February 7, 2006

Is this why the West won?

On Albion's Seedlings, J. McCormick has a most informative review of a little known 1997 book by Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600. It makes an argument that I'm personally inclined to favor: that the secret to the West's triumph was a change in style of thought centered in pre-Renaissance northern Italy. People began to find it normal to measure and quantify things, and create visual or otherwise ordered representations of this measured reality. McCormick writes:

"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.

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. [More]

I'd echo Charles Murray in pointing to the benign effect of the dominant theologian of the age, St. Thomas Aquinas, who died in 1274, right at the beginning of this Great Leap Forward in Italy. Murray wrote in Human Accomplishment:

[Christianity] was a theology that empowered the individual acting as an individual as no other philosophy or religion had ever done before. The potentially revolutionary message was realized more completely in one part of Christendom, the Catholic West, than in the Orthodox East. The crucial difference was that Roman Catholicism developed a philosophical and artistic humanism typified, and to a great degree engendered, by Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274). Aquinas made the case, eventually adopted by the Church, that human intelligence is a gift from God, and that to apply human intelligence to understanding the world is not an affront to God but is pleasing to him.

I wonder if the Japanese, who were the one non-Western culture not beset with decadence after 1500, 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?

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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