Systematizing Knowledge

In the comments about my post on Islamic science, Jim sketches an interesting genealogy of mathematical knowledge. While I find the history and transmission of ideas fascinating, however, I think the more important question is not who came up with something first? or who stole from whom? but rather who put scientific knowledge to the best use?

One of the conclusions drawn in my post is that Europe industrialized first because Europeans figured out how to bring theoretical knowledge together and put it to work for material, practical ends. However, I came across an interesting essay by Joel Mokyr—an historian of economics at Northwestern—in which Mokyr argues that the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were made possible by neither applied technology nor pure science but by a generative relationship between both, a relationship enabled in great part by the printing press and an increased circulation of ideas.

In other cultures and historical periods, people had figured out how certain things work on the ground and other people were figuring out how the world’s mechanisms and systems operated at a more general or theoretical level. But no one brought the two methods together. It’s well known, for example, that the Romans possessed all the knowledge they needed to build a steam engine: they had cylinders, pistons, and valves scattered across various inventions, and Hero of Alexandria even drew up diagrams for one. (Here’s an interesting post by a high-IQ undergraduate who argues that the Romans also had what they needed to build a simple computing device.) What the Romans—or the Greeks or the Caliphate or the Chinese—didn’t have were a way to circulate ideas and an epistemic base that encouraged practical inventors and theoretical philosophers to bring their knowledge together. Both are clearly related. Mokyr writes:

. . . before the Industrial Revolution all techniques in use were supported by very narrow epistemic bases. That is to say, the people who invented them did not have much of a clue as to why and how they worked. The pre-1750 world produced, and produced well. It made many path-breaking inventions. But it was a world of engineering without mechanics, iron-making without metallurgy, farming without soil science, mining without geology, water-power without hydraulics, dye-making without organic chemistry, and medical practice without microbiology and immunology. The main point to keep in mind here is that such a lack of an epistemic base does not necessarily preclude the development of new techniques through trial and error and simple serendipity. But it makes the subsequent wave of micro-inventions that adapt and improve the technique and create the sustained productivity growth much slower and more costly. If one knows why some device works, it becomes easier to manipulate and debug it, to adapt to new uses and changing circumstances. Above all, one knows what will not work and thus reduce the costs of research and experimentation.

Bringing knowledge together—systematizing fragmented treatises and ideas—was a defining feature of the Enlightenment project: this “combination of different kinds of knowledge supporting one another” laid the groundwork for real technological progress and economic growth. Systematization also means experiments can be more focused and grounded and thus less costly in the long run; and as I mentioned in the last post, one thing Europe did that the Muslim world ceased doing was to fund scientific experimentation. So, with Mokyr’s essay in mind, we can say that a society must not only be willing to fund science (through government or private investment) but it also must know where to channel that funding for the best results.

Islamic science failed to systematize its knowledge across disciplines and never bridged what today we call the pure/applied science gap. It’s probably fair to suggest that this systematization never occurred because the Muslims lacked an adequate means of circulation. Seen in this light, the printing press was perhaps the most important pre-Enlightenment invention—whichever culture developed that first was bound to systematize its fragmented knowledge first. Instead, the Muslim world developed an increasingly fundamentalist and homogenous religion, lost its centrality in the network of global trade, and thus stopped funneling excess capital into scientific and technological development.

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8 responses

  1. Jim

    The Antikythera mechanism is an amazing example of technological sophistication in the ancient world. It’s true that lots of the elements of modern science and technology were available to the Greeks and Romans. But something began to happen in early post-Medieval Europe that eventually resulted in a profound transformation of almost the entire world. I doubt that it was any one single thing that was decisive. The printing press no doubt played a role but the Chinese had printing before the Europeans so there is more involved. I think that what happened emerged from a lot of factors coming together. These factors could include genetic changes in the European populations.

    I’m not sure about a late date such as 1750. I think Europe was clearly diverging from the rest of the world well before 1750.

    May 17, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    • You’re right that no single desideratum can explain why the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe and not elsewhere. I’m still interested in tracking the many confluences that led there, anyway, because I think what we learn could (should) have contemporary implications for policy.

      I also agree that 1750 is a late date; it’s simply the date that Joel Mokyr works with. I’d quite frankly start in 1437 with the Gutenberg press—easily circulated print is, if not a sufficient, at least a necessary cause of technological/economic growth.

      I don’t know much about the movable type printing in China. Wikipedia indicates that their presses were expensive, heavy, and very difficult to use, which would explain why they never caught on as a means to circulate ideas quickly and easily.

      May 17, 2013 at 9:44 pm

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  3. “I don’t know much about the movable type printing in China.” — The conjunction of print technology and an ideographic script is a fascinating topic, with considerable research interest behind it:
    http://humanexperience.stanford.edu/chinesetypewriter
    The Chinese writing system poses a huge problem to digitization (discrete semiotics technology), partly stimulative, but over the course of modern history mostly obstructive. It’s only when IT becomes sophisticated enough to neatly digitize large sign sets that the barrier dissolves. Auxiliary Romanization (e.g. Pinyin) combined with predictive software smoothes the way through.
    How seriously did this obstacle retard Chinese modernization? To finger it as the central problem would be an extravagant hypothesis, but it would capture something important.

    May 20, 2013 at 1:26 am

  4. Red

    Couple of things to consider: The roman’s didn’t have metallurgy to produce a practice steam engine. By the time they had manufacturing advanced enough require a steam engine(large water power factories) the average IQ had dropped far too much for them to have invented it. People in the roman empire became morons has their best failed to reproduce due to roman family law and their worst spread like a plague due to the church’s ban on infanticide.

    During the dark ages 2 great developments happened in Europe: The average IQ climbed due to feudalism and good genetic policies by the catholic church, primarily monetarists and nunneries for worthless people. And metallurgy advanced at a rapid pace thanks to the armored knight and constant warfare. When centralized states emerged from medieval times they were able to bring this great concentration of quality people, order, and excellent metallurgy together into remarkable feats.

    May 23, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    • Another good angle to think about. It does seem obvious that advanced metallurgical know-how is a necessary building block for most industrial technology.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:27 pm

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