BIG Thoughts…(and a request for a reference)

May 31st, 2011 at 6:47 pm

I’ve been reading an historical novel—World Without End by Ken Follett—and it’s got me thinking about how Western civilization evolved from the middle ages to the age of enlightenment.  Though the action takes place well before the 18th century, there are hints of the movement from the thinking and institutions of the middle ages—dogmatic, mystical, less democratic–to those of the age of reason.

And that got me thinking about today’s intellectual climate.  Obviously, I’m being a bit hyperbolic (not to mention reductionist), but there are ways in which today’s debates remind of those from the 14th century, where, in debates on practical matters, fact-based reason was easily defeated by fact-less assertion.

So it would be interesting to learn how the transformation to the age of reason occurred.  What were the historical precedents?  Was it bottom up, top down, some combination?  What caused this intellectual, cultural, and political shift?

I wonder if anyone out there can recommend a good book that answers these questions.

This is not just idle curiosity.  Think of supply-side economics as espoused by the editorial page of the Wall St. Journal, or the rational markets theology of the high-priests of conservative economics.  If eight years of GW Bush supply-side policies, followed by the worst market failure since the Great Depression have not dislodged these ideas—and they haven’t—then those of us who seek a better society need to do more than advocate for better policies.  We need to learn what will move Western thinking from its currently constrained, fact-starved paradigm to a new age of reason.

Sounds like a heavy lift, I know…but whaddya gonna do??

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51 comments in reply to "BIG Thoughts…(and a request for a reference)"

  1. Ryan says:

    I’m not terribly knowledgeable on the subject, but one book I’ve been reading recently comes to mind. Schweitzer’s ‘Philosophy of Civilization’ gives a good philosophical overview of this problem; one of the main themes is the abandonment of the values of the enlightenment in modern society, how it came about, and what we might do about it.

  2. D. C. Sessions says:

    I won’t say that it was THE cause, but the double-whammy of the Black Death and the Thirty Years War did a great job of smashing a lot of dogmatic authority. It’s hard to get much respect for dogmatic assertions when the authorities are changing every few years (or months) and then back again.

    Now, as far as making any practical use of that combination …

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      Yes, a friend mentioned those same phenomena to me just today. And yes, interesting…worth knowing about…but not practical.

      • Mimikatz says:

        The Black Death cut the labor force by half or more, and this caused wages (or their equivalent) for working people to rise, since they were in more demand. The growth of commerce also helped greatly. The Crusades actually broadened the crusaders’ horizons because the Islamic world was far ahead scientifically at the time. The spread of Arabic numerals and the algorithms for calculation with them was key to fostering both commerce and science. These were spread by the Moorish invasions of Spain then spread to France and Italy when texts in Arabic were translated into Latin.

        What seems to have turned the clock back is the rapid pace of change, which unsettled many people. Only tangentially related but fascinating as a study in comparative fundamentalism is Karen Armstrong’s “The Struggle for God” or something like that.

    • JazzBumpa says:

      The mid-14th century plague did nothing to foster rational thought. Instead, it brought on witch hunts, the dancing craze, and wholesale slaughter of Jews.

      And there was nothing special about the 30 years war. Shifting allegiances among all the competing nobilities had been a feature for centuries. And by then they were seriously inbred, too, which might help explain why they aced so much like idiots.


  3. Cheryl Rofer says:

    There was a movement away from the Church and (perhaps) toward greater rationality during the late 12th and early 13th century, particularly in France and Germany. The Church managed to crush it (the good guys don’t always win) and kept its power for another couple hundred years. But the price was great – chaos in Europe into the 14th century and the plague. I hadn’t thought of the plague as helping to discredit the non-rational, but perhaps it did, or perhaps it just allowed some of those currents to resurface.

    To read about the technological aspects of the 12th-century renaissance, as some call it, try “The Medieval Machine” by Jean Gimpel.

  4. Sandwichman says:

    Here’s one you might not otherwise come across:

    Confession and Bookkeeping: The Religious, Moral and Rhetorical Roots of Modern Accounting, James Aho, State University of New York Press, 2005.

    “A fascinating exploration of the connection between profit making and morality, this book illustrates how modern accounting had its roots in the sacrament of confession.

    “Double-entry bookkeeping (DEB), modern capitalism’s first and foremost calculative technology, was “invented” during the Middle Ages when profit making was morally stigmatized. James Aho examines the problematic of moneymaking and offers an explanatory understanding of the paradoxical coupling of profit seeking and morality by situating DEB in the religious circumstances from which it emerged, specifically the newly instituted sacrament of penance, that is, confession.

    “Confession impacted the consciences of medieval businessmen both through its sacramental form and through its moral teachings. The form of confession produced widespread habits of moral scrupulosity (leading to compulsive record keeping); the content of confession taught that commerce itself was morally suspect. Scrupulous businessmen were thus driven to justify their affairs to church, commune, and themselves. With the aid of DEB, moneymaking was “Christianized” and Christianity was made more amenable to the pursuit of wealth. Although DEB is typically viewed exclusively as a scientifically neutral account of the flow of money through a firm, it remains as it was originally devised, a rhetorical argument.”

  5. D. K. Shuger says:

    Try volume I of Harold Berman’s *Law and Revolution.* It’s on the origins of reason & evidence based socio-political institutions in the West; it’s beautifully written, scholarly, and challenging. Berman was a scholar of Soviet Russia at Harvard for most of his career–and then he got interested in your question. *Law and Revolution* was the result. (Note: the second volume is considerably weaker.)

  6. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Oh, what a great question… (wow!!)
    I assume that by ‘The Age of Reason’, you reference the period that begins (for the most part) after the 1780s, during the period of the American colonies and on up through the 1850s?

    Several completely off-the-wall suggestions.

    The first is a book by the late surgeon, Leonard Schlain. Schlain’s “Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light,” might jog some new synaptic connections for you. It’s an off-the-wall suggestion, but I recommend it because of Schlain’s mastery in showing how ‘thinking different’ seems to come in parallel with new forms of art.

    It’s my personal view that people aren’t going to think all that differently without new kinds of art.

    According to his bio, “Leonard Shlain [was] the Chairman of Laparoscopic surgery at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and [was] an Associate Professor of Surgery at UCSF. ” I recall from one of his earlier books that he became interested in ‘thinking, cognition’ through his work in laproscopy, cleaning out carotid arteries and interacting with stroke patients.

    Schlain developed a healthy respect the brain’s complexity, and how the two brain hemispheres affect different cognitive processing tasks. Without overdoing the whole ‘left brain-right brain’ business, what he brings to the reader is a marvelous (and to my mind, hopeful) sense that *the things we create* help us ‘see differently’, and that revolutions in art often precede cognitive and social revolutions. Because I hold to this view myself, I tend to agree.

    (And FWIW, which is almost zilch, it’s my view that the neoliberal economic thinkers are wayyyyy too left brain. If they’d taken up painting, or drawing, they’d be much better thinkers. But that’s my strongly held personal prejudice.)

    As for Schlain’s work: if you think about the way that new kinds of math developed in the late 1700s and 1800s, and were then applied to art (calculus, algebra) — and then you consider the social impact of the development of photography in the mid-1800s — you really get a sense that art played a key role in new kinds of social views and social history.

    The book includes beautiful illustrations!


    If you’ve never read Edward Tufte, any of his books are as much fun as going to an art gallery, but also for your purposes quite likely far more helpful. (He was/is Prof of Statistics and Political Science at Yale.)

    If you have never read: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, well… you’re in for a treat!

    His books are not about the Age of Reason, per se, but some of his examples go back to the 1800s, and it is interesting to see how graphic arts have impacted the way that people think. Although not about the Age of Reason, per se, Tufte’s work might still be of value to you.

    I am convinced the graphs and images used by current economists are about as dreadful as they could possibly be. I don’t think people’s thinking is going to change much looking at a bunch of straight lines stuck in what Tufte calls ‘chartjunk’.


    A time-saving tip: if you own a Mac, it comes with iTunes.
    You may not be aware of iTunesUniversity, but if you pull up your iTunes, you’ll see the categories:
    — Music
    — Movies
    — TV Shows
    — Podcasts
    — iTunesU
    — Books
    — Apps
    — Ringtones
    — Radio

    At least, my version of iTunes (v 10) shows those options.

    Select the iTunesU option, and that leads to a treasure trove of completely free lectures – including many wonderful history lectures.

    There are multiple ways to search — select any of your right-hand margin options (including a power search).

    I’ve just tested this out and have come up with several hits using the search term ‘Age of Reason’, but you may find it easier to locate good history lectures by clicking on the individual contributing universities ( iTunesU page, lower right side).

    Why do I mention this?
    You can download any of the iTunesU lectures to your iPod, and listen at your convenience. For free.

    I find podcasts and iTunesU files to be wonderful time savers, and the quality of information that I’ve listened to has been excellent (and if you get a bum lecture, just delete it and listen to one that you find more useful) –

    You could probably load several history lectures onto your iPod (dear heavens, I HOPE you have an iPod!) and listen to some very good information about The Age of Reason while walking, driving on errands, or yard work.
    (How anyone gets on a treadmill without an iPod, I have no idea…. but I digress…)

    I’m taking time to leave this comment because it constantly amazes me to encounter people who still don’t know about this feature of iTunes.

    Totally free.
    Pretty good stuff.
    Simple, quick, and easy to incorporate into your day or your week.


    Yes, we all love to read.
    I certainly do!

    But I think that too much of the economics and policy stuff is a bit too ‘left brain’ for many members of the public. In my better moments, it’s all too ‘left brain’ (logical, sequential) even for me.

    To get out of my left brain and get a little better perspective, movies can be invaluable.

    Netflix has a documentary about Beethoven that is simply marvelous, because it puts his work into the historical context in which he was composing — around the time of the American Revolution, which was certainly the Age of Reason. It helps the viewer see what a revolutionary sound he was creating in that era, and how mind-blowing it was for people. Then think about the other composers at that time, and you get a sense that the arts were a key cognitive trigger in the Age of Reason. But so was the development of calculus (for a good explanation of that, try relevant chapters of “Is God A Mathematician”).

    If you search Netflix for some of their History channel archives, you’d probably find some enjoyable things to help broaden your thinking a bit — because the Age of Reason was, if I recall correctly, also the age of the harpsicord, the microscope was still new, Vermeer was painting (along with the other Flemish painters.)

    Throughout Europe, accurate visual representation was highly valued: it was an age of still life’s. Painting, particularly with oils, was in a revolutionary phase: reality mattered for the first time, as did the humble life of the individual. This was a completely new kind of art, and altered the way that people thought.

    Some years ago, the Seattle Art Museum had a splendid exhibit:
    Spain in the Age of Exploration, 1492-1819
    Special Exhibition
    If you read the SAM page about this exhibit, you get a little sense of how fertile the field of representational art was leading up to, and during, the Age of Reason, and what an impact art had on the way that people thought.


    I love books, but I hope that you use some other forms of media to investigate the Age of Reason; recall that during that era, most people were still illiterate — although the Protestant Revolution was going gangbusters, and literacy was valued so that people could read ‘the Word of God’ on their own.

    The Flemish and Spanish painters had a huge impact on thinking during that period.
    And so did new, revolutionary kinds of music.

    So if you really want to grasp some of the essential themes in the Age of Reason, listen to music, view the art, and view a few historical documentaries to enrich your reading.

    Thank you for tolerating such an eclectic, rather off-the-wall comment.

  7. Southern Beale says:

    Oh I read “World Without End”! Good book … but I liked “The Pillars of the Earth” better.

    I’m not a historian but I played one in a former life 🙂 Let me recommend a great book which touches on the themes you raised: Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century,” which came out waaaay back in 1978. Yes we’ve been here before, and your questions have been raised by others.

    One thing which can’t be underestimated is the effect of the Black Death, which wiped out an estimated 50% of the population of Europe. Imagine the longlasting socioeconomic effects of a pandemic of that nature! Of course there will be massive societal shifts when half the population — male, female, old, young — are suddenly wiped out. It took generations for Europe to recover. On top of which, smaller outbreaks of plague recurred for centuries! While not as calamitous from a mortality perspective, the fear these outbreaks created were equally as powerful.

    It’s also important to remember that the Enlightenment was precipitated and in many ways

  8. Southern Beale says:

    GAH. Comment FAIL.

    I was going to say the Enlightment was bookended by revolution and mass upheaval. So be careful what you wish for.

    I think a lot of the issues we’re facing today are demographic in nature. We have a huge chunk of our population that’s over 50 and that skews the conversation.

  9. Southern Beale says:


    I have iTunes and iTunesU is not available to me. I wonder why?

    • Chris Coffin says:

      If you look at “Preferences” under your “iTunes” menu (top left), you should see, in the general tab, some check boxes. You should see iTunes U as one of the options. Select that box and iTunes U will appear under the library in iTunes.

  10. AlanDownunder says:

    “Think of supply-side economics as espoused by the editorial page of the Wall St. Journal, or the rational markets theology of the high-priests of conservative economics.”

    These are functional dogma, just like those of the medieval priesthood. They functionally preserve and enlarge the wealth disparity to which they have contributed.

    In the 18th century, the French had a solution to this kind of thing. The US need not be so drastic. Prosecution of white collar crimes and war crimes would do the trick.

  11. Kevin Rica says:


    You are over thinking this. HL Mencken succinctly explained it thus:

    “Never argue with a man whose job depends on not being convinced.”

    However, how do we explain some of the goofy ideas that have infected the liberal side of the political spectrum?

    • Sandwichman says:

      Did H.L. Mencken really say that? I ask because Upton Sinclair DID say, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

    • Sandwichman says:

      On goofy ideas, both liberal and conservative, see Albert O. Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy.

    • The Tragicaaly Flip says:

      Such as?

      I don’t doubt liberalism has ideological blind spots, but i have difficulty thinking of any that rise to the level of the seious problems caused by the right’s dogmatic devotion to failed ideas. You didn’t say it directly, but the implication of an equivalnce here should be questioned.

      • JazzBumpa says:

        In fact, this kind of false equivalence is rampant these days. “Fair and Balanced” anyone?

        The right wing devolves into dogma, because they have all the authoritarian followers on their side.

        Look at the loyalty tests on the right. There is nothing like that on the left.

        Every republican candidate for for state or national office has to sign Grover Norquist’s pledge to not raise taxes ever, and not even allow the closing of loopholes without a spending offset. The group-think is top-down, deliberate, and regulated.

        It’s no coincidence that the right equates politics and religion.

        Or that their goal is to take us back to the 12th century.


  12. John B. says:

    Book recommendation.

    I went through a similar revelatory experience about the 14th century about eighteen months ago when I re-read Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer=prize winning history, “A Distant Mirror.” The first time I read it more than a quarter century ago my reaction was much like Jared’s: I understood it as describing the waning days of the Dark Ages and in the so-called “Middle Ages to follow the early birth pangs of the Enlightenment.

    On re-reading “A Distant Mirror” in 2009 I found myself seeing that it also, and far more convincingly, described a nascent revolution in the primary method and entity by which the (western) world’s economy, society, and politics were ordered — from the Christian church headed by a pope and his bishops to the nation-state (at first headed by hereditary barons and kings). Who was “in charge” of organizing society obviously had a lot to do with how it was ordered and by what principles, commonly accepted myths, and historical truths. Of course, the principle players in Tuchman’s history did not understand their times as anything like a transformation.

    The question that occurred to me was whether we are in the midst of a similarly transformative time, but just don’t know it. Not long after finishing the book the Supreme Court handed down Citizens United, which seemed to me to italicize my question anew: Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the nation-state as the world’s chief organizing system, much as those bishops and cardinals at the beginning of the fourteenth century unknowing were witnessing the beginning of the end of the Christian era when popes had power over kings? And if so, are international mega-corporations destined to become rivals to the nation-state, perhaps even its successor as the chief engine for organizing society, its economy, and its politics?

    If so, I suppose you could say the corrupt Senators and Congressman who now do the bidding of mega-corporations far more readily than they do that of their own constituents truly are on the side of the future — just as those earls, early merchants, and landowners who deserted the pope in the early 14th century, made war against the Church, and even set up their own rival “popes” were truly ahead of their time.

    “A Distant Mirror” will give you important insights into our history and encourage you to think big about our present, sometimes forcing you to unhappy conclusions about the present and the likely future of humanity.

  13. Keith Howard says:

    Dear Mr. Bernstein,

    The Black Death (also mentioned by an earlier poster) reduced the population of Europe by a significant fraction — as many as 90% of the population in some areas, and commonly between a third and half of the population, died. The Church’s dominant position in agriculturally productive land was thereby devalued. This opened possibilities leading to increased development of cities, professional and trade guilds, and the beginning of the modern financial system. Values formerly grounded (frozen) in a feudal, scholastic, and clerical authoritarianism paled in competition with more empirically-based enterprises and ambitions.

    We now see clearly the effects of hypertrophy in the modern finacial system — another system (like scholastic philosophy/theology) not connected to the world we directly observe with our physical selves. We now deal with governments and interests that recognize no value except money and power.

    As you suggest, a major reorientation of public thinking is essential if we are to survive as a species. Alas, this is not an outcome I think likely. But for a start we could emphasize the fact that we don’t have enough land, enough food, enough water to support our human population. We do not have substitutes for bees and bats, or for the fish in the sea.

    But issues of scale are inherently difficult for people to grasp. My dad, an old MD and not stupid, simply doesn’t believe that mankind is big enough to affect the Earth’s whole atmosphere. One of my main personal disappointments with President Obama has been his failure — despite the breadth of his mind and the power of his speech — to work to explain the scale of the problems we face as a people and a species. All of us live a few years; children come along, with their insistent needs; there’s no slowing them down. There is only one of me; how can I do anything that will matter?

    We are exactly like bears too smart for their own good: smart enough to get into bigger trouble than we can understand or think our way out of. I don’t believe that conventional wisdom/habit on Wall Street, or in the Econ departments, or in the luxurious boardrooms of the biggest banks, should be our target. That whole system, like a tree grown in a pot, will soon topple over. One of these days there will come a new plague that, perhaps indirectly, reduces our population by a large factor. The question is, How mcuh of civilization will the human remnant be able to hang onto?

    My book recommendation: Overshoot (Wm. Catton.)

    Thank you for your efforts and for your excellent blog. Best,

    Keith Howard

  14. mike shupp says:

    Several interesting things going on in the 1200-1400 period.

    A) The Crusades expose Europeans to Constantinople and the Moslems. There’s a flow of learning towards Europeans.

    B) Older monastic orders (Benedictines, Cluniacs, etc.) lose much of their importance. Newer orders — Dominicans, Franciscans, etc. — stressed poverty and reduced the social gap between Christian priest and communicants. Interest in getting the Bible in contemporary language into the hands of commoners.

    C) Rise of universities. Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge,

    D) Prose and poetry appears in vernacular form — Dante, Chaucer, Langland. Eddas and sagas in Scandanavia. In music, troubedours and minnesingers, again using vernacular language — quite a lot of musical invention, actually. Eddas and sagas in Scandanavia.

    E) Eventually the printing press.

    Overall, there’s a theme here of opening up learning, moving from keeping knowledge in the hands of a clerical elite to spreading literacy through the aristocracy and the economic upper class. Moreover, over sveral centuries, learning is “democratised” by translating older material from Latin to vulgar tongues, and by accepting contemporary music and fiction and traveler’s accounts as valid literature. This might have some relevence to your project; it might not.

    Readings (more fun than practical, perhaps):
    Frank Yerby, THE SARACEN BLADE
    Thomas Costain, THE BLACK ROSE
    Umberto Eco, THE NAME OF THE ROSE
    Gary Jennings, JOURNEYER

  15. jamdox says:

    Darnit, I’m busy and don’t have time to re-trace my steps, but at one point I was looking into the failure of the Arab world to modernize, and encountered a debate between an angry Arabist (slight pun, sorry) and a researcher on European history.

    That Europeanist felt that the deciding factor for the emergence of the enlightenment was how the scholarly/monastic institutions had developed by the 14th-15th centuries a significant degree of independence from the other powers in society. This allowed the investigation of previously forbidden topics, the rediscovery of Classical texts, etc.

    This jibes with other things I have looked at which asserted that “Western” civilization had a significant intellectual and technological edge up until the dark ages, and the Enlightenment was a resumption of this tradition. My interpretation is that we in the west have had 2 big breakthroughs: the Classical idea of theory and proof, and the Enlightenment idea of empiricism. So, the Europeanist would presumably argue that the institutional arrangement of power, with the Church and various feudal lords, effectively suppressed the Western intellectual tradition, and as those institutions broke down, that tradition reasserted itself.

    I’m not sure this is a proper analogy for our present situation, however. Many of the supply-side economists are Conservatives, a tradition which has pretty persistently considered itself a reaction to the Enlightenment–maybe the postwar settlement suppressed their tradition like the dark ages suppressed ours?

    Not to say we don’t have an irrationality problem in our society! I’d look at all the advertising. Email me if you want to know why–I’ll just say that ressentiment and the drive to forget can be very powerful forces.

    Alright, enough procrastination…

  16. David says:

    I think the invention of the moveable type (the printing press) and the wide dissemination of new ideas through the medium of the printed word was the primary cause for the end of the Dark Ages and the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.

    A secondary cause was the chaos brought on by the Black Death which wiped out up to half of the population of Europe including many of the clergy and nobility leaving those who survived this catastrophe with the material wealth to rebuild their society in a different way. Barbara Tuckman’s well researched book ” A Distant Mirror” shows what happened when plague and war devastated Europe and brought about that change.

  17. Greg Brown says:

    Not quite a non-fiction book, but Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle of books (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World) covers some of this revolution along with burgeoning “natural philosophy” and a more modern understanding of money and credit.

  18. Jim Edwards says:

    I was also going to recommend “A Distant Mirror.” I would also suggest a little reading about the “Dark Age” as it really was not that dark. There are some good books “Those Terrible Middle Ages” comes to mind. The Renaissance was part fact and part marketing campaign. Terms like Gothic were used to diminish the accomplishments of earlier eras. Notre Dame is a great example of what could be done. In the 11th century the pope ordered priest celibacy which strengthened the central control of the church by reducing nepotism. The arrival of the stirrup may have strengthened the knights and helped usher in feudalism. So out of the ashes of the Roman empire the “Dark Ages” brought about two new social orders. These two complimented each other as one gained authority from the other and the other gained protection and structure.

    So I would look at the middle ages, renaissance, and the age of enlightenment as arbitrary names to a steady evolutionary process spanning 1500 years of Europeans wanting to kill each other. The names of these periods, I think, can be tied directly to the size of the armies that could be mustered rather than any evolution of idea. If you could not raise a large army you disappeared. Those with the most central control and best specializations could muster the best armies. They could afford to have a few idle minds thinking about apples.

  19. J. A. Kerr says:

    To complicate the question a bit, I’ll suggest two books that study the role of religious belief in the rise of modern science during the seventeenth century. Both are by Peter Harrison:

    The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge, 1998)
    The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge, 2007)

    If I had to choose between them, I’d go with the latter, because the question of how much human rational capacity survived the fall is among the central issues it studies (not in the abstract, but in historical terms of what early scientists believed).

  20. Sid F says:

    Several persons have advocted A Distant Mirror, but I think the better book is The March of Folly, particularly its section on the Protestant Reformation.

    As far as faith based economics vs fact based economics, there is really no other explanation but the fact that if you believe in certain propositions as a matter of faith, then logic, facts, data, analysis really do not matter, and no amount of them will sway someone who hold certain “economic truths” as self evident.

  21. Robin Schulberg says:

    Jared: I think you’re asking the wrong question. Rationality proved wanting because it provided means to ends but not ends themselves. Some say rationality facilitated the atrocities of the 20th Century because of the fact/value distinction. I think Paul Krugman has written a post saying that the current dispute is really about ends, disguised as a dispute about means. People who support Sarah Palin want a society like circa 1820’s America, the era of the self-made man, when those conditions no longer exist. The intellectuals associated with that era get money and prestige for justifying that ideology. So the real question is how to persuade people who have different ends than you do. (And by people I mean the ‘populace,’ not the commentariat.) Work from those (more general) ends which you have in common? That’s the rational answer. But what about emotions as the unconscious repository of lessons from experience (Jonah Lehrer)? I find these questions very difficult.

  22. ChrisM says:

    Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” is a great book, but it doesn’t say much about the transition from “then” to “now.” One book that does, masterfully, is Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age.” I don’t agree with all of his thoughts on the implications of the shift in worldviews, but he has certainly done yeoman work in sorting out all the threads.

  23. PascoBill says:

    Many books discussing technical and scientific advancements only mention the big names. A book that puts it into perspective is “A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and ‘Low Mechanicks'” by Clifford D. Conner. Especially chapters 5 and 6. He definitely takes a close look at the “bottom up” underpinnings of the advancement of knowledge over the centuries.

  24. RD says:

    Easy-peasy: The Plague
    Yep. Mostly it was a biological catastrophe that made us drag our sorry asses out of the middle ages. There were some other events that laid the groundwork, of course. The discovery of some ancient texts in Toledo a century or two earlier was supposed to be important. Not really sure how much that had to do with it.
    The way I understood it, as my history and philosophy of science minor classes explained it, the plague got rid of a lot of deadwood in the ranks of the educated and aristocratic classes. Smart people who used to have to take orders and follow the dictates of the learned class, who learned everything about nature a priori, suddenly didn’t have anyone tell them how to do things anymore. Labor had the upper hand for once because manpower was scarce. This allowed for more experimentation (well. Who’s going to stop you?), leading to observations on cause and effect and a more rational way of thinking.
    That and the translation of the bible into vernacular languages, leading to greater literacy and the widespread transmission of ideas, got the ball rolling.
    Oddly enough, we seem to be headed back to the middle ages when it comes to science. The means to do research are in the hands of a small group of very wealthy individuals. They contact their experimentalists but dictate the terms of the research and outcomes. If you aren’t wealthy, it’s hard to jump in without being at the mercy of ruthless venture capitalists and other scavengers. And suddenly, pedigree is more important than ability. Your success depends on where you went to school and who your mentors and sponsors are. Vassalage, fealty and minds held captive by the aristocratic class. Not a good combination.
    If only biological catastrophes were a bit less lethal and a lot more selective. Like, wouldn’t it be great to have a plague that only affected the Bonus Class that left them incapable of taking advantage of innovators and working class people…

  25. jonathan says:

    This is an area I know quite a bit about and I’m sorry but there is no answer which addresses what is happening now, certainly not if you are looking for how rationality developed out of ignorance. I agree we are in a wave, if not a period of increasing irrationality. Maybe the better place to look would be the end of rationality with the decline of Rome, both in Italy and Constantinople. There you see many of the patterns of today, notably a substitution of religious belief for fact and faith for rational inquiry. This affected every branch of learning. Medicine didn’t advance beyond Galen. Math went backwards. Science almost disappeared. (As a note, since accounting was mentioned above, it appears that Jews maintained accounting practices developed in Rome even as Christian belief imposed actual laws that prohibited the use of numbers except written out longhand.)

    I think it’s facile to point at increasing trade or, heaven forbid, the Crusades as factors motivating liberality of thought. The Crusades were startling outbursts of ignorant cruelty that rained down on the inhabitants of any area through which they passed. When the biggest success was the sacking of Christianity’s largest city, that speaks volumes.

    The change happened gradually, unevenly, often with no diminution of religious influence. Look at The Inquisition or one of my favorite sayings, “Let no new thing arise.” We want to construct a simplistic narrative in which change occurs in a logical progression, but that isn’t what happened. A big factor was the warring city states of northern Italy because some acted boldly and the overall chaos of change enabled things like dissection to grab enough of a foothold. But it was not THE reason. I point at it because it speaks to economic competition allowing civilization as a whole to flourish. That tends to be more true in the rear view mirror because we see only the high points, but there is something in it.

    Another factor was the relative ending of warfare involving so much of the land owning classes. I phrase it like this because when people with some money, with some resources in a largely money-less culture, have time to do something other than worry about holding their land, fighting in some war, etc. then they tend to do other things. That includes science and art.

    We may be past the height of what our civilization accomplishes. It is possible that 200 years from now the world will have discarded much of the knowledege we’ve acquired in favor of ignorant belief systems.

  26. jonathan says:

    In terms of reference, the sad truth is books like Tuchman’s (or Manchester’s) are neat popular histories but full of inaccuracy and heavily biased toward imposing modern sensibilities on the past. Try to read more source material. Look up Montaillou. That’s a start.

  27. JP2012 says:

    “So it would be interesting to learn how the transformation to the age of reason occurred. What were the historical precedents? Was it bottom up, top down, some combination? What caused this intellectual, cultural, and political shift?”

    These are monumentally difficult questions. It’s easy to identify when the shift took place, but the “why?” is another story.

    Francis Bacon’s “Novum Organon” is definitely a pivotal work (e.g. he outlines the argument for using a scientific method over simply relying on received knowledge). It’s worth reading on its own merits.

    “The Fellowship: Gilbert, Bacon, Harvey, Wren, Newton, and the Story of a Scentific Revolution” by John Gribbin goes into some of the historical context.

    My own theory is that the revolution in thought is a combination of a number of factors, which fed on each other over the course of centuries — e.g. the invention of the moveable type printing press by Gutenberg revolutionized the transmission of knowledge; the age of exploration and discovery challenged received wisdom about the world; Martin Luther’s challenge of Papal authority was part of the process as well.

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      Again, want to thank everyone for all these great insights. I’m making a list and should, barring plague, be able to work through it before the onset of the next era.

  28. Joseph Adelman says:

    For a theorist on modernity and reason, the go-to is Jurgen Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962, trans. into English in 1989). Though if you read that, it opens up a world of respondents who critique his argument about the public sphere as a space of rational-critical discourse (an eighteenth-century ideal which, he argues, fell apart in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). The first good set of responses in the English-speaking world is in Craig Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere (1992).

    Habermas is a social theorist, and so also has his share of historical inaccuracies and blind spots, but his work would be an interesting way to frame your thinking on argumentation in the public sphere.

  29. Alessandro Rosa says:

    I unfortunately feel like the parallel is more the dawn of the French Revolution as opposed to the period prior to the Age of Enlightenment. Freedom from a corrupt Monarchy wasn’t such a bad idea, as is the call for fiscal responsibility in our age. The problem then as now is that the masses were/are being duped into thinking that those “representing” them and calling for these changes are noble and have the interests of the masses at heart. What those who called the French into the streets or what those who wave the banner of Conservatism want is power and wealth and the way they get that is by gaining as much popular support as they can by pushing the emotional buttons of the ill-informed to crush their competition to get what they want. This is the only way I can explain how you can have people who are for all intents and purposes at the poverty line and would truly benefit from a single payer National Health program believe that extending taxcuts for people making at least 10 times what their family does or dismantling the two programs that they would more than likely have to rely on in their old age is good for them.

  30. Heitzso says:

    Limits to Growth, 30 Year Update … deep cultural changes needed a generation ago. As a world we’re running into a crisis of crises. Not enough resources/time to address all of them. Issues deeply intertwined. Rarely do we approach as the complex dynamic system that it is. Currently on track for a serious hit-the-wall over the next 50 years. As with Titanic, too much momentum and our rudder is too small.

    Societies under stress fall back to knee jerk blame, whether internal blame (tea, donkey, elephant) or external blame (wars). Think Jung and shadow. We don’t have maturity, as a world/culture/people to address our shadow. Historical data points – societies go to war when under stress.

    Collapse by Jared Diamond … should be required reading for everyone in position of power now. Tendency to circle the wagons by elite as culture (given tends/resources) hits the wall EVEN IF IRRATIONAL AND EVENTUALLY THE WHOLE COLLAPSES including the elite.

    Unfortunately, we’re following historical precedent and human nature. Has nothing to do w/ tea/donkey/elephant or Christian/Muslim, etc. other than the need for all of those isms (political/religious) to reflect the need to reduce a complex situation down to simple black-white statements. Easy answers that don’t require addressing our shadow.

    Read old sufi teaching stories, or early zen teaching stories and reflect on the subtlety embedded in them, and compare to our culture’s common world view’s simplistic reductions. That reinforces your sense of a non-rational current culture.

  31. marc sobel says:

    I sent this to Fred Anderson, author of Crucible of War, and he sent it on to fellow historians. So far

    Bob Ferry, our (CU ) early modern Latin American historian

    Here’s an intellectual curve ball for ([Bernstein], who might not expect to find stirrings in the direction of the age of reason in a seventeenth-century Mexico City convent, in the mind of an extraordinary nun. He might want to look at Octavio Paz, _Sor Juana; Or, the Traps of Faith_ (Harvard, 1990).

    David Gross

    [Bernstein] asks big, sweeping questions that can only be answered by big, sweeping books. I’d suggest two such books, both of which, in different ways, try to account for the transition from the late Middle Ages to the “Age of Reason.” One is Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, and the other Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity.

    Will add more as I get them

  32. Gus Halberg says:

    Again, late to the party.

    I am trained as an historian, and focused on the period 1350-1650 for my MA work.

    First, the Plague was a catalyst, not a cause.

    Second, I don’t recommend Barbara Tuchmann. She is a bit of a dilletante (sp?), and periods like the 14th Century are not kind to dabblers. The world was very different back then, and approaching it with 20th Century eyes–as she does–will give you a very distorted outlook.

    A better book is “The Autumn Of The Middle Ages” by Johan Huizinga. This is new translation of “The Waning of the Middle Ages” that has been around forever. In some ways, the earlier version might be better; it’s more condensed, so you will be less likely to get lost in the details. But his theme is the thought-world of the 14th Century, esp of France, Burgundy, and Flanders.

    The best overall work to the Middle Ages as a whole is Norman Cantnors “Medieval History.” Can’t recommend it highly enough. Again, I would suggest the first edition; it’s cleaner and tighter.

    Note that I thought enough of both these works to read the new editions when they came out.

    The basic reason we moved to the path we did had a lot to do with the rise of nation-states. Kings wanted talented and knowledgeable advisors, so men (and they were all men) of talent turned their attention from the sacred to the secular. As Kenneth Clark said, “when you ask questions like ‘does it work’ or ‘does it pay’ instead of ‘is it God’s will’, you get very different answers.”

    This transition from sacred to secular took place over a few centuries. For this topic, the 100 Years War was probably more important than the 30 YW.

    And you could do a lot worse than Clark’s “Civilisation”, too. Engels’ (yes, that one) “German Peasant War” was a life-changing experience for me.

    The Inquisition was largely a sideshow in Spain; the witch hunting happened after the Reformation, and was, IMO, a result of scientific, rather than superstitious, thinking. The plague had all sorts of impact, but to cite it as a cause of the change in thinking would be a tad misguided. It has become a popular topic in the more popular literature, but the popularity has distorted its impact, especially for people who don’t have a lot of context.

    Sorry to blather on, hope it helps.

  33. tfgray says:

    re “Big thoughts,” I’d suggest Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians. It’s psychology, not history, but I think his research explains a lot about fact v faith-based politics. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment that followed came after the Black Death had put Europe through Apocalyptic times. The Church, although many religious bretheren nursed the sick, had no reason nor remedy for the plague, plus, if Jesus wasn’t showing up after _that_, well, WFT?

    And then Guttenberg did his bit, and suddenly, the scientific writings of the Greeks and Romans were no longer confined behind monastery walls; Columbus sailed, the zero-sum game of European politics and economics was blown off its hinges; and Europe encountered a whole new race of people who had organized their society around principles much closer to equality than the Great Chain of Being that sactioned Europe’s heirarchical political structure.

    So what set of circumstances would replicate that set of factors: The collapse of religious authoritarian credibility, new sources of information, new resources, and a new philosophical outlook?

    Maybe it’s all there. Every day there’s a new piece of toxic buffoonery from the Right. The Republican Party is eating itself alive. It’s shedding supporters like a collie in Summer. There’s the Internet, although that’s a multi-edged blade. No guarantee of fact in the land of buyer beware. There’s renewable resources, which those who control and profit from non-renewables are trying to smother in the cradle. Unfortunately, the “new Philosophy” du jour is that bilge that Ayn Rand peddled.

    However, her namesake in the Senate is doing a pretty good job of making that look ridiculous.

    Maybe we’ll make it though this one after all, but do we really have to kill off a quarter of our population before enough of us wake up?

  34. Bob Callaway says:

    Are you thinking that earlier advances in reason might offer strategies and tactics for engineering a shift in our own culture? Good luck with that, though I understand the impulse. Sometimes the level die-hard ignorance in our political milieu is frightening.

    The development of rationality in the West has occurred by fits and starts over some 2,500 years. There are many strands that have fed into this history (including an important Islamic thread), including factors that might not immediately come to mind, such as climate shifts, economic surpluses, and degrees of political stability. Even the mathematics (including logic) that underlies so much advanced rational thought had a lengthy gestation. It’s important to keep in mind that rationality has complex roots and a complex personality. And it’s still evolving. It’s not just a mental style.

    To appreciate the story, you would need to read books covering every stage along the way. But for a more manageable scope, I suggest focusing on the development of science, and society’s acceptance of science, since the beginning of the 17th Century. Consult academics who teach the history of science and intellectual history generally — they can suggest the current round of good books as well as some classics in these fields.

    You might want to pay attention to the dark side too. For example, how did the German states of the 19th Century, which were centers of scientific achievement and provided the models for modern universities, become overrun by the bloody fantasies of the Nazis?

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