Bryan Caplan  

Did Literalism Saved the World?

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In the past, I've praised Robin Hanson for his literalism. Now a compelling article on Straussian textual interpretation has inspired Robin to propose a new theory of the Industrial Revolution:

Modern growth began when enough intellectuals gained status not from ambiguity but from clarity, forming a network of specialists exchanging clear concise summaries of new insights.
In other words, the move from obscurantism to literalism saved us from poverty and misery.

Yes, it's suspicious that one of Robin's greatest cognitive strengths winds up being his explanation for two centuries of progress. But could he still be right?


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Carla Smith writes:

I believe he absolutely could be right! Yes, our country is and always has been unique and amazing in its progress, particularly within the years of the Industrial Revolution, however, I do believe that a move from obscurantism to literalism could definitely help explain our lack of 3rd world status and devastation. One of the greatest achievements during the Industrial Revolution, obviously, was the invention of the automobile which at first was probably a absolute advantage for us, but now has become, so it seems, a comparative advantage for our country along with many others, just to use a simple example. Without us starting somewhere and with something, although in most cases, with very little money, where would our international trade be today? All I can say is certainly not as successful as it has been thanks to the good ol' US of A!

Troy Camplin writes:

This could go far to explain why the postmodern West seems to be on the decline . . .

Unit writes:

In the US it seems that "what people say" matters quite a bit. Political campaigns can fail because of a malapropos. Women can dump you because of a mispoken sentence. In Europe this is not the case.
On the other hand, "what people actually do" seems to be universally ignored. Is this what you mean by literalism?

Snorri Godhi writes:

Very likely wrong, for the simple reason that the early leaders of the Industrial Revolution were semi-illiterate (with the exception of James Watt, who, as a technical assistant at a university, was relatively intellectual); and their technology did not need any sophisticated scientific knowledge, anyway. In fact, thermodynamics was developed in response to the Industrial Revolution: cause and effect are the other way around.

Matt writes:

Robin Hanson had a great chart on the market size for scientific journals over time, prior and through the IR. He shows this whole thing happened in one generation.

What about newspapers from 1650 to 1750?

In 1720, during an outbreak of the plague, newspapers reported the unfolding event in near real time with plain text. The audience, by then, was able to isolate themselves, individually, by reading the paper, and they had an expectation that magistrates would take proper blockade activities.

Hence, by 1720, most sensible people tried to be literate, for their own predictability. By 1750, governments were taking census. The last major plague outbreak seems to have been 1670.

Hanson is on to something here, because sometime prior to 1700, churches still managed literacy, or dominated that market. Protestant and catholic factions were in a more competitive market right at the time the plague came under management.

An important point, churches, in a competitive market, use print much more effectively to maintain inventory (congregation). Managing congregations includes developing blockade techniques to defeat the plague.

Did plain print defeat the religions and the plague, or did religions defeat the plague using print or did print defeat the plague and thus defeat religion?

Matt writes:

My problem here, better stated, is that the rise in market size for scientific journals around 1700, would have to be preceded by a rise in the newspaper markets, and that preceded by a rise in popular fiction, preceded by a rise in church and government pamphlets. These preceding markets take us back to around 1680 when we had just defeated the plague.

Readers of scientific journals started their literary education around 6 years. The average commencement of literary education dropped in years from 1680 to 1700 from 15 down to 7 and lower. This rise in child education took a number of years and would have brought us back to the end of the plague again. Printing technology had been well established by 1600.

Evidence still points to longer outlook for children born between 1680 and 1700. Children became more productive over longer periods by a large percentage jump, because we defeated the plague.

Steve Sailer writes:

Isn't it more the other way around, that the Enlightenment was helped along by a decline in literalism? You didn't have to take what Aristotle or Genesis said so literally anymore.

In general, obscurantism and literalism go together.

Unit writes:

By the way, just to be literal: "Did literalism [save] the world?"

Troy Camplin writes:

Actually, the Catholic church has always had a history of taking the Bible as metaphorical -- esp. the parts of the OT. There are places whre they took it literally that did get them in trouble with a few facts that Galileo ran across, though.

It was actually Voltaire who chose to read the Bible literally -- but he did so in order to make fun of it and of Christians and to show how absurd it was.. The response by the Protestants was to say, "OPh yeah, well, we accept it literally too, and it shows how much faith that we have that we believe it. We believe because it's absurd!" The latter was later stated outright by Kierkegaard.

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