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Adversaries and Authorities

Purely uncritical moment: This was an amazing book. I appreciate how Lloyd enacts his comparison between Chinese and Greek science by addressing what are surface or “apparent” differences and then complicating that with details that may go against the common assumptions. It reminded me of the argument by Hall and Ames in Anticipating China, as both texts are very careful about not overstating claims, but rather discuss predominant trends in approaches or thinking, and yet are still clear to offer instances of where this narrative is not seamless. I appreciate this type of scholarship very much as, to me, it increases the ethos and perceived academic integrity of the author(s) as well as pointing toward the actual complexity in any attempt to “unravel” issues as multi-layered as historic epistemologies and practices.

There was nothing in this book that didn’t interest me. I am fascinated by both the conceptions of science, the relationship of rhetoric to philosophy and “truth” in Western thinking, and the strands of epistemic cross-overs, differences, and relationships in the very deep histories of various world cultures. I wanted more and more and more from this book, not because it didn’t offer a lot already, but because it inspired so many questions. I fight the urge to email Sir Geoffrey Lloyd in the middle of the night to ask him six hundred different things. This blurb from his self-written research site states:

My most recent work concerns various aspects of the problem of the psychic unity of humankind.  There has been extensive debate in recent years between universalists and relativists on topics such as the cognition of space, colour, causation, the emotions, personhood.  My own contribution aims (ambitiously) to take into account the most recent work in the domains (a) of the neuro-sciences and evolutionary biology, (b) in social and linguistic anthropology, and (c) philosophy, as well as adding a historical dimension from studies of ancient Greece and China, in order to clarify the key issues.  I do not side either with the universalists or their opponents.  My aim is rather to show more clearly than has been done in most other studies the limits there must be to claims for the psychic unity of humans, and how differences are to be explained where they exist.

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But I digress. Back to the text……

The idea that Greek thought and its marked contentiousness arose from its political system is one that is presented here (somewhat) differently than in Hall and Ames, but is also complimentary to that. In fact, the treatment by Lloyd goes even more into detail (deeper rather than wider with much specific description) in the various ways and reasons that contentiousness was valued in Greek society. Further, it was persuasion of one’s peers that sparked this debate and set its tone, unlike China where persuasion generally happened from ministers, philosophers, advisors, or scientists to the Emperor or other high-ranking officials, thus altering the rules of conduct for that persuasion (81).

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 3.32.21 AMIn his discussion about the relationship between epistemology and methodology, Lloyd states that “epistemology can be taken to refer to whatever may be thought to imply a claim to know or whatever might allow us to investigate how such a claim, in a given context, might have been sustained” (49). While the relationship between epistemology and methodology is clear, that one informs and ultimately reinforces the other, what is less clear is which came first or why particular epistemologies and methodologies are eventually privileged over others. While Lloyd is clear that attempting to uncover origins is not possible in this sort of inquiry, and while I agree, I found myself intensely curious about the intricacies of these reciprocities as well as the nagging question of why. Why this and not that? Why these and not those? And while the process of this “natural selection” in Western thought is outlined, or at least postulated, I kept wondering WHY this line of thinking, this epistemology, this posture toward science, politics, and worldview and not others? Because of the diversity of thought, why did some ways of thinking “win out” over others? While Lloyd makes a very sound argument for the privileging of “objective truth,” at least as it was conceived of by those from the dominant Greek schools of thought, this “truth” is very much rhetorical.

Which brings me to my next point of interest: Lloyd’s attention to the split in Western thinking between philosophy and rhetoric, between the “true” and the “probable.” Lloyd brought up several issues in this split that I have always found problematic such as the idea that “every scientific work aims to persuade, though that goal generally remains implicit and is not spelt out by the author” (74). This is true in most science writing today and apparently has a long history in the Western tradition – to disavow any reason to persuade since one is offering the “demonstrable truth” is a rhetorical trope that apparently has roots well back into antiquity. Having read Aristotle’s Rhetoric several times, I’m aware of this privileging of demonstration and axiom as the means of proving “truth,” as well as the rhetorical variations of that as represented in the enthymeme and paradigm. That Aristotle “proved” this rhetorically is….. well, somewhat ironic. Both Plato and Aristotle denigrated rhetoric and yet employed it whole-heartedly within their own work – the act of arguing against it, or rather arguing for the supremacy of philosophy, entailed the employment of the very thing they both derided, an irony not lost on Lloyd in this text. As he notes, “the highest style of philosophy owes more to rhetoric than it lets on, even at the point where it strives to distance itself from rhetoric. For, after all, it does not escape its own rhetoric” (91-2). I find it doubly ironic that this contradiction, rather than being addressed or resolved paradoxically as it might have been in another epistemic paradigm, is ignored or overlooked by Plato and Aristotle, though a deeper understanding of how dichotomies and opposites were conceptualized makes that apparent oversight a bit more understandable.

I enjoyed Lloyd’s discussion of the various ways that opposites and dichotomies FalseDichotomyare/were treated in ancient Greece and China, with the former pitting them against each other as wholly separate categories, and the latter noting their relationship and inter-dependence. This, again, reflects so much of the political and epistemic climate of each culture, and while over-generalization is to be cautioned against, the political underpinnings of these different ways of handling opposites is quite compelling. Where “Greeks very much stressed the opposition between them…on the Chinese side… the relationship between yin and yang is one of mutual interdependence Yin-Yangand reciprocity” (121). This says and explains so much to me about not only Greek ways of thinking, but also the epistemologies that self-consciously claim arising by way of tradition from those modes of thought. Even when the relationship between various parts of a whole are (to me) clearly dependent upon one another, in the Western model, it is only the “higher” or “freer” or “more powerful” of the two that is attended to or focused on as normative. Even in the climate of privileging democratic ideals, as Lloyd points out, this is not then “one of total agreement, so much as one of the due management of disagreement” (133). Again, this explains so much of the contentious nature of rhetoric, politics, and individualism as it is imagined in the West and helps to answer questions I’ve had for…. Well, since I was able to think.

Among the many, many points of interest that I found in Lloyd’s book, I also noted – and wanted more discussion of – various schools of thought that did not become the predominant Platonic/Aristotelian ones, such as the times that he mentions the Stoics. I have been interested for years in the schools of Western philosophy that did not come to predominate – specifically the Stoics and the Cynics – and how I have seen some relationship to their ways of thinking and what I know of Eastern ways of thought. While Lloyd is clear about the differences between Stoic and Chinese thought in his chapter on various conceptions of the infinite, he does note that “a general similarity with yin and yang might suggest itself, even though the Stoics never developed the systems of correspondences with which those principles eventually came to be associated in China” (148). Lloyd mentions the Stoics a few times in this book, as well as the harsh criticism that they received from the more dominant schools of thought (a criticism that is even leveled later toward them in the times of Cicero) but does not really postulate much about why their divergent ideas were so thoroughly criticized, nor why those criticisms “won the day” in those debates. Further, he says, in a way of differentiating the Stoic conception of the universe of infinity, that “the more important difference from the Chinese yin yang is that they, yin yang, are, as we have said, essentially functional and relational, and as such not basic qualifications of matter” (148). This statement somewhat confused me, given the understanding of matter that we have now as a relational continuum between energy and form. These are not distinct categories – a basic understanding of quantum physics tells us that – and yet they are viewed here, apparently, as an essential difference. I would perhaps argue that only from a Newtonian model of physics could such a claim be made and that, at this point in history, we have moved passed a simplistic notion of matter as either solid or stable, thus the Stoics and the Chinese version of the infinite in this case may be less divergent than Lloyd allows.

(If I had all the time in the world I would, here, discuss a likewise different reading of “harmony” from both the Chinese and Pythagorean models, but that would take a long time and require me retrieving several different texts. Suffice to say I have basically a similar criticism of the reading of “harmony” as I do of “matter” above.)

Throughout this work, Lloyd discusses the arguments put forth by both Plato and Aristotle that appear to have shaped so much of what is privileged as truth, proof, and knowledge in Western thought. In his final chapter, in a discussion of what constitutes direct evidence as viewed by Greek thinkers, he notes that “both Plato and Aristotle especially develop the contrasts between proof and persuasion in part in order to drive a wedge between, on the one hand, true philosophy of the kind (or rather kinds) they practise, and, on the other, the inferior styles of reasoning they associate with sophists, politicians, and orators” (215). From having read both Plato and Aristotle (as well as criticism of them), I wholly agree with this and see it, as well as the other very contentions dealings with binaries also apparent in their texts, as one of the bases of this way of thinking that is still so apparent today in Western thought. My question, still, is WHY??? Why this way of thinking and not another? What made Platonic/Aristotelian thought the way upon which subsequent Western thought was based? According to some sources (e.g. Diogenes Laertius) Plato was not even the best student of Socrates and that it was actually the Cynics who most captures the wisdom of that elusive teacher. SO WHY PLATO AND ARISTOTLE????

This question has plagued me for years (decades?) since my very first undertakings in the study of Western philosophy, and while Lloyd’s text has offered a much greater understanding in how this way of thinking compared to other methods employed in divergent cultures, as well as hinting at the turns that Western thought could have taken, I feel no closer at all to answering the “why” of how it took the turns that it did. It is this desire to understand, not for the sake of fabricating an origin, but rather to more deeply comprehend where and how to create arguments against it as it persists now, or at least that push against its agonistic boundaries. All understanding deepens this process, and while I still have questions, I feel closer to that understanding through this deep description that can at least inform that process as it is becoming.

Lloyd, G. E. R. Adversaries and Authorities: Investigations into Ancient Greek and Chinese Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.


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