Whose Measure of Reality?

Modern sociology arose in the mid-nineteenth century. Western Europeans such as Auguste Comte, Alexis de Tocqueville, Henri de Saint-Simon, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx sought to understand what they perceived as a radical transformation of society. Those twin whirlwinds, democracy and industrialization, seemed to have created an entirely new form of society, distinct from the aristocratic agrarian societies that had been typical of all civilizations around the globe for the previous five thousand years.

Today, there is still a great gap—in incomes, in lifestyle, and in governance—between the societies that spawned early sociology and the rest of the world. Some non-European societies have caught up with the West and become democratic, urban, and industrialized. But most of the nations of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia still are lacking in one or more of these characteristics; if we add up those people who remain either under authoritarian rule, bound to rural life, or with pre-industrial levels of income, they would be the majority of humankind. This puzzle—in the words of David S. Landes’s title, “why some are so rich and some so poor,” remains central to understanding the condition of the world today.[1]

Until recently, the answers to this question have been of two kinds. One answer is that, for a long time, the Western nations had been better—more industrious, more skilled, more inquisitive, graced with a better mix of natural resources, more disciplined—than other nations in ways that mattered for economic growth; this is the argument that Landes presents. The other answer, from the Marxist tradition, is that Western nations and their elites had been more aggressive, more rapacious, and more effective at subjugating other peoples and climbing up over their enslaved and exploited bodies. Either way, the great divergence is due to something the West had that the rest of the world lacked.

The problem in these approaches, however, is that no identification of that “something” has proved wholly convincing. On close inspection, most characteristics alleged to give a special character to the West turn out either to be found in non-Western nations too or to have no clear causal connection to the innovations in constitutions and production processes that were the key elements in creating Western modernity. For example, clock-making skills (by which Landes places great store) can be found in both China and Italy in late medieval times. But in neither region did industrialization emerge except by late importation from northern Europe. Cultural characteristics long thought to doom Asians to pre-capitalist life, such as Confucianism, are now seen by some as ideal foundations for advanced industrial organization. Western Europe’s conquest of the New World, once seen as unique, may have had counterparts in the Russian expansion into central and eastern Asia, and in the Qing expansion into central and southeastern Asia. (And, for that matter, the countries that moved most effectively into the New World, Portugal and Spain, showed the least modern characteristics in Europe right up to the early twentieth century!) Failures of the theory of the West’s “special something” have led some scholars toward yet a third hypothesis—that there was in fact no special something that fated the West for superiority over other civilizations, and that its divergence occurred relatively late (not until the late eighteenth century) and largely as a concatenation of chance circumstances.[2]

Alfred W. Crosby enters this debate with one of the most lively, entertaining, and consistently fascinating books on the origins of the West’s modern advantage over other civilizations. Crosby’s innovation is to search for the “something special” in Europe further back in time than most others have done, and in a particular corner of European culture. Looking back to the late Middle Ages, Crosby argues that, circa 1300, western Europeans developed an obsessive fascination with subjecting their world to uniform measurement, dividing everything into greater or fewer uniform units; that this uniform division of time and space, of music, and of visual representation (whereby the space on maps and paintings was laid out by rules of perspective) was unique to the late medieval and early modern West; and that this pattern laid the basis for the West’s later domination of the world.

Crosby has already given us a superb account of one dimension of Europe’s rise—the uncanny ability of Old World flora and fauna to drive out competitors in the New World, and thus to create a “new Europe” in the Americas.[3] Here, he moves on to consider what set western Europeans apart from other civilizations in the Old World, and thus to complete his account of the underpinnings of the West’s global triumph in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I am such an admirer of Crosby’s earlier work, and of the wit and verve of this volume, that it pains me greatly to say that, while I agree with some reservations with his first two arguments listed above, I find the argument that quantification per se was the key to Western global domination to be wholly unwarranted.

Let us begin with the parts of Crosby’s argument that are easy to accept. First, the western Europeans of the late thirteenth century were by no means the first or foremost virtuosi of measurement, as Crosby concedes. The ancient Greeks, notably Eratosthenes (276–194 bc), made measurements of the size of the Earth and distances in the solar system. The Greeks were obsessed with arithmetic and geometry (Plato made them the true basis of reality); they developed algebra (Diophantus, c. 250 ad, developed symbolic notation and solved equations for unknowns) and immersed themselves in the study of uniform shapes (circles, ellipses, and regular polyhedrons). The Greeks also knew of the relations of musical harmonies to arithmetic ratios, and found in that relationship a proof of the preternatural power of numbers. Of course, they made little practical use of these measurements outside of architecture, but then neither did the late medieval or Renaissance scholars who revived their work. The Arabs of the tenth century ad could also boast notable arithmeticians and astronomers, such as Abu ‘Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (965–c. 1041 ad), whose theory of light as straight emanations and elaborations of Euclid’s geometry influenced Johannes Kepler and René Descartes. And of course, it was the Arabs who transmitted (and perhaps developed?) the system of notation we know today as Arabic numerals. The Chinese developed massive mechanical clocks some years before Europeans did, and their abacus remained a superior means of calculating sums for many centuries compared to Europe’s counting boards.

Chinese mapmakers produced remarkably precise and uniformly gridded maps long before Europeans, and continued to produce them for several centuries. This plate is from Science and Civilisation in China, by Joseph Needham and Wang Ling, Vol. 3: Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth (Cambridge, 1959), figure 226. This example, the “Map of the Tracks of Yü the Great,” a carving on a stone tablet from 1137 AD currently in the Pei Lin Museum in Xian, China, is an outstanding example of China’s uniform grid cartography. Each square is scaled to an area of 100 li. The paths of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers and their tributaries are shown with extraordinary accuracy. The stone is about 3 ft. square. The geographer is unknown. Reproduced by permission of Cambridge University Press.

But where the Europeans do seem different from other civilizations is their willingness to subject everything they cared about to the discipline of measurement. Other civilizations knew of clocks, but they did not regulate time in their cities or temples by the movement of rachet and escapement. Other civilizations made maps and accurately charted the movements of the heavens, but they did not strive to reduce everything to uniform grids or uniform motions. Other societies conducted detailed surveys of their lands and conducted business through weights and measures and monetary prices, but they did not model the universe as a mechanism or clockworks.

Why did western Europeans replace a vague, religious hierarchy–based view of natural reality with a view based on uniformly divided time and space, over the course of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries? That the change did occur seems undeniable, and Crosby documents it brilliantly, ranging over Europe’s efforts to measure time, space, musical rhythms and scales, and representational space. But Crosby stumbles a bit in explaining why this change occurred, and even more in attributing to it something besides a revival of past knowledge and importation of Arab and Eastern insights.

Crosby attributes much of the West’s fascination with numbers and uniformity to something that is completely unwestern in its provenance—the prevalence of merchant culture. Completely unwestern not because the West lacked for merchants but because Western merchants were entirely unexceptional by standards of the world around 1300. Throughout southeastern Asia, indeed, the entire Indian Ocean basin, a complex system of urban trading centers that was engaged with many different currencies and nations had developed by this time. As late as the seventeenth century, European merchants traveling to the East were overwhelmed by the fabulous wealth of their Indian and Chinese counterparts. Japan and China were able to fully control and deny Western merchants who sought to trade with their hinterlands. Even in their own societies, Western merchants remained a relatively weak force compared to Western bankers (Fuggers and Medicis, for instance) and landed nobles throughout the period that Crosby examines.[4]

Crosby seems to suggest a special “merchant” culture developing from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance by contrasting the worldview of European nobles (lavishly generous and careless of their wealth, and placing the “honor” of bravery and warrior skills above the “market honesty” of scrupulous accounting) with the worldview of the urban merchants (attentive to every penny), and then further suggesting that all other societies had values closer to those of Europe’s nobles. Thus other cultures, lacking the detailed attention to accounts and money and debt that characterized Europe’s merchant class, could never develop the fascination or skill with measurement of Europeans. But this is balderdash, and comes of comparing apples and oranges. Yes, European merchants had a different worldview than European nobles, or Chinese literati, or Ottoman sultans. But what about comparisons with non-European merchants? Everything we know about the merchants of the Middle East, India, and China suggests that they were just as attentive to accounts and profits, just as concerned about measuring their wares, as their European counterparts.[5] The merchants of Cairo and Baghdad, whose outlook differs so dramatically from that of the warriors and princes of Islam, or the merchant-commoners of Osaka who held the fortunes of the samurai elites under their control in late Shogunal Japan, similarly distinguished themselves from the warrior elites of their societies. Crosby takes a well-known difference—between outlooks of warrior elites and business elites—and falsely turns it into a difference between Western and non-Western civilizations. Until at least the late eighteenth century, Western urban businessmen and merchants had no greater prominence in their societies than the salt merchants of China or the bazaar merchants of the Middle East and North Africa.

Crosby suggests that an extraordinary desire for wealth and an extraordinary striving to gain bullion is what drove Europeans to seek gold in the New World. He goes so far as to say that a shortage of bullion made Europeans especially mad to obtain it.[6] But surely this implies no European virtue or advantage. The relative weakness of European merchants and their being shut out from the most lucrative trading areas of the East propelled Spanish and Portuguese adventurers onto the Western oceans. Moreover, those societies most deeply involved in the exploration for, and exploitation of, foreign bullion (Spain and Portugal) are noteworthy particularly for the absence of any contribution they made to the advance of mathematical or technical prowess in Europe after about 1600. If there was any nation in the world “mad” to obtain silver bullion, it was not in Europe but in China. Europeans happily turned over all the bullion they could find to Asian (mainly Chinese) merchants in exchange for spices, silks, porcelains, and other goods more avidly sought in Europe. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, China was the world’s great “bullion sink,” and Europeans acted mainly as intermediaries in the transfer of bullion from the Americas to eastern Asia.[7]

Crosby commits an error all too common among scholars seeking the origins of European exceptionalism. They find some change or turning point in European history; assert (usually by only the most cursory comparison) that no similar turning point occurred elsewhere; and then conclude that the European global dominance of 1850 can be attributed to that turning point, since they have shown that it was “uniquely” European. The logical problems in this approach should by now be obvious.

First, European history might well have unique turning points that simply moved Europe from an “odd” point (the Dark Ages of disconnect from classical roots after the collapse of the Western Roman empire, or the slowdown of trade after the Black Death) back onto a path that was actually common around the world, such as the revival of classical learning or the expansion of trade. Second, a more detailed or extensive examination of non-Western history could well show that supposedly “unique” elements in Europe did have parallels elsewhere. For example, Chinese cartographers created superb grid maps, and Chinese cities often had a regular grid layout in their streets, while most European towns still showed the mangled byways and disorder characteristic of the Middle Eastern bazaar. Finally, even if a unique element of European experience is shown (as for example, the use of grids to create realistic perspective in painting), this hardly suffices to demonstrate that this unique element is connected to European superiority. That is, to the Chinese of the seventeenth century, the fact that the Europeans had nifty clocks, or realistic paintings with vanishing points, made no great impression. These things no more signified European present or future superiority than Roman baths or Irish illuminated manuscripts (also admirable and without exact counterparts in the East). And although the line from, say, perspective in painting to steam engines may seem straightforward, this is an accident of hindsight, easily corrected by noting that the France of Descartes and the Italy of Galileo not only got the physics of the solar system wrong, putting their faith in vortices instead of centrally attracting gravitational force, but were also late to develop and adopt the steam engine and factory manufacturing, compared to the far more empirical British. If China had been able to develop a steam engine, drawing on its centuries of experience with pumps through its complex irrigation works and its superb metallurgy, we might have looked back on Europe’s obsession with “uniform” space and time as a Platonic dead end that distracted Europeans from empirical trial-and-error tinkering and pragmatic inventions.

Therein lies the biggest weakness of Crosby’s beautiful effort—he is so concerned to demonstrate threads of continuity in European intellectual history that he entirely misses abysses of discontinuity. Although both thirteenth-century logicians and seventeenth-century natural philosophers counted, measured, and struggled with the legacy of Aristotle, the medieval logicians sought to refine the classical master, while Galileo and his followers sought to refute him. Moreover, Crosby’s intellectual history stops several generations before the Industrial Revolution, assuming there is nothing at all problematic in going from Galileo’s simple mechanics to the complex engines of Richard Arkwright, James Watt, and Robert Fulton. Yet if the progression from Galilean thought to industrial prowess is so smooth, how is it that Italy—home to the high Renaissance, precocious urbanization, and merchant dominance—lagged even the Scottish lowlands in economic development?

Using Crosby’s argument, one could well compare medieval Islam and early medieval Europe and tell the reverse story: Given that the Arab world was so advanced in arithmetic and astronomy, and possessed the classical heritage of ancient Greek geometers, algebraists, and astronomers lost to Europe, which had fallen into a Christian mysticism; and that the Arab world was so obsessed with geometry and language (as shown in their art while the West indulged in spiritual display in its cathedrals); and that Arab merchants were far more enterprising than Western peddlers, the former cultivating commercial empires extending from Africa to India—well of course the Arab civilization must, a few centuries hence, be the dominant scientific and economic civilization of the globe. World civilization has had many periods of efflorescence that led nowhere: the Egyptian New Kingdom, classical Greece, the “Industrial Revolution” of the early Sung in China, the Caliphate of Baghdad, even the “Golden Age” of Holland; all seemed to put their societies on a path to world leadership, only to be outdone by a “tinkering society” on the remote British Isles in the nineteenth century.

The kinds of inferences that Crosby offers are intriguing but entirely unwarranted. If we are to determine what made the West more successful at producing things and designing weapons than other societies, we had better look closely at the history of agricultural production and technical invention, and compare it in substantial detail with other societies. We cannot simply set aside crucial sociological and political changes that were unique to the West, such as the movement toward equality and democracy that emerges at the same time as industrialization. To find a single event or trend that seems noteworthy in Western history, and assume all later difference between the West and non-Western civilizations flows therefrom, is to commit the kind of logical error that even Crosby’s medieval Schoolmen would have frowned upon.

Crosby, with greater beauty, brevity, and delight than anyone I know, tells the story of a turning point that was surely necessary for the rise of the West; namely that, between 1200 and 1650, western Europeans emerged from a relatively mystical, hierarchical, and primitive or barbaric view of natural reality, rediscovered their own classical heritage and the advanced mathematical knowledge of the Orient, and so managed, fairly quickly, to “catch up” to the rest of the world. In the next two hundred years, they would surpass the rest of the world in mathematics, physics, the technology of production and transport, and the means of war. But how was the latter accomplishment tied to the former? If it was the sudden intoxication of a “rush” of new knowledge that impelled Europeans to push the borders of knowledge, then it was perhaps not the quantification of reality itself but the centuries spent without the comfort of Eratosthenes and the Greek astronomer Aristarchus that prepared Europe for its leap forward. Or perhaps it was something else yet unknown. In any event, Crosby’s charming and beguiling volume gives us one of the necessary causes for Europe’s rise, but not a sufficient one.

Jack A. Goldstone received his PhD in sociology from Harvard University. He is the author of Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (1991) and “The Rise of the West—or Not?” forthcoming in Sociological Theory. Professor Goldstone teaches at the University of California, Davis, and is researching a variety of issues in long-term social and economic change.


1 David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (New York, 1998).

2 Jack A. Goldstone, “The Problem of the ‘Early Modern’ World,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41 (August 1998): 249–84; Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley, Calif., 1998); Kenneth Pomeranz, A Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, N.J., 2000).

3 Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge, 1986).

4 Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–1350 (New York, 1989); Roderich Ptak and Dietmar Rothermund, eds., Emporia, Commodities, and Entrepreneurs in Asian Maritime Trade, c. 1400–1750 (Stuttgart, 1991); Jan Wisseman Christie, “Javanese Markets and the Asian Sea Trade Boom of the Tenth to Thirteenth Centuries, A.D.,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41 (August 1998): 344–81.

5 Ptak and Rothermund, Emporia, Commodities, and Entrepreneurs; Karl Reinhold Haellquist, ed., Asian Trade Routes, Continental and Maritime (Copenhagen, 1991); Klaas Veenhof, “‘Modern’ Features in Old Assyrian Trade,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 40 (November 1997): 336–66; Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Merchants, Markets, and the State in Early Modern India (Delhi, 1990).

6 Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250–1600 (Cambridge, 1997), 73–74.

7 Dennis O. Flynn, World Silver and Monetary History in the 16th and 17th Centuries (Aldershot, Hampshire, 1996).