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The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600

4.4 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521639903
ISBN-10: 0521639905
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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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Product Details

  • 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: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #368,369 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Willem Noe on November 25, 1998
Format: Paperback
After reading a positive recommendation in The Economist, I read this book twice and greatly enjoyed the rich tapestry of strands that Crosby weaves. With discerning eye and picking essential tendencies he explains how& why Europe surged ahead from the 11/12th century onward (with a nightmare pause in the 14th century) in economic and technological development, to dominate the world for an unprecedented period. He bases his story on many different elements that came to the fore in an increasingly complex and dynamic European society of the 12/13th century. I found his thesis of the increasing European mindset toward quantification altogether very convincing. I also liked how he points out the traces of these developments on our society today. Highly recommendend.
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An important consideration when reading this book is to remember that it is the third part of a trilogy, with the first two parts being (1) "The Columbian Exchange" and (2) "Ecological Imperialism." Crosby's case studies in this book on the development of quantitative thinking in Europe are fascinating in and of themselves. But the overall impact of the shift from quanlitative to quantitative thinking in the emergence of Europe as a world power is absolutely critical to the understanding of the world today. I find this concept to be both more compelling and more predictive than the arguments put forth in G. Diamond's "Guns Germs and Steel." By way of example, look at what India, China and other East Asian countries have done with the adoption of quantitative thinking.
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Crosby uses the metaphor of "striking a match" to describe the event, which combined with quantification, the kindling in Crosby's metaphor, to generate a revolution in the West. The match is visualization: "Visualization and quantification: together they snap the padlock - reality is fettered" (p. 229). As a type of visualization, a symbolic system allowed advancements that were not otherwise possible. In mathematics, accounting and music, having a concise and powerful symbolism freed the mind to range and to create - no longer a prisoner of memory. As Crosby notes: "Because the algebraist could concentrate on the symbols and put aside ... what they represented, he or she could perform unprecedented intellectual feats" (p. 120). Similarly in painting, perspective allowed a new way to manipulate light in order to make more accurate pictures, for the glory of God and man, thus replacing the multiple and spatially incongruous "Nows" in medieval painting with "'exactness and predictability'" (p. 197).

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.
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For years I've watched James Burke's CONNECTIONS, and Jared Diamond's GUNS GERMS & STEEL. Both the books and the PBS programs talk about what the Western World has done with "technology", and very well I might add. However neither Burke or Diamond spoke to the seminal origin of why the Western World flourished technologically. Crosby's book THE MEASURE OF REALITY hits the nail right smack on the head. His book is very approachable even for non-social scientist types and lays an important foundation as to the origin, for good or ill, and development of the entirety of Western technology. Awesome read!
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The question of how the world became dominated by Europe has been the topic of several excellent books, among them Crosby's The Columbian Exchange and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Crosby seeks an intellecutal (rather than biological) answer to the question here, which is appropriate given that Europe held at best technological and scientific pairity with India, Asia and the Near East. So what happend? What made Europe different that allowed them to eventually conquor (both figuratively and literally) much of the world?

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.
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