Skip to main content

Gleans from Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin’s ‘The Way and the Word’-What Is Ancient Science?

The Flammarion engraving is a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, depicted as if it were a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption underneath the engraving (not shown here) translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…”


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is from professors Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin’s trail blazing study, ‘The Way and the Word’, Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece’, Yale University Press, 2002. Gleans are from the introduction, pages XII to XIV and from chapter one, ‘Aim and Method’, pages 4 to 6.


Part 1. Four Basics Assumptions

Some readers unfamiliar with recent studies in the history of science and medicine will not find some of our assumptions obvious. It will be best to state four basic ones. The first three are well established among practitioners of that discipline, though not universally accepted by them.

1.We think of the history of science in the same way that we envision any other species of history. We see it as unfolding from the first tentative explorations, one small step at a time, going in no particular direction, and arriving where we are today by processes that depend on hope, effort (sometimes fruitful, sometimes misguided), and chance, not on fate or some ineluctable pull exerted by modern knowledge. Each culture began in its own way and made its own path. 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 inquiries 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.

2. As a corollary, modern natural science is not the unilinear descendant of Greek natural philosophy. That myth evaporated long ago as historians came to understand the contexts of inquiry. Instead, they trace the ancestry of modern specialties 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. The simplest way to assemble an adequate comparative account of how science became modern is to ask how people in each of these early technical cultures came to explore the physical world, how individuals proceeded in their own circumstances, what frames of understanding people in each culture created, and how their technical traditions interacted.

3.The research frontier of the history of science, for more than a generation, has moved steadily away from a preoccupation with either social or intellectual history and increasingly toward exploration of the complex realities of which both are parts. There is no convenient label for this comprehensive approach. Whether it falls under the rubric of cultural history we cannot say, for that term is too vague to specify its own limits. We feel no need for a label.

4.Those who have read extensively in Chinese history (where a bifurcation into social and intellectual history is still common) may be surprised by the absence of Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, and kindred ideologies from our analysis of thought. Isms of this kind are conspicuously vague. There are at least twenty common senses for “Taoism,” and even specialists tend to switch back and forth between them with no apparent consciousness that they are doing. Isms as used by Sinologues usually refer to beliefs floating in midair, rarely attached to a specifiable group of people. As we point out in Chapter 2, the only long-lasting intellectual lineages in China were the rather diverse ones that transmitted the canon of classics associated with Confucius. For some years, whenever tempted to use an ism, including “Confucianism” (which is problematic in many ways), we have asked ourselves which persons we have in mind, and have discussed them instead. We believe the outcome has been an increment of clarity.

Part II. What is Ancient Science?

Defining today’s science is in one way straightforward. We merely need to specify academic degrees, employment in research, publication in technical journals, professional licensing, and other criteria that identify specialized communities. What criteria can one apply to a time before any of these existed?

The answer has two parts, first a concession and then an elucidation. Obviously the transformations of science in the past two centuries completely overshadow all earlier changes. Judged from that standpoint, it would be wise to admit that in the fullest modern sense there was no science at all before 1800 or so. This is a matter of lacking not only the explicit concept but also the institutional frameworks of modern science—the research laboratories and university faculties devoted to its pursuit.

Yet in the ancient world, people already entertained ideas about the stars, the human body, the variety of living beings, the composition of things and the changes that they undergo. Inquirers attempted, in other words, to understand the world that lay outside the social realm, and some thought hard about how to do so. We will use “science” here as a conventional placeholder to cover such studies as these. The mark of science, in that usage, lies in the aims of the investigation and its subject matter—the bid to comprehend aspects of the physical world—not in the degree to which either the methods or the results tally with those of later inquiries, let alone modern science. As for “scientist” and similar words such as “astronomer” and “cosmologist,” we use them simply as shorthand designations for those who engaged in the activities explored here.

To treat premodern science as a mere composite of these studies does not resolve any of the problems. It merely shifts the focus to what each of them comprised, to what passed as astronomy, or medicine, or zoology, and so on. But the approach does have one immediately salutary effect, namely, putting us on our guard against generalizing across all those domains. What may be true of any one of those fields may or may not apply to others, even within a single period and in the same society. Indeed, each ancient culture developed answers to the important questions in its own way.

A word about the titles by which the ancients identified practitioners will illustrate the need for caution. Some labels pick out specialist occupations, such as doctor or healer, although “healing” included an enormous variety of practices in both China and Greece. Two other terms to be wary of are “astronomer” and “mathematician,” both derived from Greek roots. Greeks who went by either title were as likely to be engaged in casting horoscopes as to be students of astronomy or mathematics in any modern sense. There is, paradoxically, an advantage in the relative unfamiliarity of the two main Chinese terms for the study of the heavens, li-fa, which covers methods of making ephemerides and other computational tasks, and t’ien-wen, the investigation of the “patterns in the heavens,” including cosmography, observation, and the interpretation of omens. The larger lesson to be learned is that how the ancients themselves defined their subjects is the best place to begin—though not necessarily to end.

Two of the most general terms, one Chinese, the other Greek, serve as reminders that the ultimate goal of investigation, when construed as wisdom, was equally problematic in both societies. The Chinese used the term hsueh, “study,” for this pursuit. For most early thinkers, “study” was as much a moral as an intellectual enterprise. Its aim was not just to learn facts or develop cognitive skills but to shape one’s life. The goal of self-cultivation—spiritual, mental, physical—was sage-hood.

“Love of wisdom” is the basic sense of the Greek term philosophia, from which the English “philosophy” is derived. But what that truly consisted in was as controversial in ancient Greece as it has been ever since. Self-cultivation, there too, was one possible component. At the other end of the spectrum, some Greeks who saw themselves as philosophers were principally involved in teaching the skills of public speaking. But among the varied subjects that self-styled philosophers often took up was the study of the physical world and the cosmos as a whole.

That is the sense that is important for the kind of “philosophy” with which we are concerned here. We will use the term “philosopher” conventionally in talking about Greek or Chinese thinkers who investigated not only society but the world outside it. Other topics that have become branches of modern philosophy, such as logic and moral philosophy, are not our central concern. We will study how thinkers in both cultures construed the relations between the macrocosm and the two microcosms, society and the human body (Chapters 4 and 5). We will see that the basic concepts the Greeks and the Chinese used to articulate their ideas differed profoundly, the Greeks focusing on nature and the elements, the Chinese on ch’i, yinyang, the five phases, and the Way.


Professor Geoffrey Lloyd
Professor Nathan Sivin


More about Geoffrey Lloyd: 🌿 More about Nathan Sivin: 🌿 More about the book and the publisher:🌿 About the Flammarion engraving:
Gleans from Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin’s ‘The Way and the Word’-What Is Ancient Science?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

all rights reserved Via Hygeia 2022