Intellectual Technology—a Promoted Comment

Vicenzo Foppa, Young Cicero Reading, 1464
Vicenzo Foppa, Young Cicero Reading, 1464

Welcome to a new feature here on Ex Urbe — the promoted comment.

From time to time, Ada makes a long substantive chewy comment, which could almost be its own post. Making it into an actual post would take valuable time. The comment is already written and fascinating — but hidden down in a comment thread where many people may not notice it. From now on, when this happens, I will extract it and promote it. I may even go back and do this with some older especially awesome comments. You’ll be able to tell the difference between this and a real post, because it’ll say it’s posted by Bluejo, and not by Exurbe, because it will say “a promoted comment”, and also because it won’t be full of beautiful relevant carefully selected art but will have just one or two pieces of much more random art.

This comment is promoted from a discussion of Machiavelli and Intellectual Technology.

Nahua Kang says:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this new post. As I am reviewing macroeconomics, especially the different variations of Solow Model, I cannot help but link “intellectual technology” with the specific endogenous growth model, which attempts to led the model itself generate technological growth without an exogenous “manna from heaven”. In this model, technology growth is expressed endogenously by the factor capital as “productive externalities”, and individual workers, through “learning by doing,” obtain more “skills” as the capital grows. Of course, the “technology factor” in the model I learned is vaguely defined and does not cover the many definitions and various effects of “intellectual technology” not directly related to economic production.

Your conversation with Michael reminds of me the lectures and seminars I took with you at Texas A&M. By the time I took your Intellectual History from Middle Ages to 17th Century, I have already taken some classes on philosophy. Sadly, my fellow philosophy students and I usually fell into anachronism and criticized early thinkers a bit “unfairly” on many issues. That is why your courses were like a beam of light to me, for I was never aware of the fact that we have different logic, concepts, and definition of words from our predecessors and should hence put those thinkers back into their own historical context.

It seems to me that Prof. Peter E. Gordon’s essay “What is intellectual history’ captures the different angles from which you and Michael construe Machiavelli: Michael seems more like a philosophy/political science student who attempts to examine how and why early thinkers’ ideas work or not work for our society based on our modern definitions, concepts, and logic, thus raising more debates on political philosophy and pushing the progress of philosophical innovation; your role as an intellectual historian requires one to be unattached from our own understanding of ideas and concepts and to be aware of even logic that seems to be rooted in our subconsciousness so that to examine a past thinker fairly without rash judgement. Michael is like the one who attempts to keep building the existing tower upward, while you are examining carefully the foundation below. For me personally, it would be nice to have both of these two different ways of thinking.

I have a question: I have been attempting to read a bit of Karl Marx whenever time allows. He argues that our thinking and ideology are a reflection of our material conditions. If we accept his point of view, would it be useful to connect intellectual history with economic history?

Ada replies:

Nahua, I think you have hit it spot on with your discussion of Peter Gordon’s essay. When I worked with him at Harvard (I had the privilege of having him on my committee, as well as being his teaching assistant for a course) I remember being struck by how, even when we were teaching thinkers far outside my usual scope like Heidegger, I found his presentation of them welcoming and approachable despite my lack of background, because he approached them in the same context-focused way that I did, evaluating, not their correctness or not or their applicability to the present, but their roots in their contemporary historical contexts and the reasons why they believed what they believed.

For Marx’s comment that “our thinking and ideology are a reflection of our material conditions” I think it is often very useful to connect intellectual history with economic history, not in a strictly deterministic way, but by considering economic changes as major environmental or enabling factors that facilitate or deter intellectual change and/or the dissemination of new ideas. I already discussed the example of how I think the dissemination of feminism in the 19th century was greatly facilitated by the economic liberation of female labor because of the development of industrial cloth production, more efficient ways of doing laundry, cleaning, cooking etc. Ideas about female equality existed in antiquity. They enjoyed a large surge in conversation and support from the intellectual firebrands of the Enlightenment, through figures like Montesquieu, Voltaire and Wollstonecraft. But mass movements and substantial political changes, like female suffrage, came when the economic shift had occurred. To use the “intellectual technology” concept, the technology existed in antiquity and was revived and refined in the 18th century, but it required economic shifts as well to help reach a state when large portions of the population or whole nations/governments could embrace and employ it.

As I work on Renaissance history, I constantly feel the close relationship between economics and the intellectual world as well. Humanism as I understand it began when Petrarch called for a revival of antiquity. Economics comes into this in two ways. First, the reason he thought a revival of antiquity was so desperately necessary was because Italy had become so politically tumultuous and unstable, and was under such threat of cultural or literal invasion from France–these are the consequences, largely, of economic situations, since Italy’s development of banking and its central position as a trade hub for the Mediterranean had filled its small, vulnerable citystates with incomparable wealth, creating situations where powerful families could feud, small powers could hire large mercenary armies, and every king in Europe wanted to invade Italy for a piece of its plump pie. Then after Petrarch, humanism’s ability to spread and succeed was also economically linked. You can’t have a humanist without books, you just can’t, it’s about reading, studying, correcting and living the classics. But in an era when a book cost as much as a house, and more than a year’s salary for a young schoolmaster, a library required a staggering investment of capital. That required wealthy powers–families or governments–to value humanism and have the resources to spend on it. Powers like the Medici, and Florence’s Republican government, were convinced to spend their money on libraries and humanism because they believed it would bring them glory, strength, respect, legitimacy, the love of the people, that it would improve life, heal their souls, bring peace, and make their names ring in posterity, but they couldn’t have made the investment if they hadn’t had the money to invest, and they wouldn’t have believed humanism could yield so much if not for the particular (and particularly tumultuous) economic situation in which Renaissance Italy found itself.

Yesterday I found myself thinking about the history of the book in this light, and comparing it to some comments I heard a scientist make on a panel about space elevators. We all want a space elevator–then space exploration will become much, much less expensive, everyone can afford satellites, space-dependent technologies will become cheap, and we can have a Moon Base, and a Mars program, and all the space stations we want, and all our kids can have field trips to space (slight exaggeration). To have a space elevator, we need incredibly strong cables, probably produced using nanofibers. Developing nanofibers is expensive. What the engineer pointed out is that he has high hopes for nanofiber devlopment, because nanofibers have the ideal demand pattern for a new technology. A new technology like this has the problem that, even if there are giant economic benefits to it later on, the people who pay for its development need a short-term return on that, which is difficult in the new baby stages of a technology when it’s at its most expensive. (Some of you may remember the West Wing episode where they debate the price of a cancer medication, arguing that producing each pill costs 5 cents so it’s unfair to charge more, to which the rebuttal is that the second pill cost 5 cents, but the first pill cost $300 million in research.) Once nanofiber production becomes cheap, absolutely it will be profitable, but while it’s still in the stage of costing $300 million to produce a few yards of thread, that’s a problem, and can be enough to keep a technology from getting support. One of the ways we work around this as a society today is the university system, which (through a form of patronage) supports researchers and gives them liberty to direct research toward avenues expected to be valuable independent of profit. Another is grant funding, which gives money based on arguments for the merit of a project without expecting to be paid back. A third is NASA, which develops new technologies (like velcro, or pyrex) to achieve a particular project (Moon!), which are then used and reused in society for the benefit of all. But looking at just the private sector, at the odds of a technology getting funding from investors rather than non-profits, what the scientist said is that, for a technology to receive funding, you want it to have a big long-term application which will show that you’ll make a steady profit once you can make lots of the thing, but it needs to also to have a short-term application for which a small number of clients will be prepared to pay an enormous amount, so you can sell it while it still costs $300 million, as well as expecting to sell it when it costs 5 cents. Nanofibers, he said, hit this sweet spot because of two demands. The first is body armor, since it looks like nanofibers can create bullet-proof fabric as light as normal fabric, and if we can do that then governments will certainly pay an enormous amount to get bullet-proof clothing for a head of state and his/her bodyguards, and elite military applications. The second is super-high-end lightweight golf clubs, which may seem like a frivolous thing, but there are people who will pay thousands of dollars for an extremely high end golf club, and that is something nanofibers can profit from even while expensive (super lightweight bicycles for racing also qualify). So nanofibers can depend on the excitement of the specific investors who want the expensive version now, and through their patronage develop toward the ability to produce things cheaply.

In this sense the history of the book, especially in the Renaissance, was very similar to the situation with nanofibers. In the early, manuscript stage when each new book cost the equivalent of $50,000 (very rough estimate), libraries were built and humanism was funded because wealthy people like Niccolo Niccoli and Cosimo de Medici believed that humanist libraries would give them and their home city political power and spiritual benefits, helping them toward Heaven. That convinced them to invest their millions. Their investments then created the libraries which could be used later on by larger populations, and reproduced cheaply through printing once it developed, but printing would not have developed if patrons like them weren’t around to make there be demand for the volume of books printing could produce. It took Petrarch, Niccoli and Cosimo to fund a library which could raise a generation of people who could read the classics before there was enough demand to sell the 300-1500 copies of a classical book that a printing press could print. And, working within current capitalism, it may take governments who really want bullet-proof suit jackets to give us our space elevator, though universities, NASA, and private patronage of civilian space programs are certainly also big factors pushing us forward.

In sum, I would say that economics sometimes sparks the generation of new ideas–as the economically-driven strife Petrarch experienced enabled the birth of humanism–but it also strongly affects how easily or quickly a new idea can disseminate, whether it gets patronage and support, or whether its champions have to spread it without the support of elites, patrons or government. Thus, in any given era, an intellectual historian needs to have a sense of funding patterns and patronage systems, so we can understand how ideas travel, where, and why.

One more thought from last night, or rather a test comparison showing how the concept “intellectual technology” can work. I was thinking about comparing atomism and steel.

Steel is a precursor for building skyscrapers. Despite urban demand, we didn’t get a transition to huge, towering metropoles until the development of good steel which could raise our towers of glittering glass. Of course, steel is not the ONLY precursor of the skyscraper–it also requires tempered glass, etc. And it isn’t the only way to build skyscrapers, you can use titanium, or nanotech, but you are very unlikely to get either of those things without going through steel first. Having steel does not guarantee that your society will have skyscrapers. Ancient Rome had steel. In the Middle Ages Europe lost it (though pretty-much everywhere except Europe still had steel). When steel came back in the Renaissance it still didn’t lead immediately to skyscrapers, it required many other developments first, and steel had to combine with other things, including social changes (growth of big cities). But when we look at the history of city development, studying steel is extremely important because the advent of steel-frame construction is a very important phase, and a central enabling factor for the development of modern cities.

My Lucretius book looks at the relationship between atomism and atheism in the same way that this analysis looks at steel and skyscrapers. Atomism was around for a long time, went away, came back, etc. And you can have non-atomic atheism, we have lots of it now. But atomism, as the first fully-developed mechanical model of the working of Nature (the first not dependent on God/gods to make the world work) was, in my opinion, one of the factors that you needed to combine with other developments to reach a situation in which an intellectual could combine mechanical models of nature with skepticism with other factors to develop the first fully functional atheistic model of the world. It’s one of the big factors we have to trace to ask “Why did atheism become a major interlocutor in the history of thought when it did, and not before or after?” just as tracing steel helps us answer “Why did skyscrapers start being built when they did?” There had almost certainly been atheisms before and independent of atomism (just as you can make really tall things, like pyramids or cliff-face cities, without steel-frame construction) but it was rare, and didn’t have the infrastructural repeatability necessary to let it become widespread. Modern atheists don’t use Epicurus, they more frequently use Darwin, just as modern skyscrapers use titanium, but the history of skyscrapers becomes clear when we study the history of steel. Just so, the history of atheism becomes much clearer when we study atomism. Of course, we now use steel for lots of things that aren’t skyscrapers (satellite approaching Pluto!), and similarly atomism has lots of non-atheist applications, but we associate atomism a lot with atheism, just as we think a lot about “towers of glass and steel” and usually think less about the steel bolts in our chairs or the steel spoons we eat with. All applications of steel, or epicuranism, can be worth studying, but skyscrapers/ atheism will never stop being one of the biggest and most interesting, at least in terms of how they changed the face of our modern world. And finally, while minority of buildings are skyscrapers, and a minority of contemporary people are atheists, the study of both is broadly useful because the presence of both in the lives of everyone is a defining factor in our current world.

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13 Responses to “Intellectual Technology—a Promoted Comment”

  1. […] See more thoughts on this in the follow-up post: Intellectual Technology–A Promoted Comment. […]

  2. Alison said:

    It’s great to see you writing here again, thanks!

    One question about the history of the book — to what extent was Renaissance humanism really necessary to provide a market for the printing press to become economically viable? It’s been quite a while since I took History of the Book at Harvard, but my impression was that the press was also used for somewhat more mass-market uses — Bibles, as we all know, and vernacular texts, but also mass-printed bureaucratic forms such as indulgences. I’m also not sure how this squares with the printing press originating in Germany.

    • exurbe said:

      It’s true that presses printed lots of non-humanistic texts, so humanistic markets were only part of the demand. But they were part of what had been pushing general book demand and book trade.

      Remember that when Gutenberg created the press, he also went bankrupt because there was no economic infrastructure in place to sell 300 bibles at once, the most any city needed at a time was, maybe, 20, because not that many people were building libraries. The majority of German presses that started up between 1450 and 1470 went bankrupt by 1490. Presses in Venice were more successful because they could export on ships to distant markets, and if each major city contained only 10 people who wanted Cicero, they could still sell 300 copies to 30 different cities. Thus the humanistic demand for library-building became one of the mainstays of the first economically successful presses, and the charisma of humanism, which made it one of the mandatory accoutrements of power to have an impressive library in your villa, and a few pet scholars at your ducal court, whether you read the books or not, helped set the shape of the first stable stages of literary printing. Broadsides, news sheets, pamphlets, pub songs and bibles were also major elements of printing, but it took library-building too to establish a firm bread-and-butter especially for the printing of literature and the development of steady trade, and steady customers.

  3. Elyse said:

    This blog going active again reminded me to pull your book out of my Nook wishlist and onto my tablet. I finished it Wednesday evening and thought it was very good. I took a course on the history of books and printing at a school that had a few interesting items in the library’s rare books room, but had not encountered the idea of books designed to have notes written in them before. (As a product of late 20th century public schools and library science, the thought of people writing in books makes me shudder — yet another change in styles of reading. It is fascinating how attitudes changed over time.)

    Yesterday I read Book 1 of a Barnes & Noble ebook reprint of an early 20th Century translation of Lucretius. (It very was cheap… but not cheap enough).

    Can you recommend a modern edition of De Rerum Natura for a dilettante ex-linguistics major? Latin is not really one of my languages, but I can still sort-of sight-read Spanish, and my first communion roughly coincided with Vatican II so I have Latin as part of my mental landscape. Is there a facing pages edition, by any chance?

    • exurbe said:

      In fact, after working so closely (some might say too closely) with the De Rerum Natura for so long, I don’t have a recommended translation. I think this is due to the nature of the book itself.

      Translation is a great art, and I do think that sometimes a particular translation truly excels others in extraordinary ways. For example, I always recommend the John Ciardi version of Dante for English readers because it has by far the best and most accessible explanatory notes, and is also the liveliest and wittiest of the major English translations I’ve seen. Similarly I think the Fagles translation of the Iliad is one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century.

      But with the De Rerum Natura no translation has ever stood out to me above the others. Partly I think this is because the poem itself is rather difficult, meandering and often awkward even when you read it in the original. I have Latinists back as far as the 16th century complaining that the DRN is difficult and hard to get through, and especially hard to get students through, and the more I read it the more I feel how the original is difficult and strange, so the translations feel difficult and strange as well. I’m sure there must be some which excel in particular ways, but all the ones I have looked at have captured the strangeness of the original to the extent that none really hit a compelling literary mode, at least for me. Others who have worked more with the English and less with the Latin may have better recommendations for you, but I can’t offer much advice apart from suggesting a more modern translation, since the old out-of-copyright ones are sometimes also stilted or bowdlerized, or just add an extra layer of alienation by reflecting outdated translation practices. And if one Latin work does not need an extra layer of alienation, it’s the DRN.

      • exurbe said:

        To specifically address your “facing page edition” request, I used the loeb classical library one. Perfectly ok translation, easiest to work with, and very durable, though after man years of dissertation and book revision, and me transcribing by hand the annotation from dozens of manuscripts in color-coded ink into its crammed margins, it’s now one of the most threadbare hardcovers I ever hope to see.

        • Elyse said:

          Many thanks. I’ll look into the Loeb.

          I just finished watching the Globe Love’s Labours Lost DVD. The actors (and the puppets) are great and it looks like everyone on stage and on the audience was having fun. But it needs a role for Harpo — I think the modern comedy that comes closest to the feel is early Marx Brothers.

  4. Luke Somers said:

    What do you think of the notion of reading philosophy backwards so you gradually work from the comfortable and familiar into less familiar ground, and on the way explore the necessity for each of the philosophical arguments presented?

    I have a feeling that this would be a rather large amount of work to prepare, since often, you need to take two steps back before you can make literal sense of the first step back.

    • exurbe said:

      I have played around with the idea, and I think it works for some things, but not well for the way I like to teach the history of ideas. In many ways the biggest challenge for me is to get people out of modern assumptions, and I find that plunging into something far removed is easier because it is very clear how different it is, and then when you move forward and more familiar things appear you realize that they’re new. Something like John Locke, for example, it’s very difficult for people to see why it’s important because so many of Locke’s main innovations are now ubiquitous, but if you’ve come forward from Anselm then it’s much clearer.

  5. Peter Lund said:

    Pyrex is old. Very old. It is the brand name for an American version of a German original, where the American version was introduced during WWI and where that war and the even bigger sequel made everybody forget about the German original (as happened with so many other German inventions and ideas).

    Velcro is Swiss, invented in 1948 and commercially available in the late 50’s.

    No, NASA didn’t invent Tang, the Space Pen, microwave ovens, WD40, etc, either, although WD40 does have something to do with rockets: it was a way to keep water out of missiles(!), invented a few years before NASA was created. It simply means “Water Displacement, 40th formula”.

    • exurbe said:

      I’m always fascinated by how often I run across, or get pulled into, discussions of this kind, debating which person, organization or country deserves “creator” credit for a multi-stage invention: is Velcro an invention of NASA who arguably created its current marketed form? Of late 19th century European textile-makers who experimented with the adhesive power of directional plastics? Of Medieval German haberdashers who made use of the adhesive property of layering opposed naps of velvet? Or should we only call Velcro in the modern exciting sense the post-NASA Velcro that transformed fashions and shoes and such, affecting the world more broadly than any of its earlier stages? It tends to come back in a very interesting way to questions of where the value lies in the creative process, how one values idea vs. application vs. popularization etc. I run across it a lot in looking at early book production, and the many stages that books underwent, so many layered stages of micro-invention. The Movable Type press is famous (and important!) but there were the European carved woodblocks that were so instrumental in laying the groundwork for movable type, revolutions in manuscript production in the century before that, east-Asian printed antecedents, and also later stages: the Aldine press introducing the printed literary paperback, revolutionizing a printing world which had produced exclusively giant tomes with commentary with no concept of portable or economical literature; the Juntine press which introduced the first type face that wasn’t trying to imitate handwriting and let itself really look like an inhuman script (Centaur is its modern descendant, see the amazing work of Paul Gehl, especially, so many stages. One gets it in the history of thought too, not just in famous heated questions like who is responsible for Calculus, Newton or Leibniz, but today I was at a faculty round-table where a philosophy department person was discussing the “new hot question” within decision theory of whether big changes to self and life are made rationally and in a moment of acute decision-making, or hypocritically by acting toward what one wants to do/be/feel for a while until the self catches up. While the philosophy person in question was indeed discussing a new exciting background which made this a new exciting question, everyone in the room was ready to name a person who had discussed “the same thing” before, whether a mid-20th-century theorist or, in my case, Aristotle and then Heloise. I love looking at multi-stage invention, and all the different people, institutions and historical changes which come together to let something–whether an idea or a technology–gradually go through repeated transformations, and move from a unique or rare thing, to a common or even ubiquitous thing (Scholastic moral debates => popular self-help books; German haberdashery => every preschooler’s shoes).

      There is a well-known and delightful book that I recommend as a lite fun history, “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” by Bill Bryson. It’s mainly a pastiche of fun anecdotes about the origins of the things in a private house–from bedrooms to wallpaper–and is a delightful read, but stepping back from that, the author had a fascinating tendency to dwell on particular people who were the “inventors” or “creators” or “major innovates” of a thing–sometimes the initial inventor of a new thing, or sometimes the person who transformed it into its famous and ubiquitous final form, or made it a success. But the author had an extra tendency to dwell on the “tragedy” if ever one of these inventors did NOT become rich and acclaimed because of his creation, that if any of them remained obscure, or forgotten, or failed to get rich quick, it was always expressed as a great injustice. I think there is a special fascination with invention and credit, and a special delight people sometimes take in vindicating or rescuing the reputation of the “real genius” behind something, in Bill Bryson’s case sometimes inventors and sometimes popularizers or reformers. It’s something our current culture seems to care about in a very particular way. I don’t have any conclusions to make on this observation, just that it’s interesting, and even more interesting for someone like me, who is so used to and constantly in touch with multi-stage invention, and so constantly telling stories about things which had five or six consecutive major figures cumulatively responsible for the ultimate triumph of the [idea/invention] in question.

      • And bouncing off from that, I think sometimes there can be actual harm done when people who valorize inventors and creators in this particular way ignore interesting things that have multiple creators because they’re not “original” — like Cellini’s Ganymede or the the pseudo-Plato dialogues and letters — because they don’t fit into the narrative of “look what a genius did”. I’ve run into this sometimes within SF criticism/review where people don’t know how to talk about a book written by collaborating authors.

        I very much enjoyed Ross King’s book Brunelleschi’s Dome about building the dome on the Duomo, but when I started reading other books of his — he has one about Michelangelo and the Sistine ceiling and one about Machiavelli — I realised he was so focused on this “lone genius phenomenal originality” narrative that he wasn’t prepared to see anything else. There’s always a lot of standing on the shoulders of giants going on, and that is itself an interesting narrative.

        It’s always both, really. Without all those incremental things you mention from the woodblocks and the changes in manuscript production, we wouldn’t have had printing, but even so the press really is a gamechanger, and when one is having conversations of reasonable length it’s sensible to shorthand all of it into that because stopping to focus on the fractal complexity of everything leads to making it impossible to have the wider picture conversations.


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