talk down those of his rivals. Hence, on the one hand, the facts of Greek intellectual life ‘favoured systematically exploring the arguments on both sides of fundamental questions’ (in order to prove your adversaries wrong), something which ‘may well have contributed to a readiness not merely to air but to maintain the contradictory of what might pass as a commonsensical view’. And on the other hand, a Greek was driven to secure his own claims from refutation: he must prove them to be true; he must ride hell-bent for incontrovertibility – hence the axiomatic deductive method of doing things and the scientific strategy of, say, Euclid.
In China there was no raucous marketplace. The Chinese were generally writing for the emperor. Hence they ‘did not feel a need for incontrovertibility, the driving force in . . . Greek investigations’. Rather, ‘what corresponds in China to the Greek authority of demonstration was the authority of sagely origin,’ so that ‘scientific pursuits in China . . . did not aim at stepwise approximations to an objective reality but at recovery of what the archaic sages already knew.’ Moreover, writing for the emperor’s eyes ‘encouraged precision in moral, social and political categories, but it did not motivate an equal fastidiousness with regard to the foundations of knowledge’; and at the same time, in China, ‘overt, reciprocal polemic of a kind that might have pushed epistemological problems to the fore was rare.’
Any book which purports to cover twice six hundred years of intellectual history in fewer than three hundred pages will sometimes expose its head; and a sniper will find targets in The Way and the Word. The title, for example: Tao contrasts with Logos, but logos means ‘reason’, not ‘word’. (Not ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ but ‘The first principle of things contained reason.’) If you must have alliteration, then ‘Reason and the Road’. Again, there are a few claims which appear to tell against rather than in favour of the thesis they are adduced to support. For example, the Greeks argued aloud, whereas in China ‘the philosophic focus remained on writing,’ and ‘philosophical and scientific argument tended to be written.’ Yet in China ‘books came into existence, by fits and starts, much later than in the Greek world’; and in 6 BC the imperial Chinese library contained a mere six hundred titles – the library of Alexandria, that hotbed of strident orality, had more than a hundred times as many.
Again, there is sometimes a frustrating lack of detail. For example, we learn that ‘the symbology of the emperor as mediator affected mathematics’: the claim is striking – certainly, it is not easy to imagine Euclid touching up his Elements under the influence of the symbols of Alexander the Great. But how were the Chinese Euclids affected by the symbols of their emperor? I cannot guess, and we are not told. More generally, the Chinese chapters have a great deal to say about the institutions of Chinese intellectual life, their history and their social and political setting; but the stuff and substance of Chinese philosophy and science must sometimes make do with an allusion or an abstract description.
No book of this sort can escape quibbles of that sort, and they are of small account. Other grumbles may rumble a little louder. There might indeed be doubt about the very sense of the project. China changed, more than once, in the six hundred years which The Way and the Word covers. So too did Greece. The institutional and social and political circumstances in which Plato lived and worked were vastly different from the circumstances which surrounded Galen. Indeed, from many points of view, Rome in 200 AD was as close to Peking as it was to the Athens of 400 BC. If, like the authors, you think that difference in external circumstances will explain difference in scientific and philosophical thought, then it is not plain that you may take the six Greek centuries in one hand and the six Chinese in the other and weigh the one against the other.
It is true that all the Greeks had in common one thing which the Chinese lacked – namely, the Greek language. The authors queerly suggest that ‘what would have struck Greeks visiting China . . . was that widely shared technical languages with generally agreed meanings provided a framework within which scientists could develop ideas.’ The Greek visitors would have found nothing untoward about that – it was just the same at home. But they might have noticed that the Chinese didn’t speak Greek; and they might have wondered – as many have since wondered – whether certain fundamental differences between the Greek and the Chinese languages do not count for some of the differences between Chinese and Greek intellectual reflection. But The Way and the Word does not say anything on that issue.
I think, too, that the contrast between Greek spiv and Chinese gentleman is overdrawn. As for China, it was no land of smiles and lotus milk. Chinese philosophers would ‘compete for appointments as Erudites’; they spent their energies in ‘jockeying for position’; and ‘the competition between different experts for the ear of a noble encouraged them to elaborate a given category rather than accept the conventional alternatives or a rival’s definition.’ Indeed, one page assures us that ‘to pitch discussion as impersonal and disinterested, in the fashion to which Greeks aspired, was practically impossible in China.’ To be sure, if the Chinese were sometimes rude, nonetheless ‘the values of their culture stressed harmony and consensus’; if the Chinese were sometimes violent, ‘the Chinese form of this intellectual aggression tended to be quite different.’ But the difference is slight: it lies in the fact that, in China, ‘there was generally strong disapproval of open disputation’: Chinese intellectuals did not wash their linen in a public gymnasium – they washed it in the palace before the emperor and his courtiers.
As for Greece, there were surely mountebanks – Galen knew them and Lucian guyed them; and some Greek philosophers were more interested in money than in the metaphysics of morals – or so text after text charges. But it is quite another thing to assert that, in an examination of the sources of Greek endeavour, ‘the recurrent motif . . . is rivalry between those competing for intellectual prestige’; that ‘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 to win arguments with their rivals’; that ‘the debate was a competition for prestige and, for teachers and doctors alike, sometimes also to secure a livelihood.’ And it is yet curiouser to suggest that the very substance of philosophical theses was fixed by such competition, that ‘the introduction of the concept of nature was not just the outcome of cool intellectual analysis, for those who invoked it did so in a bid to defeat their rivals’; or that ‘this urge to defeat all rivals largely stimulated the development of these concepts in the first place’; or that ‘Hellenic thinkers fundamentally redefined rare words or coined new ones to take the initiative away from their opponents.’ Such claims are confidently hammered out: no evidence is produced in favour of them.
Aristotle had been having a bad week of it. His syllogisms weren’t selling, and there were some whippersnappers from Megara who were trying to corner the market in sophisms. ‘By Zeus, he mused, I must get the initiative back, I must fight and win another battle for prestige, and then the pupils will flock back and the fees pour in again.’ (In the fluster of the moment he had forgotten that he taught gratis.) ‘But how am I to do it? Of course, I’ll redefine a rare word or coin a new one – that always does the trick.’ And after a cold bath and a moment’s reflection, he fastened on the word ‘proof’ and redefined it: ‘A proof, I say, is a cognitive syllogism’ (Posterior Analytics 71b18). Shares in Stagirite plc rose sharply.
That is how the authors of The Way and the Word imply that things happened. Of course, it isn’t what they really think. Aware that ‘some would . . . argue that relating these concepts to the social, political and institutional factors that we have invoked is misguided because it ignores or discounts the personal contributions of such geniuses as Plato or Aristotle,’ they reply that that was not what they meant at all: social factors do not fix and determine the developments of science and philosophy; rather, they are one part of ‘the interacting manifold’. Fierce competition from Megara does not in itself explain why Aristotle developed his theory of proof, but it is part of the manifold within which the theory was developed and within which its development must be explained.
That thesis is more modest than the one the authors naughtily flaunt. But is it modest enough? It is true that Megarics were doing logic in Aristotle’s lifetime, and that fact is doubtless part of ‘the interacting manifold’. It is also true – although the evidence is late and meagre – that the Megarics knew about Aristotle’s logic, and that they offered certain criticisms of it. It is possible – though for this there is no evidence at all – that Aristotle learned of these criticisms and reacted to them. That, if true, would be a mildly interesting piece of intellectual history. But it appeals to the manifold in the most self-denying of ways; and it requires no reference to competitiveness or to aggression or to the passion for prestige or to the need to survive in the marketplace.
It may be added that critics of The Way and the Word are unlikely to cane it for ignoring the personal contributions of men of genius. Appeal to genius explains nothing. It gets things upside down to say: ‘Aristotle said this and that because he was a man of genius.’ Rather, he was a man of genius because he said this and that. The critics are more likely to pull a different arrow from their quiver. The book, they will allege, pays too little attention to the content of the scientific and philosophical theories the development of which it seeks to explain; worse, it sometimes gives the impression that, for the ancient philosophers and scientists, content was a matter of indifference; that their questions were: will it sell? Will it get me a post in the Peking bureaucracy? Will it earn me prestige in Pergamum? Some of the ancients some of the time were ingenuous seekers after truth: they did not run down the road to riches but struggled up the path of knowledge; and it is the features of that path which best explain the development of their thought. It is reasonable to believe that when a philosopher or a scientist introduced a concept or proposed a thesis or advanced an argument, then he did so, generally speaking, not in order to keep up with the Platos or to pay the phone bill but in order to satisfy that desire which Aristotle optimistically ascribed to all men: the desire to know.
In short, I do not think that the book achieves the second of its two aims: it does not ‘explain why the various sciences that the Chinese and the Greeks developed took the form they did’. It presents a mass of information, some of it colourful and most of it fascinating, about the conditions and circumstances within which different Chinese and Greek thinkers worked; but I cannot persuade myself that such things explain, or even help to explain, the development of the sciences in antiquity.
What of the first of the book’s aims? Will the reader succeed in ‘gaining from the joint study of two cultures understandings about each that would be unattainable if they were studied alone’? The authors do not elaborate their expectations – as far as I have noticed, they never say, ‘Well, you wouldn’t have understood that aspect of Greek astronomy if you hadn’t learned about this aspect of Chinese astronomy.’ I cannot conjecture what understanding I ought to have gained, and as a matter of fact I have not gained any at all – that is to say, the Chinese knowledge which I have learned from The Way and the Word has not added a jot to my understanding of the Greeks.
What is worse, reading the book has tended to confirm an unfashionable prejudice: the prejudice that Greek science, and even Greek philosophy, were in many respects signally superior to Chinese. When I read, in connection with Chinese astronomy, that ‘the modern view of astrology as a specious predictive technique is beside the point,’ I cannot help thinking that astrology surely is a specious technique; and when I read that ‘any attempt to privilege one mode of science or philosophy over any other is bound to be arbitrary,’ my soul cries: ‘Tosh.’
But these confessions of an unjustified sinner should interest no one: they show that the reader has failed, not the book. I do not imagine that everyone will find The Way and the Word ‘climactic’, whatever that means; and no one should find it ‘monumental’, for that is what it claims not to be. On the other hand, I am sure that many readers will find it not only generously informative, which it indubitably is, but also brilliantly illuminating; and there are few enough academic books of which that can be said.