Culture, Reality, and Success

Philosophy and Literature 23 (1999): 243-55.

Denis Dutton

Asked to list minds that made the Renaissance and with it the revolutions in invention and technology that created the modern world, academics will usually name artists, writers, and early scientists. To this list should be added another important category: bookkeepers. In the emergence of Europe from medieval superstition and intellectual ruts of Christian Neoplatonism, much depended on the rise of commerce and with it, bookkeeping. Bookkeeping is, after all, just another way of quantifying the world, in terms of that great simplifier of human reality, money. In chronicling the history of thought, philosophers tend to stress the contribution to science of the likes of Galileo and Hobbes, people who ingrained in the Western mind the distinction between secondary and primary qualities, between the appearance of smells, colors, and tastes, and such underlying, quantifiable realities as mass and momentum. But the early bookkeepers also helped the Europeans to shake their medieval habits of thought, especially the prevailing notion that everything in the Creator’s scheme of the universe had divinely conferred upon it an intrinsic value. In a sense, the rise of bookkeepers with their mercantile secularism throws new light on an old joke: before the advent of accountancy, medieval intellectuals knew the value of everything and the price of nothing.

These meditation have been provoked by a captivating new book. Alfred W. Crosby’s The Measure of Reality (Cambridge University Press, $24.95) spells out the factors that stimulated the new way of thinking that began in the late Middle Ages to replace the qualitative and theological view of reality. On the old model, all was understood in narrative, even dramatic terms: “God and Purpose loom over all.” For example, more important than the mere utilitarian value was the symbolic meanings of numbers. Seven, being the sum of the first odd number and the first even number, was perfect; ten, the number of commandments, symbolized law. The study of these meanings was for Augustine, as for many later minds, “the science of numbers.” Geography was qualitative, holding that the peoples of the Indies, governed by slow-moving Saturn, were slow moving. Europeans, on the other hand, lived in the land of the seventh climate, that of the moon, which revolves around the earth faster than any other body. Therefore, Europeans are the most active people. Maps were designed not geometrically, but to show what was near and far, what was important, what unimportant. Their representation of geographic reality was, as Crosby says, “for sinners, not navigators.”

Alfred W. Crosby
In contrast to all this, the New Model emphasized “precision, quantification of physical phenomena, and mathematics.” The aim of this thinking was panometry, the will to measure everything. The new approach, in Crosby’s description, was simply this: reduce what you are trying to think about to the minimum required by its definition; visualize it on paper, or at least in you mind, be it the fluctuation of wool prices at the Champagne fairs or the course of Mars through the heavens, and divide it, either in fact or in imagination, into equal quanta.” Measuring, then, becomes a matter of counting the quanta. However simplified (or oversimplified) this quantitative representation of reality is, it at least has the virtue of being precise; moreover, you can manipulate it and experiment with it. Today, the refrain from postmodern theorists is that “science just proves whatever it wants to” and that its “objectivity” is an illusion. But manipulating numbers doesn’t mean fiddling them: as Crosby points out, a quantitatively represented reality “possesses a sort of independence from you,” and it has a capacity to accomplish something “verbal representation rarely does: contradict your fondest wishes and elbow you on to more efficacious speculation.”

The comparison with “verbal representation” is telling, for I suspect quantification makes it easier to set up tests of intellectual honesty. If you can devise explanatory hypotheses over a domain, and if they can be used to make predictions which don’t pan out, predictions which, no matter their attractiveness, don’t jibe with the numbers, then you are on the way to productive science. We live in an age accustomed to wisecracks about how to lie with statistics, but in truth it’s verbal description which more readily invites the selective use of evidence, slippery analogies, double-talk, and the myriad other verbal devices the human mind uses to prove what it wants in advance to be true. Compared to ordinary verbal discourse, with its networks of rhetorical contrivances, the abstraction of numbers provided the Renaissance mind with a way of alienating reality, while at the same time coming closer to it.

The tension between the will to discover quantitative — including statistical and causal — relations between phenomena, and the tendency merely to note qualitative associations (including symbolic relations or formal resemblance) is still with us. In criticism and the humanities, quantifiers are as scarce as ever, especially in the criticism of a poststructural stripe, where vague association is accepted as argument, as it was in the Middle Ages: just as there are seven days of the week, seven basic metals, and seven orifices on the head, so there must be seven planets. Seen in this light, E.M. Forster’s exhortation, “Only to connect,” is a warrant for shoddy thinking. Any dope can connect; the challenge is to find an authentic connection, one based in the independent nature of the world, and not just in our fantasy.

This point was starkly brought home to me at a conference paper I recently heard presented by a literature professor. The man’s topic was the Scheherazade motif in a series of modern novels. Recall that the thoroughly unpleasant Sultan Shariyar as a matter of policy killed each of his new wives the morning after their wedding. But the clever and resourceful Queen Scheherazade entertained the Sultan on their wedding night with a story. That night, and on every night following, she left him hanging with an unfinished tale. The Sultan was forced to spare her in order to hear how things turned out. The Scheherazade fairytale is about a triumph of wit and creativity: not only did she save her life and that of her sister, Scheherazade gave us the Arabian Nights. In the worst medieval fashion, however, the literature professor was able to find the Scheherazade motif in every modern novel he discussed. That the novels had nothing whatsoever to do with the structure or content of the Scheherazade tale was beside the point. Each had one or more women, and each itself had a story: that seemed evidence enough. One unforgettable gloss the professor provided concerned a novel set in Saigon during the Vietnam war. The young prostitute regularly visited by the central character spoke no English, so he safely spilled secrets to her. Later he came to suspect she might understand English, so he murdered her. This apparent negation of the Scheherazade motif was, naturally, evidence in the mind of the professor for the presence in the novel of the Scheherazade motif. You might suppose Freud taught people to think this way, but reading Crosby’s book reminds us that such free association was what intellectual argument amounted to in the Middle Ages. Measuring and counting more than anything else broke this symbolic and aestheticized approach to reality. “It was quantification,” Crosby says, “not aesthetics, not logic per se, that parried Kepler’s every effort to thrust the solar system into a cage of his beloved Platonic solids and goaded him on until he grudingly devised his planetary laws.”

The chapter on music makes the point that the early musical scores were the first quantified, two-dimensional representations of a temporal process. Musical notation grew out of a desire to record the correct versions of chants. Notes, neumes, which originally denoted syllables of text, were at first lined up without staff lines. A center line was added to indicate whether a note was higher or lower, and finally the staff was introduced. Anyone who received a formal education learned about the musical staff and notes. “The musical staff,” Crosby says, “was Europe’s first graph.” Nevertheless, even though the musical staff ought early on to have been exploited as a graphic representation of temporal reality, its value as a tool for the sciences was not fully appreciated until the eighteenth century.

Not many such bets were missed, however, and whether he is talking about the invention and spread of perspective in painting, the advent of clocks and the way they regularized time in cities, how printing technology altered culture, or the increasingly accurate navigation maps which made further trade and exploration possible, the story Crosby tells is one of the triumph of human curiosity and intelligence. Such meliorism is not exactly fashionable, which may be why he tacks on an introduction in which he excuses himself by explaining that he is really interested in understanding the “amazing success of Western imperialism.” (Heaven forbid that readers should go away thinking the West was up to anything but wickedness with all that technology.) In his first paragraph, Crosby says that Europeans were uniquely successful in their imperialist project: “They may retain that distinction forever, because it is unlikely that one division of the world’s inhabitants will ever again enjoy such extreme advantages over the rest.” Yes, but the reason is not the evolution of a more balanced, multicultural world. It is precisely by other cultures’ adoption of the West’s science and technology that the world is becoming a more balanced place. If the West is in apparent decline economically and technologically, it is only relative to the advances of India, China, and the rest. This relative decline is all the more evidence of the universal power of the West’s science and technology.


Copyright 1999 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.