- Paperback: 262 pages
- Publisher: Cambridge University Press (December 13, 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0521554276
- ISBN-13: 978-0521554275
- ASIN: 0521639905
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 28 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #517,861 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600
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The Measure of Reality is the third book in a series in which Alfred Crosby, a noted historian, asks how it is that Western European societies could have conquered so much of the world in the space of a few generations. The answer, he finds, is in certain agricultural and technological techniques. In this volume he turns to one set of techniques in particular: the precise measurement of time, number, and distance. That precise measurement enabled European armies to march in step, enabled navigators to find faraway ports, and enabled gunsmiths and chemists to formulate the weapons of conquest. These inventions were refined over centuries, but most came heavily into play in the years between 1250 and 1300, the period Crosby examines in closest detail. The Measure of Reality offers a fascinating, big-picture view of the artifacts that changed history. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Having written such books as Ecological Imperialism, Crosby, a professor of American studies, history and geography at the University of Texas, Austin, wondered what it was that made Europeans such successful colonists and empire builders. In this engrossing study, he posits that it was Europeans' ability to divide the world, whether experiential or abstract, into quanta which they could then manipulate and exploit. Crosby begins by reminding readers how different the Western worldview was a millennium ago. For example, Europeans, Crosby notes, "had a system of unequal accordian-pleated hours that puffed up and deflated so as to ensure a dozen hours each for daytime and nighttime, winter and summer." This more fluid conception of reality did not change over night. Crosby first looks at the "Necessary but Insufficient Causes" like the codification of time and calendar, new strides in cartography and astronomy and the introduction of Arabic numerals, before looking at the match that set fire to the rage to quantify. This was, he says, the shift to visualization. With the printing press, large numbers of people moved from oral to literate culture; with increasingly complicated polyphony, composers found need for musical notation; painters, in an effort to bring depth to their work, applied geometry to make the third dimension visual on a flat plane; and merchants eschewed memory for the more reliable double-entry bookkeeping. Crosby's argument is, of course, much subtler (not to mention more entertaining) than this grossly simplified outline. It is a joy for anyone interested in why we think the way we think.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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What does the use of Hindu-Arabic numbers, linear perspective painting, polyphonic singing and double-entry bookkeeping have in common? Some very provocative answers are provided by Alfred Crosby in his clear and ambitious book The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600. Crosby systematically compares the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period in the areas of astronomy, cartography, mathematics, painting, music, commerce, accounting, military techniques space as well as spiritual and historical time.
He argues there is a direct line between an increase in measurement, mathematical symbols, logical symbols, rational analysis and universal scientific judgments as we proceed from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period. Crosby shows how so many of the scientific inventions of the early modern period-- specifically the activity of measuring-- required the use of visual technology. Everything from telescopes to microscopes; from clock-making to algebra; from shipbuilding navigation to perspective painting and musical scores involved sight. Composers, painters, astronomers and bookkeepers were committed to quantitative visual perception in the material of their craft. Essentially, he argues that the quantification of reality was one of the secrets that made the Western world different from the rest of the world for better and for worse. Crosby has a rare skill of being grounded in scientific study while being able to write for an educated lay audience. This is a wonderful book.
Often Crosby's extended metaphors are annoying without being instructive: "Bruno was executed for heresy in 1600 - to no avail. The cat, already out of the bag was having kittens" (p. 105); "For us today, things exist in space like vegetables in an aspic salad ... the aspic was starting to stiffen" (pp. 170, 172); "The moment had arrived for a trumpet solo, and the only instrument available was a hunting horn... But let us deal first with getting from the hunting horn to the trumpet" (p. 111). It seems as if he's chuckling to himself as he's writing this.
Otherwise this is a wonderful summary of how the West's development was distinct from that of other areas, such as China and the Middle East, by arguing how quantification and visualization allowed Europeans to perceive the world in a unique manner which allowed them to manipulate the world in ways not dreamt of before. Ironically, Crosby quotes Johan Huizinga (pp. 131-2), who argued that this new emphasis on sight was an indication of the decline in Western civilization because of its insistence on seeing something visible as a necessary precursor to initiate thought.
Most recent customer reviews
Infomative challengingw. Fat
What a great man crosby is
I see that he is 86 years old
May he exercise 2 hours a day...Read more
Crosby reviews the “history of quantification” in Europe from 1250 to 1600 CE working under the...Read more