BMCR 2003.10.24

The Ambitions of Curiosity: Understanding the World in Ancient Greece and China

, The ambitions of curiosity : understanding the world in ancient Greece and China. Ideas in context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xvi, 175 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0521815428. £15.95 (pb)..

In 1953 Albert Einstein wrote the following in a letter to J. E. Switzer:

The development of Western Science has been based on two great achievements, the invention of the formal logical system (in Euclidean geometry) by the Greek philosophers, and the discovery of the possibility of finding out causal relationships by systematic experiment (at the Renaissance). In my opinion one need not be astonished that the Chinese sages did not make these steps. The astonishing this is that these discoveries were made at all.1

While the last sentence is true, the general claim does not adequately acknowledge the successes and significance of Chinese science. Much has been done, particularly by the late Joseph Needham and his associates, to discharge myths and assumptions regarding the limitations and scope of Chinese science.2 The issue, however, is least productively treated when set in terms of competition or apologetics. In The Ambitions of Curiosity,3 G. E. R. Lloyd sets out to establish what can be learned when the lens of inquiry is turned away from questions regarding who did what first, to how did the structures, institutions, and societal needs influence the very ambition to undertake systematic inquiry.

In the preface to the book Lloyd sets out his agenda. He desires to discern what factors influence the growth of systematic inquiry and promote the ambitions of curiosity. To answer this question, he will address a series of key themes, including individualism, openendedness of research, sponsorship or patronage, intellectual and personal risk, forums for expression, and audience, and apply them to basic fields of inquiry such as history, medicine, life sciences, mathematics, technology, and language. Lloyd is less interested in the content of the inquiries than the relationship between methodology and the social and institutional factors influencing the parameters and conditions for the success of the inquiries. Although the focus of the investigation is ancient Greece and China, Lloyd also draws on material from Mesopotamia, Egypt and India when needed. Ultimately Lloyd acknowledges that the work is a preliminary foray; he aims “to propose arguments,” not to comprehensively elaborate, document, or test them — this he leaves to others (xii).

The first chapter begins with some methodological concerns. In order to properly evaluate a given discipline cross-culturally, it is important not to allow any specific culture to define the parameters of the discipline. Likewise, it is important not to evaluate a science by the extent to which it approaches or contributes toward modern scientific ideals. Rather, the goals of the practice or theory must be evaluated in terms of how well it served the interests of the society in which it was found. In other words we should follow the “methodological principle of adopting actors’ rather than observers’ categories” (45).

The first subject addressed is historiography. Since we do not want to impose our concept of historiography on the Greeks or Chinese, Lloyd rephrases the topic more generally as the question of how systematic writing regarding the past was employed in China and Greece. Lloyd begins with China. The earliest major text which systematically treats the past (in contrast to the earlier but more anecdotal Spring and Autumn Annals and the Zuozhuan) is the Shiji. The scope of the Shiji however is much broader than traditional Greek historiography. The Shiji includes annals, chronological tables, and biography, but it also includes treatises addressing astronomy, calendar, agriculture, technologies, and ritual. Key to understanding the work is the emphasis on supplying material aimed at providing moral lessons for those who rule.

Lloyd contrasts Chinese historiography with early Greek historiography. Like the Shiji, Greek “histories” are not limited to events, but are inquiries “concerning” (peri) various subject matters. The major differences between the two cultures rests in part on the difference between the institutional connections of the royal scribe in China and the competitive framework of the Greek historian. The primary aim of the Chinese scribe (dashi or tashi), such as Sima Tan and Sima Quin, the father and son author of the Shiji, is to serve the state by providing knowledge, moral and technical, to the emperor and court officials. Since the emperor is the bridge between heaven and earth and since the welfare of the state essentially depends upon his character, knowledge, and administrative capacities, intellectual contributions to society as a whole are affected by properly advising and educating the regent and his officials. The consequence is double-edged. On the one hand, the state values, funds, and honors scholars. Seldom in history do we find such a stable and enduring commitment to systematic inquiry as in China. On the other hand, this same state patronage promotes an intellectual conservatism and can inhibit scientific ambitions. Although the state promotes inquiry, it does not (nor should we expect it to) endorse inquiry that is perceived to be inconsistent with the other goals and values of the administration. Despite the fact that scholarly texts articulated a commitment to the truth, Chinese scholars tended to serve the status quo. This is not to say that there are not many examples of those who stood against the powers to their own peril. However such examples of integrity were often themselves made to be examples (by death or castration).

Greek historians and philosophers in contrast were less likely to have explicit support from the state (though there are notable exceptions such as those supported by Hellenistic kingdoms). Instead for most Greek thinkers work was influenced by the need to find an audience and this meant some form of public performance. The individual had to make a mark, and this entailed controversy and confrontation on some level. Greek historians needed to enter a competitive arena and therefore tended to refute others and be critical of other historians in ways seldom found in the Chinese texts.

Chapter two naturally follows from the first. Moving from inquiries about the past to proclamations about what is yet to come, Lloyd turn his focus to the question of what constitutes and determines successful prediction. The ambition to predict is common to most cultures (ancient and modern) and although the subject appears to belong to pseudo-science and religion, Lloyd argues that it is the desire to predict the future that fed the ambitions to understand how the universe operated.

The grandfathers of systematic predictive sciences are the Babylonians. Lloyd surveys the growth and development of Babylonian astrology from its early stages in which, like medical prognostications, celestial affairs chiefly signified ominous events and spirits at work, to later stages when, as the result of the earlier practices, the Babylonians no longer simply predicted the outcome of the events, but the events themselves. Lloyd then returns to China and Greece. The earliest known forms of prediction in ancient China are the famous “dragon bones” and turtle shell oracles. Related and subsequent is the highly influential Yijing or Book of Changes. Astrology also has a long tradition; established during the Han dynasty, the Bureau of Astrology continued to function for over 2,000 years. The purpose of celestial observation was both calendrical (lifa) and cosmographical (tianwen), that is, seeking to map the heavens and identify ominous phenomena.

The Greeks never developed anything like the Chinese bureau of astrology and consequently each philosophy ultimately had to compete with others for attention. The result is a radical astronomical and cosmological pluralism (Lloyd calls this a “free for all”) which sometimes led to misology and skepticism. Moreover, while the Chinese mainly utilized an arithmetical (Needham calls it “algebraic”) approach to the study of the heaven, the Greeks preferred a geometric model. Both have been highly effective in different ways. Whereas the arithmetic approach produced very reliable empirical data still used by astrologers today, the geometric approach ultimately was more productive in explaining the data. A point not emphasized by Lloyd is that ultimately the Chinese conception of the universe as unbounded by concentric spheres ended up being closer to our contemporary picture.

The next two chapters focus on mathematics and technology. Mathematics was important both in terms of practical operation (measuring, taxes, etc.) and in terms of recognizing order in the cosmos. Both sought to connect the law-like order of mathematical reasoning to the development of the calendar, harmonics, and optics. The concept of number and the role of quantification is briefly evaluated. Even the basic concept of counting pulses is treated differently in China and Greece.4 An interesting discussion of the differences between the Pythagorean table of opposites and the Chinese conception of yin and yang follows. In spite of similar concerns and problems, the general ideals in mathematics differed. Lloyd again appeals to institutional considerations, in particular political concerns, to explain this difference. Chinese mathematics sought to unify the various subjects. Unity and orderliness indicate that heaven and earth are in accord and the emperor is ruling well. The Greeks, on the other hand, did not have such unity and order in their political domain. Lloyd suggests that the strife and disorder in Greek political and intellectual life would make the idea of self-evident starting points for mathematical deductions very appealing. In contrast to the law-courts and political assemblies where “merely persuasive arguments” determined the order of the day, philosophers and mathematicians sought to develop an alternative: a mathematics based on axiomatic-deductive demonstrations. This sort of approach to mathematics was as rare in world history as radical democracy.

When it comes to technological developments China and Greece are often portrayed as opposites: the efficient Chinese technocrats contrasted to the impractical Greek metaphysicians. While acknowledging that stereotypes usually have some factual basis, Lloyd’s survey of three general categories of technological innovation, warfare, agriculture, and civil engineering demonstrates a greater similarity than often suggested. The analysis, however interesting and informative, only marginally advances Lloyd’s general thesis. Examples of how institutional and structural considerations influence technology are the support of military and agricultural experimentation in China and in Ptolemaic Egypt and the production of large civic projects.

In the fifth chapter two questions regarding language are raised: What is the impact of utilizing or failing to develop a specialized language for inquiry, and how important is reflection on the nature of language to intellectual progress? Both cultures developed rich and complex vocabularies for specific disciplines such as medicine, biology, and mathematics. They differ insofar as the Chinese seemed to be more successful in standardizing scientific language whereas Greek competitiveness hindered a uniform discourse. Both also saw language as embedded with normative features. These were based on social roles for the Chinese, whereas the Greeks focused more on the question of the natural or conventional meaning of names. Finally Lloyd demonstrates that metaphorical vocabulary, especially characteristic of Chinese language, need not be less precise than literal or coined terms. In fact languages which enable a “semantic stretch” have certain advantages (123).

In the final chapter Lloyd attempts to draw his most general conclusions regarding how institutional factors have broadly shaped the character and success of the sciences of Greece and China. As we should expect at this point, there is no unequivocal winner in terms of scientific success since the needs of each culture differed internally. But there are clear lessons to be learned. Institutions both empower and paralyze; individualism can liberate as well as hinder. Lloyd calls this the double bind (126). In China scholars receive government patronage which supports the work at hand. One need not recruit followers or refute opponents. Therefore the Chinese state supplied a stability not known in Greece. The cost for this stability can be conservatism. The institution can discourage the introduction of new ideas or systematic criticism. While it was possible to work outside the institutional structure, it was difficult to find an audience. Individualism affords more or less unrestricted intellectual license, but operating outside the machine also limits the chances of making a real impact. “For many others the price of individualism was oblivion” (127).

Scientific inquiry outside state control is likewise affected by biases. Lloyd shows how the Greek model which emphasizes competition and free-market inquiry had its own strengths and weaknesses. Freedom from state control also means freedom from sustained and reliable financial support. The Greek model produced a pluralism of ideas that sometimes promoted intellectual chaos and discontinuity. To see the effects of intellectual pluralism produced by the absence of structural support one only need read a bit of Lucian.

In summary G. E. R. Lloyd has produced an important work which is not really about East versus West but rather about the way social and institutional factors promote or hinder the spirit of methodological inquiry. Although the book has a ‘compare and contrast’ format, it is more than simply a survey of similarity and difference. Although Foucault is never mentioned, I cannot help but think that there is something of the spirit of Foucault in this work, for Lloyd effectively shows how power and knowledge are inseparable. The work is appropriately short and will hopefully generate additional interest in the topic. Lloyd demonstrates how to approach the issue without falling into the conventional us versus them, or who did what first and when query.

The book includes a brief glossary of Chinese and Greek terms, a useful bibliography, an index, and many useful tables and illustrations. Chinese names and words follow the Pinyin convention. Both Greek and Chinese terms are transliterated in the body of the text. This work is free from obvious misspellings or typographical errors. The text is recommended for undergraduate use.


1. Cited in Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1969), 43.

2. For an detailed examination of Chinese contributions to science, mathematics, and technology see Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China (Cambridge University Press 1969), especially vols. 1-2 (an abridged addition is also now available by Cambridge University Press). Also see Ho Peng Yoke, Li, Qi, and Shu: An introduction to Since and Civilization in China (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press 1985).

3. It is not clear if the title The Ambitions of Curiosity: Understanding the World in Ancient Greece and China was chosen in part to associate or contrast this project with Michael Puett’s The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China. Puett’s work, published the year before Lloyd’s focuses on cultural and historical innovations, whereas Lloyd looks at science. Puett likewise shares Lloyd’s interest in the Greeks. However I am unable to find any explicit indications that the two scholars were aware of each other’s work — suggesting a strange synchronicity at work.

4. See Shigehisa Kuriyama, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (New York: Zone books, 1999), chs. 1-2 for fascinating discussion of conceptual differences on the perception of pulse between Greek and Chinese physicians.