III – The role of “reason”

Part I and II

I’m anticipating some misapprehension for this post, mainly for reasons of semantics and my choice of meaning to attribute to poorly defined words. This will probably require an entire clarification post based on what misapprehensions arise in comments.

In the last post I speculated that there might be a basket of necessary conditions that allowed the genesis of the modernity virus, all of which had been observed before, but that only came together at one time in the NW Europe where we first saw industrialisation.

There are many that have been offered by scholars (though they can be in the habit of fingering one as the factor), but before I speculate on these later, there’s another that is always assumed, but which I have doubts about.

That is “reason”. In the narrative of human progress we tell (at least in the Western world) this is thought and more importantly, social practice, that arose in Ancient Greece, continued in Rome, diminished in the Dark Ages (though the charitable will mention the Arab world), bloomed afresh in the Renaissance and then through the Enlightenment(s) brought forth the modern world. This is very vague I know, but I am referring to a collection of social practices.

I think we need to be careful in how much we accept this on face value, and how necessary a condition “reason” and its later emerging subset “science” are to the genesis of the modernity virus, and what role they play in technology.

It’s very hard for us not to assume this. We are people that value the same things as “reason” and we extend approbation and stature based on this. As people that like to write about things “reasonably” and receive respect for it, we are entirely inclined to respect previous societies that did the same. As people that leave written documents ruminating on things, we like the Enlightenment for doing the same, and the Renaissance, and the Ancient world[fn1]. They were People Like Us. The people of the dark ages, or barbarians, were not like us.

The problem is, in the ways that most effect normal people, the civilised and the barbaric were far more like each other than either was like us. In one society you had a minority who were respected for their habits of leaving eloquent thoughts and in others there was a minority respected for their martial might. In both who would have had a majority that did neither, and whom shared the same, subsistence level of material comfort.

To be sure, the civilised societies offered some level of stability, but it was stability that allowed there to be the minority of eloquent writers. The elite with surplus could use their surplus on this kind of status marker instead of fighting to preserve their hold on the surplus. Hence so many of the men of reason (some used their reason to exclude women afterall) relied on the patronage of the powerful, such as the Abassids or Italian dukes. They were intelligent designer handbags.

And what they did, despite the respect we justifiably give it, didn’t really affect the material world much. We give great respect to Copernicus for his insight and the progress it gave human knowledge, but what, in practical terms, did he give us? Heliocentric models of the solar system gave a marginally better way of predicting planetary movements, and only after Kepler had improved it so it was no longer less accurate than the Ptolemetic-Arabic models it was building on and replacing. In practical astronomic terms this is far less than the “barbaric” Polynesians, who at the same time using their knowledge to navigate widely accross the South Pacific. Meanwhile, the creators of the horse drawn plough or wet rice cultivation, which allowed a large increase in the stock of humanity where they were used, remain nameless and uncelebrated [fn2].

“Reason” after all wasn’t about improving the material standards of humanity. It was about becoming a better person (a subjective concept, especially compared to “not being hungry”) and vindicating the temporal status of it’s patrons. It never quite distinguished between the objective truth seeking of science and the subjective truth and status of art and moral philosophy until after the modernity virus had taken hold. Later philosophical distinctions then misread predecessors in light of newly drawn lines of demarcation.

“Reason” as I  have vaguely defined it based on our traditional narrative was just another kind of status game, with no more inherent virtue [fn3] than any other pissing contest. No more than the size of one’s penis sheathe, or your jousting prowess, the quality of your calligraphy or the competitive vacuities of hipsters. What distinguishes it however is the possibility that it not only takes a role after the modernity virus takes hold, but may help create it.

Science,  is definitely a part of modernity once taken hold, and it certainly helps the progress of technology that continues growth. Likewise technology is likely a necessary condition for the modernity virus to spawn (albeit less distinctive than one might think). But is “reason” with science not yet fully distinct, a necessary condition for the modernity virus? Technology was capable of developing without it, and even during the industrial revolution technological progress was made by “practical men”, not men of science. As late as the dawn of the electrical age celebrated engineers like Edison and Bell were making practical use of phenomena they had no real scientific understanding of. They certainly weren’t using the insights of Hume, or the future insights of Popper or Kuhn, but they were changing the world in the material sense.

Possibly “reason” is a necessary condition, but based on the historical evidence it is far from a certainty.

There is a good case that contact with a society playing the reason status game might be necessary for the virus to form, but it is not necessary to be in such a society. The ideas that are unearthed by people playing the reason game (like the discovery of electrical forces) can be exploited by people not playing the game. The social infrastructure that allows these ideas to be exploited is not the same as that which unearths them, and the ideas can move between societies far more easily than the social infrastructure can.

So when I speculate on the necessary conditions for the creation of the modernity virus, “reason” won’t be amongst them.

In case someone knows of it, I haven’t read up on the high equilibrium trap hypothesis regarding technology in China. It’s next to me as I type though and I may well change my thoughts after I do so.

[fn1] As a man who liked to leave such ruminations, Machiavelli felt this same commonality with the ancient world. His habit of writing letters to men long dead (Like Cicero)  is astoundingly endearing. Poor bloke didn’t have a blog to ease his isolation.

[fn2] I know Borlaug is underrecognised now, but at least we know who he was.

[fn3]Uncovering the inherent basis in reason for reason is a long and failed project of reason and a big reason why I’m using a vague definition.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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David Wilkie
David Wilkie
10 years ago

If people are to sell a bill of goods on the public, then they face at least two different strategies. One is to disparage science and reason openly. Another is to do so covertly by claiming this is what their opponents are doing. For example we have anti-science types disparaging their opponents as anti-science.

“In case someone knows of it, I haven’t read up on the high equilibrium trap hypothesis regarding technology in China. It’s next to me as I type though and I may well change my thoughts after I do so.”

Technological development is inherent in a market system and is embedded in capital goods update.

David Wilkie
David Wilkie
10 years ago

I had a look at this high equilibrium trap business and it is no sound thesis. Two things to look at in China are the level of privilege locked into the system, and also the physical construction of the capital goods. Were the machines made of wood? Or of more durable steel? If you are not constructing goods out of durable materials you can go backwards pretty quickly.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
10 years ago

Reason gives you the intellectual tool of the scientific method- if I can recall it inaccurately – the need for repeatability of observed effect.
Further development leads to the double blind experiment design.
From this point results can’t be fudged without an agenda to do so existing.
The comments on China are relevant here as the confuscian method focuses on the primacy of the existing expert not the hope that a new model will overturn the accepted orthodoxy.
And saying orthodoxy is probably a stretch as the idea of orthodoxy means a general acceptance of a method when in China each expert had their own way.
Disseminating knowledge was considered self defeating ,a financial suicide.
For an introduction to the role of language and this way of thinking I recommend Japan’s Modern Myth by Roy Miller.An excellent explanation of confuscian influence in east asia and it’s effect on development of thought.