Day By Day

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Joel Moykr's Gift to Intellectuals

If there is one thing upon which intellectuals can agree it is the proposition that "ideas matter", especially the complex, highly structured sets of ideas that are their stock in trade. However, the practical influence of formal systems of thought is damnably hard to demonstrate. When really big, world-transforming things take place intellectuals always seem to be trying to figure out after the fact, what happened and why.

So it has been in the case of the industrial revolution. It is one of those big things, possibly the biggest thing, that was not anticipated and which has ever since produced endless controversy among intellectuals. Historians, sociologists, economists and the like still argue as to why the industrial revolution took off and why it did so in England of all places.

Explanations have been many and varied. They have included the availability of natural resources, quirks of political and economic organization, geographical determinism, the Protestant revolution, obscure technological innovations such as eyeglasses, military necessity, even genetic predispositions within specific population groups. Recently non-Western scholars have been suggesting that it was just a matter of pure luck and not all that important, essentially granting the West a temporary advantage over other regions of the globe, an advantage that is rapidly disappearing as Asia resumes is customary position in the forefront of human development.

The latest major scholar to address the question has been Joel Moykr. In the latest of his impressive series of economic studies, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850, he at last answers the intellectuals' intense desire to place themselves in the vanguard of history. His central conclusion, among many fascinating and perceptive arguments, is that the men whose activities sparked the industrial revolution were themselves inspired by the contemporary efforts of..., wait for it, enlightenment intellectuals. Moykr is a superb economic historian, one whose previous work I have found immensely useful in my own investigations. I have no doubt that his most recent book, will find a wide and enthusiastic academic audience -- after all, he's telling them just what they want to hear.

Read Edward Glazer's review here.
Read David Greasley's review here.
Moykr summarizes his argument here.

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