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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  July 2006

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE July 2006

Subject:

Newtonian science and the growth of British capitalism

From:

Louis Proyect <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 20 Jul 2006 12:53:57 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (120 lines)

H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by [log in to unmask] (April, 2006)

Margaret C. Jacob and Larry Stewart. _Practical Matter: Newton's Science
in the Service of Industry and Empire, 1687-1851_. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 2004. 201 pp. Illustrations, notes, index. $35.00
(cloth), ISBN 0-674-01497-9.

Reviewed for H-Albion by Lesley B. Cormack, Department of
History and Classics, University of Alberta.

The "Knowledge Economy" of the Eighteenth Century

University presidents are fond of proclaiming the importance of the 
"knowledge economy" in ensuring economic success in the twenty-first 
century.  That is, they argue that the intellectual work of university 
scholars is really the basis for future prosperity, rather than natural 
resources, entrepreneurial spirit, or seat-of-the-pants trial and 
error.  Margaret Jacob and Larry Stewart move this argument back two 
centuries, arguing that it was precisely the existence of a knowledge 
economy in the century and a half after Isaac Newton that made possible the 
huge technological and economic explosion that we now call the Industrial 
Revolution (or the "industrial revolution," for those less comfortable with 
the heroic label).

Jacob and Stewart set out to explain, as they tell us in their 
introduction, why science wins, why between 1687 (the publication of 
Newton's _Principia Mathematica_) and 1851 (the Crystal Palace exhibition) 
science--and especially mechanics--becomes central to western thought, and 
economic and technological development.   They trace a line from the 
acceptance of Newton, through the burgeoning of public experimentation, 
through the development of scientific curricula in schools, to scientific 
interest on the part of capitalists and entrepreneurs, and state interest 
in using science to advance understanding.  In the process, Britain first, 
and other European countries and America later became industrialized.  In 
other words, Jacob and Stewart argue, science was a major factor in the 
burgeoning of enterprise that was the Industrial Revolution.

The authors begin with Newton and ask a very important question:  given 
that his great work, the _Principia Mathematica_, was such a difficult book 
to understand, why did it become so famous and so important?  There were 
several reasons.  First, while we tend to privilege books 1 and 3, since 
they contain the astronomical work most commonly now associated with 
Newton, the authors argue that, at the time, book 2, on mechanics, was much 
more significant.  Thus, the practical elements of this important natural 
philosophical text struck the contemporary readers almost 
immediately.  Equally, Newton's mechanics demonstrated God's rationality 
and as such proved very attractive to Whig Anglicans in the first 
generation after Newton, and to virtuosi and Masons thereafter.  This 
section, then, is reminiscent of Jacob's earlier arguments in _The 
Newtonians and the English Revolution, 1689-1720_ (1976).

_Practical Matter_ next examines the flourishing of mechanical 
demonstrations, lectures, and popular experimentation, using material first 
developed in detail by Stewart in his book, _The Rise of Public Science: 
Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 
1660-1750_ (1992).  The authors show that at the same time that the Royal 
Society became increasingly more interested in mechanical questions, more 
exciting mechanical spectacles took place outside those privileged halls, 
in more entrepreneurial, radical, and democratic venues.  Informal clubs 
sprang up, scientific education became more sought, and all this 
flourishing of scientific interest happened at the same time--and often 
with the same people--as the development of mechanical manufacturing and 
the growth of factories.  While Jacob and Stewart do not demonstrate 
explicit connections between Newtonianism and the Industrial Revolution 
here, the inference is clear.

The interplay of science and industry is also evident in the growth the 
"Lit. and Phil." movement and by the participation of manufacturers in such 
organizations.  Jacob and Stewart discuss the careers of two such 
manufacturers, who were largely self-educated, but saw the importance of 
scientific study and themselves delivered papers at their local Literary 
and Philosophical societies.  Unfortunately, it is not clear in this 
telling whether the science aided the industry--or rather, as seems more 
likely, that these men saw science as a path to social mobility and gentility.

Likewise, the relationship between scientific education--especially as 
sponsored by the state--and industrial progress, is not as clear cut as the 
authors imply.  While scientific education expanded greatly in the 
eighteenth century, especially in the French context, the ends of that 
education were not the manufacturing of better goods.  The authors describe 
the changing curricula of French _lycee_ and the _Ecole Polytechnique_, 
which is very interesting, but the _Ecole Polytechnique_'s move to ever 
greater scientific complexity often seemed to mitigate against practical 
application, rather than to aid it.  The story of the interaction of 
science and technology in this period, as in others, is a very complex one, 
without a simple one way influence.

Historians have debated the relationship between science and technology for 
many years.  At times, scholars have argued for a strong cause and effect 
(either from technology to science, or science to technology), while at 
other times, they have denied any connection whatsoever.  There is now, I 
would argue, a growing understanding of just how complex a relationship 
this is.  That is, just as we would no longer accept the Hessen thesis 
(named after Marxist scholar, Boris Hessen) that Newtonian physics owed all 
to practical technology, neither would we be satisfied by a bald claim that 
Newtonianism "caused" the Industrial Revolution.  While Jacob and Stewart 
do not make such a claim, they do want to suggest that the creation of a 
knowledge economy, through the widespread permeation of Newtonians, 
mechanics, and experimentalism, provided impetus, ideas, and principles for 
the growing industrial sector.  This is intriguing, and I am sympathetic to 
the enterprise, but I do not think they have proven their case.

The arguments in this book are suggestive rather than rigorously 
proven.  There is little evidence brought forward to demonstrate the 
links--between Newtonianism and Anglicanism, between this alliance and 
manufacturing.  We see the impressive rise in popular science, but is there 
a clear link (except coincidence) between this and the Industrial 
Revolution?  Some of these are links the authors have demonstrated 
elsewhere, but it would still have been useful to provide a more convincing 
analysis, especially as this book is designed for a wider audience, 
potentially meeting these issues for the first time.  While suggestive, 
this book would have been more powerful with clearer arguments defended 
with more explicit data.  Otherwise, the knowledge economy of the 
eighteenth century seems every bit as elusive as that of the twenty-first.

--

www.marxmail.org

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