Reply to Goldstone, Pagden, and Kuznicki

I am gratified that my initial post on Cato Unbound has moved the editor himself to respond, and honoured to have had rejoinders and comment from two such distinguished historians as Anthony Pagden and Jack Goldstone, two scholars whose work I have long admired and gained from. I do fear that in some areas I have not expressed myself as clearly as I might have. In fact my three interlocutors and I agree on a great deal. I would argue however that what we agree upon poses a serious challenge and difficulty for all of us, and many other scholars besides.

One issue, which Anthony Pagden raises, is that of whether there really is a sharp and dramatic discontinuity of the kind I posit or rather just a story of continuing change in which case elements of continuity are as significant as those of alteration, if not more so. As he implies, this may lead to a questioning of the very notion of modernity and its relegation to the category of heuristic devices or ideological constructs. I would make one point now. The transformation in the physical conditions and everyday experience and expectations of (by now) all humans since 1800 has been so dramatic and swift that it is hard to make the case for continuity. The ‘structures of everyday life’ that had persisted for centuries have been transformed. Certainly there have been episodes of dramatic change in the past (e.g. during the so-called ‘axial age’) but there has also been a basic continuity of certain basic features of social and political life from the advent of agriculture to very recently. I agree that it is more difficult to make the case for an equivalent abrupt shift in things such as consciousness and behaviour but I do think it can be argued.

Professor Pagden also takes issue with my chronology and account of the effects of the world crisis of the 14th century and the subsequent military revolution. I would argue that one of the persistent structural features of societies before modernity are Malthusian constraints which manifest themselves in periodic crises, often leading to sharp drops in population and economic dis-integration. For most of history these episodes are not global – I completely accept the point he makes about the dates of my new periodization and I should have been clear that this referred to  European history in the context of a revised global periodization. The Malthusian crisis of the 14th century ( actually roughly 1320 to 1450) was global however, partly because its central feature was a Eurasian-wide pandemic. Since then however Malthusian crunches in most parts of the world have tended to become simultaneous. There have, I would argue, been two such global or near-global crises since, one in the early to mid seventeenth century (the original General Crisis in historiography) and another at the end of the eighteenth century.

As regards the political effect of this, I do not think that the chronology is as incoherent as he makes out. The first large ‘gunpowder empire’ to appear was Ming China, consolidated during the reign of the Hongwu and Yongle emperors (1368-1424). In the case of Russia the consolidation of many principalities into one empire took place between 1462 and 1505, during the reign of Ivan III. In India the empire that would go on to rule most of the sub-continent was formed between 1504 and 1555 by Babur and Sher Shah Suri. In the case of the Ottoman Empire the critical event was not so much 1453 as Selim I’s conquest of the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt in 1516/17 which united most of the  middle east under Ottoman rule. The Safavid state in Iran was formed under Shah Ismail between 1502 and 1524. Subsequent rulers consolidated and expanded these empires (Suleiman the Magnificent, Ivan IV, Shah Abbas I, Akbar) but apart from the Chinese case they were all formed in the same broad time period.

However I completely agree with Anthony Pagden’s comment about the advent of secularism, and if I had had the space I would indeed have mentioned it. I also completely agree with Jack Goldstone’s comments about the extent to which the intellectual changes of the eighteenth century represented a rejection of and a  break with the inheritance and past of Western civilisation (or Christendom as I think we should perhaps call it). However this points up the matter I highlighted earlier, which poses difficulties for all four of us. All of us think that something very significant took place in the period between the later 16th and later 17th century in Europe, whether this is cultural and intellectual, economic, or political. I suspect all of us also give the Dutch Republic a central place in this story. The problem for all of us is this – why did these changes or events take such a long time to work through? Why was it nearly a hundred years before the scientific revolution produced the kind of innovative engineering culture that Goldstone emphasises? Why did we not see intensive growth (as opposed to the kind of extensive growth that marked both the 17th century Netherlands and Qing China with an ‘industrious revolution that saw ever more intensive use of labour) before the very end of the eighteenth century?

I do not claim to have a comprehensive or fully satisfactory answer to this. One thing to emphasise is simply the enormous inertia of the ‘structures of everyday life’, of a whole range of social institutions and practices that constrained innovation and exchange. It took a while for these to be undermined perhaps. Medicine is a case in point where despite important breakthroughs in the 17th century, the real advent of modern medical science and practice does not happen until the early nineteenth century, in Europe, largely because of entrenched and privileged conservatism on the part of medical practitioners (and many patients).

However the other point to emphasise is the part played by ruling groups and their differential responses to the growing pressures of the later 18th century. Jason Kuznicki questions my notion of ruling classes and is unclear about what they did while Anthony Pagden describes them as ‘shadowy’. I would say on the contrary that it is much easier to define who exactly the ruling classes were in non-modern societies than in modern ones. They are the people (more precisely families) who have disproportionate access to and control over the means of political power. These come in two types – physical force and ideological control. Hence the stereotypical instances are warrior aristocrats and priests. What such groups do in most historical cases (although there are some interesting exceptions, one of them major) is to uphold settled and established ways of living, thinking and exchanging goods. They also typically are led by their position and interests to give legal or institutional recognition and backing to groups who wish to block innovation. The policies of the Ottomans with regard to artisan guilds are a classic example, as are the quite deliberate economic strategies of the Qing and early Ming rulers.

What happens in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century is that European ruling groups deliberately sought to undermine many social practices and institutions that hindered innovation and exchange. They deliberately swept away local regulations and institutions such as local systems of weights and measures and other restrictions on trade. Increasingly they sought to deliberately remove barriers to exchange and economic innovation, whether physical or legal. In doing this they did not create a pressure for change and innovation, rather they allowed change that arose from spontaneous processes of the kind Jason Kuznicki refers to and intellectual shifts of the kind Professors Pagden and Goldstone describe, to find expression. After a while this becomes self-sustaining.

My final reiterated point is this. Anthony Pagden rightly says that my argument fits into the ‘Rise of the West’ controversy and is surprised that I say the predominant version of this is discredited. However the main form that arguments for the ‘Rise of the West’ have taken is that there is a definable Western civilization that has certain distinctive and peculiar qualities that set it apart, from an early date (typically the Middle Ages) and that these qualities mean it gradually overtakes the other world civilisations and goes on to triumph. The big problem is that there is no evidence either for Europe being distinctive in the ways alleged before the 17th century or for its clearly overtaking the rest of the world until about 1790-1800. Moreover, given what Professors Pagden and Goldstone both say (which I agree with completely as I have said) in what sense is it a ‘Rise of the West’ that we are talking about? Surely it is actually the rise of something else (modernity perhaps?) that has supplanted and transformed traditional Western, Christian civilization and in its spread is now similarly displacing other older civilisations while drawing on their inheritance?

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • How the World Got Modern by Stephen Davies

    In this month’s lead essay, historian Stephen Davies tackles one of the biggest of big questions: How did the world we live in – the modern world – so radically and rapidly diverge from the world of our pre-modern ancestors? Davies starts with a multitude of proposed explanations and winnows them down to three: the advent of empirical science and engineering, a shift in cultural attitudes toward commerce and trade, and the development of the Westphalian system of nation-states. Yet these factors emerged over a century before modernity really took off. Why the lag? Davies argues that the missing ingredient was the unique climate of competition among ruling elites in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, which combined with the other elements to produce the scientific innovation and economic growth that created the modern world.

Response Essays

  • How an Engineering Culture Launched Modernity by Jack Goldstone

    In his reply to Stephen Davies’ lead essay, Jack Goldstone argues that modernity was launched when “elites developed a new ‘engineering culture’ ” that departed sharply from European tradition. In order to gain from the commercial application of new knowledge by private entrepeneurs, Goldstone argues, political rulers were led to allow non-conformity with traditional religious authority and to “give up attempts to control the access of private firms and entrepreneurs to scientific knowledge and to market opportunities.” These developments helped overturn older ideas of absolute royal authority and guild privelege, which in turn contributed to the political and social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries and a decisive break from prior Western conceptions of society. Though the liberal idea of “a community of free individuals sovereign over a limited state” arose first in the West, political and economic liberalization do not require a commitment to pre-modern Western values, Goldstone concludes.

  • Have We Ever Been Modern? by Anthony Pagden

    In his reply, UCLA historian Anthony Pagden doubts that the historical discontinuity created by the onset of modernity is “as sudden or as all-pervasive” as Stephen Davies makes it out to be. Pagden points both to much earlier and more recent changes that seem at least as dramatic as the changes between modern and pre-modern Europe, and he questions Davies’ revised periodization of history. Pagden agrees that the emergence of the scientific method partly accounts for “the rise of the West,” but “then we have to ask ourselves why it was that Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Leibnitz, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, etc. were not Chinese or Mughal or Iranian or Arab.” Pagden submits that the answer is “the advent of secularism” following the post-Reformation sectarian wars, which drove “theological modes of reasoning forever from the public sphere.”

  • A Little Late to Early Modernity by Jason Kuznicki

    In his reply to Davies, Cato Unbound’s own Jason Kuznicki worries that the alleged gap between the beginning of distinctively modern thinking in the late 17th century and the economic and demographic takeoff in the late eighteenth century is no gap at all. “I’m tempted to invert the supposed gap,” Kuznicki writes, “and to suggest that in the earliest of early modernities … a set of social practices, and substantial concomitant rewards, generally arrived before any modern ideology existed to justify them.” Kuznicki notes that new ideas spread unevenly and over time, and he argues that the early emergence of upwardly mobile English and Dutch middle classes imply that “[i]f there was a modernity gap, its chief dimension was not temporal, but spatial.” Kuznicki suggests that, pace Davies, elites and their new ideas did not precipitate the rise of modernity, but played an intermediate role. Kuznicki challenges Davies to clarifiy “what exactly the elites are doing” in his story.

The Conversation