Ancient Worlds, Modern Reflections: Philosophical Perspectives on Greek and Chinese Science and Culture

By Geoffrey Lloyd | Go to book overview
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3 Carving Out Territories

Even a modest acquaintance with investigations into the physical world in more than one pre-modern society is enough to reveal very great diversity, in the concepts and theories used, in the methods deployed, and most fundamentally in the way the subject matter itself was construed. It is true that much of that diversity tends to be masked in history of science that stays within the conventional categories with which we are now familiar. Readers of such histories are informed about what 'astronomy' was done, or 'physics', or 'anatomy', or 'physiology', or 'zoology', or 'botany', or 'medicine', in China, Babylonia, Egypt, India, Greece, or wherever. But in every case those terms are more problematic than is generally allowed for, when applied to the investigations that we actually find.

The issues that this raises are continuous with those I have sketched out already. Within what conceptual framework can we study ancient investigations? What can we learn from the different ancient mappings of the enquiries they undertook? If those enquiries developed differently in different ancient cultures, how is comparison still possible? How can we begin to account for the divergences? Why—to ask a naive question—do we not find more uniformity in the study of the heavens and the human body (for instance), given, first, that the subjects investigated—the stars and our physique—are essentially the same, and secondly, that human cognitive capacities the world over, and through history, may be presumed not to differ substantially?

I shall begin with some remarks about the problems of using some of our own familiar terms—derived from Greek or Latin—and then use Chinese classifications of the enquiries they undertook to underline the importance of their distinctiveness. However, the Greek data in turn will serve to dispel any illusion that Chinese investigations were peculiar or particularly disadvantaged in adopting their own, un-modern, conceptual maps of the disciplines in question. I shall then turn to the

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