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Classical Scholarship Today: Geoffrey E. R. Lloyds methodological ideas.

Demystifying Mentalities. By Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1990), 184 pp. $52.00 paper.

Adversaries and Authorities. By Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1996), 276 pp. $45.00 paper.

Ancient Worlds, Modern Reflections: Philosophical Perspectives on Greek and Chinese

Science and Culture. By Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 236

pp. 27.00 paper.

Diego Honorato*

From the beginning of the twentieth century, and especially during its second half, scholars

became increasingly aware of the difficulties entailed in the study of classical texts, or more

generally, in the study of the human sciences. This led to the development of a new

methodological approach, which in classical scholarship was characterized by a self-critical

awareness of what scholars can legitimately say, for example, about the ancient Greeks.

Among those who took part in this endeavour, the classical scholar and historian Geoffrey E.

R. Lloyd stands out for his rigorous clarification of the implicit modern assumptions in

studying ancient texts. Like other classicists, Lloyd called attention to the difficulties or risks

involved in classical scholarship and general historiography, whether this be of a single

culture or a comparative study of different cultures.1

Department of Philosophy, Universidad de los Andes, Av. San Carlos de Apoquindo
2.200 Las Condes, Santiago, Chile. Email:

What, then, are Lloyds methodological considerations as presented in three of his

most important books? This will be answered by first considering a negative approach that

details the methodological practices scholars should avoid. Secondly, I will point out several

positive features that Lloyd believes classical scholars should seriously take into account in

carrying out their own research. Finally, I will discuss the epistemological principles that

underlie Lloyds proposal.

Lloyd typically mentions three fallacies or recurrent problems classical scholars should be

aware of. These are:

(i) Confusing actors and observers categories. This is one of the most frequent

fallacies of all. It consists of assuming that the terms or concepts now in use, such as myth,

reason, science, magic, nature, and so forth were understood in basically the same way by

the ancient Greeks or the Chinese. This, of course, is a serious mistake of unthinkingly

projecting our own categories onto the near or remote past. In Lloyds words:

In each case I argue that it is essential to distinguish firmly between the categories

used by those who make the statements or hold the beliefs in question and those we

may use to describe them. The all-important distinction that has scrupulously to be

observed isto put it in the social anthropologists termsthat between actors and

observers categories. (Demystifying Mentalities, 7)

Thus the question is what classical Greek scientists or philosophers themselves think

about their way of doing science. Moreover, we want to determine their conceptions of

their subject-matter, their aims and goals (Adversaries, 2). Yet, as Lloyd acknowledges,

there is no possibility of getting into their shoes. There is no neutral description of facts, for

all observations are theory-laden.2 This is to say that all history, by its very nature, is

evaluative. We are told, however, that there is no need to despair. For even if we ultimately

cannot explain why Diogenes of Apollonia thought of and revived air as a monistic

element, or how Plato understood the relationship between mythos and logos, that does not

mean that no progress has been made in coming up with answers to such questions. In fact,

the awareness of our own prejudices and preconceptions constitutes a useful exercise and an

initial step we should patiently encourage.

(ii) The anti-generalisation point. The anti-generalisation point states, in short, a very

simple idea, though it is often ignored by excessively systematic historians. It refers to the

risk of making overly lengthy assertions (generalisations), which very easily impose a

uniformity on materials that would normally show a much more complex structure than

initially outlined.3 We may easily become entrapped into making sketches of reality, which,

though they may simplify a given issue, would also conceal fundamental differences

between things. A common example of this are the grandiloquent judgments on entire

historical periods, as when it is asserted that Greek philosophy postulates or the more

circumscribed, classical or archaic Greek philosophy postulates

Yet it is not only generalisations on whole periods that should be avoided. The same

is also true of different domains of knowledge. For what holds true generally in mathematics

does not necessarily apply to astronomy or medicine, regardless of whether one is referring

to Greece, China or any other civilization. Furthermore, at least as far as Greece is

concerned, not even generalisations within one single domain can safely be made. If we look

at medicine, for example, a recurrent subject of Lloyds (see, Lloyd 1979 and 1983), we find

that, apart from the Hippocratic corpus, which is far from being a homogeneous body of

theories, there are at least four or five different traditions of healers to account for. There is,

for example, temple medicine, and the medicine of the itinerant purifiers, and again that of

the root-cutters and the drug-sellers, and again that of female healers (midwives), the last

especially poorly represented in our extant evidence (Adversaries, 4). Greek medicine in

the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, as Lloyd shows, had diverse manifestations and included

different practices and forms of medicine (yet all of whose practitioners were considered

healers capable of alleviating disease).4 A similar point could be asserted about other

domains such as mathematics or philosophy, but to a lesser degree. For Lloyd

generalisations are therefore always a dangerous business if not carefully restrained by self-


(iii) The anti-piecemeal point. Here Lloyd calls attention to the frequent practice

that assumes that individual theories of different cultures and across different time periods

on particular problems (physical and cosmological) address the self-same issues and that

they do so in a similar way. Thus in Lloyds opinion it would be a significant mistake to

assume that because Greek scientists and philosophers tried to understand and define physis

or nature, their Chinese counterparts must have been doing the same. In fact, as he shows,

this was not the case. There is no equivalent in China to the concept(s) of physis that we find

in Greece. There are, of course, a number of terms that correspond to specific aspects of

what the Greeks referred to as physis, but not one overarching concept that fully corresponds

to the Greek term. As Lloyd enumerates the Chinese spoke of tian (heaven), wu (things),

xing (character), li (pattern), dao (the way), zi ran (spontaneity), whereas a classical Greek

would refer to all these, albeit in different contexts, as physis.

The same point applies to equally nave assumptions that compare the Greek concept

of physis (which Aristotle or Archimedes might have entertained) with Newtons concept or

with what our contemporaries understand by a natural force or natural law. The ancient

Greeks, the ancient Chinese, and contemporary Europeans clearly do not refer to the same

thing when they use the word nature or any of its counterparts:

So what we must at all costs avoid is the assumption that there is a single concept of

nature towards which both Greeks and Chinese were somehow struggling, let alone

that it was our concept of nature as in natural science. It would introduce massive

distortions in the interpretation of both Greek and Chinese science if we took it that

the work of ancient investigators was targeted at that goal: I stress once again that we

must resist any such teleological assumption. (Adversaries, 7)

These negative approachesthe distinction between actors and observers categories, the

anti-generalisation point and the anti-piecemeal pointdo not in themselves clarify how we

should positively proceed in attempting a comparative investigation of cultures, or a across-

historical study of a single culture. This brings us to Lloyds positive approach.


The anti-piecemeal point, however, sets us on the right track. Lloyd suggests that before we

ask for the proper answers to the problems themselves, that is, before assuming that only the

solutions to given problems might be different but not the problems themselves, which are

believed to be roughly the same, we should first question whether there are differences in

how the problems or the questions were perceived by their actors: We should ask first what

the questions were to which the answers were thought to be the right answers (Adversaries,

9). In other words, we must ask ourselves how the Greeks or the Chinese understood their

own inquiries about, say, the ultimate constituents of matter, or why the Greeks considered

the problem of the elements, stoicheia, as a problem worth asking about in the first place,

that is, how they themselves approached the problems.

However, by problematising the problems Lloyd claims that he is not trying to unveil

the psychological process by which a philosopher might have hit upon an idea or, for

example, to unveil Archimedes thought processes in his bath. Rather, he is concerned with

showing the conditions under which a given piece of knowledge was produced. What is

interesting here is that by applying this methodological reflection, Lloyd concludes that in

order to grasp the intellectual (internal) products of ancient Greece or China, and

consequently in order to understand how these different knowledge systems developed, we

must first explore the external conditions of these societies:

So what may start out as internalist questions about the underlying problems as the

ancients saw them are indissociable from externalist issues to do with values,

ideologies, the statuses of different claimants to prestige, the interactions of power

and knowledge. (Adversaries, 17)

Thus following the French cole of Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and Marcel

Detienne,6 Lloyd thus proposes a question-oriented and sociological approach, which

we may furthermore deconstruct as addressing two main lines of inquiry. The first addresses

what Lloyd calls the contexts of communicative exchange and of interpersonal reaction,7

centring particularly on the conditions under which the discourses were performed. Lloyd

suggests that if we observe the communicative contexts within which Aristotle introduced

the distinction between literal and metaphorical8 (or between myth and rational account), it

would become clear that the ideal of univocity there expressed had its origin in the struggle

to supersede rival theories, that is, amid intellectual upheaval. Which is why, Lloyd argues,

the strong dichotomization of literal/metaphorical, primary/derived or strict/figurative

appears to have been artificially prompted by philosophers (or to use Detiennes word

regarding mythology, invented by them) in their zeal to put down theories which were

contrary to their own correct views. According to Lloyd, what scholars should do instead

of passively taking the categories inherited from western philosophy for granted, is to

deepen the communicative contexts and look for degrees of meaning, that is, for a plurality

of semantic stretchesas textual or enunciative marksin the acts of communication.9

Since any communicative exchange is always performed in a larger context, what

also needs to be taken into consideration are cultural values. Indeed, we can never fully

escape our own cultural barriers. So the better our understanding of the cultural context in

which a problem is set, the better our insight into the problem will be. What is needed is

thus a sociology of knowledge in which all features of Greek society, or of Chinese

society or of any other culture are investigated: politics, legal issues, language, literacy,

religion, history, economy, technology, geography, climate, and so forth. All of these might

have some bearing on answering why certain authors (or a given school) postulated what

they did or why they or the whole society in which they lived did not follow a different path

of inquiry.


Lloyds theoretical solution to the epistemological difficulty that lies at the heart of these

methodological considerations is an attempt to address the question: how can we have a

meaningful discourse about the past if all observations, without exception, are theory-laden?

Can we, even if only very gradually, ever move outside our own categories of understanding

and penetrate alien (native) thinking or deconstruct their conceptions? Lloyd, as we have

noted,10 attempts to follow a middle course, by neglecting on the one hand nave realist

conceptions that too easily invoke cross-cultural universals and, on the other, by denying the

extremely sceptical view that flatly asserts the impossibility of going beyond our own

cultural constructs. Lloyds strategy depends, if we have understood him correctly, on two

propositions: in Ancient Worlds (2004) Lloyd maintains (1) that all observations without

exception are theory-laden; and (2) that there are nevertheless different degrees of theory-

ladenness. This last contention is substantive, for it allows us to understand that he agrees

that it is possible to address the epistemological difficulty mentioned. What Lloyd is telling

us here is that not all of our observations and experiences are equally laden with concepts

and theories:

More importantly, the theoretical elements that observation statements incorporate

vary, not just in that the theories are different, but in that the theoretical charge, or

load, may be greater or less. Obviously at the lower end of the spectrum, where the

charge is less, the possibilities for comparing theoretical frameworks are greater.

(Ancient Worlds, 82)

This implies that some observations about the past hit the nail on the head (or reality)

more than others, that is, that they grasp reality more fully, or at least grasp a less

ideologised form of it. And yet as Lloyd explains, this epistemological assertion presupposes

a fundamental ontological claim.11 In short, what he affirms here is that because we all

happen to experience one and the same world, we are in fact capable of understanding

something about the way the Greeks or the Chinese experienced the world, even though this

may involve a continuous and never-ending effort:


Using first the differences in degrees of theory-ladenness, and then what I

called the multidimensionality and open-endedness of data, we can uphold the

claim that, despite the differences in their world-views, there is still a sense in

which Aristotle and the writers of the Huainanzi inhabit one and the same world,

ours in fact. (Ancient Worlds, 91; emphasis added)

This means that the different perspectives and cultural world-views, undeniably real as they

are, must be different perspectives on one and the same phenomenon, which precisely

because it exceeds the limited experience we can gain of it hic et nunc in richnessLloyds

multidimensionality and open-endedness of dataserves as a focal point to unify our


Thus, on the one hand, Lloyd seems to argue that any real phenomenon, in virtue of

its multiple dimensions, admits of different perspectives upon one and the same

phenomenon. On the other hand, because these dimensions are dimensions of one and the

same thing, it seems reasonable to assume that the different experiences it gives rise to must

potentially be commensurable with each other, insofar as they are measured by the same

canon (or meter), that is, the one and the same thing upon which they are perspectives.

Consequently, according to Lloyd, the experience we can have of a Greek temple now, or of

Apollos statue, can be sufficiently symmetrical to the experience the Greeks might have had

in the fifth century BCE, so as to allow us to legitimately say something about their

religion. Yet, and here we come back to my main point, in order to do so and not simply

enunciate the epistemological and ontological grounds that enabled our experience, we must

patiently follow a methodological route (the question-oriented and sociological approach),

which, according to Lloyd, constitutes the only way to shorten, if only partially, the

linguistic and cultural distance that separates our experience of seeing the temple or

Apollos statue from how the ancient Greeks perceived them.


After briefly outlining Geoffrey E. R. Lloyds methodological approach and examining his

guidelines for doing classical research today, a double affirmation is in order. On the one

hand, as he affirms, it is obviously true that no field anthropologist has ever returned from

the study of a culture announcing that he or she could understand nothing (Ancient Worlds,

3), which means that a certain amount of knowledge of the phenomenal world can be

grasped, albeit gradually. On the other hand, it is also true that classical scholars are faced

with an awkward dilemma, for, as modern hermeneutics has taught us, there is no possibility

of attaining a complete objective description of phenomena. That is to say, we always work

within a concrete, historical, and linguistic framework. We always perceive things from a

certain point of view, which we simply cannot ignore. Now, once Lloyd has clarified the

three most common fallacies in doing classical research (the negative approach), he offers

his reflections on how to positively address them. What we need to do is to foster the

understanding of the complexityof circumstances, political institutions, and social

valuesin the midst of which a particular question or problem arose. For, the better we

establish the external conditions under which a historical community worked, the better we

shall understand how and why they came up with the ideas they did. In keeping with the

notion of a sociology of knowledge, what Lloyd stresses is the importance of the cultural

values and institutions, as well as of all the different areas of knowledge which, as a

whole, helped forge that which we must now carefully and patiently try to reconstruct.

The appeal of Lloyds methodological considerations lies in his successfully steering

a middle course between nave forms of gnoseological realism, which rely on cross-cultural

universals,12 and radical forms of cultural constructivism, which maintain the

incommensurability of different systems of belief, thus making it almost impossible to make

meaningful statements about the past. Lloyd, who allies himself with neither the strong

version of cross-cultural universals nor with the strong version of cultural constructivism,

tries to reflect on the unity and the diversity of the human mind, maintaining that even if all

of our observations are theory-laden, there would still be some room for different degrees of

theory-ladenness. This strategy allows him to introduce a weaker form of gnoseological

realism that is nonetheless sufficiently robust for us to explain how it is that we can say

something meaningful about the past.13



See especially Claude Calame, The Rhetoric of Muthos and Logos: Forms of Figurative

Discourse, in From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought, ed. Richard

Calame (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), and Marcel Etienne, The Creation of Mythology

(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981), where he criticizes the validity of the term

Lloyd has more recently insisted on this idea in Styles of Enquiry and the Question of a

Common Ontology, in Ancient Worlds, Modern Reflections: Philosophical Perspectives on

Greek and Chinese Science and Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004). Lloyd claims that all

our observations or perceptions of the world are without exception laden or penetrated by theory

(concepts); in other words, that there are no perceptions of nude facts, only interpretations of them

(following Nietzsche). Yet Lloyd, and this is a fundamental contention, also admits that, although

all observations are theory-laden, there are different degrees of theory-ladenness (Ancient

Worlds, 84). This last assertion is essential, for it is the methodological key that enables him to

steer a middle course between dogmatism and relativism, between nave forms of realism and

cultural constructivism.
This precautionary note on generalizations, however, is not wholly new. The French cole led by

Jean-Pierre Vernant et al. also insist on the importance of contexts, that is, on the realization of

different contexts. For them, avoiding futile generalizations is the indispensable condition for

recognizing the different forms of rationality (and different logics) that formed the background of

Greek science, philosophy, and myth. Thus the more contextualized the research, the better.
In the Greek language, as Lloyd points out, there is no single term that embraces all these

functions. Moreover, not all of these functions were included under the category of iatroi

(doctors). The rizotomai (root-cutters), the pharmakpolai (drug-sellers) and the maiai (midwives)

all appear in different contexts. Besides, even though there were in antiquity some medical

centres, there was no union that controlled the proliferation and the practice of their activities.

Cf. Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd, Magic, Reason and Experience (London: Bristol Classical

Press/Duckworth, 1999), 3739.

Obviously, Lloyd does not propose to eliminate generalizations. That would be nonsense and a

radical impossibility, which he, by the way, does not accomplish. Rather, what he is doing is

calling attention to a methodological problem of which every scholar should be aware.

See, for example, Marcel Detienne, The Creation of Mythology (Chicago, IL: Chicago University

Press, 1986); Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Origins of Greek Thought (New York: Cornell University

Press, 1982), Myth and Thought among the Greeks (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983),

Myth and Society in Ancient Greece (New York: Zone Books, 1996); and Jean-Piere Vernant and

Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece (New York: Zone Books, 1988).
Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd, Mythology from a Chinese Perspective, in From Myth to Reason?

Studies in the Development of Greek Thought, ed. Richard Buxton (New York: Oxford University

Press, 2002), 164.

Cf. Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd, Metaphor and the Language of Science, in The Revolutions of

Wisdom (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987); see also Aristotle, Mete., 357a24ff.,

Metaph., 991a20ff, 1079b24ff, Po. 1457b6ff, Apo., 97b3738, Top. 139b32ff., but compare other

passages where he praises the use of metaphor: Rh. 1405a8ff., 1410b13ff., Po. 1459a5ff., Apo.

97b7ff, Top. 105a21ff.

On what Lloyd understands by semantic stretch, see his The Revolutions of Wisdom, 172ff.
On theory-ladenness, see Lloyd, Styles of Enquiry and the Question of a Common Ontology.
Although it is not my intention to examine Lloyds epistemological contentions, his affirmation

that there are different degrees of theory-ladenness needs to be carefully qualified. On the one

hand, we certainly praise Lloyds determination not to give in to the different forms of cultural

constructivism and the gnoseological skepticism these positions entail. We also understand (and

share) Lloyds precautions regarding a very difficult subject: the problem of cross-cultural

universals. On the other hand, to affirm without further justification that all our perceptions are

permeated, albeit in different degrees, by theories, presents a number of difficulties. Thus,

assuming such a theory, how do we know which observation is more or less loaded with a

theoretical charge? Furthermore, which criterion are we to apply in deciding such a question?

Perhaps appealing to another, a third, observation? But that, of course, would be an infinite

regress. All in all, I dont think this objection makes Lloyds position illegitimate or less worthy; it

simply reveals a critical point that has nowadays become the object of ongoing debateTheory

of perception has almost become a separate branch within philosophywhich demands further

clarification. This debate applies to both the physical and the human sciences, insofar as these are

required to ground their methods and their knowledge in observation to prove or falsify a given

hypothesis. It seems less problematical philosophically to argue in favor of the pre-

theoretical constitution of multiple layers of meaning (i.e., configurations) in perception as, for

instance, Merleau-Pontys phenomenology of perception does, than to theoretically assume that all

observations are theory-laden.

On the problem of cross-cultural universals, see Lloyd, The Use and Abuse of

Classification, in Ancient Worlds; and Cognitive Variations: Reflections on the Unity and

Diversity of the Human Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), chaps. 14, where he

discusses this problem in some detail regarding color-perception, animal and plant classification

and emotions.
Sufficiently robust: even if we do not fully endorse Lloyds notion of theory-ladenness, his

attempt to steer a middle course between nave forms of realism and relativism, is the right one.

That we would like to see him clarify certain issues does not rule out his approach nor does it

diminish the value of his methodology. Thus to introduce degrees of theory-ladenness allows him

to maneuver between gnoseological skepticism and affirmations which all too easily invoke

common (universal) categories, as well as to render them in different cultures. That there is a

certain veil of opacity does not mean that we can see nothing through such a veil. Patience and

methodological discipline, through generations of scholarship, can help unveil the dust of

centuries of misconceptions that obscure the vision a particular Greek man in the fifth century BC

might have had of Apollo, and thus over time to catch a glimpse, perhaps even more than a

glimpse, of what he might have seen.