How to explain the spectacular growth of the European economy from the end of the XVIIIe century? Why in Europe, and not elsewhere? These are the questions, essential but worn out after being asked, that the American historian Joel Mokyr tackles. His main idea is that “The explosion of technical progress in the West has been made possible by cultural changes” which occurred between 1500 and 1700, the period during which were asked “The cultural foundations of modern growth”. These changes, insists the author, were not intended to produce the industrial revolution, which is an unanticipated consequence, any more than they were the undeniable sign of a superiority of Western culture.
The key figures in these changes, Joel Mokyr believes, are what he calls “cultural entrepreneurs.” They challenge established knowledge and try to modify it. The new model they offer serves as a reference for a large number of innovators who recognize themselves in their original way of thinking about the world.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is the best example. Poor scientist, his advocacy for experimental science has however done much to impose, against the scholastic tradition defended in universities, the idea that experience is the only way to increase the mixture of practical and theoretical knowledge that constitutes useful knowledge. Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is a different kind of cultural entrepreneur. His concern to give a mathematical description of phenomena without explaining them is however not without empirical consequence, believes the author: if nature can be described, “We can manipulate it, dominate it and apply it to human needs, as advocated by Bacon”. It is true that, on the eve of the industrial revolution, the concrete translation of scientific advances is still not very visible, but their influence is real because, conversely, explains the author, “If qualified craftsmen […] had been able to bring more than marginal and local changes to technology, the industrial revolution could well have happened in India “.
Why Europe, wonders Joel Mokyr? Because the political fragmentation of the continent between states of comparable strength but always at loggerheads stimulates competition for knowledge that has no equivalent. From the XVIIIe century, Hume and Montesquieu underlined the benefits of this competition which leads to the most creative individuals – scientists, architects, musicians but also highly skilled craftsmen – crisscrossing Europe according to the demands of the different powers, but also by playing against each other. The paradox is therefore that these political divisions have had the effect of promoting a certain cultural and technical unity but also a de facto tolerance with regard to intellectual novelties, because no religious or political power was able to ban them durably.
In 1700, China was no less educated and less literate than Europe. It is also more meritocratic, since the recruitment of civil servants, even the highest, is carried out by competitive examination. But these are based on the mastery of the classic canon at the expense of innovation. Hume had grasped this difference, believing that much more than in Europe, intellectual activity in China was controlled by a powerful administration which defended established knowledge and without checks and balances.
Even if China “Was a society without institutionalized religion, without caste of priests, rabbis or mullahs”, the weight of the traditions was considerable, even more perhaps in the XVIIIe than in previous centuries. This did not prevent criticism of orthodoxy from being regularly expressed, but such criticism could never, as in Europe, constitute alternative knowledge. The Chinese experience was not particularly a failure, however, because the defense of tradition characterized all societies, even the most advanced, of that time. “What is truly unique, explains Joel Mokyr, is what happened in 18th century Europee century”, not because of cultural exceptionality, but because of a set of historical conditions found nowhere else.
Joel Mokyr The culture of growth. The origins of the modern economy Translated by Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat. Gallimard, “Library of stories”, 572 pp., € 36 (ebook: € 25.99).