How an Engineering Culture Launched Modernity

Steve Davies is to be congratulated for plunging into a complex ongoing historical debate and emerging with a clear vision of world history that transforms older narratives. Davies is quite correct that no one factor explains Europe’s sudden rise to global hegemony in the 19th century; it took a combination of factors coming together in a catalytic fashion. Yet we can simplify this problem by asking another question: Were the key changes rooted in some essentially Western social or cultural characteristics, so that other countries seeking to emulate Western growth should adopt those characteristics? Or, as Davies suggests, were the key changes rooted in a departure from Western socio-cultural conditions that created a world with different principles – principles that other civilizations can then adopt without aping Westernization or abandoning their own traditions and identities? I would argue very strongly in favor of the second view, that something radically new arose in Europe from the late 17th century.

Davies correctly notes my argument that the “great divergence” was rooted in new ways of developing and validating knowledge. But it was much more than just a knowledge revolution. I argue that the crux was a “marriage of engineering culture and entrepreneurship.” That is, elites developed a new “engineering culture” that spread beliefs wholly different from those behind Renaissance, Medieval, or Classical approaches to knowledge and craft production: First, that the most reliable knowledge of the material world was to be gained not from pure reasoning or mathematics, nor from the study of regularities in nature as it is directly observed, nor from knowledge imbued with authority from traditional or religious texts of long antiquity, but from empirical research programs using increasingly precise instruments to carefully measure and test isolated events and relationships. Second, that these research programs and new instruments allow us to measure such previously abstract quantities and qualities as “energy,” “work,” “power,” “heat” and “motion.” Third, that possessed of these measurements, and of knowledge of fundamental relationships revealed by such research programs (such as the relationship between atmospheric pressure and volume, or the rate of gravitational acceleration at the earth’s surface, or the amount of work required to lift a given weight through a certain distance), one can design and build ever-more powerful and efficient machines, develop new sources of energy, and discover new materials and processes. Fourth, that these possibilities would lead to a future age of greater well-being than was ever known; in the words of the 18th century English chemist Joseph Priestley:

Nature, including both its materials and its laws, will be more at our command; men will make their situation in this world abundantly more easy and comfortable, they will prolong their existence in it and grow daily more happy… the end will be glorious and paradisiacal beyond that our imaginations can now conceive.

This was a radical departure from the belief of almost all civilizations (including that of the classical and medieval West) that humanity’s golden age lay in the past. Instead the new engineering culture proclaimed that an earthly paradise lay in man’s future, and that it would be brought about by mankind’s own progress in developing and applying new scientific knowledge rather than by divine redemption.

But this was not enough; such knowledge would do little if it remained confined to laboratories and academic societies. It had to be married to an elite belief in the value of technological entrepreneurship, meaning not merely respect for the accumulation of wealth by astute business practices, but the belief that applying engineering knowledge and skill to practical problems of production, transport, and communication would be a superior way to make profits in a competitive market environment. This belief was embodied in the work of James Watt and Matthew Boulton, their compatriots in the Lunar Society, as well as their customers, contemporaries and successors from Smeaton and Arkwright to Murphy and Trevethick and many others.

It should be noted that the second feature is not by any means given; opposing views have frequently arisen, namely that scientific knowledge has little to do with commerce and production, or that the application of scientific and engineering knowledge to production, transport, and communication should be undertaken by the state or by state-owned entities rather than by private actors engaged in market-governed competition. While such efforts can have some success, as shown by accomplishments ranging from the U.S. space program to China’s mag-lev trains, those efforts do not produce the dynamism of an economy-wide commitment to empowering entrepreneurs to apply science and technology to all forms of enterprise. Only the marriage of engineering culture and entrepreneurship on an economy-wide scale seems capable of producing the open-ended and accelerating increase of innovation and productivity that has characterized European economic growth since 1750.

While the combination of new approaches to knowledge and their commercial application by private entrepreneurs is the crux of the change, this combination could not have developed, much less thrived, without several broader social supports that arose in parts of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. First, political rulers had to abandon the notion that it was one of their chief responsibilities, and integral to their own power, to enforce the knowledge claims of religious and traditional authorities. This process, which led to state-approved religious pluralism and open education, arose first in the smaller states of Europe — Britain, Holland, Prussia, Denmark — in the wake of counter-Reformation efforts by the major European land-empires to enforce just such claims. These smaller states found they gained more trade and resources by embracing inhabitants with a wide variety of beliefs than by enforcing strict conformity. Larger states (including the major empires outside of Europe) by contrast were willing to pay a high economic price, as with France’s expulsion of the Huguenots and Spain’s expulsion of its Jews, in exchange for the political stability they believed they would gain. As Davies notes, the major Asian empires responded to political disorders in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries by reinforcing the dominant religious and cultural beliefs that they believed were the best supports for state authority — classical Confucianism, Koranic Islam — and suppressing heterodoxy.

Second, political rulers had to give up attempts to control the access of private firms and entrepreneurs to scientific knowledge and to market opportunities, instead allowing the ready formation of new firms to exploit new knowledge, and open competition in the acquiring and application of scientific knowledge and skills to create and market new products and processes. This meant reducing rather than supporting the authority and regulations of various guilds and urban governments, who believed that market success came from tight political control of supply, products, prices, and producers to ensure smooth meeting of what was believed to be a relatively fixed demand.

Both of these requirements in turn demanded something new — a limited state that would protect the acquisition of private property and allow the development and spread of new knowledge and new enterprises. But a state could only be kept limited if older ideas of absolute royal authority were overturned, and the unfettered spread of new knowledge and new enterprises could only be maintained if hereditary and guild privileges and the need for religious conformity were cast aside.

It was thus no accident that the political and social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries coincided with the rise of European scientific and material advantage. This is not by any means to say that these revolutions were fought for the purpose of making the world safe for science-driven entrepreneurship. Such a connection would never even have occurred to most of those fighting on either side of these revolutions. Rather, the development of new scientific knowledge from 1600 onwards undermined confidence in the authority of religious beliefs, while the growth of Europe’s national and international trade from 1500 onwards created new claimants to political power and social status who competed with the hereditary nobility, and often directed wealth more towards the enterprising elements in both the older nobility and newly-risen urban and professional social groups rather than increasing the resources of the central state. These trends combined to weaken traditional political and religious authorities, while leading enterprising nobles and commercial and professional groups to seek greater voice in how the state accessed and distributed society’s wealth and status. When a surge in population from 1730 to 1850 had the effect of greatly increasing the opportunities and scale of action for enterprising nobles and businessmen, substantially augmenting the size and relative power of urban professionals and workers, placing great strains on the capacity of the land to support peasants and depressing real wages, and overburdening the administrative capacities and resources of monarchical states, the overall effect was to touch off a series of revolutions aimed mainly at limiting the power of states and of traditional status and religious hierarchies.

The revolutions of Europe and America from 1776 to 1848 were often only partially successful, but they did have the effect of reinforcing and unleashing the marriage of engineering culture and entrepreneurship, as they permanently dented traditional religious and political authority, and spread claims for a new structure of society. In this new structure, the sources of society’s progress and happiness lay not in the glory and power of the state nor in the honorable virtues of its political and social elites, but in the free thinking and free economic activities of its citizens (what Deirdre McCloskey has recently labeled the “Bourgeois Virtues” to distinguish them from the virtues of the warrior elites that characterized Western societies from the Roman Empire up through the French monarchy). The purpose of the state was to enable and protect those free activities insofar as possible, limited only by the need to provide for the safety and security of the society.

This was an almost wholly new conception of society, not a logical outgrowth of prior Western culture. This fact has been deeply confused by apologists for Western imperialism and advocates of Western culture, who claim that this conception was somehow implicit in the democratic city-states of Greece and the Republic of Rome, or the freedom of medieval Germanic tribes or the impartial laws of Imperial Rome; or the oligarchic trading republics of Venice, Genoa, and Holland. Yet in fact none of these societies would have recognized, nor probably even been able to conceive of, these radical principles.

Greece and Rome recognized citizenship, but as a privileged status granted by the state and quite compatible with the widespread practice of slavery and the treatment of women and children as chattel. The notion of the inalienable rights of all competent individuals to freedom of thought and freedom of economic and political action is radically different, and is deeply hostile to any kind of slavery or the oppression of women. It is thus only with the rise of claims for individual-based freedoms that both abolitionism and women’s rights — concepts previously scarcely known or considered in two thousand years of Western culture — developed.

The “freedom” and “equality” of Frankish tribes who chose their own leaders were simply the common characteristics of relatively unstratified nomadic societies found in many diverse cultures, from the Mongols of Asia to Native Americans, and left little imprint when these tribes were absorbed into the stratified agrarian societies that succeeded Rome. The law of Imperial Rome posed the very antithesis of a limited state, and led naturally to the absolute imperial and monarchical rule that characterized all major European states from the Renaissance onwards. The oligarchies of the Hanseatic, Italian, and Dutch city-states and republics similarly recognized no natural rights of man, preserved hereditary status as far as possible, and sought to protect entrepreneurial activity chiefly by obtaining tight political control over their markets and trade routes. They adopted religious pluralism as a matter of practical convenience, not of principle (even in Holland religious freedom was heavily restricted outside Amsterdam, and the Dutch Reformed Church nearly drove out all other religions as soon as it became strong enough to do so). Venetian glass-blowers, Flemish tapestry weavers, and Dutch windmill and boat builders innovated in certain products to be sure — but less so than Indian producers of variously printed and woven cotton textiles, or the makers of Chinese ceramics, who dominated international markets for their products even more effectively than the Europeans. None of them had any notion of scientific research programs driven by free thinkers as the basis for future material progress.

In short, what arose in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Europe, during what we now call the Enlightenment, was not so much a logical outgrowth or recovery of prior Western traditions and beliefs, but an effort to overthrow most of what was deeply woven into the fabric of European history, culture, politics, and society. That it succeeded was due to a host of locally contingent factors present in Europe but absent in other major civilizations that it would take too long to list here, including Europe’s relatively backward and peripheral position relative to the major Asian empires and the consequent shock to its culture and politics from knowledge flowing in from the discovery of the New World and direct contact with East Asia after 1500.

What I believe is most critical to insist upon is the degree to which Europe itself had to repudiate central elements of its own history and culture — the absolute authority of hereditary rulers, the prohibition of diverse religious beliefs in any one society, the elevation of the rights and needs of political and social status elites above those of ordinary inhabitants — in order to develop and implement the idea of society as a community of free individuals sovereign over a limited state. Yet this was necessary if the marriage of engineering culture and entrepreneurship was to survive and flourish, and produce the economic and technological miracles of the last two centuries.

The lesson — particularly for China and Russia and Islamic nations, although already learned by Japan, Korea, and other newly industrialized states — is that one should avoid confounding the idea of “Western society” as a particular historical and cultural configuration rooted in classical Greece and Rome, medieval Christianity, and Renaissance Europe with the idea of “liberal society,” which although developed in parts of the West and eventually taking over most of it was in fact a radical departure from most of the Western past. In order to share in the economic growth trajectory of the West, it is therefore not at all necessary to adopt any of the elements associated with the longer-term historical and cultural past of the West, but rather only to adopt the twin elements that made for European economic success: (1) a liberal conception of state and society, with limited state authority, freedom of thought and action for individuals, and (2) support for scientific engineering and its application to market-driven private entrepreneurship.

It is thus not a formula for economic success, as some in Russia or China might think, to try to support science and engineering but to resist the notion of liberal society as a foreign, Western intrusion that can be kept at a safe distance. In fact, the liberal notion of society was just as fatal to the West’s Christian monarchies as it would be to any other form of ideologically closed, authoritarian social order.

In short, however we debate the causes for the “Rise of the West,” the term itself is something of a misnomer that entrenches a terrible misunderstanding. The development of 19th century European military and economic hegemony, or the “great divergence,” was not in fact the rapid advance of historically Western societies at the expense of non-Western ones. Instead, it was the first phase of the eclipse of traditional societies based on closed authoritarian hierarchies, beginning with Western societies. Only once their own societies had begun their transformation toward liberal social relationships (what North, Wallis, and Weingast call “open access orders”) could Europeans challenge the power of the major Asian civilizations. Only then could free thought and market action continuously revolutionize science, technology and economic production.

What lies ahead for the world is thus neither a spread of “Western” civilization nor a clash of civilizations understood in Western vs. Asian or Islamic or other such cultural terms. Rather, it is the continued clash between the spread of liberal social order and social orders still based on closed authoritarian hierarchies.

Jack Goldstone  is the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel Jr. Professor and Eminent Scholar at the George Mason University School of Public Policy.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.