Disappointing - disjointed lectures & articles, often not to the point
I have a copy (sold to me fifteen years ago by a public library) of Needham's 'Science and Civilization in China' - 5 volumes of 27 sections. Sections 1-7 are all in volume 1, and give an overview of the history and geography of China, the travel of ideas to Europe, pseudo-science (including Feng Shui), and so on. Needham began in 1938, and grew more ambitious, or perhaps gained Chinese collaborators; at any rate my edition has five separate books, but two of these, including the fattest, are volume 4. The final section, 27 at that time, dealt with mechanical engineering. The book is well illustrated both with line drawings and monochrome plates on art paper. I believe more sections have been added subsequently.
'The Grand Titration' is a tremendous disppointment. I'll explain why in bullet-point style:-
** The title is misleading. Titration - Needham states in his footnote that everyone does chemistry these days - is a precise process, involving a drop-by-drop check on a chemical reaction. The title suggests the book is a detailed comparison of China with the rest of the world. But it's not so; this book has eight chapters, each of which is a lecture, paper, or contribution to a collective book. Written between 1946 and 1964, they simply don't belong together. 'On Science and Social Change' and 'Science and Society in Ancient China', 'Time and Eastern Man', 'Human Law and the Laws of Nature' illustrate the type of thing.
** Rather few examples recur throughout the book, no doubt because they struck Needham as important. These include: efficient horse harness, iron and steel, mechanical clock, 'the standard method of converting rotary to rectlinear motion', segmental arch bridges, and the Cardan suspension - yes, I had to check what that was. Also the equatorial sky co-ordinate system. And the three Baconian things - paper, magnetism, and gunpowder.
** The latter three in particular need more treatment, which Needham does not give. Paper - but what about Egypt? Magnetism: Needham pays great attention to the angle of dip of magnets - but, if you're trying to navigate, who cares? As for gunpowder, it's a complicated thing, involving extracting nitrates from urine (not that they knew that) and discovering carbon and sulphur burnt fast with it, and give off what we'd call gases; it's really several inventions, plus empiricism.
** Another Chinese claim is the seismograph; they made them first. And yet why would Europeans want seismographs? Europe is fairly stable geologically - but when it isn't it's been catastophic, so careful measurements seem a bit pointless.
** Needham has a persistent tendency to be hyper-theoretical. His account of scientific method virtually ignores empiricism, and yet for most of human history people very much depended on straight observation: why do people eat? What is disease? Why does brown ore with coal give iron? - these are some of countless questions which have only been answered for a couple of hundred years, if that.
** Needham seems unable to simply describe things; he follows the wretched Marxist-type tradition of arms-length dislike plus silly criticism. He doesn't make it clear if 'alchemy' in China means the same as 'alchemy' anywhere else. 'Feudalism' of course ditto, and the 'oriental mode of production'. There's a lot of material on Confucius, Taoism, Mohism, plus sundry ancient Greek philosophers, and more recent Europeans; but there are no very helpful comparisons. Despite the fact that China never had a full money system, he uses the idea of 'capitalism' without analysis of finance - a 20th century tradition of course - don't mention the Jews. There are other influences - 'bureaucracy' for instance which surely couldn't be the same as the European version. There's also a great deal of material on science (Needham, and his brother, started as biochemists), but this is contaminated with then-contemporary material which may or may not turn out to be science - particles vs waves, for example, and Einstein worship.
** Needham introduces irrelevancies at great length; he's a generous-minded internationalist and anti-'racialist', very like Russell in his appreciation of the Chinese. He says 'each people enters the modern world with its own offering of thought..' which even if untrue is a nice thought - but it's irrelevant to the main issues.
** Needham does not discuss important issues sufficiently! On time, Needham says almost in passing, that Chinese artefacts were meticulously dated, and there are 25 dynastic histories written from about 90 BC through 1736. I believe there are very many older writings, too - which sounds far more impressive than Europe with the Doomsday Book and Rolls etc. Similarly: Needham mentions in one essay that the idea of a civil service goes (or went) deeper in China than anywhere else - even fairy stories ended with the heroin marrying a mandarin or 'bureaucrat'. He comments somewhere that stories about heroic water engineers are peculiar to China (heavy rain needed contours, canals, flood controls - in fact China was hard to invade because of canals). And that the only investment was land purchase, so bureaucrats did that until the proportion of tenant farmers was dangerously high.
Some of these comments may appear a bit philistine. All I can say is - you'd have to read it to see. A great opportunity wasted. I'm tempted to give 2 stars, or even 1, but defer to the sheer erudition quotient.
On time, Needham says almost in passing, that Chinese artefacts were meticulously dated, and there are 25 dynastic histories written from about 90 BC through 1736
Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests