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Why Wasn't Chinese Science about Nature?
With a Discussion of Concepts of Nature in Ancient Greece
G. E. R. Lloyd
NOTE: This is a selection of excerpts from a draft of The Way and the Word. Cross-references have been retained in this document to indicate that certain points have been treated elsewhere in the book.
The Greek word phusis is the ancestor of the English "nature," based on natura, the Latin equivalent of phusis.
Our aim is to explore how Chinese investigators of the period from the late Warring States to the end of the Han (roughly 350 to +200, i.e., 350 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.) defined the problems they were interested in, and how they conducted their inquiries.
It is easy enough to find early Chinese discussions, in varied contexts, of the defining characteristics of humans, other animals and plants, or heaven and earth, of the patterns of things, of their spontaneous changes, and of other topics. What their technical terms refer to sometimes overlaps certain denotations of "nature" and its cognates in English. That does not, of course, justify discussing such terms as though they mean "nature" or, even worse, translating them that way.
There is nothing wrong with applying the English phrase "natural philosophy" to label thought about those aspects of experience that thoughtful people do not locate within their psyches or in society. It reminds us that, despite the hoary stereotype, some mandarins thought about more than virtue and promotion. It encourages us to notice what broad questions all those astronomers, physicians, alchemists, and so on were asking. But if we wish to know whether Chinese needed a word for nature, or a concept with the same boundaries, before modern times, the answer is no.
In early Chinese philosophic and scientific language, there are ways, sometimes simple ones, to say something more or less equivalent to each of the twenty or thirty senses of "Nature" and the forty or fifty senses of "natural" found in a standard English dictionary. Some historians write "Nature" when their ancient sources are actually discussing heaven or sky (t'ien, tian), heaven and earth or cosmos (t'ien-ti, tiandi), inherent pattern or principle (li), things (wu), the Way (tao, dao), human disposition (hsing, xing), or spontaneity (tzu jan, ziran). But these six taken together do not make up a counterpart of physis.
In modern Chinese, tzu-jan, a word made by combining two characters, means "Nature." We capitalize to make it clear we are referring to the mother of us all, not to the natures of individual things, which tzu-jan does not mean. Chinese borrowed this word in 1884 from Japanese, who were using it to translate Occidental textbooks.
Tzu jan occurs often in classical writing, but it is two words rather than one. It means only what its individual characters mean. It refers to something that exists or is the case (jan) without something else causing it (tzu). This is not similar to any Greek notion, all the more so since tzu jan does not imply a goal. Either "what is so of itself" or "spontaneous" is not a bad translation for most philosophic usages, as in the famous quotation from the Lao-tzu (Laozi), "man takes as his standard earth; earth takes as its standard heaven; heaven takes as its standard the Way; and the Way takes as its standard what is so of itself" or "the spontaneous." "Tzu jan" is sometimes an epithet for the tao, the Way, as when the official biography of the noble cartographer P'ei Hsiu (224-271) says "he was percipient from birth, and grew up treading the self-so." What he walked was the Way. This implies that as a seeker after sagehood he cultivated the spontaneity that kept him in touch with the cosmic rhythms.**
Since there was no single concept in early China that corresponded to Nature, the fruitful question is what Chinese did invent.
Greek Conceptions of Nature
Phusis as Problematic. Before we embark on our chief agenda, we should first remark just how complex and problematic early Western thought in this area is. Latin natura, from which modern European languages have derived their terms for nature, renders the Greek term phusis. Yet there was nothing natural, in the sense of obvious, straightforward and uncontroversial, in the introduction of that term to refer to the domain of nature in Greek thought.
There are four fundamental points, to which this first section of this paper will be devoted. First, the term applied to nature as a whole is not attested in the archaic period (8th-7th centuries BCE). Second, as used by the so-called natural philosophers (phusiologoi) and some medical writers it was a polemical term, designed to mark out a new style of inquiry from traditional beliefs and assumptions. Third, in the moral and political domain it was the subject of further controversy, between the proponents of different views of what nature comprised and how it was to be contrasted with its antonym, nomos, the term used for law, custom and convention. Fourth, a general agreement, among users of the term, that it should pick out the reality underlying the appearances, was not matched by any consensus as to what that basic reality was. We may now elaborate each of these four points briefly before turning to the relevant Chinese materials.
Phusis vs. traditional conceptions. In the earliest attested usage of the term phusis, the single occurrence in Homer in which it appears, it refers either to the character of a particular plant, or (more probably) to the way it grows. On either interpretation it is not a general notion of nature. The text in question is Odyssey 10 302ff, where Hermes shows Odysseus a certain plant named môly, which he is to use to counteract the magical charms of Circe (who would otherwise transform him, as she transformed his companions, into an animal). This is no ordinary plant. Hermes is not doing natural science. While there are plenty of acute observations, of the weather or the behaviour of animals, for instance, in Homer and in Hesiod, neither has a concept of nature as such. This is not to say that they or their audiences were unaware of the regularities of what we should call natural phenomena. It did not take Aristotle to point out that a human begets a human. But there is an important difference between making certain implicit assumptions and having an explicit concept.
Homer and Hesiod, like many Greek and Latin writers after them, attribute many different types of phenomena and events to the work of divine or demonic forces. Zeus sends rain and wields his thunderbolt. Poseidon is the earthshaker, and so on. When what came to be called the "inquiry concerning nature" (peri phuseos historia) began, in the 6th century, the idea of such personal interventions was ruled out. Already the poet-philosopher Xenophanes explains the rainbow (Iris) as a cloud (Fr 32) when it had commonly been assumed that it was ominous and that Iris was a messenger of the gods.
Both those conventionally labelled "philosophers" and certain medical writers were instrumental in promulgating this inquiry. It is the latter especially who provide our richest evidence concerning the polemics involved. Both Apollo and Artemis had often been (and indeed they continued to be) cast in the role of both senders of disease and healers. But a Hippocratic treatise that dates from some time at the end of the 5th century BCE is entirely devoted to the theme that what had been called the Sacred Disease is due to natural causes. On the Sacred Disease attacks those whom the writer calls "purifiers" for their belief that gods cause the disease and for their claims not only that they can identify which deity causes which variety of the complaint, but also that they can produce cures by means of charms and incantations. Advancing his own alternative view, he insists that this disease is natural; it has a phusis. His own explanation is that it comes about through the blocking of the veins in the brain, especially in phlegmatic patients, for phlegmatic patients suffer more than bilious ones, or so he claims. The idea is, of course, quite fanciful. Yet he has evidently substituted a natural, physical, cause, where his opponents had spoken of the gods as the responsible agents.
While the terminology of what is responsible or a cause, aitios, aition, aitia, appears both in his own account, and in the story of his opponents as he gives it, phusis, nature, is the key concept that distinguishes his own view. The purifiers do not, indeed they cannot, use it, for "nature" now delineates those regularities that are to be explained without invoking divine or demonic intervention. Talk of the divine, interestingly, is not now ruled out, but redefined. All diseases are equally divine as many of the philosophers held nature itself to be. But that move had the effect of denying that any kind of disease, or any instance of one, was specially divine.
The discussion in On the Sacred Disease is no mere intellectual debate. The writer does not just criticise his opponents: he abuses them, deploying, for that purpose, a rich vocabulary of denigratory terms, "charlatans" (alazones), "vagabonds" (agurtai) and the word that was originally associated with a tribe of Persians or with certain Persian priests, but that came to be the most general term for "magician," namely magoi. This debate was not just about the answers to abstract or theoretical questions, but about who could claim to know about diseases and to be able to cure them. In ancient Greece as in other ancient societies there were no legally recognised medical qualifications that could be appealed to in order to justify the right to practice. What was at stake was the issue of competing claims to such a right. On the one side were those who took their stand on a claimed ability to give naturalistic explanations and to bring about cures by naturalistic means. On the other were not just the "purifiers" attacked in On the Sacred Disease, but also those who practised in the shrines of various healing gods and heroes, chief among them Asclepius.
To judge from the evident popularity of temple medicine, including among members of the literate elite, right down to the +2nd century and beyond, their claim that god was on their side was believed to have as much credibility as any that the proponents of naturalistic medicine could advance. The latter may have all agreed that diseases are, indeed, natural phenomena, but they disagreed fundamentally both on the causal factors at work and on the treatments to use. Some favoured humoral theories, which took many different forms besides the well-known four-humour doctrine (blood, bile, black bile, phlegm) that Galen advocated as the "genuine teaching of Hippocrates." But others appealed to fundamental opposites (hot, cold, dry, wet, sweet, bitter and so on) or to other types of element theories or to such factors as "depletion" and "repletion." Besides, in the matter of effecting cures, we know from the remarkably honest records of practice set out in the Hippocratic Epidemics just how unsuccessful those doctors were in curing, or even alleviating, the more serious conditions they had to treat.
The philosophers, for their part, were not, of course, paid to heal. But they too competed for prestige. The debates were not just amicable exchanges about abstract issues, but the forum in which rival claims to superior knowledge were judged. In that context, too, as in medicine, "nature" staked out a domain over which the "natural philosophers" claimed competence in contradistinction to the skills or expertise associated with poets and wise men of traditional types. Yet as with the doctors, so too the philosophers agreed that what their inquiry was about was nature, but disagreed, in practice, over what naturalistic explanations to give for most of the phenomena they investigated. There were, to be sure, some exceptions to this. By the end of the fifth century BCE, there was, for instance, general recognition of the causes of both solar and lunar eclipses at least among the philosophers interested in the problem, even if among ordinary people such events still evoked amazement and consternation. But while eclipses came to be reasonably well understood in some quarters, the same was certainly not the case with earthquakes, lightning and many other phenomena that had been associated with the gods, where there were almost as many different theories, in the fifth and fourth centuries, as there were philosophers propounding them.
Nature vs. the supernatural. Phusis is the all-encompassing rubric that allowed the proponents of the new styles of inquiry to claim superiority over many traditional modes of knowledge. What is "against nature" (para phusin) could be accepted in the sense of the exceptions to the general rule (themselves explicable in terms of further factors), but not in the sense of the supernatural, for nothing stood outside nature as a whole. This was, of course, an assertion. The proponents of nature were not in a position to prove the negative, that the gods are not at work in this or that event, or in this or that type of phenomenon. Rather they stipulated that the supernatural was not only unnecessary, but to be excluded. Still, as noted, the naturalists seldom agreed among themselves on alternative explanations of many of the phenomena which had generally been attributed to the gods.
Phusis vs. nomos. The first Greek controversy opposed nature to the supernatural, a null class on the view of the proponents of nature itself. In the second, nature is contrasted with law, custom, convention (nomos). Nature here picks out what is universally true of humans, whatever society they belong to. But, as one Greek writer after another came to emphasise, human societies differ, not just in their customs, of dress, or diet, or marriage ceremonies, or the way they dispose of their dead, but also in their laws and views of right and wrong. But while a variety of authors used the phusis/nomos antithesis from the 5th century onwards, they disagreed about what each category included and the moral implications of the contrast.
As an illustration of the first point, we may cite the debate to which Aristotle refers1 on whether or not slavery is a natural institution. That some humans became slaves as the result of capture in war, for instance, was accepted on both sides of that debate. But some (including Aristotle himself) asserted, while others denied, that some are by nature slaves. Aristotle had to concede that nature was not very good at marking out by their physical characteristics which they were.
As that last remark exemplifies, although "nature" relates to what is, in principle, universally the case, there may, in practice, be exceptions. "Nature" then comes to signify what ought to be the case, acquiring a normative, rather than a merely descriptive, force. That is evident in a second Aristotelian example, his famous dictum that humans are by nature "political" animals, more strictly animals that live in poleis, city-states. Aristotle was well aware that plenty of human beings lived in societies where there was nothing like Greek city-states, but that did not stop him from claiming that naturally, now in the sense of ideally, humans are city-state-dwelling animals. Similarly, in his accounts of other animals, "nature" often stands for what is best, not what is usual or regular. There, using humans as the norm by which other animals may be judged, he is even prepared to say that in humans alone, the natural parts (up down, right left, front back) are according to nature.2
This normative use of nature, by introducing values, led to the heated moral and political controversies that employed the nature/convention dichotomy. From the observation that human societies differ in their laws and customs, some concluded that there is no natural, no universal, basis for right and wrong. The only universally valid principle, some claimed, was that might is right, a theme we find worked out in different variations in Thucydides' Melian debate, in the sophist Antiphon, and in the views attributed to Callicles in Plato's Gorgias.3 In that last version, social codes are set up by the weak, although according to nature, it is just for the strong to take what they can.
Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic4 more radically attacks the legitimacy of law when he suggests that each interest group, once it gets into power, fixes the laws to suit its own advantage. Yet Plato also has the sophist Protagoras claim that justice and shame are what mark out humans from other animals, all humans indeed, providing them with the basis for civilised social life.5 On that view law should be the guarantee of justice, not just a cloak for expediency.
Plato's involvement in the debate is evident from the number of times in different contexts he returns to the question. As for his own position on the issues, his theory of Forms sets up transcendent, objective, absolutes, for justice and the good especially. The cosmos as a whole is the result of the work of a benevolent divine intelligence, personified as the Craftsman or Demiurge in the Timaeus. The job of the human lawgiver is to imitate his activities and to secure the closest possible imitation of the Form of Justice.
In a comparativist perspective, this second controversy provides a vivid illustration of the extent to which, from the 5th century on, the Greeks were prepared to problematise the very foundations of morality and of political life. In practice there was very considerable diversity in the political arrangements tried out in different Greek states at different periods. That was not, to be sure, the direct result of the theoretical debates on the merits and demerits of democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, tyranny and so on, nor on the respective claims of nature and of convention to secure justice. Some theoretical disputes were just that, as we can see from the case of slavery, where no one drew the inference, from the view that slavery is not natural, that the institution should be abolished.
But some, such as Plato himself, saw the theoretical debates as potentially dangerous and disruptive. He attached most of the blame on the sophists who figure prominently in the dialogues in which he discusses the issues. They travelled from state to state giving lectures on whatever subjects anyone was prepared to pay to be taught, and they, in his view, were the real corrupters of youth not Socrates who was so accused. The trouble was that no amount of protesting, on Plato's part or anyone else's, resolved the moral and political debates on nature and convention, which continued, indeed, long after the Greek city-states lost their independence in the wake of the rise of Rome.
Controversies based on skepticism. Ongoing disagreements, fuelled by the competition among rival claimants to special knowledge, are the chief feature of the third and final controversy we should consider. "Nature," we said, corresponded to what is regular, that is, in principle, to the readily acceptable data or facts of the case, and one of the great strengths of the appeal to natures was that it did not invoke invisible, arbitrary, forces. But in practice it was not just the explanations of particular types of phenomena that were (as we have seen) disputed, but also the question of the fundamental constitution of physical objects. Those like Aristotle who thought of things as made up of earth, water, air and fire did at least stay close to what was in some sense observable even though we never encounter those simple bodies in a pure form. But others saw matter as constituted by indivisible atoms, differing only in size, position and arrangement.
Cosmological theories based on atomism or continuum theory proposed from the 5th century onwards were extremely diverse, yet another example of ongoing disputes that some Greeks protested were unresolvable. Nature, the very rubric used in the early days of Greek natural philosophy and medicine in order to undermine traditional beliefs, eventually came to be itself subjected to radical attack.
The Pyrrhonian sceptics, for whom our fullest source is Sextus Empiricus in the +2nd century, exploited the disputes among their dogmatist opponents (including for example both atomists and continuum theorists) to suggest that on every issue to do with underlying reality, there were equal, opposed, arguments on both sides. For every argument that might be proposed to suggest one view, there was an argument of equal strength to contradict it. The conclusion was not to assert that reality is unknowable (for that would be to fall into negative dogmatism), but rather to advocate suspension of judgement and living by the appearances.
Along the way they questioned whether there was any sure criterion, including on whether any notion of nature could be justified. Given what they called "the great inarbitrable disagreement among the doctrinaire thinkers about natural existence," who could decide? Not lay people, for philosophers thought them unreliable. But not philosophers either, since they were party to the disagreement and so should not be allowed to sit in judgement in their own case. Nor would skeptics accept the common idea that the healthy is, in certain contexts, to be equated with the natural. "Just as the healthy are in a state which is natural for the healthy but unnatural for the sick, so too the sick are in a state which is unnatural for the healthy but natural for the sick."6
If we may now take stock of this first section of our study, nature, in its Greek form phusis, was anything but a rubric that investigators could take for granted as adequately defining their subject-matter. The concept originated in polemic, in the attempts by those investigators to outdo the representatives of more traditional modes of wisdom, and it remained a disputed category in every area in which it was invoked, from cosmology and medicine, to ethics and political philosophy, down to the end of Greco-Roman antiquity.
But if it is well known that few of the theories and explanations produced in Greco-Roman antiquity were successful either in the sense that they form a durable part of what is accepted today, or even in the sense that the Greeks and Romans generally accepted them, were the Greeks not at least on the right lines in proposing that it was the natures of things that should be investigated? To that there is a response in two parts.
First, we should not underestimate the ongoing problems that the twin dichotomies of nature and society, and of the objective and the subjective, continue to generate in modern philosophy of science. Those dichotomies are sometimes identified as part of the Kantian, though in fact they are part of the Greek, legacy. Reference to recent numbers of such a periodical as Studies in History and Philosophy of Science confirms that much of the debate, not just between those who advocate the social studies of science and their opponents, but also between various types of realists and theirs, is concerned with attempts either to validate, or to redefine, subvert or bypass, those dichotomies.
But then secondly, the history of science in Greece as in other ancient societies shows that there was nothing inevitable about construing the central problem as the investigation of nature. The ancient Chinese did not in fact construe it that way.
The World that Chinese Concepts Describe
What concepts did Chinese invent to describe what people experienced outside the self, society, and the realm of the gods? It is possible to answer this question by examining a number of inventions. The choice is bound to be arbitrary, but we will keep the arbitrariness within limits by choosing as few concepts as possible.
We will explore two crucial Chinese inventions. Tao and ch'i (qi) took on complementary meanings in Han writing, and remained central in cosmology and cosmogony. Neither became a purely physical concept. In fact the notion of a purely physical concept did not attract Chinese. But it is notable that in the Han period there was a consensus about their importance, and to a large extent about their meaning. Let us look all too briefly at how that consensus developed.
Tao and ch'i belong to different levels of abstraction, tao to the highest. It began as simply a word for "road" or "path," but in the hands of Confucius and those who followed him it took on highly normative meanings. Tao is the proper path in life, the one the sages follow spontaneously and others strive for.7 It is not far from there to Lao-tzu's mystical ground not of being but of process. Your way is not who you are but what you do, not the species of a tree but how it grows. Every human has a tao, what he does. The Book of Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi) imports this notion into philosophy with a story in which the tao of a robber is not his deviance but the skill with which he loots your house.8 Tao is more prominent in everyday thought than in science, technology, and medicine, but it is the overarching concept in what, as any comparison must emphasize, is a philosophy of process. This understanding was not the property of Confucius, Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu, or anyone else, but was universal among classical philosophers.
Philosophic and scientific collectivities used tao in propitiously complex ways. They acknowledged that there is one great Way, an organic tao that interweaves the individual ways of everything in the universe. For most but not all thinkers, as the Way of human society it also intermeshes the life trajectories of individuals.
An eloquent portrayal of the Way and its role in the good life and the good state became a trustworthy way to engage the attention of rulers. Spokesmen for any such view could compete for careers until 136. In that year the state narrowed its sponsorship of philosophic teaching to five ancient classics that many authors cited but the followers of Confucius particularly claimed. We can understand as an attempt to alter that decision Ssu-ma T'an's argument for his "lineage of the Way" as the most comprehensive guide to good government <XREF CH. 2 lb jia>.
In order to avoid confusion, it is necessary to be aware that Confucians and other philosophers were generic taoists, followers of ways. In fact contemporaries regularly applied the word tao to their teachings. In none of the jockeying for support (and vying to say what the emperor wanted to hear) did competitors draw attention to the fact that there were many discrepant Ways, personified in diverse masters. Nor did they suggest that it would be good for a plurality of Ways to coexist. All agreed that there was only one. The issue was whether you are right when you claim that your description of it is most adequate. The new state Confucianism of the last three centuries B.C.E. gradually redefined tao to center on the new unified, centralized empire and its foundations in the cosmic order. After the Han, promoters of Taoist and Buddhist religious movements further redefined this political role of the Way, borrowing back and forth with discreet abandon to compete for the support that Confucian teachings by then had largely lost.
We make no attempt to translate ch'i, which we have already seen used to refer to three pairs of climatic influences that can cause disease. Before the Han, the word was protean in its meanings: air, breath, smokes, mists, fogs, the shades of the dead, cloud forms, more or less everything that is perceptible but intangible; the physical vitalities, whether inborn or derived from food and breath; and every cosmic force that affects not only health but the seasons, flavors, colors, musical modes, and other phenomena.
Yin and yang were paired, complementary aspects of any configuration in space or process in time. The five phases were a set of fivefold aspects, also complementary, of configurations or processes. Thinkers over the centuries arrayed the five in many sequences to model normal processes of coming to be and growth (the mutual production order), antagonistic or pathological interactions (the mutual conquest order), and many other modes of activity, both human and in the external world. We will look further on at the complex circumstances in which the conception of phases evolved (p. ).
Han thinkers made ch'i the material and energetic basis of things and their transformations. In the sciences, it came into its own, and yin-yang and the five phases became its modifiers. What makes ch'i especially interesting is the ease with which it bridged the transition from humanistic thought to state cosmology and then to distinct physical sciences, and in doing so maintained the politically subservient character of the latter. To study yin-yang and the five phases in the evolution of the sciences without attending to these political uses would be like studying dermatology and pharmacology without first forming a general idea of the human body.
Phases. The Chinese ensemble of five phases, used like yin-yang to analyze processes and configurations, had no Greek counterpart. It had nothing to do with elements--a point muddied by the +17th-century Jesuit missionaries, who translated wu-hsing (wuxing) as "five elements" in order to portray them as poor approximations to Europe's scholastic four elements.
In the first phase of natural philosophy, there were indeed fivefold groups among the diverse numerical categories that court diviners and others were trying out.9 They did not call them "five phases," but rather "five materials" (wu-ts'ai, wucai) and "five powers" (wu-te, wude). We will do well to look at the complicated process out of which the cosmological five phases evolved.
The first term occurs in anecdotes in the Tso Tradition (Tso chuan, Zuozhuan) for 536 and 531. In this example the political point is clear: "Heaven engenders the five materials and the people use them all. They could not do without any one of them. Who could do without weapons? Weapons have been provided for a very long time, in order to awe those who do not follow the established ways, and to show off cultivated virtue." Some Han commentators identify these five consistently as the familiar wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, but the great scholiast Cheng Hsuan enumerates them as metal, wood, leather, jade-like minerals (yü), and clay, the constituents of weapons. The original anecdotes do not say what the five materials are, and neither side produces pre-Han evidence for its interpretation.10 In other words, by the +2nd century what the five materials had been was no longer certain. We can be no more certain today.
We find nothing resembling Aristotle's theory that every piece of wood or bone contains, as its elemental parts, earth, water, air and fire. Nor is there any suggestion of speculation along the lines of the indivisible atoms of Leucippus and Democritus. The "five materials" are just materials.
The term wu-hsing first appears in the "Great Plan" ("Hung fan,between 300 and 250), passed down as part of the Book of Documents (Shu ching, Shujing). This speech of advice to a king begins with Heaven's revelation to the legendary emperor Yü, who had rescued his realm from the primeval flood. The Plan is a panoply of fivefold and other numerological correspondences that form a basis for a new polity. These include the wu-hsing as water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. They are not primitive constituents, however, but a set of characteristic functions: "Water means soaking downward; Fire means flaming upward; Wood means bending and straightening; Metal means conforming and changing; Earth means accepting seed and giving crops. Soaking downward creates the salty; flaming upward creates the bitter; bending and straightening creates the sour; conforming and changing creates the pungent; giving crops creates the sweet." Although this seems to be the start of a chain, the speech moves on to other fivefold but unconnected matters, all of them relevant (so the speaker claims) to keeping order in the realm.
Even at this early stage, "water" and the others are not words for substances, but for the activities that each of the five stands for. Although the five functions are not part of a larger process, one can see some continuity with the Han understanding of the Five Phases.11 Still, in writing before the mid 3rd century, it would be premature to understand wu-hsing as having to do with phases of one process; "five activities" would be more apposite.
But wu-hsing apparently did not originate as a way of thinking about the physical world. Until recently no one knew what to make of Hsun-tzu's polemic in the middle of the 3rd century against two dead predecessors, Confucius' grandson, Tzu-ssu (fl. ca. 450), and Mencius (372-279), who studied with a follower of Tzu-ssu: "They emulate the Former Kings in a sketchy way but do not understand what was abiding in their traditions. Still12 their capacity was considerable, their ambitions large, and the knowledge they had gained by seeing and hearing was varied and broad. They draw on antiquity to fabricate a doctrine that they call wu-hsing. It is peculiar, contradictory, and disorderly; obscure, arcane, and with no apparent argument; closed, vague, and lacking explanations (or unexplainable). This done, they polished their verbiage and presented it reverentially, announcing 'These are truly the words of the former gentleman (that is, Confucius).' Tzu-ssu sang this tune and Mencius harmonized."13
Tzu-ssu's writings are long lost, and there is nothing in Mencius that resembles the Five Phases, much less the term wu-hsing. The only clue is a set of categories that Mencius does use, namely the "four beginnings" (ssu tuan, siduan): "Feelings of commiseration are the beginning of benevolence (jen, ren); feelings of shame and revulsion are the beginning of righteousness (i, yi); feelings of modesty and yielding are the beginning of propriety (li); and feelings of approval and disapproval are the beginning of judgment (chih, zhi). Human beings have these Four Beginnings just as they have four limbs."
A little treatise from ca. 200, lost but excavated in 1973, solves this mystery. It speaks of not only five hsing, xing but also four: "The hsing of virtue are five, which taken together we call virtue. The four hsing taken together we call goodness." The set of four is precisely Mencius' Four Beginnings. The set of five adds sagacity. One may conclude that two generations after Confucius, in certain circles, wu-hsing was a set of ethical categories. We might understand the term in this sense too as "five activities."14
It is no doubt with some such moral or political meaning in mind that the "Great Plan" chapter explains that the God on High (ti, di) revealed the Plan to Yü, denying it to his predecessor Kun, because the latter had obstructed the waters of the great flood and put the wu-hsing in disorder.15 The chapter is not, in other words, discussing cosmology, but is adding a metaphoric component of physical process to a set of moral categories pertinent to governance.
Nor does this exhaust the variety of fivefold categories. To mention just one more important example, in the surviving fragments of his writings, Tsou Yen used "five powers" (wu-te) ca. 300 as an important part of his theory of history. The sources consistently identify them as wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Tsou wrote of them as emblems that determined the colors of court robes and other characteristics of court ritual differently for each dynasty. Although uncertain datings leave the matter unclear, he was evidently adapting these emblems to the reform of politics, and the rites on which the exercise of power was based. In his schema the five are not materials, or functions directly associated with materials, but markers of new beginnings within a cycle of dynastic succession.
The First Emperor, upon uniting China, explicitly adopted Tsou's five powers to regulate rituals and institutions by identifying his new regime with the power Water. The early Han court continued this Ch'in usage. The term "five powers" was still current ca. 100 during intensive discussions of how to change governmental practices. None of these uses pursued Tsou's original goal. They aimed, rather, at strengthening the authority of the state.
The larger exploration of which this essay is a part argues that the five phases developed gradually out of state-centered experiments in relating the cosmic, sociopolitical, and somatic good in the late Warring States period. These converged between the third and first centuries in a comprehensive unity in which the five phases and yin-yang became aspects aspects of ch'i. Chinese thinkers in that way created a common language to describe cosmic process and its analogues in the state and the body. Their struggle eventuated in a complex ensemble of concepts, tied together by the ideas that the cosmos is a dynamic harmony and that all sages know the same Way. Great diversity in the categories, and in the details of each, cannot obscure this broad consensus.
At the same time, this agreement was no straitjacket. Interpretation left leeway for a great deal of disagreement, experimentation and maneuver. Attempts from Lü Pu-wei on to make the emperor a ritualist rather than an autocrat drew on many philosophic currents, and molded important ambiguities into orthodox thought. Nevertheless, intellectuals' reliance on patronage and then on official status increasingly made the discussions one-way. Thinkers proposed; the ruler or his surrogates disposed. Han debate on topics outside of ritual and politics remained subdued or indirect rather than confrontational. Chinese philosophy, lacking the competitive abrasiveness that underlay the Greek variety, remained narrower in its range of exploration and more inclined toward general agreement on the most fundamental issues.
Appearance and Reality?
Chinese found no reason to doubt that the fundamental physical realities are what we see and touch. Unlike Masters of Truth trumping their rivals, Chinese Possessors of the Way did not need to base the physical cosmos on a hidden order of things. Appearance vs. reality became an issue only with the introduction from India of Buddhist metaphysics, which first made a splash in the +3rd century. But that was spiritual, not physical, reality.16 We will examine between 400 and +200 four distinct stances, epistemological and polemical, that resemble, each in its own way, the Greek notion that reality is not what we perceive directly. These are the contrast between an unvarying way and one that can be spoken of; the qualities that make some specialists better than others; the contrast between empty and full; and spurious resemblances. We will show how weak these analogies to the notion of appearance vs. reality actually are, and explore the local circumstances that account for the Chinese themes.
The knowable. The Book of Lao-tzu begins with two Ways (tao). There is the one that can be spoken of, that was the mother of the myriad creatures but is not the constant Way, and the nameless one, the beginning of heaven and earth, the Way that is constant. The passage goes on to say that
These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called the mystery,
Mystery beyond mystery
Gateway of the manifold arcana.
This is not meant to be natural philosophy. Nor is its topic cognition. It is about the difference between common experience and mystical breakthroughs. Again the Lao-tzu tells us that
Of old those adept in the Way,
Their mastery subtle, arcane, and mysterious,
Were too profound to be known.
This is a claim about illumination. It is not about the cosmos, but rather about those who have mastered it. What they have mastered about it is not only the domain of phenomena, but the more fundamental part that is an aspect of the ineffable Way. Only one who has prepared himself through self-cultivation can experience it. What confirms his sagehood is that everything he does reflects his direct, experiential access to what seem to be two Ways but are actually levels of one. Because the deeper Way is mysterious, arcane, and subtle, a sage cannot give an orderly account of its first principles to anyone else without speaking of it on two levels. This vision, like the others of the time, had political implications. In an equally celebrated passage the book sees the perfected sage in (if not precisely of) society, ruling perfected ministates modelled on the Way.18
Roughly a generation later, the Springs and Autumns of Master Lü (Lü shih ch'un-ch'iu, Lüshi chunqiu) turned the notion of the sage as ruler inside out to persuade the ruler to become a sage. A section on "Investigating Subtleties" begins with a remarkably abstract assertion:
If order and chaos, survival and extinction, stood in the same relation as a high mountain and a deep valley, or as white jade and black lacquer, there would be no need for wisdom; even fools would do. But order and chaos, survival and extinction, are not that way. They seem knowable, and then not; they seem perceptible, and then not. . . . the beginnings of order and chaos, survival and extinction, are like the fur of autumn. If we investigate the autumn fur, we will not blunder when it comes to the big things."
"Autumn fur" is an animal's almost imperceptible downy hairs that by winter develop into new fur, a common metaphor for the subtle first stirrings of change.
The book shows no preoccupation with a hidden order of reality, inside or outside the world, that determines or explains the phenomena. Its concern is rather with social disorder, which begins small but grows quickly and disastrously if it is not dealt with. The order and chaos, survival and extinction, are those of states. The investigation is a practical matter of avoiding nasty surprises.
It is easy to find many similar passages in writings shortly before and during the Han. Our point is that the issue is never the unreliability of experience.
Specialist knowledge. Those whose livelihood comes from being able to predict the future, or to determine what has gone wrong within the living human body, must satisfy their clients that they have access to sources of knowledge not open to everyone. Chinese diviners and physicians do not generally stake their authority on the metaphysical foundations or rigor of what they know. Unlike the Greeks, they do not contrast specialist realities with lay appearances. The form of their justifications tends instead to be social. They appeal to initiation to separate insiders and outsiders.
Such justifications had two main components. The first was to trace the knowledge of a specialist group back to the legendary sage emperors who had originated human culture and granted it to their subjects. The profundity of medical as well as astronomical learning was guaranteed by the Yellow Emperor, who created and revealed the first canons, and the Divine Husbandman, who first tested and set down the healing virtues of medicinal plants. To people of the Han, their own emperor's ritual grant of the new calendar to them every year was analogous to these gifts.
The second component was a lineage of textual transmission.20 The chain of orthodox masters and their disciples directly links the learner to the original revelation. This linkage is a necessary one because the founding classics are too profound to be understood outside of that line. The imperial physician Wang Hsi, in the preface to his Canon of the Pulse (Mo ching, Mojing) (ca. +280), emphasizes the obscurity of the ancient books.
Through the ages few have been able to draw on the extensive meanings of the writings that survive. The secret implications of the old classics have remained arcane rather than being broadcast. This has left scholars of later eras in the dark about their fundamental meaning, each with his own partial view, unduly confident of his own abilities. The result is obvious: minor illnesses transformed into life-threatening ones and chronic problems dragging on until all hope of recovery is lost.
Those who through study "tread in the footsteps of the ancient worthies can avoid causing premature deaths." The footsteps of the ancient worthies lead back to the founding revelations of medicine, and guarantee the efficacy of treatment.
This approach to justification is visible much earlier in astrology. Ssu-ma Ch'ien <XREF ch. 2 lb smt> explains the origins of astrology:
Long before the time of the Divine Husbandman, it would seem, the Yellow Emperor determined the paths of the heavenly bodies, established the motions of the five planets, began tracking the variations in the celestial motions, and corrected the Intercalation Remainder (used to add a thirteenth lunar month to a year at regular intervals). From then on there have been officials in charge of heaven and earth, the gods, and the various categories of things. These we call the Five Officials. Each is responsible for maintaining the order [of his charge] to avoid disorder.
The bureaucratic character of the art in Ssu-ma's own time, he asserts, simply reflects the archaic emperor's revelation.
What, then, earned favor for astrologers and diviners before the Han? On that question we have much early evidence in the Tso Tradition. The answer is neither explicit claims to arcane knowledge nor empirical efficacy. Although the book frequently notes the success of prognostications, the credit does not belong to individual diviners.
This is clear enough in the case of the astrologer Ts'ai Mo of the late 6th century. The Tso Tradition records over many years, with obvious esteem, his interpretations and prognostications regarding affairs of state. His employers greeted all of them with equal silence.23 This is no small matter, for rulers were the ultimate decision-makers.
What, then, made Ts'ai paramount among diviners? The King of Wu, aware of Ts'ai's reputation, asked an envoy "How did Ts'ai come to be considered a superior man (chün-tzu, junzi)"? The answer was "Ts'ai, when he put himself forward, incurred no dislike, and when he took his leave, was not criticized." The king replied "His reputation was deserved." To paraphrase, he was a gentleman in the best conventional mold, a modest and faithful civil servant.24
When we come to the Han, its official history has more to say about such service. The customary inheritance of such posts provides scope for incompetence: "Although the hereditary posts passed from father to son one generation after another, much of the diviners' subtle mastery and deep knack of interpretation was lost." How was this dangerous situation resolved? "When the Martial Emperor was enthroned, he opened wide the road for those who had mastered arts and skills, inviting practitioners of a hundred kinds of studies. Every gentleman (shih, shi) who had mastered a skill had an opportunity to demonstrate it. Those who were the best of their kind, outstandingly impressive, were given posts to assist him. In the course of several years a large number of imperial diviners came together. At the time the emperor wanted to attack the Hsiung-nu, repel the people of Ferghana westward, and absorb the Yueh peoples to the south . . ." In other words, because the Martial Emperor considered divination essential to his military ambitions, he rebounded from the hereditary principle to that of merit. As usual, political authority, responding to its own exigencies, made fundamental decisions about technical qualification.25
Unofficial practice was another matter. Although we know much less about it, the sources paint a consistent picture. The renowned physician Ch'un-yü I, not long after 176, submitted a long memorial about his experiences to the court. He was responding to an imperial edict ordering a census of "those who could determine correctly whether medical treatment [would result in] life or death. Which are the principal names among them?" The questions meant to elicit these qualifications deal not only with therapeutic experience, but, in equal detail, with the physician's teachers, what texts they had transmitted to him, and to whom he had taught them.26
To sum up, what made technical specialists (and advisors in general) outstanding was not the conceptual basis or content of their knowledge, a grasp of fact or truth inaccessible to others. What mattered was the origins of what they knew. It was specifically the chain of predecessors, all Possessors of the Way, that connected them directly to revelations of high antiquity. They did not demonstrate that they were fit to belong to this lineage by exceptional problem-solving skills, which their patrons and employers largely took for granted, but by adherence to social norms appropriate to their situation in life. Their superiors expected them to behave like other members of the elite.
Empty and full. These labels imply not only the value of something, but what knowledge one can have of it. Let us examine the dichotomy, quite different from the Greek appearance vs. reality, but similarly used in China.
The meaning of "empty" and "full" (hsu-shih, xushi) varies with the circumstances and the topic. In a little text on the "Five Officials" (probably late Warring States or early Han), among the keys to victory in war is "differentiating real from empty," that is, knowing the difference between the actual situation and disinformation, ruse, or trap. But when another writing of about the same time in the same eclectic collection discusses the ruler's "Discipline of the Heart and Mind," empty (i.e., void) is an attribute of the sage, which sets him off from the conventional activism of ordinary people: "The sage does not do this, so that he differs from other creatures. In his difference he is empty; the empty is the starting point of the myriad things." He is the still center in the midst of meaningless change.27 Both meanings, although divergent, persist over centuries.
But when the topic is ideas or words, the empty ones are uniformly inferior. The Lao-tzu's quietist authors esteem emptiness and other yin attributes of people and things, but that is not true when they speak of hsu yen (xuyan), empty words or empty sayings. The same is true of their philosophical rivals. The chapter on "Elucidating the Laws" of the Kuan-tzu (Guanzi) declares that "under an enlightened ruler . . . those who speak without saying anything of substance (shih) are executed, and clerks who bring disorder to the official ranks are executed. Therefore no one dares to submit empty words, and the unworthy do not dare become officials. A chaotic ruler, on the other hand, listens to what ministers say without being vigilant about its substance, so that his ministers use empty praise to push forward members of their own cliques."28
"Cliques" reminds us that "empty words" is a tool of rivalry. It asserts that in what an opponent has said there is nothing worth taking seriously. Of course your quarry will not agree with you, at least if he is on hand to defend himself (which is seldom the case). That there is no objective way to settle the argument does not matter. At least you have had a crack at discrediting him, and have done so in a sagacious way that is not obviously "without saying anything of substance." Some rulers in any case savored stylish vituperation more than substance.
There is plainly a rough parallel between this controversial application of "empty vs. full" and the Greek use of "appearance vs. reality." But their consequences for thought are quite different.
The Greeks were generally explicit and confrontational when they pressed claims against rivals <XREF ch. 4 lb cfrt>. Because assertions about the certainty of knowledge were common currency, both sides in a given debate tended to elaborate and push as far as possible their own notions about reality. It is difficult to ignore a charge that your reality is mere seeming, and tempting to vindicate it by demonstrating that the confusion is actually your opponent's. One bold stroke in critical thought after another resulted from such ingenious contentions.
The Chinese dichotomy evolved for equally impolite uses in quite dissimilar circumstances. To call a belief "empty" had no more epistemological significance than to call it "shabby" or "silly." It usually amounted to nothing more than a charge of wrong-headedness. New critical arguments did not usually follow. This usage could have been developed in philosophical directions, just as, after the Han period, the other usage of hsu as "void" came to play an important role in Taoist and then Buddhist metaphysics. This did not happen. Chinese found the vituperative sense of "empty" adequate, and phrased their speculations about the character of knowledge in other terms that were not disputatious.
There was little overt, reciprocal polemic to sharpen the vocabulary that expressed knowing or to confront the problems of knowledge. Chih, zhi, the staple word for "to know," overlapped in philosophic writing long past the Han with words for "to recognize" and, as a noun for "knowledge," with "wisdom." Authors interested in such matters found no reason, that is, to fix a line between between "knowledgeable" and "wise," between those who possess knowledge and those who use it effectively.29 Yü (yu), "stupid, lacking wisdom," was more often a polite reference to oneself than a term of abuse for others.
Once again we find that the patterns of Chinese philosophical argument, including prevalent techniques for reproaching, parrying, or dismissing opponents, are distinctive. They reflect, as we have come to expect, the circumstances and milieux in which intellectual exchanges took place.
Spurious resemblances. One more instance will prepare us to form a conclusion. Springs and Autumns of Master Lü contains a most interesting chapter on "spurious resemblances" (i ssu, yisi).
What most confuses people is surely resemblances between things. What bothers jade-cutters is stones that resemble jade; what bothers judges of swords is swords that look like (the legendary blade) Wu-kan; what bothers worthy rulers is people who know so many things and quibble so well over words that they seem to be learned. The ruler of a doomed state may seem to be wise; the ministers of a doomed state may seem to be faithful. Resemblances between things greatly confuse the stupid, but cause the sage to reflect more deeply.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It is essential to examine the traces of spurious resemblances. Doing so depends on [access to] the right person. If Shun were a charioteer, with Yao seated at his left and Yü at his right, before entering marshland they would consult a herdboy; before crossing a stream they would consult a master fisherman. Why is this? Because what they need is thorough knowledge. A mother can always distinguish identical twins because of her thorough knowledge of them.
Yao, Shun, and Yü are sages, the ultimate brain trust, certified by the orthodox classics. Still, readers found it obvious that the three would need the advice of a herdboy to find their way through a swamp. Nor would anyone doubt that experience is pertinent to detecting phonies. The author did not find the notion of experience problematic. Neither did contemporary rivals or later scholars.
Master Lü seems at a glance to offer a curiously trivial resolution for the substantial problem of real vs. specious. But let us examine the context.
Rulers, the readership for which intellectuals yearned, generally were not enthusiastic about being subjected to rational suasion. No matter how respectfully philosophers treat them, rulers from Confucius' time to the end of the Warring States era appear in philosophic writings as well-intentioned dolts, too distracted by their own appetites and their own power to concentrate on anything else. Clever advisors kept trying to persuade them that a given policy was in their interest, but were as likely to annoy them as to compel them. Still, if one hoped to be an advisor, it was they, not some imaginary paragon, one had to advise.
Every essay in Lü shih ch'un-ch'iu, no matter what its topic, aims at stability imposed by the state. The passage just quoted is not epistemological in thrust. It speaks to the decision-maker who may nod off when confronted with the dilemmas of jade-cutters and sword-makers, but who takes a lively interest in detecting advisors who only pretend to be well informed. The anecdotes that make up the rest of the chapter all speak to that concern. Their shared emphasis on trusting experienced advisors is eminently practical. They might lose that practicality if they set civil servants arguing over whose experience was most like that of the mother of twins, in other words, over exactly what experience counts. A main aim of Lü shih ch'un-ch'iu, after all, is to persuade the ruler to cede authority voluntarily to his officials rather than acting unilaterally. In the absence of institutional constraints, that was his choice. Urging it on him entailed uniting officials rather than setting them at each other's throats.
This example from Master Lü, we submit, throws some light on why Chinese thinkers used "full" and "empty" to dismiss the ideas of rivals, and felt no need to elaborate them. When Greek Masters of Truth argued, the audience in their minds' eyes was all or some subset of their fellow citizens. Shortly before the Han, Possessors of the Way were hoping to be read and judged by aspirants to ultimate power. In the Han they were writing for the One Man, the Son of Heaven. Consciousness of either readership encouraged precision in moral, social and political categories, but it did not motivate an equal fastidiousness with regard to the foundations of knowledge, even when discussing abstractions. For those who sought a basis, revelation by an archaic sage-king provided an intellectually impeccable one that monarchs would appreciate.
That may well be the reason why the most promising foundational explorations came from an unconventional organization of the late Warring States, the Mohists. Their authoritarianism may have pleased rulers, but their preaching of impartial love for everyone, their anti-ritualism, emphasis on frugality, opposition to offensive warfare and disruption of military campaigns predictably offended them. Their canons, written between 350 and 300 or so, began to open up systematically a range of epistemological issues, from the difference between knowledge and wisdom to the relations between names and things, not to mention unprecedented explorations of optics, mechanics, and basic geometric topics.31 But their independence also accounts for the abortiveness of their thought. In the 4th century some considered them the chief rivals of the Confucians, but they did not benefit notably from patronage, and did not survive the Confucian monopoly of state classical studies after 136. For centuries after that their writings lay practically unread.
In the sources that interest us, "full" and "empty" speak to a minuscule, powerful, and not at all academically inclined readership impatient with moves toward an elaborate epistemology or ontology. That leaves us reluctant to form an opinion on whether at that time but in other circumstances Chinese philosophers could have gone beyond the Mohists. At that time there were no other circumstances.
These few examples suggest that Chinese and Greek cosmology and science tended to take different paths to analogous ends, and that analogous paths tend to go in different directions. In accounting for these intellectual differences, we are forced repeatedly to acknowledge the importance of discrepant social circumstances. Let us summarize what our larger study has led us to conclude about how and why the science (and medicine) of the two cultures took such different forms as they gradually became distinct enterprises.
Surveying the sciences of two sophisticated cultures over the six hundred years from 400 B.C.E. to 200 C.E., we are quite aware that the traits that seem to us centrally important are not universal but general characteristics, and there are exceptions to all of them. In looking at many dimensions of thought and practice, we believe that how thinkers made a living, how they related to others, what they did, what their values were, and what they thought, made up a single historic manifold that can only be understood as a whole. We find this approach more useful than thinking of concepts and their contexts as two distinct things, or arguing that social dispensations caused intellectual ones or that ideas caused social change. In what follows we will summarize our views on the chief characteristics of the Chinese and Greek manifolds, and then on the aims, styles and milieux of their inquiries.
Characteristics. According to a widespread view of the history of science, one might expect that the content of systematic investigations in different cultures, once they were under way, would be the same, or if not, would rapidly converge. Both Chinese and Greek astronomers studied the skies to regulate the calendar and to determine the periodicities of eclipses and other phenomena; both Chinese and Greek doctors investigated the pulse in their endeavours to diagnose diseases. Yet even those similarities mask important divergences in assumptions about how the regularities of heavenly motions are to be understood, and about the internal functioning of the body.
Moreover, as we have seen, the fundamental concepts in play in China and in Greece are strikingly dissimilar. The Greeks focussed on nature and on elements. Both those concepts may seem familiar and obvious enough to us. However the first was an invention that served distinct polemical purpose: to define the sphere of competence of new-style "naturalistic" investigators and to underline the superiority of their views, in that domain, to the traditional beliefs of poets, wise men and religious leaders. Element theory concerned how material objects are ultimately constituted. Both natural philosophers and medical writers thought they needed to be able to answer that question in order to give sound explanations of other phenomena that interested them. Yet atomists and continuum theorists of various kinds ultimately could not resolve their disputes on that issue.
Chinese investigators had a very different set of fundamental concerns, not nature and elements, but the Way (or 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, many Chinese thinkers--and some of the most prominent ones--had a very different programme, namely to advise and guide rulers. To that end they took over and redefined established concepts to produce an comprehensive synthesis in which heaven, earth, society and the human body formed a single universe of interacting universes. Comprehensive understanding of cosmic order served as the basis of the advisers' insistence on orderly behaviour even from rulers. Rulers, although not all of them abided by these limits, at least accepted roles as ritual mediators between heaven and earth and guarantors of good order in the cosmos. That served to legitimate their rule, a crucial matter for a new dynasty, and desirable at other times.
Livelihood. Philosophers and scientists in Greece as well as China sought employment and positions where their skills would be appreciated. Their prospects were from some points of view markedly dissimilar. Chinese rulers valued advisers and used them. This is already the case with the "guests" whom powerful lords collected at their courts in the Warring States period. Such guests depended on the continuing favour of their patrons. Under the empire, permanent positions proliferated in the increasingly important and effective imperial civil service. Of course not all Chinese philosophers and scientists were, or wanted to be, employed by rulers. But for many that was a viable ambition and a worthwhile goal.
The opportunities for Greek intellectuals were much thinner. Few held positions of much influence with statesmen, and there was no appreciable bureaucratic structure to the state until Roman imperial times. Greek philosophers and scientists occasionally received patronage. More often they earned their living by teaching or by practising useful skills such as those of the doctor, the architect or the astrologer.
The difference that this makes is, in places, fundamental. On the one side, the Greeks had few patrons to please, but, without official employment, had to fall back on their own resourcefulness. Their lack of access to centres of political power gave them greater freedom to engage in abstract speculation, and little option but to do so. The prospects in China of influence in the affairs of state required a certain circumspection. Those who fell out with rulers at the cost of exile, judicial castration or death include key figures in the development of cosmology, medicine, and astronomy.
The uses of cosmology. Although Greek thinkers had little political leverage, their cosmologies, like Chinese ones, reflect political ideas and have marked political associations and significance. They were generally similar in being value-laden; a further point of resemblance was the use of comparisons between the macrocosm and the microcosms of the state and the human body. The Greeks often saw these as individually analogous, the Chinese rather as three parts of a single complex whole.
Once we probe further, the differences are striking. In China there is general agreement that the ruler was the mediator between heaven and earth, responsible for the welfare of "all under heaven." Cosmos and the state form a resonant whole. The Greeks, however, disagreed on the best kind of political constitution, and on what type of political structure the cosmos was, or resembled. Some used macrocosm-microcosm analogies to advocate a notion of the cosmic dispensation but, in the cosmos as in the political world, ideas of monarchic order competed with oligarchic, democratic, even anarchic ones.
Expectations as to the public utility of scientists' ideas similarly diverged. The Greek attack on the determination of the solar year and the lunar month was accompanied by only half-hearted attempts to apply the results obtained. For the Chinese, by contrast, the regulation of the calendar was a matter of imperial charisma. There was every incentive to apply the most advanced knowledge, including support on an imposing scale through the imperial Astronomical Bureau.
Pluralism and deviance. Whatever their opinions about the virtues of particular rulers or emperors, the Chinese were united around the ideal of the benevolent rule of the wise prince. No alternative to that model of political order developed. In a social system that valued civil service above every other career, philosophers who wanted to be politically engaged--or simply respectable--understood the dangers of proposing alternatives to the current dispensation of power. Divergences of view were generally limited to areas of thought where the general welfare was not at stake. Such areas tended to be marginal to the wide extent of what the general welfare covered.
In Greece, pluralism was not just possible but mandatory. Aspiring intellectuals, whatever their field of interest, had to make a name for themselves and they often did this by aggressive innovation. There was nothing to lose, indeed everything to gain, by advocating new ideas in every sphere from politics through cosmology to abstract issues such as space, time, and the ultimate constitution of physical bodies. The Greeks entertained as many different solutions to the problems of speculative theory as they did to political questions.
The pluralism just described did not prevent many Greek writers from advocating the sternest measures to deal with those they disagreed with. They often spoke of them as deviants, malignant influences infecting the health of the body politic, and in need of drastic treatment. Those who took such an authoritarian line (Plato especially) pictured the true statesman as the doctor whose expert advice all were obliged to take--indeed should be constrained to do so. The only deviants to whom early Chinese sources apply a medical metaphor are ministers guilty of misconduct.
In Greece theories and practices were always as much a matter of dispute as any other topic by which individuals made their reputation. By contrast, Chinese anecdotes of experts tend to take their technical decisions for granted and emphasize their embodiment of social norms.
Private interest. In Greece, favouring one's private interest was acceptable: in China, it was unthinkable. Even the most rapacious Chinese officials mastered altruistic modes of justification. The tension between the identities of civil servants as tools of imperial control on the one hand, and, on the other, as representatives of a hereditary elite with interests opposed to those of the ruler, often has consequences, even if in the historical record it is largely unacknowledged.
Different attitudes towards private interest are responsible for another contrast. Astrology, like cosmology, consistently had implications for the state as a whole in China, but just as much for the individual in Greece. Indeed the sphere of operation for most Greek philosophers and scientists of every kind was the private, not the public, but until the collapse of Eastern Han government, Chinese preferred the latter.
The role of disagreement. Greek culture throughout the period that concerns us encouraged disagreement and disputation in natural philosophy and science as in every other field: the Chinese emphasised consensus. This was not because the Greeks were intrinsically disputatious and the Chinese essentially eirenic. Success in debate was how you made your name in Greece in a way that has no analogue in China.
This does not mean that the Greeks never saw eye to eye and that Chinese always did. A very few early Chinese thinkers were consistently critical, and many carped from time to time. Conversely Greek minds met on fundamentals often enough to make some aspects of their early thought cumulative, in mathematics and the exact sciences especially. But even when, in the Hellenistic period, philosophers and doctors formed more stable groupings, these were still locked in constant competitive debate.
Even when the Greeks agreed on certain ideas and practices, especially for medicine, they often insisted on different rationales or justifications. In China, general agreement was more common. Even so, doctrines were not highly standardised, and in medicine there was much room for elaboration on points of detail. Without a single educational or occupational structure to enforce one synthesis, general agreement on the outlines of doctrine never extended to its fine details. Multiple explanations of the same phenomenon, often inconsistent ones, remained frequent. Medical classics preferred not the leanest and most rigorous account but the fullest one, more adequate to the complexities of medical practice than what narrow consistency could yield. Chinese on the whole preferred to cascade levels of meaning than to seek a single cause ruling out all others.
Rhetoric and status. There is finally the question of the management of persuasion, or rhetoric, where issues of status are always in evidence.
For Greeks, whatever other purposes it served, oral contention was a tool of competition. Lacking sinecures or even secure employment, Masters of Truth depended on debate for fame and livelihood. Argument tended to be face to face, and the public was often expected to decide, just as the public determined the outcome of political discussion in the assemblies, and of litigation in the dicasteries. These customs had no Chinese counterparts.
Chinese Possessors of the Way generally strove for support by rulers, as "guests" in the late Chou courts, and as officials in the Han. Their interlocutors were not colleagues but patrons, who expected advice but did not feel obliged to act on, nor even to reply to, it. This relationship hardly made for lively philosophic exchanges, and few are recorded. Disagreements with other intellectuals, except on matters of state policy, were unimportant by comparison with Greece. Most philosophic polemics were originally written, and were directed at dead or absent rivals.
The text-based lineages of Chinese philosophy and science did not encourage internal disputes, except in affirmatively developing the ideas of intellectual ancestors. Masters often used argument among pupils as a teaching tool, but disciples did not lightly assume that their teachers were wrong. Chinese coteries, unlike Greek philosophical and medical sects, avoided publicly attacking each other. Hostilities were unproductive when teachers (not to mention parents) aspired above all to public employment for their pupils. Neither the esteem of all colleagues everywhere, nor public celebrity, could compensate for lack of access to appointments.
How individuals in China and in Greece responded to the complex traditions they inherited, how they obtained and used their own room for manoeuvre, negotiated their own positions, decided their goals and set about fulfilling them: these questions do not have single answers. Both societies offered aspirants to the Tao or to Logos a wide spectrum of possibilities.
To understand Greek or Chinese science, a comparison with the other provides a valuable and much underutilised resource. Neither China nor Greece had a monopoly of either the appropriate conceptual tools or suitable institutional frameworks for systematic inquiries into the heavens, the human body, or the cosmic dispensation as a whole. Each provides a remarkably rich potential for the pursuit of such inquiries. The hypotheses that our larger inquiry has yielded will need further testing, both in relation to these two societies and, where possible, further afield, to other ancient and early modern cultures. Yet this first collaborative exploration of Chinese and Greek science has, we believe, identified some fundamental parts of the answer to the question of why these societies produced the science that they did.
1Politics I, 1252a1ff.
In certain early usages tzu-jan becomes a single word, not a noun but a modifier. For instance, the Later Han History mentions tzu-jan ku, the popular name for a grain resembling wheat (?ta mai, damai) that can be harvested without being sown. In other words, the growth of this wild grain, although no more natural than that of ordinary wheat, is spontaneous. Although it was a word, the modifier tzu-jan, "wild, native" did not become an important concept in the sciences. See Po wu chih (Bowu zhi), end of ch. 6, tr. Roger Greatrex, "The Bowu Zhi. An Annotated Translation," Ph.D. dissertation, Oriental Studies, Stockholm University, 1987, p. 116 ("natural grain") and Pen-ts'ao kang-mu (Bencao gangmu) (Commercial Press 1930/1954 ed.), 8: 9-11.
We are extremely grateful to Professor Michael Lackner for his finding that tzu-jan for "nature" first appeared in China in a translation of the lexicon Tetsugaku i'i.
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Last Modified 2003.9.7