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The Invention of the Modern World 13.

Spring-Summer Serial 2012.

Chapter 13: KNOWLEDGE

 By Alan Macfarlane.

THE UNIVERSITY IS basically a west European invention – though madrasas, Buddhist monasteries and other institutions overlap a good deal with the idea.  For example, in his comparison of the growth of science in Europe, Islam and China, Huff writes of Islam that ‘Islamic law does not recognize corporate personalities, which is why cities and universities and other legally autonomous entities did not evolve there.’  In so far as there were centres of learning in China, ‘…the Chinese educational system was both rigidly controlled and focused on literary and moral learning, while the European universities were both autonomous and self‑controlled as well as centred on a core curriculum that was essentially scientific.’1

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The importance of some kind of institutionalization was noted long ago by Bernal. ‘The foundation of the early scientific societies had another and more permanent effect: it made science into an institution, an institution with the insignia, the so­lemnity, and … pedantry of the older institutions of law and medicine.’2 Likewise Cohen points out that ‘The first uniquely Western feature from which a somewhat more solid social basis for science sprouted than had been available elsewhere was the rise of the mediaeval university.’3

Universities are both a cause and consequence of ‘modernity’.  They have been centres of the discovery of new theories and inventions and, more importantly, because they were arenas of relative freedom of thought. Of course the pressures from political, religious, economic and social forces are always there, but they are muted.

The idea of a University as a place for education and discovery is old and was widespread in Europe by the end of the fourteenth century when many universities were present. Yet it appears that between then and the end of the eighteenth century the older idea of free, collegiate, universities died out all over Europe – except in England. There the universities of Oxford and Cambridge had survived as a form of semi-autonomous institution to encourage thought and educate the ruling class.

TO TAKE THE case of the University of Cambridge, it is doubtful whether many poets (from Spenser to Wordsworth) or scientists (from Gilbert to Newton) would have made their contributions if they had not been to this University. Thus much of the contribution of the English to the arts, humanities and sciences would have been missing. Of course a great deal happened outside the Universities. But without the work on electricity, on optics, on the circulation of the blood, on gravity, it seems unlikely a number of inventions, whether in navigation or the application of steam power, would have been made.4

More important than specific inventions or events were other less direct features. One was that the universities, along with the Inns of Court, preserved a tradition of enquiry by contest, by confrontation, by argument and disputation, by putting forward a hypothesis and testing it. Francis Bacon summarized this in what we call the ‘experimental method’. It sped up the evolution of ideas in the same way as selective breeding of animals sped up stock improvement. And both changed the world.

The first scientific society in the world was the Royal Society of London founded in 1660. It is an institutionalization of the experimental method and the subsequent history of great science flows from it. The formal method of enquiry is what distinguishes science from the high-level investigations which had long been going on in Islamic civilizations and China. Yet the ‘open’ world of experimental science was present several centuries before this, in the work of scholars all over Europe, including that of Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon and William of Ockham in England from the thirteenth onwards.

THE SURVIVAL AND flourishing of science in England from the thirteenth to nineteenth centuries is both a sign and consequence of the central theme of this work. By separating religion, politics, economy and society, space was left for specialist institutions to flourish: the ‘technique of creating a neutral world of fact as distinguished from the raw data of immediate experience was the great general contribution of modern analytic science. This contribution was possibly second only to the development of our original language concepts… The concept of a neutral world, untouched by man’s efforts, indifferent to his activities, obdurate to his wish and supplication, is one of the great triumphs of man’s imagination, and in itself it represents a fresh human value.’5

All over the Continent, as had happened much earlier in China and the Islamic world, those with power were jealous of the wealth and independence of institutions and afraid of their free enquiries. ‘Knowledge is power’, as Francis Bacon wrote, and power could not be allowed to be situated away from the absolutist political centre. So free universities did not survive. But in England, which passed the same idea to the free universities of America, knowledge was largely autonomous and not seen as a threat – but a benefit. The modern world of universities was preserved against the odds.

In relation to this open world, Robin Horton, Karl Popper and others have put the autonomy of thought in a rather different way.6 In ancien régime thought systems, the answers were given at the start – the founder of the philosophy revealed all, thought was closed, the sayings of the Prophet, of Confucius, of Christ or Aristotle had given us all the answers. To enquire for too much new knowledge is subversive. The quintessence of the open rationality of modernity is the premise of an expanding universe of knowledge, that all present knowledge is provisional and imperfect, that there are always going to be new things under the sun.

Such a premise is clearly present over much of Western Europe and the Middle East from the eighth to fourteenth centuries in Islamic knowledge and the revival of Greek thought. But it is a difficult and uncomfortable to maintain. As humans, we seek for certainty. The probabilistic, ‘it is only true until it has been disproved’, ‘conjectures and experiments’ world described by Karl Popper seldom survives for long. Any political or religious authority with complete power will want to close it off – as we saw with Soviet or Nazi science.

What is amazing is that with scarcely an interruption, this idea of the open, questioning, challenging, ‘finding new things’ approach outlined by Francis Bacon, seems to have been present as a thread through English thought from the thirteenth century onwards. The English were not just content to explore the physical world as they later did with their enormous Empire, but constructed an ‘Empire of the Mind’. ‘The English think deeply; in that their mind is one with their character; delving deeply into things, and rich   in experience they extend far and wide the empire of the sciences.’7

ONE WAY TO approach the question of what happened in terms of the modernization of thought is through the speculation of the philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner concerning the growth of rationality or ‘disenchantment of the world’. He argues that there is a ‘radical discontinuity’ which exists ‘between primitive and modern mental­ity’.8 This is the ‘transition to effective knowl­edge’, which he describes many times.

There is ‘the great transition between the old, as it were non‑epistemic worlds, in which the principles of cognition are subject to the pervasive constitutive principles of a given vision, and thus have little to fear, and a world in which this is not longer possible’, a ‘funda­mental transition indeed’. While over­lapping with Popper and Kuhn, Gellner’s stress is on the fact that the attainment of a scientific world is very difficult indeed. The ‘attainment of a rational, non-magical, non-enchanted world is a much more fundamental achievement than the jump from one scientific vision to another. Popper underestimates the difficulty of establishing an Open Society, for he seems to suppose that an open society was always within our reach’.9

Gellner’s work incorporates some of Weber’s thought on the growth of rationality. The modern world of rational­ity has two central features; coherence or consistency, and effi­ciency. Coherence means ’that there are no special, privileged, insulated facts or realms’. Efficiency means ‘the cold rational selection of the best available means to given, clearly formulat­ed and isolated ends.’ This is ‘the separation of all separa­bles…the breaking up of all complexes into their constituent parts…’; it creates ‘a common measure of fact, a universal conceptual currency… all facts are located within a single continuing logical space … one single language describes the world…’10

Put in another way, ‘rationality’ here means that spheres have become sufficiently disentangled for the mind to move with­out constantly bumping into wider obstacles created by impenetra­ble barriers whether of religion, kinship or politics. Within the new world ‘there also is and can be no room either for magic or for the sacred’.11 What has happened is that thought, has been set free from its usual masters ‑ politics, religion or kinship. We are open to all thought and to all doubt. God is irrelevant, the father is irrelevant, the King is irrelevant. We are our own masters, to think what we please. The barriers are down and everything is leveled onto one plane in the intellectual sphere.

Normally in a world where religion, politics, economy and society are fused together, by a curious paradox, there are separate mental spheres. The thinker who tries to cross the boundaries into religion or politics, to apply logic to the King or the Pope’s edicts, will quickly be abused or disabused. But modernity is premised on the exploration of a common space. David Hume applied rational logic to religion, Locke to politics, Charles Darwin to the origins of life. They could do so with some confidence, even if there were some pressures to desist. In most civilizations they would quickly have been stopped, or discouraged by family, friends and their own good sense from even starting.

What became accepted was a value-free exploration in a measurable world. People were not trying to carry a ruling imperial message, but to seek out new worlds and find valuable and curious things. And part of the approach was not to start with a priori or fixed sets of principles, as in pure mathematics or physics, but with hypotheses, guesses, tested and refined by observations. In order to control and improve our lives we need to map, to measure, and not to accept anything until proven by the senses.

This cast of mind, which feels so ‘modern’ in its expression from Grosseteste in the first half of the thirteenth century to Rutherford some seven hundred years later, was at the heart of all aspects of life, from agriculture to law, from shipbuilding to sports. It is, of course, found in a subdued form in all societies and with everyone. People observe and change their behaviour. In England it became almost a practical religion which was oddly combined, as we have seen, with a large amount of useless play and recreation. It is a paradoxical and contradictory subject.

THE EMPIRICISM OF English philosophy and investigation of the world overlaps with another feature, namely its pragmatism and interest in practical results. People who came to England particularly noted two aspects of this. Emerson in the nineteenth century commented: ‘For they have a supreme eye to facts, and theirs is a logic that brings salt to soup, hammer to nail, oar to boat, the logic of cooks, carpenters, and chemists, following the sequence of nature, and one on which words make no impression.’ ‘The bias of the nation is a passion for utility. They love the lever, the screw, and pulley, the Flanders draught-horse, the waterfall, wind-mills, tide-mills; the sea and the wind to bear their freight-ships.’ Or again: ‘A strong common-sense, which it is not easy to unseat or disturb, marks the English mind for a thousand years’. ‘For, the Englishman has accurate perceptions; takes hold of things by the right end, and there is no slipperiness in his grasp. He loves the axe, the spade, the oar, the gun, the steam-pipe; he has built the engine he uses. He is materialist, economical, mercantile.’12

Taine explained how travel, involvement in business and widespread interests meant that ‘positive information flows into the English brain as into a reservoir.’ Yet he believed that ‘the availability of all these sources does not wholly explain the fullness of that reservoir: there is something more, a slope, as it were, which determines the flow of waters, the innate bent of the race, to wit their taste for facts and their fondness for experimental demonstration, the instinct for inductive reasoning and their need for certainty. Whoever has studied their literature and philosophy, from Shakespeare and Bacon down to the present day knows that this inclination is hereditary in the English, that it belongs to the very shape of their minds, that it is part of their way of understanding truth. By the English way of looking at things, a tree must be known by its fruits, and theory judged by practice. A truth has no value unless it leads to useful applications in practice. Beyond such practically applicable truths lie nothing but vain chimaeras.’13

This pragmatism or empiricism is the central theme of Anglo-Scottish American philosophy, from Bacon through Hume to Pierce and James. ‘Pragmatism has been described as America’s national philosophy and as the theoretical expression of the spirit of modern industrial capitalism, with its alleged emphasis on the practical and on the utility of thinking’, and it was Britain which was the ‘classic land’ of the materialistic and pragmatic mode.14 In summarizing the British philosophical tradition, Kenneth Matthews wrote: ‘The native characteristics of British philosophy are these: common sense, dislike of complication, a strong preference for the concrete over the abstract and a certain awkward honesty of method in which an occasional pearl of poetry is embedded. It is as easy to perceive a common parentage in the philosophies of John Locke and Bertrand Russell as in the seamanship of Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson…The British philosophers, at least the most typical of them, stand with both feet on the ground…’15 One branch of this, Utilitarianism, a cost-benefit analysis of pleasure and pain, is another example and Bentham a very English philosopher.

It would not be difficult to show that the tradition of linking philosophy to a supposed world of observable facts, and to useful outcomes, is old. For example Veliz argues that the individualism and positivism of the English goes back to William of Ockham and English scholastic philosophy.16 The difference between English and Continental philosophy by the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries was marked. ‘Even in the field of science it seems possible to discern a similar difference of approach between Continental and English thinkers. The most important Europeans tended to emphasize mathematics within a context of philosophical speculation, whereas the English scientists focused on the empirical method’.17

Taine in the nineteenth century noted the views of an Englishman he met: ‘He claims that this need for facts is the basis of the English character; let the machine run uncoupled to work and it wrecks itself.’18 Taine notes in English philosophy a taste for facts and their fondness for experimental demonstration, the instinct for inductive reasoning and their need for certainty; ‘it is part of their very way of understanding truth’.19 As Orwell put it, ‘In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are very powerful illusions. The belief in them influences conduct, national life is different because of them.’20

Many nowadays take it as self-evident that science is based on ‘facts’, that empirical methods and experiment are central to it, and that a major purpose of science is to improve our lives. Yet if we place ourselves in most civilizations two or three hundred years ago, this view is decidedly odd. It was not to be found strongly in Islamic, Chinese, Japanese or even most European civilizations. To begin with there were no stable ‘facts’ to be investigated – the world was subject to magical, mystical forces and miraculous events, filled with illusion, with no ultimate reality or set of firm principles. There was little point in searching for stable facts or deeper certainties.

Secondly, the high prizes of the small circle of privileged people who dedicated their lives to thought went to those who were the most abstract, the most pure. To soil your hands with grossly material things, to grind your own lenses or test theories with physical objects was demeaning, that was the sort of things that craftsmen, or shopkeepers, might do.

That the English were a nation ruled by shopkeepers in their science as well as in their Empire was rather shocking. We need to understand both the stability of the world of facts and its autonomy. We also need to investigate the high status accorded to experiments and those people like Robert Boyle, Earl of Cork, who alongside or instead of hunting, shooting and fishing, dabbled in chemistry. We have to see all this in the context of other features. Especially we have to consider the peace, stability and wealth of the country, the firm but fairly predictable nature of power and religion, and the particular social structure with its markedly unusual absence of that scorn of practical activity on the part of the rich and literate which would be found as a strong force in most civilizations. If we are trying to discover the reasons for the development of science in England over the last half millennium we need to understand it in a much wider social, economic, political, legal and religious context.

In brief, for example, it could be suggested that the system of logical argument and competition encouraged by the unique institution of Common Law, which lay behind Francis Bacon’s experimental method, and his advice to ‘put nature to the test’ has something to do with science. The separation of religious organization and political power and thought, which enabled the peaceful exploration of nature without fear of the Catholic Inquisition, is another factor. The fact that the middle-class had become the wealthiest in Europe on the back of the productive and artifact based developments described elsewhere is important. The growth of London as a great centre of thought and exploration, balanced by the ancient universities and the Inns of Court is worth considering. The associational mechanism which Maitland shows lay behind many types of organization, including debating groups, the Royal Society and libraries, is important.

The absence of the usual confrontational divisions between a small literate elite and a large illiterate peasantry, which allowed many of the great scientists like Newton or Faraday to emerge from relatively humble backgrounds is significant. The curiously positivistic bent of the English, perhaps again related to the legal system with its obsession with fact, its assumption of ‘the truth’, its trial by peer (jury) review, is another element. The development of that trust which is essential for science. The development of that gaming and sporting instinct which became a passion  is another feature.

DURING THE LATE nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries it seemed self-evident that the first industrial revolution and the first scientific revolution both occurred in England. It was also obvious that increased knowledge fed into innovations and inventions.  Then, from the middle of the twentieth century there was a reaction and it was suggested that theoretical science had little effect on technology until the middle of the nineteenth century, well after the industrial revolution had been achieved.  More recently, as historians have looked more deeply at the ways in which science fed into discoveries and innovations of a practical kind, this revised view has been challenged again.

Many now argue that England was the first country to develop a kind of practical modern scientific culture, from the late sixteenth century, which in turn was an essential basis for the first industrial revolution. In both respects it became increasingly different from anywhere else in the world, including Holland, France and Italy. The support for this argument is now widespread.21  Let me just take one authoritative recent account by Margaret Jacob. I shall explain her ideas in detail since  her recent book, a revised version of an earlier work, lays out well the differences between English and continental science and takes account of recent research on the impact of science on technology.

Let us start with the fact that scientific knowledge was essential for the industrial revolution. Jacob writes that ‘Industrial development occurred first in Britain for reasons that had to do with science and culture, not simply or exclusively with raw materials, capital development, cheap labor, or technological innovation.’ In other words the ‘elements of the natural world encoded in science were not peripheral to industrialization and Western hegemony; rather they were central to it.’ In fact, she argues strongly, ‘The industrial application of scientific knowledge constitutes historically the single most important use to which Western science has ever been put …’ This momentous event ‘occurred first in England in the second half of the eighteenth century.’22

Jacob’s work is mainly concerned with case studies of how this worked in practice, for example the effects of the work of Boyle and the vacuum on James Watt. I shall not repeat her detailed evidence, but just mention two cases she summarizes. ‘The steam engine cannot be severed from the diffusion of the English Enlightenment, from the science that lay at the heart of that cultural transformation.’ She writes that ‘A variety of projects, long regarded as central to the historical process of British industrialization, in particular canal building and the use of steam power, illustrate how scientific knowledge could affect profit and productivity.’ So she concludes the book by writing that ‘The open, public science commonplace in eighteenth-century Britain may not be highly original science – although that is by no means foreclosed – but it can be innovative in application, widely adaptable to profit seeking.’23

It is quite clear to Jacob, who has made an extensive survey of science and technology across Europe, that Britain was different. Her central questions is ‘What made the British absorb and use science – invent a culture of practical science – that was different from what can be seen in France?’ She puts this also in a rhetorical question. ‘Did the new science integrate differently in the British social and cultural landscape from what happened in western Europe during the eighteenth century? The answer is yes.’ This difference, she believes, goes back to the seventeenth century. ‘I shall be arguing that, from at least as early as the mid-seventeenth century, British science came wrapped in an ideology that encouraged material prosperity.’ Her goal is to explore ‘the marked differences between the scientific cultures found in Britain in comparison to France or the Netherlands, by trying ‘to recreate the different universes wherein entrepreneurs actually lived.’ The puzzle is that ‘The remaining records … suggest that in widespread scientific education of a mechanical sort, the British were at least a generation ahead of their European counterparts.’ Or to put it in a more colourful way, ‘it was possible to learn more about applied mechanics at a London coffee house lecture series than it was in any French collège de plein exercise prior to the late 1740s.’24

Jacob’s main task is to explain this difference. Her basic assumption is that science is a cultural, political and social phenomenon, not just an intellectual one. Therefore in order to understand the reasons why British science and technology developed in a different way we have to look in these spheres. This assumption of inter-connectedness and context is stated a number of times.

She suggests that ‘What is missing in the story of early industrialization to date is any convincing cultural paradigm – a set of recognizable values, experiences, and knowledge patterns possessed among key social actors – that offers insight into the formation of the industrial mentality of the late eighteenth century.’ Therefore it is necessary to look at culture very widely if we are to understand the differences. ‘Thus when we invoke a cultural setting in eighteenth-century Europe we must include the symbols of birth and authority – the political culture and value system of the ancien regime – just as we need to understand knowledge systems made available in formal and informal institutions of learning.’ The last sentence in her book re-enforces this. ‘The framing of nature cannot be divorced from other experience. In that sense, the language and practices of science are also socially anchored, and true creativity, relevant to its time and place, is rooted in social experience as transformed by ingenuity.’25

The factors which she suggests inhibited the growth of practical science on the Continent are described in various case studies. One factor was religion. Almost all over Europe, the counter-Reformation was dampening down enquiry and weakening the universities. ‘By the late seventeenth century rigid censorship was already an established fact of life in much of Catholic Europe, as was clerical control over the universities.’ This could undermine new knowledge, for ‘…. If clergymen more concerned with orthodoxy than with material progress control the schools and universities, then theory may dominate over application, or science in general will receive less attention.’26

Italy is a particularly well known case. The homeland of Galileo became largely sterile by the end of Galileo’s century. ‘In the late seventeenth century the intellectual crisis that afflicted much of Western Europe. was also felt in Italy, and out of it came the linkage between science and hetereodoxy. The search for philosophical liberty among scientifically minded Italian intellectuals in turn galvanized the Inquisition “against mathematics and physico-mathematics” because they were seen as pernicious “to the sincerity of religion.”‘27

In reverse the toleration and relatively weak political power of the Anglican Church in England was an important background to what was allowed to happen. For example, Jacob shows the strong link between the Unitarian church, a very non-dogmatic branch of deistical Christianity, and the new science and technology in England.

Holland is a particularly interesting case. The Calvinists were less tolerant than the Lutherans in England, for, as Jacob writes,  ‘the power of Calvinist orthodoxy produced widespread public opposition to aspects of the new science, for example, smallpox inoculation’, nevertheless there was no Inquisition.28 Furthermore, Holland in the early seventeenth century was one of the most advanced countries in its scientific knowledge. Jacob explains the curious petering out of Dutch science in the eighteenth century largely in terms of the negative effects of commercial economy that developed there.

‘Now we might ask, what happened? After this extraordinary head start, Dutch science seemed to stall. By mid-century the Republic evinced no widespread program of popular scientific education aimed at adolescents, merchants or elite audiences, nothing comparable to efforts visible in Britain at precisely the same time.’ She argues that ‘Many groups with vested interests in the status quo thwarted the development of a vibrant scientific culture. The traditional elite made its money from international trade and commerce and their wealth was such that little else interested them.’ One of Jacob’s final conclusions to the book is that ‘If oligarchs grown rich through commerce control local education and sponsor academies, as was the case in the Dutch Republic, then innovators with industrial ambitions may have no place to implant their values, or, as happened in the eighteenth century, to foster mechanics.’29

Potentially the greatest rival to England was the more powerful, populous and, in many ways, intellectually distinguished France. For a long time the religious orders, especially the Jesuits, clung to the Cartesian system and held out against the much more effective Newtonian science.  Furthermore ‘France did have many active scientific academies…. Yet aristocratic domination in the provincial societies and academies hardly permitted the kind of gentlemanly zeal for practical science that we see in late eighteenth-century Derbyshire or Birmingham.’ Furthermore, the relations with government were different. ‘In any survey of the social relations of eighteenth-century European science two patterns seem most prominent: the French, where scientists in the first instance serve the state, and the British, where they service the needs of entrepreneurs.’ The divisions between groups in France were much greater. ‘On the whole prior to 1789 French entrepreneurs and engineers occupied separate universes, did not possess a common technical vocabulary, and the details of public works were a matter solely for the engineers.’30

Turning to the unique English case, what does Jacob think lay behind the development of practical science? She lists many causal factors.  ‘British scientific culture further rested on relative freedom of the press, the property rights and expectations of landed and commercial people, and the vibrancy of civil society in the form of voluntary associations for self-education and improvement. In early eighteenth-century Britain these structural transformations worked for the interests of practical-minded scientists and merchants with industrial interests.’31

The roots of all this were deep, certainly back into the early seventeenth century:

By 1800 so pervasive was the new scientific learning that it fuelled the imagination of British entrepreneurs … The Royal Society of London as early as the 1680s discussed the labor-saving value of machines.’ And the culture spread across all of the large middle class who shared a common language and set of expectations. ‘The public culture of British science created, perhaps also required, a distinctive social ambiance among engineers and their employers. Collecting, experimenting at philosophical gatherings, as well as reading and discussions of literature, even the habits of sermon and lecture attending, gave engineers and entrepreneurs a common discipline and vocabulary.32

Many of the most important figures were amateurs (‘devotees’). ‘Of the hundred or more leading British scientists from 1700 to 1800, for example, nearly half would have to be classified as “devotees”…and of that hundred, 45 percent made their living as doctors, technicians, or churchmen.’ These people were able to join in the process largely because of the flourishing associational culture, what we call civil society. Jacob writes:

Having a common cultural legacy – a common technical but utilitarian language – provided by applied scientific education, formal and informal, buttressed by a voluntarism found more in civil society, in associations, societies, and clubs than in the individual singularly conceived – or than in the formal state institutions of an aristocratic or rigidly oligarchic regime – may go part of the way toward explaining the particular unleashing of industrially focused talent that occurred in eighteenth-century Britain.33

The curious social and political context also fed into the process in another way – through the role of politics. Parliament which the prime source of legislation and was increasingly filled with people who were in favour of the new science and technologies, and understood it. This  was  crucial. ‘Such mechanically minded men also went to Parliament to represent their towns and shires; first and foremost they represented the interests of people like themselves. Having them in Parliament provide critically important as key moments in the process of mechanizing occurred. In 1775 the House Commons set up a committee to investigate Watt’s claim that his engine was markedly different from all competitors.’34

So Jacob concludes that ‘a multitude of factors went into successful industrial and commercial decision making: the ability to comprehend increasingly complex technical knowledge through a mastery of basic mechanics, the presence of entrepreneurs willing and able to push a particular project through Parliament, MPs learned enough to understand the technical details, sufficient surplus capital from large and small investors to be invested in shareholding companies, and never least, the ability of laborers to dig the canal or feed the furnaces.’  Without this political context, the industrial revolution would not have occurred.35

This account is particularly interesting for it shows how the scientific and technological break-through which ushered in our modern world happened on one island and was only possible because of a whole set of inter-connected causes came together. It shows that Italian, Dutch, German and even French science and technology were stalled. Without the English case, it is difficult to see that the revolution in knowledge, practical and theoretical, could have occurred. And it shows that in order for it to happen there needed to be the civil society of clubs and associations, the large middle class,  tolerant Anglicanism and a strong parliament.

The lecture on which this chapter is based:

2012 Serial Index: Introduction and Contents | Preface | Bibliography.

Chapter 13 of The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane.

© 2012 Alan Macfarlane. All rights reserved.

NOTES (please see the bibliography for citation details):


  1. Huff, Science, 276
  2. Bernal, Science, 318
  3. Cohen, Scientific, 368
  4. For an extended treatment, see Macfarlane, Cambridge
  5. Mumford, Technics, 361
  6. Popper, Open; Horton, ‘Open’
  7. La Fontaine quoted in Hazard, European, 64, note 1
  8. Gellner, Plough, 42
  9. Gellner, Legitimation, 182
  10. Gellner, Nations, 21,20,22,21
  11. Gellner, Plough, 66
  12. Emerson, English, 65, 67, 176, 177
  13. Taine, Notes, 248; for a thorough recent treatment of this, see Mokyr, Enlightened
  14. Morris, West, 275, 15
  15. Matthews, English, 271
  16. Veliz, Gothic, 93ff
  17. Fox, Emergence, 25
  18. Taine, Notes, 59
  19. Taine, Notes, 248
  20. Orwell, Lion, 45
  21. A recent immensely detailed account supporting the linkage is Mokyr, Enlightened.
  22. Jacob, Scientific, 2, 3, 202, 202
  23. Jacob, Scientific, 95, 188, 207
  24. Jacob, Scientific, 3, 4, 4, 105, 133, 136
  25. Jacob, Scientific, 105, 141, 207
  26. Jacob, Scientific, 76, 207
  27. Jacob, Scientific, 162-3
  28. Jacob, Scientific, 145
  29. Jacob, Scientific, 143, 145, 307
  30. Jacob, Scientific, 136, 139, 184
  31. Jacob, Scientific, 107
  32. Jacob, Scientific, 113, 114
  33. Jacob, Scientific, 133, 185
  34. Jacob, Scientific, 190
  35. Jacob, Scientific, 201, 204

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    What we had from the mid seventeenth century and even before was openness to involve all who had a scientific or technological based mind. The diversified and curious universal mind that was driven by intuition. Since then institutions have closed ranks and we no longer have this openness of dialogue and inclusive thinking between all society that Newton and others held so high in order to progress their great thinking. Indeed those were the times when people like Harrison were allowed, even though under institutional duress and harassment, to be part of this universal openness and full society inclusion. Indeed Harrison a mere carpenter defeated the great Newton to the solution that brought forth the marine chronometer. Something that even the greatest mind of science could not solve. But if we look at the history of S&T, we see a phenomenal truism taking shape over the years. This vital step is that around 70% of all the world-changing inventions came with a price – frustration and constant rejection by the establishment and university systems. The reason, the institutions considered that they were the appointed great minds and that a common person with little university training could not possibly attain the greatest heights of scientific discovery. History shows that this is the complete opposite of what has happened and what is happening in the present day. Overall it can be called an elitist system that stifles inclusiveness and where those not in the club are never invited. For them only frustration in knowing that they are right and that constant rejections is their reward. Today things are worse than they were just a mere half a century ago with regard to the exclusion of society in providing the solutions to many of humankind’s growing problems and through a universal mindset that only the chosen few have the answers. This is not so as if it were humanity would have found solutions already for many of the world’s most pressing problems. Over the last 100 years we can see how people from backgrounds other than our universities and so-called world leading institutions have triumphed where our elitist university system of non-society involvement has failed miserably. Baird, Whittle, Ford, Kilby, Berners-Lee, Clarke, etc, to name but a few.

    What all these people had in common was that they knew their thinking was revolutionary, but where the establishment and institutions were at times oblivious to these people and their fundamental thinking. What might be considered as amateur scientists, engineers and technologists and not main-stream as our institutional people like to believe are the true masters of change. Considering all this we are our own worst enemy by refusing to accept that our greatest asset as a nation is the fundamental thinking of our people, not our institutions, so-called advanced centres of corporate R&D or our universities. For history tells us that the greatest things that have changed our lives and the world-at-large came out of the minds of hobbyists and independent minds, not brainwashed by institutional conformity. Until therefore we evolve and put in place the creative infrastructure for all to participate, this dear nation of ours will continue in decline. The reason, the wise elitist system will not allow the equivalents of those who have changed the world in the past to emerge in modern times. That can only be a crime against scientific discovery and a crime against humanity itself.

    Overall I know many over the last few centuries who were outside the confines of the elitist system but who have created multi-billion and in some unique case multi-trillion dollar technological industries through their fundamental thinking. Contrary to this I do not know of any from our university and institutional thinking at the fundamental level that have created a single billion dollar global industry. The proof in the pudding is there but we still persist in not acknowledging the real truth and what is really needed to be put in place to solve the world’s emerging problem that are immense to say the least, some considered to be unsolvable but where if intuition was allowed to flourish throughout our society, they are not.

    Dr David Hill
    Chief Executive
    World Innovation Foundation
    United Kingdom – Switzerland

    Tuesday, 2 October 2012 at 18:14 | Permalink

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