February 07, 2006

Crosby - The Measure of Reality - Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600

Crosby, Alfred W., The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600 (Cambridge Univ. Press), 1997. 245pp. (Issued in the US as The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600)

Recently, I reviewed a book (Nisbett's Geography of Thought) that describes the social psychological research on thinking styles in East Asia and the West. Nisbett traces the origins of the Western predisposition to thinking with Platonic properties, objects and “actors” to Greek philosophy and culture. In an earlier review of a book about the Peloponnesian War by VD Hanson, certainly demonstrated the unusual economic nature of a 5th cent. BC Athenian democracy, harnessing extraordinary financial and physical resources, even in causes that were tragic, despicable, or ultimately misguided. But did the Greeks of that era, ordinary men and women, actually see the world as we modern Westerners do ... in ways that Nisbett and his colleagues now claim to distinguish in the lab?

I have my doubts.

The history of Athenian or Greek democracy is very important to the Anglo-American civic tradition but it forms only small portion of Mediterranean history, covering a modest geographical area. Are we correct to source Western modes of perception exclusively on Greek innovation and culture of that era alone? ... despite centuries of subsequent Macedonian, Roman (republican & imperial), Byzantine, Norman, and Ottoman occupation of the region? How much of classical Platonic philosophy really informed the perceptual styles of Mediterranean and European cultures? Would the Greeks of intervening eras, for example, have seen the world as we do – have drawn so much on the mathematical sophistication of Euclid, Claudius Ptolemy, and their other ancient colleagues?

Grant that underlying cultural or perceptual differences in East and West might have a significant effect on how technological innovations were embraced and extended in both hemispheres over the last millennium. The social psychologists seem to think so. The economic historians of recent decades have many explanations for why technology surged ahead in the West after 1500AD yet stagnated during the same period in China. Can we push such East/West distinctions back 2500 years? In earlier posts reviewing books on glass and gunpowder, there was plenty of evidence that the West made profoundly different use of basic materials and technology than Eastern or Asian cultures. Both hemispheres adopted these materials (and associated technologies) roughly at the same time … but generally long after the seminal period in Greek philosophy which Nisbett emphasizes. Nisbett certainly believes that the Western style of logic and rhetoric is particularly suited to science but it is a mighty leap from Plato to Newton. And historians of the European periods between classical Greece and the Scientific Revolution would be skeptical about tying modern Western perception to the era of Plato and Aristotle.

For the last half-century at least, there's been a dramatic rewriting of English-language histories to more fully and accurately record the origins of many technologies ... whether gunpowder, compasses, algebra, paper, block printing, Hindu-Arabic numerals, ocean exploration, etc. etc. Much of this rewriting is a thinly veiled quest for retroactive cultural "bonus points" to ameliorate the humiliation of Asia making no substantial cultural contribution to modern technology between 1500AD and 1900AD. But it serves the useful purpose of clarifying exactly what Europeans brought to the mix when they began surging out of the Mediterranean in the late 13th century. Swapping the Whiggisms of Victorian historians for the feeble "everyone gets a ribbon" standards of modern academic historiography doesn't explain why the Westerners simply "did" so much more with the ideas and technologies they bumped into, borrowed or stole on the Western margins of Asia.

So we're back where we started. The annals of Greek history and philosophy certain inspire the West and have done so for centuries ... but they don't fully explain why ordinary Westerners (and even moreso, those of us on this blog would claim, Anglosphere citizens) appear to view the world in distinctive ways that can now be repeatedly measured by social scientists. We have both the results of social psychology research and the distinctive history of European technological innovation (let alone the subsequent scientific and industrial revolutions) to explain.

Some intermediate step between Plato and Newton is required, between Claudius Ptolemy and Sir Francis Drake, and between Aristotle and Darwin.

U Texas/Austin history professor emeritus Alfred Crosby's book "The Measure of Reality" provides both an historical and a psychological bridge between the world of the Greeks and the full-flowered Renaissance that underlay the industrial and scientific revolutions of western Europe. According to Crosby, changes in "mentalité" in northern Italy between 1275 and 1325 set the firm foundation for the worldview that we now absorb from our mothers as toddlers.

Disdained by the Muslims and Byzantines in the 800s,

“Six centuries later the Franks were at least equal to, and even ahead of, the Muslims and everyone else in the world in certain kinds of mathematics and mechanical innovation. They were in the first stage of developing science-cum-technology that would be the glory of the civilization and the edged weapon of their imperialistic expansion. How, between the ninth and the sixteenth centuries, had these bumpkins managed all that?”

Known widely for his writings on the biological and cultural impact of Europe on North America (decades before Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel), Professor Crosby has extended his interest into what he calls mentalité, in this case, the European attitudes toward the natural world (shared by elite and commoner alike) that provided the context for specific technological discoveries or borrowings. It was the change in mentalité, Crosby would hold, that drove technological development forward in a way unmatched by other civilizations.

Crosby believes that the period between 1275 and 1325 (and shortly thereafter) in northern Italy saw the radical realignment of social attitudes toward the nature and management of time and space. This dramatic change in perspective (literal and figurative) was in turn to influence navigation, mapmaking, timekeeping, mathematics, art, writing, music, optics, mechanical devices, and financial management. This wasn’t the Renaissance; it was the Renaissance’s foundation. Before this critical 50 years, the world was still as Aristotle and Plato conceived it. And as most of the world’s civilizations perceived it. Afterward, the view that humans could both predict the world and re-create it as they wished gained irreversible credibility. Crosby further believes that the dramatic changes in attitude toward the natural world were still insufficient to explain the explosive leap ahead which European cultures made in the late medieval period.

The final “striking of the match,” according to the professor, was the linking of quantification techniques (n.b., echoes of Nisbett’s cognitive research) with the aggressive development of visualization methods: maps, perspective drawing, clock faces, plotted cannonball trajectories, musical notation, algebraic notation, alphabetization, book indexing and tables of contents, etc. etc. At every turn, the properties of objects were being measured, recorded, and evaluated from the perspective of literally a new vision of “reality” … simpler, universal, and graspable by ordinary people.

"The choice of the Renaissance West was to perceive as much of reality as possible visually and all at once, a trait then and for centuries after the most distinctive of its culture."

Unlike every other culture on the planet, mathematics was enthusiastically merged with measurement. And the vision of what was measurable expanded accordingly. In contrast to Pomeranz’s Great Divergence, then, Crosby would hold that the first inflection point of significant divergence of East and West occurred in the waning years of the 13th century in northern Italy. The inherent dynamism, and instability, of Europe springs from that date. Explosive (literally) military and economic changes were to come in the following centuries and the revolutionary blend of visualization and quantification was in place by the end of the 16th century in readiness for the awe-inspiring European Century of Genius in the 17th century. It was only the appearance of the Black Death in 1346 that halted the demographic and economic expansion of Europe. It may be that this social catastrophe has masked Europe’s early and profound shift, it’s almost-Exit (in the phrase of Ernst Gellner) from the economic limitations of Malthus, Hobbes, and Adam Smith. The change in mental attitude of this period, however, was irrevocable and was pushed to the farthest reaches of Europe when the Genoese successfully breeched the Straits of Gibraltar in 1291, traveling by the new-fangled cog directly and immediately to the shores of Britain, the Lowlands and the Baltic.

When the da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, he did so with a kit of intellectual tools unavailable to any peoples on the Indian and Pacific Ocean. It was not just the fortuitous blend of guns, germs, and steel … or of compass, spectacles, ship construction, clocks, printing press, and double-entry accounting. It was a Neo-Platonic vision of the world as a stable, static, measurable entity … subject to investigation, understanding, and practical control. The voyagers of the era were driven by a culture deeply yearning for order, in a Europe that had wracked by the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Reformation and a burgeoning Ottoman Empire. And it already had 200 years of familiarity with mapping, with seeing, the world in a very new way.

Crosby makes an elegant structured argument for the reader, opening his book with the cultural enthusiasms of the late 16th century … just before the 17th “century of genius” … and then tracing the roots of that appetite for time and space measurement, for writing, printing and perspective drawing back to their origins in Europe. When he examines those origins, they all centre in the republics of northern Italy in a surprisingly narrow timeframe.

The author sets the stage with a chapter on what he calls the Venerable Model, the world view familiar to the Greeks and Romans, to Plato and Aristotle, that bears little resemblance to how modern Westerners view the world. He makes two points about this Venerable Model:

1. The ancients applied quantificational measurement more narrowly than we do, and often rejected it for some more broadly applicable techniques.

“We would claim that weight, hardness, temperature `and other sensible contrarities’ are quantifiable, but that is not implicit either in these qualities or in the nature of the human mind.”

For example, children count objects but weight and hardness are not intuitively seen by them as quantities. Spatial extension lends itself to measurement in every culture. It’s not so for hardness, heat, speed, or acceleration. Crosby believes it is very difficult to make the mental leap to quantification at early stage of history. There is a tendency instead to overdo it and go from physical properties to quantifying emotional/moral/spiritual properties, as the early Scholastics of Europe did.


“Unlike Plato and Aristotle, we, with few exceptions, embrace the assumption that mathematics and the material world are immediately and intimately related. We accept as self-explanatory the fact that physics, the science of palpable reality, should be intensely mathematical. But that proposition is not self-explanatory; it is a miracle about which many sages have had their doubts.”

Whether it’s Plato’s ideal forms or Aristotle’s “sounds reasonable” natural philosophy, both traditions suffered from the view that events in the natural world were only approachable through reason, and even if sense data could be trusted, the senses were feeble (and not particularly useful) instruments for examining the world. One-legged men and places where Time stopped, were logical extrapolations of a worldview that held that the senses were only suitable for local and limited knowledge-gathering.

For Crosby, the classical past’s disregard for quantification is key. When the northern Italians began applying measurement to their world with hitherto unseen enthusiasm, something changed. Suddenly Time could be apportioned and brought to heel with elaborate town clocks. And the social organization of time kept pace. In the small Europeans towns of the era, to live amongst townsfolk meant surrendering to the pacing of the town’s clock, by law. Space could not only be captured with the careful maps and “portolano” (marine charts) of the late 13th century, but with the new tools of perspective drawings. At some point during this period in Italy, the compass was placed in a protected box and given a “wind rose” of 360 degrees (c.f., Aczel, A., Riddle of the Compass), allowing a massive increase in the safety and volume of sea-borne trade. Ancient mathematics and geometry were suddenly merged with measurement, and the rediscoveries of the ancient world (carried through Islamic and Byzantine texts) created an intellectual ferment that required careful discussion and organization.

The Venetians, Genoese, and Florentines of the time were gatekeepers between western Europe, the Byzantines and the Muslim world. We now know that many European inventions had their roots in the Orient but it was the Europeans who seemed to take such initial discoveries and push them much, much further. Whether gunpowder, algebra, glass, printing, box compasses (with 360 degree headings), or stern rudders, Europeans seemed to elaborate and expand the uses of such discoveries, and permit cross-fertilization between them in unprecedented ways. Indeed, in addition to Marco Polo’s accounts of his Silk Road travels to China, its worth knowing that Europeans were traveling (as Muslims) to southeast Asia by the late 14th century and returning to published their discoveries (e.g. Niccolo da Conti). Good ideas, often overlooked as amusements in the Orient, were making their way back to Europe with some regularity.

Crosby is “describ[ing] an acceleration after 1250 or so in the West's shift from qualitative perception to, or at least toward, quantificational perception." Much was happening at the time … an expansion of population, an improvement in agricultural technique and the harnessing of wind and water at a vast scale, the echoes of the Crusades on foodstuffs, styles, and the military vitality of Byzantium. The use of Arabic numerals was replacing Roman numerals in calculation. In order to accommodate the vast increase in written material, new methods of document organization and summarization (e.g. alphabetization) were being used. The first new widely circulated coinage since the late Roman era was appearing in northern Italy. One might say that all this turbulence was a sign of European dynamism, but is also reflected confusion. Many historians claim it was intra-state competition that lead to European success. Crosby wants to go one step further … to the struggle for what he calls a “New Model,” taking place amidst the significant but insufficiently revolutionary changes of the time.

At this point, he provides three detailed chapters on the shift in dealing with Time, Space, and Mathematics. These are fascinating mini-histories in their own right and certainly would give modern social psychologists pause for thought as they read about the momentous changes in measuring time and space, and then applying such abilities to trade, technology, and economic development. For the amateur reader, the surprises lie in just how late the tools of modern life were discovered or applied. If you asked the average person to guess when the plus, minus and equal signs were first used in arithmetic, one wouldn’t likely hear: 16th century England! The ability to calculate on paper, without intervention of the “counting board” or simple European abacus was a modest but important revolution in business affairs as Europe reassembled its internal trade ties. The ability to read silently, through the innovation of punctuation, lead to an immediate change in the size and nature of libraries. The “shushing” sound acquired by young librarians would appear to date from this era.

These dramatic changes are considered secondary, however, by Crosby. He seeks out the “match” that lights the fire in something more fundamental than what late medieval Italians were measuring. It is in the measuring itself and in the visualization tools created to portray that measurement that the author spots the revolutionary change. The innovations of composers, painters, and bookkeepers are far better preserved and documented than those of the era’s clockmakers, engineers, and mapmakers. It is to their efforts that Crosby turns in the second part of his book, in order to demonstrate just how profound the shift in perception was in northern Italy.

And it is in these chapters that I must plead almost total ignorance. Better minds than mine must assess Crosby’s discussion of polyphonic choir music, the shift from ars antiqua to ars nova musical styles, and the momentous implications of musical notation on the complexity and long-term maintenance of European music. Suffice it to say that Crosby writes well and clearly but readers with a musical background will find his material most inspiring. As Crosby turns to painting, I was able to follow his arguments with more personal success. The use of accurate perspective drawing influenced by, and influencing, architecture saw its first inadvertent flower with Giotto (1277-1337) but only came into prominence (and then wider obsession) in subsequent centuries. Think for a moment how constrained the evolution of natural philosophy and mechanical devices would have been in the Renaissance without the widely emulated techniques of accurate illustration, adapted for the printing presses of the 15th century. We still look on the products of the era, the illustrations in the works of Vesalius (1514-1564), for example, with justified awe. The roots of that publishable skill however began in the 15th century, some say with the publication of Alberti’s book on perspective, published in 1430 and based on Greek optical theory. Artwork of the period not only used perspective theory – “construzione legittima” – but “showed off” the feature in the chessboard flooring and piazzas within particular paintings. Perspective, and its execution, became seen as part of the liberal arts by the end of the century, respected for its durability, vitality and popular appeal. Painters, architects, and engineers all became obsessed with space-as-geometry and painting-as-mathematics. “Perspective, more than any other method, satisfied the new craving for exactness and predictability.” In a stroke, and with unparalleled public enthusiasm, Western art had separated itself from the traditions of other civilizations in its role and its presentation.

Professor Crosby then turns to the third of his arts illustrating the shift to quantification and visualization – bookkeeping. To the casual reader, the jump from Raphael and Dürer to the peddler diaries of the late 14th century seems rather jarring. Within a few pages, however, the author has us back in his grasp, fascinated by the story of Italian merchants adopting new methods (such as Hindu-Arabic numerals, financial instruments, and narrative books) to handle increasingly complex trading ventures. Complexities such as temporary partnerships, currency fluctuations, transshipments across political borders, raw materials passing through multiple stages in different countries before finished goods could be sold … all details that had to be tracked as carefully as possible. Some time around 1340, northern Italy began to see the first crude iterations of double-entry accounting, the process by which assets and liabilities were kept in a running tally to permit more accurate assessments of profit and loss. Such assessments were critical in the process of determining acceptable risk for the merchants of Genoa, Venice, and Florence, who were funding more and more elaborate voyages and trade obligations through a welter of private and public instruments. Double-entry accounting guaranteed clarity but not, of course, honesty. Nonetheless, merchants did gain clarity, and therefore control, over complex economic activity. As part of the era’s lust for predictability, the improved accounting methods, bridging the years of a venture’s existence, allowed time (measured by the new town clocks) to be frozen and inspected at leisure. Just as musical notation allowed the vast increase of musical repertoire, and painting allowed the freezing of a moment, a place in the mind’s eye, forever, accounting became the mundane but powerful economic quantification that permitted Italian bankers to dominate Europe for succeeding centuries. Double-entry accounting wasn’t necessary for banking (as much of the world’s, and Europe’s, history could confirm) … it just made it more profitable, more predictable, more sophisticated.

Luca Pacioli, often called father of double-entry accounting, did not actually write his guide to the technique until 1494, some two centuries after it was first used. Nonetheless, the “true Italian form” as it was known in England, was considered the gold standard for the management of business affairs. The fact that Pacioli was a court mathematician and cleric, a colleague of Leonardo da Vinci in fact, gives some sense of how completely the fascination with measurement had penetrated society. To quote Crosby:

“Double-entry bookkeeping did not change the world. It was not even essential for capitalism. For example, the Fugger family made a great deal of money in the fifteenth century without resorting to it. It was not an intellectual masterpiece like Copernicus’s model of a heliocentric universe, and literati and cognoscenti have scorned bookkeepers’ ledgers as no more glorious than the sawdust and shavings on the floor of a carpenter’s shop. … But our tastes affect the development of our cultures and our societies less than our practices do. Bookkeeping has had a massive and pervasive influence on the way we think.”

“Double-entry bookkeeping was and is a means of soaking up and holding in suspension and then arranging and making sense out of masses of data that previously had been spilled and lost. It played an important role in enabling Renaissance Europeans and their successors in commerce, industry, and government to launch and maintain control over their corporations and bureaucracies. … The efficient friar taught us how to oblige grocery stores and nations, which are always whizzing around like hyperactive children, to stand still and be measured”

Money, Crosby points out, is never in the middle. It is a form of Manichaeism. Either existing or not.

“In the past seven centuries bookkeeping has done more to shape the perceptions of more bright minds than any single innovation in philosophy or science. While few people pondered the words of René Descartes and Immanuel Kant, millions of others of yeasty and industrious inclination wrote entries in neat books and then rationalized the world to fit their books. Precision, indispensable to our science, technology, economic and bureaucratic practice, was rare in the Middle Ages, and even more rarely quantitative.”
“Franciscan Luca Pacioli wrote a classic of reductionism, laying out the techniques for reducing the world to pluses and minuses, for reducing the world to something visual, quantitative, and therefore understandable, and possibly controllable.”

And with that poetic musing on the impact of bookkeeping, Professor Crosby wraps up his book and summarizes what the “New Model” of perceiving time, space, and material environment wrought. Vision, he notes, is a martinet, an aggressor, pushing out the other senses. It thrives on sequence … the column of numbers, the curve of the graph or painting, the “bottom line.” Space and time become geometric. Pantometry, universal measurement, becomes imaginable if not graspable.

For Crosby, it was ultimately the European approach of perceiving reality that allowed them first to reason about it and then to manipulate it with enormous skill. Their lead over other cultures and civilizations in applying this approach translated into political, economic and military might and “the rationalistic character of modern culture: precise, punctual, calculable, standard, bureaucratic, rigid, invariant, finely coordinated, and routine.”


"The West in the sixteenth century was unique. It was advancing faster than any other large society in its ability to harness and control its environment. Few if any other societies equaled the West in its science and technology, its ability to project its power over long distances and to improvise new institutions and new commercial and bureaucratic techniques. The other side of that coin was the West's instability. It shook and rattled and fizzed as if about to blow itself to pieces, which it nearly did."

The Measure of Reality is an amazing rich book, both for its graceful compact introduction of so much technological change and for its stimulating discussion of the underlying transition and spirit of the times which had such amazing implications. It is a wonderful complement to Macfarlane's Glass and Kelly's Gunpowder. As with most reviews, I’ve had to sacrifice a great deal of detail in the course of summarization. Once again, perusing a library copy, I’ve been nudged to order my own copy. All the better for liberal annotation of pages throughout the book.

I can recommend this book whole-heartedly as a fascinating, and enjoyable read … and as the basis for much pondering about the significance of late 13th century Italy in the course of world history.

More narrowly, for purposes of this blog, I consider Crosby a very important work because:

1. It gives us a more creditable conceptual and historical starting point for the distinctions in East/West cognitive style described by Nisbett and indirectly documented by Surowiecki. Those particular differences aren’t inherently Anglosphere though they do appear to be variably distributed across Europe at the present time. I take it as no accident that this great shift occurred in the Italian republics of the era, and I intend a little blue-sky philosophizing on the matter in later posts.

2. It allows us to dispense with the science-technology conundrum in history … because quantification and visualization provided powerful amplifiers for technical advance without scientific methodology or even much formal logic. Europe didn’t outpace China it would seem because of science or even proto-science, but because (we may hypothesize) of a change in mentalité which not even its forebears (Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic) shared. Indeed, as we’ve seen, Crosby believes that double-entry bookkeeping was ultimately the most influential quantification technique for ordinary Western individuals … not something we usually cite as an attribute of Renaissance Man.

3. It reorients us away from ancient Greece (Nisbett’s possible error), away from the height of the Renaissance (which was replete with absolute monarchs and technical stagnation) and away from England’s Industrial Revolution (an explosive end-product of earlier Renaissance) as the source of European and Anglosphere exceptionalism. In looking more closely at the late medieval period: its Italian republics, its seminal discoveries in so many areas, its new methods of transportation, navigation, and finance, and its critical extrapolations of Asian discoveries, we spot the technological origins (in specifics and mentalité) that shape the modern Western world.

4. It appears to document a pre-Renaissance inflection point, or historical nexus, out of which so much knowledge from the ancient world was recast in terms which later eras could make use. The fact that this nexus occurred in a relatively brief time period and was the product of small Italian republics at the interface of the Norman, Byzantine, and Muslim worlds makes it all the more cogent for our consideration of the role of Saxon individualism in the next republics responsible for technical, political, and economic breakthroughs (Dutch and English). The strong maritime ties between Venice, Genoa and England/Ireland during this momentous shift from Venerable to New Model are well documented.

5. Drawing this information together, then, we might recast our understanding of the Anglosphere. Its mentalité or perceptual modernity is an direct ship-borne inheritance of late medieval Italy. Its Saxon individualism and geographic position, however, ensured that the republican and trading disposition of the nation could best apply those newly available tools of quantification and visualization without continental predation. Venice and Genoa were to fall under the thumb of continental autarchs, while England and its Dutch neighbour were able to leverage New Model content and method in a dynamic and productive political environment. Taking over from the Spanish and Portuguese in the late 16th century, the Dutch and English were to span the globe for the next four centuries.


Table of Contents

Part One Pantometry Achieved

1 Pantometry: An Introduction [3]
2 The Venerable Model [21]
3 Necessary but Insufficient Causes [49]
4 Time [75]
5 Space [95]
6 Mathematics [109]

Part Two Striking the Match: Visualization

7 Visualization: An Introduction [129]
8 Music [139]
9 Painting [165]
10 Bookkeeping [199]

Part Three Epilogue

11 The New Model [227]

Posted by jmccormick at February 7, 2006 08:52 AM

James, I think this is one of the best and most important posts we've had on Seedlings. Jeremy Rifkin, whose recent book The European Dream I reviewed for The National Interest believes that quantification of time, which he attributes to the Benedictine order in the proto-Renaissance European period Crosby describes, is the root of all social-political evil (i.e., the Industrial Revolution, individual rights, constitutional government). In his typical Bizarro-world way, Rifkin is proving Crosby's, and your, point. He sees the European Union as undoing the "damage" done by this evil. So far I have not seen anything from the EU bureaucracy trying to undo the quantification of time. But give 'em a chance.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at February 7, 2006 10:50 AM


The historical issues you raise here and in a number of previous posts are indeed basic to the larger question of what it is about the modern West in general and the Anglosphere in particular that accounts for its advantages and also for its difficulties. I regret not having had enough time to respond to the earlier posts and to this one I'm afraid I can only respond briefly right now. More when I have time.

Although I have not read Crosby, what he appears to argue depends on the answer to certain definitional questions, chiefly whether measurement is defined in terms of means or ends. The period 1275-1325 was critical in terms of means. The search for determinateness in western Eurasia, however, has been underway since the sixth century BC and interestingly the main lines of traditional thought in eastern Eurasia took form at the same time. What changed in the West were concepts of determinateness. The East did not change in the way that the West did largely because eastern Eurasia answered the question of whether nature was in an ultimate sense determinate by concluding that it was not.

The Greeks were the ones who believed that nature was mathematical, which was why the discovery of irrational numbers was so traumatic. (According to legend, the student of Pythagoras who discovered them was drowned by the other students for his insight.) Plato's achievement was to reconstruct an understanding of nature and thus society on a basis of the ratios (the correct meaning of "forms") that constituted the atomic triangles on which his five solids were assembled. This was to refute the Sophist claim that nature and society (society was thought to be a reflection of nature) were relative. Plato's philosophy collapsed, though, when Eudoxos pointed out that magnitude was still not possible to prove and Aristotle's abandonment of quantity followed.

What Newton and the other early modern scientists really achieved was to end the search for determinateness in the intrinsic nature of objects and to refocus the search onto relations between objects whose existence was simply assumed as an empirical matter. The modern view of nature is therefore less intrinsically mathematical than the classical but is more effective in its mathematical description.

In classical times, those searching for purity demanded that nature (and then the divine) be one thing or the other, and in the medieval and modern periods most controversies have boiled down to efforts to polarize truth. It is an ongoing struggle to maintain balance in a civilization that needs determinateness to improve but tends to close when it tries too hard to get it.

The deeper question is whether the different answers at each end of Eurasia to the question of ultimate determinateness are mutually exclusive or potentially complementary. Some basis for coexistence in the long run may depend on whether this question is relevant and if so how it is answered.

Posted by: David Billington at February 7, 2006 01:45 PM

Word clarification - the Sophists asserted that nature and truth were relative in the sense of having no fixity. Plato argued that nature and truth embodied a primary relatedness that was determinate.

Posted by: David Billington at February 7, 2006 01:55 PM

Thanks, great review.

I wonder if the Japanese, who were the one non-Western culture not beset with decadence after 1500, were separately embarked on a similar journey into quantification. For example, sumo wrestling statistics run back into 18th century, which, I believe, is earlier than any examples of sports statistics in England. (Sports statistics are of course a classic example of the urge to quantify.)

Or did the Japanese pick these ideas up from the West in the 16th Century, when they were open to European trade and missions?

Posted by: Steve Sailer at February 7, 2006 03:25 PM

I wonder what the effect the influx of 21st-Century quantification will have on China? There was an insightful article yesterday on-line in how "un-Japanese" and westernized Japan has become in just the last 10-years. I would expact the same to be even more-so in China where there is a great sense of the individual lurking underneath the superimposed collectivism of the Party. Just as assimulation is a two-way transaction, China might just fall our-way.

Posted by: Ted B. (Charging Rhino) at February 7, 2006 06:51 PM

As a retired military person and sometime system engineer, I was struck by what seems to me to be a rather strong parallel between the impact of quantification on society in general and the Anglosphere in particular, and the so-called transformational technology and it's effect on modern warfare. Historically, the very conservative guiding concepts of warfare were mass and concentration. "Git thar fustest with the mostest" is a picturesque statement of a philosophy that has changed little since Atilla the Hun. There have been adaptations, of course, to new weapons and new armor systems, but the philosophy has endured, perhaps because it has worked despite being inefficient.

Then along came people like John Boyd with his formulations of the OODA (observe,orient, decide,act)loop and the energy theory of maneuverability for aircraft, and you begin to quantify the things that are genuinely significant to winning in warfare. With the application of technology to these new metrics you arrive at a philosophy of the precise application of the minimal necessary force to achieve your objective.

As I said, military philosophy is very conservative. It only took the military 500-600 years to adapt to 14th century Italian thought.

Posted by: John F at February 8, 2006 12:49 PM

My editor, Vincent Carroll, with co-author Dave Shiflett, published a book in 2002 titled "Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry" that argues in part that the flowering of science and industry in Europe happened in part because explaining the wonders of the Creator's world was regarded as a moral obligation for believers. (I abbreviate, of course.) A similar thesis is apparently presented in another book that appeared in December; Rodney Stark, author of "How Christianity (and Capitalism) Led to Science," wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education based on the book, which appeared in the Dec. 12 Chronicle Review.

Posted by: linda seebach at February 8, 2006 01:09 PM

James thank you very much for this review.

Ditto Linda's comment. This seems to plow much the same furrow that Rodney Stark did. This book sounds pretty good. I wonder though whether the period you are examining looks like an inflection point because it is the period you are examining. Stark and others point to the predecessors to the medieval Italian flowering that this author mentions. Is it not really all incremental and cumulative? Also, looking at it from the English side, we don't see an "inflection point" related to these Italian developments coming ashore. Maitland and Macfarlane see an incremental process with various borrowings from overseas neighbors. Stark paints a similar picture. I think part of the problem of looking for a "take-off point" is that is not take off point. There are just different trajectories, and some have a slightly higher average slope, and over time that allows very major disparities in outcome.

Posted by: Lex at February 8, 2006 05:05 PM

Linda touches on the "marriage of Athens and Jerusalem" idea, with the reigning concepts that there is a beginning and end to time and thus, a beginning, middle, and end to events and secondly, that there is an understandability by humans to a world created for humans.

I would like to push things back even further in time for part of the explanation. The Indo-Europeans (4500-2500 BCE) exploited the use of horse-drawn wheeled vehicles for both warfare and transportation, and made more extensive use of copper and iron than the various tribes they displaced over time. They were not notably superior in pottery and architecture, however. This tribe gradually displaced not only tribes of west Asia and Europe, but were the ruling parties in Iran and northern India. Their influence farther east was negligible, unless you attach almost mystical weight to the Tocharian-Uighur connections.

The Indo-Europeans seem to have been not only facile with metals -- itself an advantage which might accumulate over time -- but to have divided governance dually, into spiritual and practical functions (This dual rulership shows up in stories like Romulus and Remus, or Hengist and Horsa).

This dualism could provide the foundation on which the change in mentalite' could arise, as it undergirds Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Germanic cultures, and strongly influenced the Semitic cultures as well.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at February 8, 2006 07:48 PM

I'm currently re-reading Rubenstein's 'Aristotle's Children'. The author argues that the discovery of (lost) works of Aristotle is what set the West going. I agree that christianity may have spawned capitalism; in the middle ages wealthy monasteries often lend money (they were the only ones who possessed capital = gold). But christianity, like islam & buddhism, is other-wordly. People tend to forget how different the middle ages were. Forgotten as well is the outrage in the christian world over Venetian deals with the muslims, or worse: the jews. Or the general hatred towards jewish moneylenders. Medieval folks were obsessed about what happened to their soul in the afterlife. This world they saw as only transitory.

So when Aristotle's works were discovered and translated through Toledo and Cordoba, it provided a this-worldly orientation. Of course the Schoolmen (with the geniuses of Abelard, Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas) tried to fuse natural philosophy with theology, but in the end they failed miserably. Aristotle's thought was apparently so wideranging, that it engulfed the feeble church paradigma. I think the ideal of the knight (gaining honour by a certain lifestyle) and the ideal of the troubadours (= this-worldly) also helped.
Inventions from India and China were studied, perhaps with the intention 'learn about your enemy so you can defeat him better', but if so, that set off something completely different.

Posted by: Rik at February 9, 2006 11:04 AM

Competition = Innovation

Classic Greece was a land of competition. Small city-states competed economically and militarily for centuries. Inventing or adopting new technologies such as the Greek heavy infantry phalanx was a matter of survival. After the Romans Empire took over, Greece entered a long period of stagnation much like Asia.

During the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the rise of the middle class, acceleration of trade, and the many wars fought in Europe all drove competition. As true capitalism became possible with stable legal institutions, competition increased. As wars become national efforts, competition increased.

Meanwhile, the Asian kingdoms were stable feudal states, economically unfree, rarely (compared to Europe) at war, and stagnant.

Posted by: Bram at February 10, 2006 07:36 AM

Bram - I believe the phalanx resulted from a fall in the cost of armor and weapons (as a result of the iron age) before any central government could consolidate power with a large standing army. This was quite an anomaly in the ancient world and the balkanized nature of early classical Greece indeed made it possible. The Greeks were not otherwise technically innovative; what the culture of the city-states really did was encourage a critical intellectual life. This spirit of critical inquiry waxed and waned in Europe over subsequent centuries but never entirely disappeared.

The situation in Asia was not so much a story of stagnation as a story of choices, beliefs, and values that preserved stability. The question now is how deeply these beliefs and values need to change in order to sustain the way of life that Asia now wants.

Posted by: David Billington at February 10, 2006 09:53 AM

My point is that all the city states had to adopt the techniques and equipment of the phalanx to survive. Those that failed to do so were defeated and subjugated. Competition forced them to stretch their abilities and utilize the best techniques and technologies available. After many lifetimes of competition between the Greek states, the far richer and more numerous Persians arrived on the scenes. The stable Persian Empire could not deal with the competitive Greeks.

I do see your point about beliefs and values. One factor could be religion. Asian religions often emphasize acceptance of the world as it is while western interpretations of Christianity generally emphasize improving the world.

Posted by: Bram at February 10, 2006 05:06 PM

David (or Bram, for that matter) , have you read Jenner's Tyranny of History? He has a lot of interesting things to say about China vs. Europe in this regard.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at February 10, 2006 09:10 PM

This is an astonishing thread in terms of its high degree of literacy.

I've mused for some time that double-entry bookkeeping laid the groundwork for the western view of competition and achievement. It allowed wealth to be measured in digits rather than in stashes of gold, gems or grain. The latter were limiting simply because of shortages or the difficulty of storage. Not so with numbers. The sky's (i.e., wealth accumulation) the limit. And that accumulated capital had to be spent.

With regard to medieval monks, the reason they had gold was, as Lewis Mumford demonstrated, their technological innovations which turned them into more efficient farmers. Obviously, at some point, an exchange occurred--gold for grain. But the wealth was grain-based, and due to widespread utlization among the Benedictines of the water wheel and other labor-saving devices.

Finally, can you imagine the reaction of American Indians to the mapping and surveying that went on from 1607? Such a foreign concept, and such a dominant one. They were done from the first contact. Reading Pynchon's "Mason and Dixon" gives some sense of the process 150 years or so later. (Pynchon's father was a surveyer.)

Posted by: John R at February 13, 2006 01:08 PM

Washington, Jefferson, and many other founders were surveyors at some point in their lives. It was a readily available way for smart people to make a living, with the side benefit that it made them aware of good deals in land. Surveying and navigating were two tasks that many intelligent, influential people did in the 18th Century in Britain and America -- after Samuel Pepys introduced qualifying exams for commissions in the Royal Navy, you couldn't be an naval officer without knowing enough trigenometry to fix a position. Was this the first time in history that so many of the people in decision-making positions in society were numerate? Could this simple fact have been a factor in those societies' successes?

Posted by: Jim Bennett at February 13, 2006 02:42 PM

To respond to Steve Sailer's point, the first cricket scorecard to be published in The Times was in 1785 (see here. Hambledon Cricket Club kept detailed records from 1756-1793, so I suspect the much less complicated Sumo statistics were contemporaneous rather than earlier.

Posted by: Iain Murray at February 14, 2006 11:59 AM

Ah, the rise of empiricism.

I'll have to get this.

Posted by: TallDave at March 7, 2006 07:48 AM
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