‘1421’ and 1-D, 2-D and 3-D history

March 21, 2010

I paid 1p. last week for 1421: the year that China discovered the world by1421 - a book by Gavin Menzies Gavin Menzies. Initially, I felt I paid too much for it! However on reflection,  provided you want a Dan Brown style yarn which you don’t really believe in, it’s good entertainment.

His thesis, widely derided by scholars throughout China as well as abroad, is that Chinese fleets reached America and Australasia before Europeans and sailed to Italy (before the Suez canal!) to spark the Italian Renaissance. All with a lack of contemporary witness reports as evidence.

In yesterday’s post I pointed out, based on Walter Watson’s book The Architectonics of Meaning, how important it is to look at the entire developmental range of a civilization over time. Well, Menzies was a submariner, and he never gets his head up for any length of time out of the watery world into the world of signs, of textual evidence, into comparative cultural evolution.

Flatland - annotated edition of the classic book by Edwin A. AbbottOn reflection, though, I think a good metaphor for the quality differences in history can be found in Edwin A. Abbott’s short novel Flatland. Recently an excellent new edition annotated by Ian Stewart has been published. Abbott was a Victorian headteacher who specialised in mathematics and theology. He talks about a 1- dimensional Lineland and the creatures who live there, and then a 2- dimensional Flatland with the other creatures who live there and finally migrating to the wonderful 3-dimensional Sphereland. Salvation! The inhabitants of each ‘-land’ are unaware of the other dimensions, until some special circumstances occur, which gives Flatland its plot.

Gavin Menzies’ is a 1-D history, unaware of the world of the general ideas which animate the Chinese literati and their Neoconfucian orthodoxies.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is a fine historian who has been particularity trenchant about Gavin Menzies. In his book Millenium: a history of our last 1000 years he describes the history of China and of the West in cross-sections sliced into time. For example, in one scenario he shows that in the year 1000 CE , China was far more advanced than Western Europe, both culturally and materially. In this book he uses a  2-D method. By that I mean a method which is aware of the world of general ideas but does not take into account the transmission of cultural ideas over time.

In other books Fernandez-Armesto uses a 3-D method, which includes anCivilization and science in China vol 1 - masterpiece by Joseph Needham awareness of the generational transmission of the shared concepts of a civilization. The supreme example of the 3-D history method applied to China is Joseph Needham’s multi-volume masterpiece Science and Civilization in China. This traces the Middle Kingdom’s core ideas and their application in technologies as they mutate over the centuries. A breathtaking vision!

Correction. Since posting this article I have been contacted by Dr Geoff Wade, of the Australian National University. Dr Wade made the valid point that Gavin Menzies clearly does not market his book as a fictional entertainment, as does Dan Brown. Mr Menzies expects us to read it as alternative history. Dr Wade provided the web link to ‘The ‘1421’ Myth Exposed’ which I strongly encourage you to visit. My next post will summarise the evidence from the perspective of ‘signs of communities’.


The wisdom of pluralism and diversity – East and West

March 20, 2010

Richard McKeon was a one-time Chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Philosophy. An exponent of the comparative method in the history of philosophy he supported the Great Books approach to Western Culture and had a major role in the United Nations Declaration On Human Rights. He wrote many books including the standard partly-abridged translation of Aristotle into English.

McKeon  set his  face against Leo Strauss joining the Philosophy Department. Strauss is better known that McKeon today – because he founded intellectual neo-conservatism. McKeon felt that neo-conservatism was an unstable mixture of exoteric authoritarianism layered over esoteric relativism. Strauss joined the Politics Department at Chicago for the rest of his career.

McKeon’s pluralism has its best expression in his essay ‘Philosophical Semantics and Philosophical Enquiry’ in his Freedom and History and Other Essays: an introduction to the work of Richard McKeon. He sees the works of the great European philosophers falling into four categories, four great traditions. We can describe them as traditions of Matter, Mind, Media and a Mixture of the first three. Matter is represented by the tradition of the Eleatic materialists, Democritus and Epicurus – and modern science. Mind by Pythagoras, Plato,  the Neo-Platonists – and the central traditions of Christianity and Islam. Media by the Sophists such as the benign Protagoras, the malign Gorgias, modern existentialist and pomo thinkers – and the persuasion professions such as public relations, marketing and journalism. The Mixture of these three is represented by Aristotle and the Scholastic tradition.

His work was then developed by Walter Watson from the State University of New York at Stoney Brook. His book The Architectonics of Meaning: foundations of the new pluralism has a more Aristotelian take on pluralism and support for the diversity of thought and enquiry. ‘Architectonics’ is the Aristotelian’s term for their own eclectic method of interpreting all aspects of human life and of the natural world.

You may think: so far, so Eurocentric, so outdated! That would be very incorrect. The work of McKeon and Watson was taken further by David A. Dilworth, a Columbia University philosopher and orientalist.  In his great extension of the work of McKeon and Watson, titled Philosophy in World Perspective: a comparative hermeneutic of the major theories, Dilworth applies the pluralist method worked out for 2,400 years of European thought to the thought of East Asia over a similar period. His interpretation of the interpretations of the cosmos and the world shared by the great thinkers of the two civilizations is a dazzling success. Matter is Taoism, Mind is Buddhism, Media is Confucianism/Legalism. Media is Neoconfucianism, the ideology of the Imperial bureaucracy, the examination syllabus of Max Weber’s ‘Chinese Literati’ from 605 CE down to 1912. Once we see that China kept its equivalent of Aristotelianism, its own Scholasticism, for 300 years longer than Europe, we can see why Chinese science and civilization did not develop from an early high. There were no Chinese equivalents of Bacon and Hobbes, Leibniz, Montaigne and many others who overthrew the Scholastics and their descendants in Europe.

Dilworth shows in detail the commonality of humanity’s high culture. A pluralism and a diversity in both East and West. He is a life-changing read. Once you’ve read his book you won’t ever again think from a biassed Orientalist or Occidentalist viewpoint.