A Culture of Growth by Mokyr

Mokyr’s fascinating take on institutions and ideas:


Why did modern science emerge in the West and nowhere else? Although Mokyr studies the early modern period, the cultural roots of scientific thought may in fact lay further in the past. The Western tradition—with its Christian, Jewish, and Greco-Roman elements—was inherently fractured and unstable to begin with. The cultural synthesis of the High Middle Ages, which combined Christian religious beliefs with rationalistic Aristotelian philosophy, was an uneasy melding of dogma, reason, and appeals to authority. Then, in the early modern period, a number of sweeping developments (the Renaissance, the Reformation, the discovery of the Americas, and the invention of modern scientific instruments) shattered the convictions behind Europeans’ existing conceptual system, leading to widespread doubt and controversy.

Yet in the long run, fundamental skepticism is not a practical worldview. Doubt led to a crisis of the early modern European mind, which helps explain why the pioneers of early modern science, such as Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, made such a sustained effort to establish the scientific method as a new foundation for knowledge—one based on empirical observation, experimentation, and reason. In a world, moreover, that was often ravaged by violent conflict, these men put an emphasis on developing peaceful and reasonable ways of settling disagreements, such as by subjecting arguments to public debate and experimental confirmation or disconfirmation.

Mokyr repeatedly stresses that there was nothing inevitable about the emergence of modern science: cultural traditionalists were certainly not doomed to lose. This is where the enlightened elite was so critical; although Enlightenment thinking was always a minority viewpoint, in early modern Europe, it was one held by a culturally influential elite. This elite became convinced that general progress through increased knowledge was both possible and desirable and that their new knowledge, obtained through the methods of science, should be spread in order to enlighten the people. “Cultural entrepreneurs,” as Mokyr calls them—people such as Bacon and Newton—were especially successful in promoting their scientific views, a rather surprising success considering that science, in its early years, not only was counterintuitive but also often failed to produce any practical results.

For Mokyr, then, the key development in early modern Europe was what he calls “the market for ideas,” in which intellectual suppression was difficult and better rewards for intellectual innovation were developed. Protective institutions in which ideas could be discussed, and through which they were ultimately spread, flourished. One of the most important institutions for this market was “the Republic of Letters.” This republic, which developed in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was a nonhierarchical, transnational community of scholars who corresponded with one another about new developments in the arts and sciences. The republic created a social arena in which reputations were built on the development and dissemination of new knowledge, knowledge that other people could test, contest, and use. It had an organizational infrastructure of universities, learned societies, and salons, and it profited enormously from the development of a pan-European network of publishers, booksellers, and postal services following the introduction of the printing press in the fifteenth century.

The market for ideas that Mokyr describes was pluralistic and politically fractured yet at the same time intellectually integrated. It was therefore difficult to suppress offending ideas, since scholars could always offer such ideas to the highest bidder, ranging from the rulers of states to local entities such as towns, universities, guilds, or estates. The Republic of Letters, as Mokyr emphasizes, was a uniquely European phenomenon. Mokyr compares developments in Europe with those in China. Although China was highly advanced in many regards, no comparable culture of growth ever developed there, in part because it lacked a true market for ideas. That was a result of China’s political structure: China was a bureaucratically centralized empire that was much more effective than Europe’s competing states in enforcing ideological orthodoxy.


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