Paths of Curiosity – The Cultural Diversity of Curiosity: The Word and the Way
In the period between the fifth century BCE and the third century CE, impressive scientific and technological achievements were made in the two great civilizations of the world at that time—in Greece and in China. In their joint work, The Way and the Word, the historian of the ancient world Geoffrey
Lloyd and the sinologist Nathan Sivin ask about the specific configurations in which the curiosity to know and the ambition to create something new were anchored in social institutions and about the results they led to. Of course, here we cannot speak of science in the modern sense, and the development of technology took its own path, independent of science, as it did everywhere until the nineteenth century.
Comparing Western and Chinese civilizations has itself a long history that has been shaped by cultural mobility, the fascination of the exotic and the other, as well as numerous productive misunderstandings. One of the leading questions in the history of science and technology that already greatly concerned Max Weber and Joseph Needham was why the so-called scientific revolution occurred only in the West and thus remained a singular historical process. This question must remain unanswered. The second leading question explores the social, political, economic, and cultural differences that explain why China had a leading role in many technological areas but the West nonetheless caught up with and overtook it. This question can be answered only with much differentiation and on the basis of many individual studies. Lloyd and Sivin have chosen another way. They explicate commonalities and differences and then examine the relationship that the creative individual had to his social group and the influence that the social organization had on creative achievements. In this way, they reveal the roles and functions of institutions in the production of the new in the two societies.
Curiosity thereby appears in a kind of primal shape— socially still mostly formless and naïve but equipped with the power that is already inherent in the genesis of symbolic technologies. In earlier civilizations, curiosity seemed to be driven by a wish towering over all others—the desire to be able to make predictions about the future. Numbers were regarded as the key to understanding phenomena and systems because, if worked out in adequate detail, they made predictions possible. In ancient Greece, people believed they could see numbers in things, which led them to analyze physical phenomena with the aid of mathematical models. The ancient Chinese, by contrast, displayed no ambition to derive the whole of mathematics from a few axioms. Their goal was to use mathematics to better understand the social order and especially the unity in it they strove for. In China as in Greece, numbers were used to illustrate societal systems of order, and in both civilizations, people who were able to present themselves as experts in the manipulation of numbers enjoyed high social prestige. The Greeks, however, regarded the mathematically conceived universe as, in principle, independent of human beings. It was considered objective in the sense that this order could not be contradicted. The Chinese saw mathematics as a source of social cohesion. It functioned as a symbol of the unity of the empire, which was striven for and repeatedly put into question.
There are also interesting differences in the practical application of knowledge and in the amount of theoretical knowledge that was drawn on to this end, although the use of the terms useful, practical, and theoretical must remain problematical. As is well known, stereotypes are long-lived. The stereotype of China’s relative technological superiority finds its correspondence in the stereotype of contempt for manual labor in ancientm Greece. Although there may be a grain of truth in this, there is an astonishing wealth of counterexamples that call for a more differentiated view. Lloyd and Sivin repeatedly underscore that, especially in the history of technology, the state of the primary sources has many lacunae and that generalities often merely display an author’s preferences. The remaining differences are based on the two civilizations’ differing cosmologies. In Greece a predilection for geometrical idealizations prevailed, whereas in China the focus of investigation was on the properties of things. The goal was not to master matter but to search for ways that enable people to cooperate with nature and win it as an ally for their purposes. A similar approach is known, incidentally, from Chinese military strategy—for example, when (as in the game of Go) the aim is not to annihilate the opponent but to induce him to surrender. The schema for acting is intensely situational. The point is to grasp possibilities that are given in a concrete situation.
Such glimpses of the differences in how people deal with nature, use schemas of means and ends, or place importance on planning in contrast to a greater readiness for situational action may tempt us to attribute them to an unchanging “worldview,” but it is difficult to adduce stringent empirical evidence for this. Richard E. Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Western-ers Think Differently … and Why (New York: Free Press, 2003). Lothar Ledderose remarks: “There seems to be a well-established Western tradition of curiosity, to put the finger on those points where mutations and changes occur. The intention seems to be to learn how to abbreviate the process of creation and to accelerate it. In the arts, this ambition can result in a habitual demand for novelty from every artist and every Doubtless, a society’s own cultural cosmology shapes the images that it makes of knowledge as well as its concrete work on knowledge about and in things and practical procedures. Cosmologies should be understood as systems from which one cannot break out a piece at will to treat it as essential and unchanging. Cosmologies by themselves do not create transport systems, nor do they contain instructions for processing salt. They also have little to contribute to explaining why in Greece the art of rhetoric enjoyed great prestige and inspired the wildest theoretical speculations, whereas in China the highest aim in astronomy was to make observations that were as concrete and verifiable as possible.
And yet it is amazing to see the apparent return of basic institutional patterns. “The way” and “the word” offer different answers to how, at the beginnings of civilization, societal institutions helped shape the acquisition of knowledge and the production of the new by individual persons who belonged to a clearly identiflable social group. The comparison offers glimpses of the mutual interactions that appeared among the order of knowledge, technological activity, and the social order. In a world where technological artifacts and infrastructures are regarded as part of the social order, it is easy to overlook the intensity of mutual dependencies and interdependencies. Every social order comprises an order of knowledge, and every distinction between “nature” and “society” is made on the basis of images of knowledge that circulate in the society. There is never the one, single, right way—or the one right word.