Quantification and Western Society

The period from 1275 to 1325 saw as great an intellectual revolution as the years 1875 – 1925 (Freud, Marx, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Goedel, Cubism, etc..) – that’s the argument of a book I bought on impulse a while ago, and have only just got round to reading.

The Measure of Reality by Alfred W Crosby argues that this revolution developed a quantitative instinct that has permeated and dynamised Western Europe culture.

There are some fascinating contents:
– soldiers did not march in step until the early 16th century (p7), and this was the first time generals practised tactics with lead soldiers on a table. (p11) (An early form of datafication?)
– reading was laborious and libraries were noisy – people read aloud. (p134) Oxford first required silence in libraries in 1412.
– whilst Aristotle accepted sensory data, he did not think of quantifying it (p17) – a ‘universe of qualities rather than quantities’ (p47)
– early mediaeval definitions of reality hung more on symbolism than observation (p24) and were uncomfortable with any schema that did not emphasis teleology. (The Ebstorf map ‘was for sinners, not navigators’ – p40).

– They ‘did not have a vivid concept of causation through time’ (p30) – which fits with the problem we have today with Aristotle’s four types of cause.
– a sympathetic account of the Schoolmen, who indexed, categorised arguments, and wrote concordances. (Apparently the chapter and verse system for the books of the Bible was only devised in 1200 by Steven Langton, later Archbishop of Canterbury.) ‘Their system is an aid not only to finding a given item in a book, but to following lines of argument, and like mathematical technique, to thinking clearly.’ (p64) ‘In our time the word mediaeval is often used as a synonym for muddle-headedness, but it can be more accurately used to indicate precise definition and meticulous reasoning, that is to say, clarity.’ (p65) However, with a very few exceptions, the Schoolmen did not quantify.
– Later impulses to quantification came from commerce: where once ‘coins had little abstract value beyond the value of their metal’ (p70), now ‘a new and abstract measure of worth appeared in Western Europe’ (p72) Just as we now grapple with cryptocurrencies?
– the first European mechanical clocks started to appear, and time ‘began for the first time in history to be isolated as a pure form, exterior to life’ (p82). Sounds rather like the early computers: ‘every big city and many smaller ones taxed themselves severely in order to have at least one clock, which in their first century or so were huge, usually sat in towers, and were very expensive..’.(p84) Some clocks, eg the Prague clock of 1410 and the  Strasbourg clock of 1352, attempted to display more of the order of things than just the time. (The simpler Salisbury Cathedral clock dates from later, around 1386.)
– the idea that civilisations can make an advance and then simply forget it – eg the abacus, last seen in the west around AD 500 until revived as the slightly inferior ‘counting board’ in the 10th century(p 44)
– the subtle ways in which our perceptions and frames affect our view of life.
– the importance of visualisation as a ‘sea change’ in ‘mentalite’, allowing users to ‘see’ patterns (eg those that are too complex to hear in the polyphonic music of Tallis, see p 9) and to jump backwards and forwards in narrative (as opposed to hearing an oral narrative).

Many of these points, particularly the last, have echoes in the current digital revolution. The value of this sort of comparison is to make us see that our current way of thinking is not the only one and to ponder ways in which it may be changing even as we speak. (As William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”.)

Incidentally, several references emphaisise Petrarch’s centrality to the intellectual life of the period, over and above his poetry: his fascination with time (p93), his friendships with Phillipe de Vitry (p 160) and Nicole Oresme (p 99), and also with Giotto, one of whose paintings he owned (p 173).

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