Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview

A Message from Dr. Joseph Needham, FRS, FBA, to the Gargonza Symposium on "Time, Science, and Society in China and the West"

It is a source of much distress to me that I cannot be with you all for the symposium that Dr. J. T. Fraser has been planning for so long. This is partly because of the economic constraints of the times in which we live, but even more due to the infirmities of my wife, now in her eighty-seventh year, whom I cannot easily leave. I can assure you, if such an assurance were necessary, that I have a sustained interest in the theme of the meeting, and would like to wish it every success.

I suppose that in a sense I am one of the ancestors of the theme that you will be discussing, for it is now nearly twenty years since my monograph "Time and Knowledge in China and the West" was published in The Voices of Time.

In that monograph I attempted to show that Western Society had no monopoly of the sense of linear continuous time, in which there was room for both social evolution and scientific progress. I examined the claims that had been made for Europe as the only culture with any real sense of history, and rebutted them, revealing in Chinese culture the home of one of the very greatest of historiographical traditions. The Chinese knew of the cyclical time conceptions common to Greece and to India, but in general the philosophia perennis of Chinese thought accepted a single continuous time series, quite parallel to that of Christendom and the Peoples of the Book. Chinese attitudes to time and change could not, therefore, have been one of the leading factors in the inhibition of the development of modern science in that culture. Social and economic factors, I concluded, were much more likely to have been effective in preventing the Scientific Revolution in China.

In the first section of the monograph I sketched the role of time in ancient Chinese philosophy, especially among the Confucians, Mohists, Taoists, and Legalists. A good deal of elucidation of some of these doctrines has taken place during the past twenty years, and I should welcome an up-to-date discussion of these matters, especially as the Mohists understood them. I also discussed in this section the relation between linear continuous time and the "nesting" cycles of the astronomers and the alchemists (on this topic, see Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5, pt. 4, pp. 222 ff., 230 ff., 286 ff., 378 ff.). Many new insights arose when my collaborators and I recognized elixirs as essentially "timecontrolling substances."

In the second section I discussed the role of chronology and historiography within the bosom of continuous time. Perhaps the greatest tradition of history writing in the whole world was Chinese, and I tried to show how the original cadre of the dynastic histories gave

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