- Paperback: 262 pages
- Publisher: Cambridge University Press (December 13, 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0521639905
- ISBN-13: 978-0521639903
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #115,779 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 Printed Access Code 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 Printed Access Code edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Crosby argues that Europe made the crucial move from a "qualifying" view of the world (ie. measuring the world in qualifying terms like 'a pinch') to a "quantifying" view of the world (as in precise measurement - ie. 5 gm.) This transition was slow (the book covers some 250 years) and uneven, and certainly would not have happened without the benefit of the advances made in the East (in terms of Hindu-Arabic numerals, algebra, the concept of "zero" and the like) - but it was the Europeans who began to think in greater abstraction, to measure, quantify and thereby gradually have the tools and wherewithal to explore and eventually "conquor" the world (for better or worse.)
At the center of the book are economic motives: time, since recorded history seen in qualifying terms (ie "night" and "day") became carefully organized. To European city-dwellers, time was money. And money is key here - the difference, for example between "price" and "value" is an abstraction that European merchants were quick to seize upon. This revolution of mentality is what was revolutionary Crosby argues. The revolution is seen in a variety of ways: in art (with the gradual change in persepctive as evidenced by the Renaissance masters), in music (as it moves from monophony to polyphony), and especially in bookeeping. The revolution, of course, was tremendously aided by the development of the moveable-type printing press (another adaptaiton of a Chinese invention.)
That the Chinese, who had many of these technologies centuries before Europe did not use them to exploit the world as the Europeans did (remember Zheng He?) is a function of mentalite: in the Confucian world, the merchants occupy the bottom rung of the social ladder, as they produce nothing (but rather simply move it from one place to another, thereby not helping or advancing society.) In Europe, the businessman is king - from the Di Medici, the Sforzas, the Fuggers and the Rothschilds it is the bankers and the merchants that helped the nation state centralize, it was the merchant class that colonized, it was the merchant class that pushed for faster and more efficient production.
A brilliant examination of well-trod ground. Highly recommended.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Crosby reviews the “history of quantification” in Europe from 1250 to 1600 CE working under the...Read more
Not a book for the 1%.