As part of my graduation master exam I will discuss with my lecturer this book. As I always had a keen interest for the history of science, the lecturer suggested ‘The Ambitions of Curiosity’ by the English author and expert on ancient history of science, G.E.R. Lloyd. The work was introduced to me as ‘not too thick (app. 150 pages), but much food for thought’.
In ‘The Ambitions of Curiosity’ Lloyd explores how ‘systematic inquiry’ took off in the ancient societies like Greece, Mesopotamia (Babylon) and China. According to Lloyd systematic inquiry was part of a process that sought to understand, foresee, explain and control. Mostly were the persons of interest in these process steps rulers (kings, princes, tyrants) who employed people who had the talents to master these subjects.
Lloyd discriminates four themes through which he unfolds his arguments:
- the results of systematic inquiry could have unknown results that might a pose a risk for the investigator (his life could literally be at stake),
- time behaved in a different pace for the human versus the divine: it could lead to tension between human cognitive abilities versus society specific manifestations,
- myths played an important part in ancient history and those myths were used for creating rules to which people lived by, but those myths were often opposite to the results of analysis after systematic inquiry,
- the aspect of criticism that was different between oral and written form.
In the first chapter Lloyd deals with the historical writings of the Chinese and Greeks. The most important Chinese writing was the Shiji. A taishi had different roles when recording the events. He could be an astronomer, historiographer or have another role. The emperor was the mediator between the heavens and earth. The Chinese writers were state employed and their main role was to advise the emperor. That made it often difficult for them to manoeuvre between the results of their inquiries and the purpose of staying beloved by the emperor, ultimately it meant that their work was aimed to continue a status quo and there was little room for competitiveness.
Greek historians had different challenges. Their practicing of history did not bring an official post with it and were not mainly court to their rulers but had to impress a peer group or the citizens. Contrary to the Chinese there was no integral work like Shiji, Zhouzouan or The Annals. In the works of for example Thucydides he made it clear what in his opinion was good history writing and in that he rejected certain accounts of archaeology.
The second chapter turns attention to the future and the ability to predict things. Lloyd’s proposal is that the hope of being able to foretell the future was a powerful incentive to analysis and experiment, so it certainly not (only) had a negative influence on inquiry. In China if predictions did not come true that was because of a king’s virtue.
The most obvious example of the evolution from predicting to systematic inquiry were the astronomers in Babylon. The study of heavens (astronomy) resulted in data that needed to be systemised and a field of study took off because of the complexity of the data involved. Over time the predictions became more predictable due to the systematic inquiry and instead of the focus on predictions the heavenly objects themselves became the subject of study. Astronomy was not the only field of study, predictions were also practiced in the field of medicine and in Greece could involve animals and dreams, though Hippocrates already distinguished divination and medicine. Astronomy in Greece relied heavily on the use of geometrical study, stemming from the desire to explain in the perfectness of geometrical objects. In Babylon and China the study was based on an arithmetical approach and in that respect also more successful.
Chapter 3 is dedicated to the subject of mathematics. To Lloyd the presumption that mathematics is an invariant science is not true. Mathematics were practiced in very different ways. In Greece the belief in geometrical symmetry was applied in fields like optics, harmonics and astronomy. An interesting episode follows when Lloyd discusses how in Greece numbers were counted with characters from the alphabet that enabled to express everything in numbers (Pythagorean belief). In some circles it was believed that numbers could have special and religious meanings, though Aristotle opposed that there was such a connection. The Chinese developed their yin yang opposites that could have a broader context than the more restricted Greek variant (Pythagorean Table of Opposites).
In chapter 4 Lloyd looks at the more practical relation between the results of systematic inquiry and its appliance in day-to-day use. Lloyd admits there is some basis in the stereotypes that Chinese were great in turning inventions into useful products and the Greeks were not interested in such an approach. Lloyd says that Archimedes proved that this simply was not true, because lots of his inventions (like his screw) found its way in real life appliances. On the other side the Chinese elite had very low esteem of labourers and craftsmen.
Lloyd looks at three fields where appliances from systematic inquiry found its way, or better said might have found its way, because in most cases it remains unclear if the results of systematic inquiry really led to the inventions. For Lloyd this is the contradiction between the texts and the authors that we still have versus the archaeological remains that have been found (were inventions made by the texts of authors, or did authors describe the inventions by the craftsmen?.
The first field Lloyd treats is warfare. The Chinese has a better support from their rulers and advisers to make technological progress, although the mentality was to win a war with a minimum of costs and lowest number of casualties. The Greek mentality remained for a long time defined by virtues like aristea (deeds of valour) and andreia (manhood) and those virtues held back technological developments, but later on technology became also for the Greeks an important factor in warfare.
Concerning agriculture it is determined by Lloyd that this was not a subject for big risks and therefore inventions. Lloyd turns his attention to slavery, that often in modern literature is being seen as one of the main reasons that held back technological development in the ancient world. Lloyd points out that slavery is very unlikely the cause of stagnation: slavery was not that cheap, there were places where there was slavery and technological improvement happening at the same time, To Lloyd the missing of an unified and central approach to agriculture looked more like the main reason why technology and results of systematic inquiry did make their way into the agricultural sector.
Finally Lloyd looks in the chapter at civil engineering. The Greeks were hindered by their love for ideal geometrical symmetry, overlooking natural phenomena like friction. The Chinese showed a preference to explore the propensities of things, they were not out to master the materials, but let them work for them and in that way they had successes in irrigation projects.
The fifth chapter is an interesting look at the role of languages to fulfil and describe inquiry. As inquiry got more complex, it meant that a specialised brand of idiom had to be created to keep things recognisable for peer investigators and the public. But the development of a specialised language also led to side effects. It could contribute to the secretiveness of a group of specialised people that were familiar with the developed idiom. In medicine we find for example the Hippocrates’ oath as a result of this behaviour. The Chinese had an advantage over Greeks because their centralized approach of research meant that the language could stay more coherent opposite to Greece where inquiry was decentralised leading to discussions about naming conventions.
In the final, sixth chapter Lloyd discusses the institutions and institutional frameworks from which the systematic inquiries were performed. Lloyd comes to the core of things that were at the root of systematic inquiry. First he notices that the inquiry should be in some way useful and have a niche, so it makes sense to attract and employ investigators. But if requirements are too strictly controlled by a government then there is little room for experiment and there is a danger not to comply with the vision of the rulers. Lloyd calls this the double bind. He discusses what he calls the fortunes of transmission: the chances of survival and reception of one’s ideas is restricted when working alone (at least not working for a big centralised organisation).
Again the differences between the Chinese versus the Greco-Roman world are being discussed. On one hand the big centralised organisation, where teachers aim to advise their emperors as the mediators between macrocosm (heavens and earth) and microcosm (state and body). The Greco-Roman world saw a diverse variation of sometimes state supported initiatives (the Ptolemies in Alexandria), the doctors working for city-states and courts of kings and finally the investigators that made their income from the fees of students that followed courses in their schools (the Academia from Plato as the most well known example). Investigators in general found themselves in situations with stiff competition and the results of inquiry of an investigator could by definition find harsh critique from other scholars.
From what is discussed above it is clear that Lloyd concludes that there is no ideal framework to perform systematical inquiry, every type of framework posed its own challenges wehen it came to face certain situations like how to approach and convince rulers, peers and an audience. A situation that in current science is still recognisable.
Personally I found this a enjoyable book to read, mainly because it offers a different approach than the usual books on ancient history of science that deal with the obvious who did what first and where. This work obviously wants to deal with the why question surrounding the systematic inquiry and its ambition to fulfil questions about future and past events. Some subjects carried on a bit too long in my opinion, like Lloyds treatment of the harmonics and toward the end of the chapter on languages. The book has a great bibliography to make further investigations into the subject.
I don’t tend to agree that Lloyd gives the impression that the Greek investigators were most of all working as small company entrepreneurs, I always had the convictions that most of them were employed by the many local rulers in the Mediterranean and that there was competition among those rulers to employ the most successful (maybe even controversial) investigators as part of their royal courts. I would like to have seen further that some time was spend on discussing the possible connections between the Chinese and Greek investigators: were they completely operating independently or might there a be occasional instances of information leak between the distant worlds.
- DATE PUBLISHED: October 2002
- FORMAT: Paperback
- ISBN: 9780521894616
- LENGTH: 200 pages
- DIMENSIONS: 229 x 152 x 12 mm
- WEIGHT: 0.3kg
- CONTAINS: 31 b/w illus. 1 table