Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.23

G.E.R. Lloyd, Ancient worlds, modern reflections: philosophical perspectives on Greek and Chinese science and culture.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2004.  Pp. 240.  ISBN 0-19-927016-3.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Youngmin Kim, Bryn Mawr College (
Word count: 2913 words

Since 1987, G. E. R. Lloyd, an eminent Hellenist, has produced a series of comparative works on ancient Greece and China: Demystifying Mentalities (Cambridge, 1990), Adversaries and Authorities (Cambridge, 1996), The Ambitions of Curiosity (Cambridge, 2002), and The Way and the Word (Yale, 2002, with Nathan Sivin). Ancient Worlds, Modern Reflections, published by Oxford University Press in 2004, is the most recent in this line of sustained comparative studies. It shares the comparative approach of his previous work, but what distinguishes this book is the extent and degree to which he foregrounds the relevance of ancient civilizations to challenges and problems we face today. His intention to make sense of contemporary concerns in the context of ancient civilizations is explicit in the very title of the book.

The first part divides the contemporary challenges that Lloyd addresses into two areas: questions of the philosophy of science and of socio-political thought. For the former, he starts with the big question: "Is there science in the ancient world?" The apparent fact that there was no science as we know it today in ancient civilizations does not prevent him from comparing various analogous activities, based on our shared general ambition to understand the physical world. The apparent differences between ancient Greek and Chinese "science-like" activities, thus, do not eliminate the possibility of fruitful comparison but rather serve as a healthy warning that we should approach ancient civilizations with great care and sophistication. Lloyd proceeds by fleshing out a comparison of Chinese and Greek "science" with the following sub-questions. First, the question of common logic -- Is there a common logic? Second, the relativity of notions of truth -- Does each ancient society have the same notion of the truth? Third, the challengeability of belief -- Have we any right to treat belief as a cross-cultural category? How do beliefs come to be challenged, on what kinds of subjects, and by whom? Fourth, the question of a common ontology -- Is there a common ontology, a common world from which all world-views derive? Lastly, Lloyd returns to a version of the first question, investigating systems of classification and the modes of exemplification.

While all the questions deserve serious consideration in their own right, the common thread running through them is the tension between the correspondence conception of truth and its production of realism on the one hand, and the coherence conception of truth and its production of relativism/constructivism, on the other. As Lloyd understands them, neither position allows nuanced comparative analysis of ancient civilizations. The former tends to distort the fruitful diversity of ancient civilizations by assuming cross-cultural universals; the latter is preoccupied with internal consistency, thus leading to relativism. According to Lloyd, these positions are based on overdrawn dichotomies, and it is misleading to demand a single theory of truth because the multidimensionality of reality allows room for different programs of inquiry. At the same time, there are insufficient grounds for supposing incommensurability among different ancient civilizations.

How, then, can we avoid this theoretical impasse caused by these overdrawn dichotomies? Though these problems are philosophical by nature, Lloyd approaches them historically. He asks, what light can be shed on these philosophical questions if we focus on the ancient civilizations of China and Greece? That is to say, instead of getting involved in analytical discussions of the issues to offer new philosophical analysis, he examines empirical data of ancient civilizations in order to demonstrate that neither realism nor relativism meshes well with those data.

As Lloyd shows, in such issues as logic, belief, ontology, and classification, we do find differences in ancient civilizations. This confirms Lloyd's assertion that there are no cross-cultural universals. The differences then make sense in the context of different styles of inquiry, perspectives, leading preoccupations, and other socio-cultural influences. In other words, in order to explain why the various sciences that the Chinese and the Greeks developed took the form that they did, Lloyd considers the social, cultural, and political backgrounds of the philosophers and scientists. This does not mean that social factors determined the developments of science and philosophy; rather, it means that the differences can be comprehended only with such historical contexts. Here, he draws upon points from his earlier works to prove his case. For one thing, distinctive styles of Chinese and Greek intellectuals' inquiries are explained in terms of their relation to the seats of political power. Indeed, entities such as world, logic, and belief in either ancient world are not defined independently of social contexts. Yet the differences in perspective do not rule out points of contact between the objects of study. These points of contact serve as foundations on which to evaluate or negotiate controversy without lapsing into relativism. In statements like "Our primary obligation is to make sense of our subject in their terms, to allow them their voice, their differing viewpoints on fundamental issues," the vision of ancient civilizations Lloyd is offering is that of pluralism based on shared fundamental human conditions.

In the second half of his book -- which draws on ancient civilizations to address contemporary socio-political issues -- Lloyd starts by making the case for such a comparison. The specific issues he takes up are higher education, the discourse of human rights and human nature, and the strengths and weaknesses of democratic institutions.

In the case of human rights and human nature, Lloyd questions the universal applicability of such politically charged concepts. According to him, the concepts of human rights and human nature do not constitute cross-cultural universals. As in the first section of the book, he substantiates his claim by drawing on empirical data from ancient civilizations. His historical analysis shows that what was presented as an ideal for humankind is merely a reflection of interest groups. If we lose sight of corresponding contexts, we would be in danger of uncritically applying Western values. This does not necessarily lead to relativism or lack of objectivity in social and political issues. Lloyd emphatically says, "Evaluation is, in any event, inevitable, in this domain ... We carry, accordingly, a particular responsibility to be both self-aware and self-critical, where again there are plenty of Chinese and Greek examples that serve to underline the point. One way in which we can help ourselves, in that task, is precisely to study how other people in other cultures and at other times have dealt with the problems" (p.167). In other words, studies of ancient civilizations allow us to see beyond the narrow geographical, temporal, and cultural bounds of our immediate neighborhood in employing such notions as human rights and human nature. His methodology places our judgments on more concrete and sound ground.

Apart from the benefit of a broader perspective, what exactly can we learn from ancient civilizations to cope with today's socio-political problems? Here, the way in which Lloyd connects ancient civilizations and contemporary society becomes more direct. He suggests that we can find usable lessons for today's problems in the very content of ancient thought, not simply the diverse trajectories of their developments. For example, when universities are suffering from the loss of a broad vision of higher education's purpose, we can look to ancient civilizations where intellectuals took seriously the virtue of self-criticism and make connections among different fields with the ideal of universal knowledge. Also, when democratic institutions betray their weaknesses at national and international levels, particularly as exemplified by the United States and its political leaders, we can learn from the ancient civilizations. On the one hand, we can learn from ancient Chinese civilization the rich notion of solidarity, specifically the sense of the interdependence of all humans and the principle of collective responsibility for the common welfare. On the other hand, we can learn both positive and negative models of democratic behavior and accountability from the ancient Greeks. In conclusion, Lloyd argues that we need to substitute the discourse of justice and equity for that of human nature, and replace the discourse of rights with one that focuses on responsibilities, ties, and obligations.

As compared to his earlier works, which set out to prove detailed arguments through a great deal of empirical research, this book consists of broad thematic essays comparing the two civilizations in order to prove the relevance of ancient civilizations to today's world. To the extent that this book contains many of his earlier research's conclusions as well as the most updated methodological discussion, it can serve as a gateway to Lloyd's scholarship and methodology.

I think we can make sense of the core of his methodology in terms of his nuanced command of distinctions/dichotomies. In so-called East-West studies in general, and in comparison between ancient China and Greece in particular, certain levels of dichotomies/distinctions are inevitable. Such a comparative framework itself presupposes the distinctions between the objects of comparison. As his critique of the dichotomy between realism and relativism shows, Lloyd argues that a framework of distinction should not assume that the objects of study are self-contained entities. This kind of methodological stance is most clear in his critical attitude toward the approach of "mentalities", which used to be popular in comparative studies. (His critique of "mentalities" in comparative work can be found in his earlier, Demystifying Mentalities, and is briefly repeated in this book.) Once we associate the differences among the ancient civilizations with abstract and mystical "mentalities", there is little room for conversation among civilizations. In other words, the mystical conception that an entire culture somehow has a unique and distinct way of thinking serves relativism in the sense that those distinct mentalities are mutually unintelligible and incommensurate. Instead of relying on "mentalities", Lloyd explains the differences in terms of the social frameworks and institutions from which the distinctive styles of early Chinese and Greek thought emerged. In this sense, Lloyd is a severe critic of Marcel Granet, a French sinologist who conducted comparative studies based on the notion of "mentalities." If we understand the historical contexts enough, the differences cease to be mystical but turn out to be comprehensible, despite all the enormous differences that do exist. In this sense, no matter how much Lloyd emphasizes the danger of the notion of cross-cultural universals, he does not view the East-West or Greek-Chinese as self-contained distinctions.

In a similar vein, he denies that both Chinese and Westerners are prisoners of their native languages. According to Lloyd, no matter how difficult it is to recover ancient aims, goals, preoccupations, and expectations, "the notion of the possibility of two natural languages that are mutually completely unintelligible and across which no communication can be made is a philosophical speculation for which there is no empirical evidence." "Univocity is a limiting case, not a norm to which most terms should be expected to comply. Rather we should recognize that every term can exhibit a degree of what I call semantic stretch. But so far from aggravating such problems as the indeterminacy of translations, we can see that this enables us to establish the continuity between translations between natural languages and interpretations of one another's own idiolects." This kind of conclusion clashes with what Jacques Gernet found in the cultural encounter between Jesuits and Chinese literati in late imperial China. In his China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures, Gernet argued that Jesuits and Chinese literati mis-communicated with one another as prisoners of their own languages.

In this book Lloyds bridges other sets of rigid distinctions -- ancient/modern, and history/philosophy -- in addition to East and West, China and Greece, realism and relativism. Once gain, it is true that we should not impose our own modern preconceptions and expectations on ancient civilizations, but recover ancient perspectives. However, the ancient and the modern are not incommensurable. If we do justice to the historical contexts, then ancient civilizations become not only comprehensible but also usable pasts. Furthermore, when history is used to offer insights into contemporary philosophical problems, the distinction between history and philosophy is no longer watertight. By synergistically combining philosophy and history, Lloyd avoids accusations of anachronism and antiquarianism at the same time.

If it is Lloyd's nuanced command of various distinctions that makes the distinction porous, thereby bringing ancient civilizations into fruitful encounter and mutual illumination, now we can turn to the validity of the distinctions themselves as manageable units of analysis. How much and in what context can such big conceptual building blocks as Greek and Chinese civilizations be effective? Though Lloyd does not usually lose sight of internal differences and diversities within each ancient civilization, he does offer grand contrasts between them. In the case of the operative concepts of class and classification, he suggests a broad contrast between a Greek insistence on stable essence and a Chinese focus on processes, transformation, and interdependence (p.116). Lloyd also argues for the contrast between Greek argumentativeness and Chinese traditionalism by saying that intellectual life in ancient Greece centered around fierce argument and polemical confrontation while ancient Chinese intellectuals favored lineages of authority and harmonious accommodation.

While many of his grand contrasts are valid, some contrasts are made at the expense of internal diversity. For example, Lloyd says, "One of the Chinese lessons is to value the past, though that should not be to the neglect of the present and the future. One of the Greek ones is to value education in and for itself -- as opposed to valuing it for the qualifications for a career that it may provide" (p.142). However, the problem of careerism was an object of sustained attention throughout Chinese intellectual history as well, at least from the time of Confucius, as the famous tension between "learning for the sake of oneself" and "learning for the sake of others" evinces. The differences and similarities between the Chinese conception of "learning for the sake of oneself" and the Greek conception of "education in and for itself" remain to be further discussed, while "learning for the sake of others" clearly contains a strong element of careerism. Neo-Confucians also emphasized the importance of the moral significance of learning by criticizing what they viewed as learning for career, "vulgar learning" (su xue) in their terms.

Another example of broad contrasts is his assertion that "There was ... never any question, in premodern China, of any other ideal than that of the benevolent rule of a wise monarch" (p.164). It is true that we cannot find political arrangements other than monarchy in premodern China. However, Chinese thinkers' conceptions of the ruler's virtue are so diverse that the term "benevolent" cannot encompass the diversity of Chinese political thought. Many of the Chinese political thinkers who advocated legalist ideals and emphasized dynamic statecraft go beyond the rubric of "benevolent".

If we broaden the scope of the comparison from the ancient to the premodern as a whole, there are more examples resisting grand contrasts. For example, Lloyd says, "the format for the presentation of Greek ideas was often the public lecture or debate ... [T]here was a considerable development of interest in, and the teaching of, rhetoric -- the art of persuasion. That was needed not just in intellectual contexts, but also frequently in practical ones, to win arguments in the law courts and political assemblies. Neither of those institutions had any parallel in China" (p.34). Lloyd's argument is valid only for the ancient period. However, the view that the ancient characters of each civilization set the pattern for its later development, it is worth noting that there were traditions of public debate as "discoursing on learning" (jiangxue) in late imperial China. In fact, no account in Lloyd's book rules out the possibility that Chinese culture has undergone significant changes since antiquity.

These sort of quibbles in historical specificity are of small account in this kind of collection of thematic essays. And yet, the same thing can be said of the sections on socio-political thought. To be sure, Lloyds' book is very inspiring for many readers who still think that ancient civilizations no longer hold relevance for modern periods. For the specialists of socio-political thought, however, the lesson Lloyd draws from antiquity seems somewhat abstract. Part of the reason for this is that Lloyd does not engage in specific debates on a given topic. For one thing, he does not offer a detailed critique of the political thinkers, e.g., George Kateb among many, who argue that the notion of human rights should occupy the primary position in the discourse of democracy despite the range of alternative ideas. Likewise, although there was no concept of human rights as such in the ancient world, there are many scholars like Irene Bloom who put the concept of human rights in hermeneutical dialogue with analogous ancient Chinese concepts. As for the virtues of obligation and responsibility as opposed to "right", many thinkers like Hwa Yol Jung have been articulating the significance of such virtues in political theory. To join such existing relevant discourses in more concrete and nuanced ways, it seems necessary to narrow down the unit of analysis into a particular thinker's thought rather than Greek or Chinese ancient thought in general. Although we cannot expect this level of specificity in this sort of inspiring essays, I believe more specificity is not contradictory to the overall spirit of Lloyd's methodology, which indeed notes that there are internal differences and diversities within each ancient civilization. In Lloyd's own words: "we have to raise similar questions concerning the differences between not just Greeks and Chinese, but also between different Greeks, and again among different Chinese thinkers" (p.79).

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