Well, bully for them: well deserved and if anything, long overdue. I can’t think of anyone who has fallen so completely out of the canon as Needham, once thought perhaps the greatest historian of the 20th Century. I assume part of the problem is the sheer daunting massiveness of his output (I won’t pretend to have read it all, not by a long shot). And it’s science, not a favorite among readers of history; and history, not a favorite among readers of science. And there’s a dicey premise—
Shorter Joseph Needham: it’s the matter of “lawfulness.” “The West” operates on the idea that there are underlying “laws” that can be discerned and made intelligible. Early China had a bad experience with “lawfulness;” ever since has shied away from too much reliance on general principles of this sort: if you pay too much attention to “laws,” you’re not paying enough attention to particulars—and besides, if you are paying too much attention to laws, you are not paying enough attention to good men, whose words and judgment are more important than law.
Both Chinese and western thought unite ethical and cosmic order—track human experiences as natural events, either in the world or in the body. But:
But it seems that the Western conception was deeply different from the Chinese. The former saw justice and law at all levels, closely associated with personalized beings, enacting laws or administering them. The latter saw only that righteousness embodied in good custom represented the harmony necessary for the existence and function of the social organism. It recognized also a harmony in the function of the heavens, and, if pressed, would have admitted one in the functions of the individual body also, but these harmonies were spontaneous, not free. Discord in one was echoed by disharmony in the others.
—Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in