Masters of reality, not big thinkers

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth attempts to answer the big question: Why did science and technology (and, with them, colonial power) spread west to east in the modern age, instead of another way around?

He reminds us that the skirmishing of philosophers and their ideas, the preoccupation of popular historians, is in many ways a sideshow — that the revolution that gave Europe dominance was, above all, scientific, and that the scientific revolution was, above all, an artisanal revolution. Though the élite that gets sneered at, by Trumpites and neo-Marxists alike, is composed of philosophers and professors and journalists, the actual élite of modern societies is composed of engineers, mechanics, and artisans — masters of reality, not big thinkers.

Mokyr sees this as the purloined letter of history, the obvious point that people keep missing because it’s obvious. More genuinely revolutionary than either Voltaire or Rousseau, he suggests, are such overlooked Renaissance texts as Tommaso Campanella’s “The City of the Sun,” a sort of proto-Masonic hymn to people who know how to do things. It posits a Utopia whose inhabitants “considered the noblest man to be the one that has mastered the most skills… like those of the blacksmith and mason.” The real upheavals in minds, he argues, were always made in the margins. He notes that a disproportionate number of the men who made the scientific and industrial revolution in Britain didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge but got artisanal training out on the sides. (He could have included on this list Michael Faraday, the man who grasped the nature of electromagnetic induction, and who worked some of his early life as a valet.) What answers the prince’s question was over in Dr. Johnson’s own apartment, since Johnson was himself an eccentric given to chemistry experiments — “stinks,” as snobbish Englishmen call them.

As in painting and drawing, manual dexterity counted for as much as deep thoughts — more, in truth, for everyone had the deep thoughts, and it took dexterity to make telescopes that really worked. Mokyr knows Asian history, and shows, in a truly humbling display of erudition, that in China the minds evolved but not the makers. The Chinese enlightenment happened, but it was strictly a thinker’s enlightenment, where Mandarins never talked much to the manufacturers. In this account, Voltaire and Rousseau are mere vapor, rising from a steam engine as it races forward. It was the perpetual conversation between technicians and thinkers that made the Enlightenment advance. ted talks are a licensed subject for satire, but in Mokyr’s view ted talks are, in effect, what separate modernity from antiquity and the West from the East. Guys who think big thoughts talking to guys who make cool machines — that’s where the leap happens.


  1. Nose Picker says:

    Wasn’t this actually the basis of an entire episode of the series “The Ascent of Man”?

    Let me go look up the episode name…

    Episode 8, “The Drive to Power” which talks about the Lunar Society in England (and Ben Franklin’s association with that whole movement), and the practical, individualistic spirit of the Industrial Revolution.

    But anyway, isn’t this the premise of all the hard science fiction authors?

  2. Bruce says:

    The vikings started overfishing the cod harvest in the Baltic a thousand years ago. As the cod moved to the Grand Banks,the cod fleets got huge and went from round ships to tall ships. Thousands of ships from Portugal to the Basque to the British Isles to the Basque and Dutch and Germans and Scandinavians. Western Europe is one long lee shore- ships that can sail there can sail anywhere in the world. Hundreds of thousands of skilled sailors, millions of disposable proles who could be trained by the skilled. A habit of capital investment in ships and men. That’s what made Europe’s Guns, Sails, and Empires all around the world.

  3. Sam J. says:

    There’s an explanation of this that depends on the political structure of Asians. I think it’s in this book.

    The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000
    by William H. McNeill

    He’s wrote about a Industrial Revolution that started in China. I don’t remember all the names or dates but it was well before the IR in England. A iron maker made a very large iron industry to supply iron for the Emperor. The problem was he got too rich and too powerful and the Emperor decided to confiscate his iron works. He fought but lost.

    There was no competing power and the ruling class refused to allow anyone to get as wealthy or come close to getting the same power they had. In Europe competing powers allowed businessmen to compete. Any one State that did not do so fell behind in trade and military power.

    There’s actually a similar situation in large corporations these days that holds back advances. One example is variable valve timing. Most all small cars have it now providing much better acceleration, power and fuel economy. The guy who patented this was never paid a dime. They refused to pay him even though it would be of great advantage to their cars. The real reason I think they refused was that if they gave him a small amount for his variable valves, say a dollar a car, he would have made more money than the executives that ran the car companies and by God they couldn’t stand for that so we were denied advances so they wouldn’t have people making more money than them. Even if they paid him five dollars a car it would have been worth it for the consumer because if you increase the power of the car engine you get all kinds of cascading benefits in lower weight, which also allows even less engine weight…etc., etc.,it’s a big difference.

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