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How The West Invented Itself
December/January 2016/17

Francis Bacon: Pioneer of a fact-based culture

“We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.” These words were written by Edward Gibbon in 1781 at the end of his account of the fall of the Roman empire in the West. The claim seems obviously false when one thinks of the history of Europe over the five centuries after the fall of Rome; more plausible if one thinks of the history of Europe and the world over the two centuries from the French Revolution to the fall of Communism, the two centuries that followed the publication of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. In 1781 the Watt steam engine was newly invented, but the industrial revolution was still unimaginable, let alone all the technological revolutions that have followed from it. Somehow, a belief in progress took root when real progress — scientific and technical progress — was still in its infancy. But perhaps that was how it had to be — perhaps it was the belief in progress that made progress possible.

For the past quarter century Joel Mokyr has been trying to explain how Western Europe became the first society to make rapid, continuous technological (and with it economic) progress. He writes as an economic historian, but his is a new economic history in which cultural factors are every bit as important as prices and profits. This book presents the latest version of his account of the triumph of the West, or (to give it its politically correct name) the great divergence.

It falls into three parts. The first five chapters present cultural history in Darwinian terms. The last two address the Needham question: why was there no industrial revolution in China, which for centuries had a more advanced technology than western Europe? Darwinism is very popular in the humanities at the moment, but as Mokyr grasps there is a fundamental difference between the natural selection of random mutations and the social selection of cultural variations — cultural choices are made deliberately, even if the consequences of those choices are rarely foreseeable. Darwinian language hardly helps to explain cultural change. Equally unhelpful is the application of economic metaphors: to describe Jesus, Machiavelli and Newton as “cultural entrepreneurs” creates a false equivalence between fundamentally different types of activity. It would be more helpful to think about the ways in which market societies turn cultural activities into economic enterprises — Erasmus was the first living author to become a bestseller, Hume the first philosopher to acquire wealth by writing.

But let’s skip past the opening chapters to the core of the argument. Mokyr’s claim is that the West was uniquely placed to enter on an extended period of scientific, technological and industrial progress because of three factors: a respect for useful knowledge (Bacon being the “cultural entrepreneur” who was most important in inculcating this outlook); the division of Western Europe into competing states, each of which had to try to improve on its competitors and no one of which was capable of imposing a stultifying intellectual conformity; and lastly, the emergence in the late 17th century of a transnational “republic of letters” through which intellectuals exchanged information and co-operated to advance useful knowledge. These three factors made the industrial revolution possible. They are the cause of the great divergence.

This seems to me obviously inadequate — the argument simply won’t work in this form. Take for example medicine. Doctors were active members of the republic of letters, indeed they started behaving like members of the republic of letters remarkably early and remarkably consistently. They were firmly committed to the idea of useful knowledge. They attached themselves to competing theories — there was no stultifying uniformity. But there was no real progress in therapies until the second half of the 19th century — despite the invention of the microscope in the 17th century and the elaboration of germ theories of disease. One only has to look at the history of medicine to see that Mokyr has left out some key factor. When were the old therapies abandoned and replaced by new ones? When people started counting outcomes — when Ignaz Semmelweis, to take a famous example, compared the mortality rates in two different maternity wards of a hospital and discovered that trainee doctors were killing their patients and trainee midwives were not, the difference being that doctors came onto the ward straight from dissecting cadavers. What transformed medicine was the application of statistics — useful knowledge, national competition, and a republic of letters weren’t enough until this specific intellectual tool was brought to bear.

Can one identify the intellectual tools that made progress possible? I think so. The first is a belief in “discovery”, in the very possibility of intellectual progress. There was no such belief, there were not even words meaning “discovery” and “progress”, before the discovery of America which shattered the long-established conviction that there was no important new knowledge to be had. Moreover the discovery of the New World was the achievement of semi-educated sailors — it brought about a new cooperation between intellectuals and practical men, a cooperation particularly fostered by the mathematicians who taught the skills of navigation and cartography and who had long believed in the importance of useful knowledge.

After the invention of “discovery” there came a whole series of new intellectual tools, the most important of which is the concept of “the fact”. Facts are both in the real world and in the world of language and symbols, they are amphibious and paradoxical. By definition there is no such thing as a false fact, yet false facts are everywhere. “Facts” replaced authority, tradition, canonical texts with a new sort of critical knowledge, a knowledge based on acquiring evidence, comparing reports, testing claims. “Facts” are an invention of the 17th century (in classical Latin there are only things — the Romans said res ipsa loquitur where we say the facts speak for themselves). Once you have a fact-based culture you get a new sort of intellectual progress. In my view Mokyr massively underestimates the importance of the printing press in contributing to the emergence of such a culture — he seems to think that improvements in the postal service were every bit as important as the growth of the book trade. One need only compare Adam Smith’s correspondence with the catalogue of his library to see this is topsy turvy.

Thus Mokyr’s three conditions are not sufficient. You also need a culture of discovery and of facticity to make sustained progress. You need, in addition, an understanding of the power of experimentation. You need a step change in the exchange of information which printing made possible. And you need luck or contingency: the conceptual foundations of the steam engine were laid by intellectuals keen to prove that Aristotle was wrong when he denied the possibility of a vacuum; without Aristotle no Boyle’s law. It is the absence of a comparable challenge that held back progress in medical therapeutics.

One of the key difficulties that Mokyr’s thesis faces — and he is properly aware of it — is that the industrial revolution of the first half of the 19th century doesn’t seem to depend on specific scientific theories; while later (as with the contribution of Pasteur to the germ theory of disease) specific intellectual breakthroughs begin to have immense practical returns. If the great divergence is the result of a new knowledge culture symbolised by the republic of letters, why was the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge so slow to close?

There are two ways of tackling this question, both I think correct. First, the gap has been exaggerated: Boyle’s law is important for the steam engine, for it makes it possible to grasp that steam power need not be just a toy, like the steam devices of Hero of Alexandria or Giambattista della Porta, but a workhorse, capable of moving heavy loads — which is why we measure “horsepower”. And second, and equally importantly, it is not just new scientific theories that count. What was disseminated by the scientific public lecturers of the early 18th century, such as John Theophilus Desaguliers, was not just knowledge, but a set of beliefs, beliefs in discovery, progress, facts, experiments. It is these beliefs, in a bootstrapping process, which made discovery and progress possible. And why did people believe in progress? Because of the compass, the printing press, the pendulum clock — but above all because of Newton. As the culture of science was disseminated it gave birth to a culture of invention. The intellectual tools required for scientific progress turned out, by happy chance, to be the very same ones required for technological progress. 

A story like this seems to me much more plausible than Mokyr’s story. Karl Popper devised a three-world account of what exists: there is a physical reality (world one), a mental reality of thoughts and feelings (world two), and a third world, one of books and journals, of facts and theories. Scientific and technological advance requires the interaction of all three; Mokyr can handle the first two; he falls down, as perhaps any economist and any Darwinist must, when he comes to the third. In the end this book fails to adequately specify the culture of growth that made the modern economy possible. It misses out on the intellectual tools that made progress possible. But it belongs to that peculiar class of failures — failures that are important and advance our knowledge and understanding. As Samuel Beckett put it “Fail again. Fail better.”

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December 29th, 2016
4:12 PM
What about the role of Christianity? After all, the first universities were Roman Catholic. Weren't the first researchers and experimenters using the knowledge of God's creative order as their motive?

A. Danzi
December 18th, 2016
5:12 PM
Surprising that in this discussion there is no mention of Max Weber who addressed the same question.

Ted Schrey Montreal
December 16th, 2016
4:12 PM
It always seems to me that saying "...the belief in progress...makes progress possible" is the modern equivalent of saying the belief in God makes religion c.q. God possible.

David Wootton
December 15th, 2016
6:12 PM
Professor Mokyr can be assured that I read every single word of his book, as I always do when reviewing. (I mean this quite literally as to introduction, text, footnotes, but of course I only sampled the bibliography and index.) His book deserves extended discussion, but the space Standpoint made available to me was limited (indeed I slightly overran my allowance) so I did not have room to make my points by detailed citations and extended quotations. Nevertheless I stand by my criticisms. Let us take, for example, chapter 15, which he thinks I didn't read: read for yourself the first paragraph (you can find it by "looking inside" on Amazon) and you will see that there is no reference to specific intellectual tools or practices, but only to competition, entrepreneurs, a belief in progress and useful knowledge, and institutional conditions which made possible freedom of speech. Of course, for example, Joel Mokyr discusses the printing press -- but he places greater emphasis on the postal service, which seems to me obviously wrong. And of course he mentions experiments -- but when he comes to compare China and Europe what he says is that China lacked a republic of letters, not that China lacked experimentation or key intellectual tools. On p. 315 I find what I take to be a summary of the core argument of the book: the difference between Europe and China was that Europe had a fragmented political system (unlike China) and a transnational Republic of Letters (again, unlike China -- though China had an intellectual community, so a fundamental precondition for a republic of letters appears to be political fragmentation) -- no mention here of Gutenberg printing, experimentation, or concepts such as "fact", "theory", and "hypothesis." My contention is that if the republic of letters was all that was needed there would have been an eighteenth-century Pasteur -- but there wasn't. Let me stress that Joel Mokyr and I are on the same side on a number of central intellectual issues. Anyone who sits down with his book and my Invention of Science side by side will see that over and over again we make identical arguments, often using the same quotations and the same citations (we were, I would stress, working independently, but working on the same problems with the same resources -- Mokyr read my book, but only when his own was on its way to press) -- which makes the points at which we differ of particular interest to me, while other readers may find the points on which we agree much more significant. Perhaps Professor Mokyr thinks that if I had read his book more carefully I would have realised that we don't really differ, in which case I can only say, regretfully, that I think he hasn't read my book as carefully as he might have and doesn't understand the role I assign to intellectual tools -- which has something to do with the fact that I am by trade an historian of ideas, which carries with it its own professional (de)formations. I, for example, stress that the scientific revolution was primarily carried out by mathematicians -- Joel Mokyr knows this and understands this, in a fashion (just as he knows and understands that experimentation is important), but every time he summarises his position he forgets it, and when he turns to comparing China and Europe instead of contrasting the role and character of mathematical knowledge in the two societies he treats them as being in this respect similar not different (p. 326). Where Professor Mokyr stresses the role of individual intellectual entrepreneurs such as Bacon, I stress the importance of cultural shifts for which no one individual was responsible -- the culture of the fact, for example. And Professor Mokyr and I agree that a key feature of European society was that, unlike China, it shook itself loose from "the iron grip of the past" -- but I think we need a quite specific, contingent account of how this came about, which is what I try to provide. Don Phillipson makes an interesting point: eighteenth- and nineteenth century improvements in hygiene were based on miasma theories which date back to Hippocrates but which were reinterpreted and applied in new ways well before the germ theory of disease. But I wouldn't overstress their signficance in the absence of a germ theory -- it was, for example, piped water which spread cholera in London; improved nutrition is probably more important for increased life expectancy. On this see my book Bad Medicine. As for Ash's comment, I don't have problems with an evolutionary epistemology; the question is whether we are to understand intellectual evolution in terms of specifically Darwinian selection. In Darwinian selection the fittest survive, but no creature survives because somebody knows it to be fit. In intellectual selection there is a positive feedback loop: x worked, so I will do x again and also x' and x'' and see if they also work. That's evolution, but its not Darwinian selection but rather learning from experience.

December 14th, 2016
7:12 PM
"The intellectual tools required for scientific progress turned out, by happy chance, to be the very same ones required for technological progress." Indeed, and the secret of scientific progress is the subordination of the human intellect to the verdict of evidence. Paradigmatic example: The "experimentum crusis" in Newton's Opticks, arguably the most elegant interplay between theory and experiment ever staged. And corresponding to the experimenters in science are the tinkerers in technology...

Joel Mokyr
December 14th, 2016
7:12 AM
The story that David Wooton thinks is "much more plausible" than mine happens to be incorporated in the book in great detail. Either the copy he was sent by the publisher mysteriously missed chapters 14 and 15, in which I carry out in great detail the tasks he feels would make my story "much more plausible," or he read these chapters with a broad brush, and somehow missed the long discussions about the interaction between books and authors. Wootton's complaint that the book lacks "a culture of discovery and of facticity to make sustained progress. You need, in addition, an understanding of the power of experimentation. You need a step change in the exchange of information which printing made possible. And you need luck or contingency: the conceptual foundations of the steam" --- yet in contrast to what he writes, these issues are all addressed in detail in the book. Could it be that somehow Prof Wooton simply missed all this material? Or perhaps forgot that he had? One concrete example: Wootton claims that I do not seem to grasped the power of experimentation, yet I write (p.212-13) that "the rise of the concept of experiment, so ardently advocated by the Baconians, was a major breakthrough. The commitment to experimentation as a tool to settle disputes ...emerged in full bloom in the seventeenth century. In England the work of Harvey and Gilbert, in Italy that of Galileo and Torricelli, and in France in a variety of circles and groups, all exchanged notes and results. To repeat, experiments were not an entirely new phenomenon, and experiments were conducted in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. But, as Wootton (2015, p. 346) has stressed, what was new was a scientific community that recognized the experimental method and the replication of experimental results as a powerful means of persuasion." Wooton's claim that in book I "fall down" in a third world, one of books and journals, of facts and theories... and miss out on the intellectual tools that made progress possible. This is simply incorrect, as I list in detail the tools that did exactly that. Perhaps, Prof. Wooton feels, that he could afford to skip large parts of the book because he knew in advance “that any economist or Darwinist must fail” --- so why then bother with the small print and get bogged down with details? Even a learned and wise man such as Wootton should be expected to read the books of others he is asked to review with the care he doubtlessly expects from the readers of his own books. Once we allow in the materials missing in the mutilated version that Wootton read, his conclusion of “failure” should be redirected at his review, based as it was on such very light reading.

C. Ikehara
December 14th, 2016
4:12 AM
The 2015 article "The answer to the Needham Question?" may be of interest:

Don Phillipson
December 13th, 2016
4:12 PM
The counterexample of medical knowledge (practically stagnant before the second half of the 19th century, Wooton writes) seems insufficient without data on its "output," i.e. morbidity and mortality. These began to decline earlier, in the 18th century, and likely contributory reasons are abundant: lemons for scurvy, piped water supply, street paving and sanitary sewers, and so on. There seem two common characteristics. Improvements were nonuniform and local in particular places and times (and often ignored elsewhere for 50 years or more); and each seems more probably prompted by common sense in concrete situations than by any reference to medical knowledge.

December 13th, 2016
9:12 AM
Strange last paragraph. Popper himself developed an evolutionary epistemology in his later work.

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