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Wakefield’s Nightmare, Pt. 2: Divided Opinion on the Political Economic Importance of Enlightenment Intellectual Culture January 25, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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At the end of Pt. 1, I suggested that, in positing, respectively, the weakness and the strength of Enlightenment philosophers in pre-industrial 18th-century economic culture, Andre Wakefield and Simon Schaffer were reaching contrary historical conclusions using the same historiographical gambit. I would like to begin Pt. 2 by expanding on this point.

There is a prominent, if usually implicit, historiographical concept, which holds that injustice is allowed to occur because the cultures subject to that injustice are made invisible. Historiography, therefore, becomes a two-fold enterprise: it identifies forces of concealment, and restores visibility to hidden cultures. Labor culture, of course, has long been one such beneficiary of historians’ rescue efforts. Meanwhile, “science” (or some related concept) has often been considered a force of concealment, because it presents pictures that seem intellectually authoritative or “natural,” while failing to disclose its own biases. Both Wakefield and Schaffer apply this concept to the links between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, albeit in different ways.

For Schaffer, philosophers provided intellectual instruments (e.g., measurements of productive labor) and justifications (e.g., testimony to the efficiency of mechanized processes), which lent essential support to the industrialization process. To deny the role of the philosophers in the creation of industrial culture would, therefore, be tantamount to making such instrumentation and justification appear to have arisen spontaneously, and thus naturally. Schaffer believes that this was precisely what those philosophers intended. From 1999’s “Enlightened Automata” (148):

As Norton Wise points out in this studies of late-eighteenth-century French rationalism, strategies used to produce the sphere of enlightened action secured that culture to the extent that they disappeared from view, so that the nature of the late Enlightenment seemed an unmediated reality. Soldiers, engineers, prisoners, and workers were subjected to rather literal forms of enlightened discipline. The social order engineered their mechanization, and thus those who did this engineering could represent this condition as natural.

For this reason Schaffer approves of Margaret Jacob’s and Larry Stewart’s work detailing the long history of connections between natural philosophers, practical works, and state investment and patronage.

Wakefield, Andrew

Andre Wakefield

In contrast, for Wakefield, the primary source of intellectualist concealment arises not from Enlightenment philosophy itself, but from 20th-century intellectuals, specifically economic historians specializing in modernization theory. In his telling, these intellectuals had a stake in casting Enlightenment philosophers in basically the same role that they hoped to play in their own time: prophets of modernization. In doing so, the intellectuals, first, anachronistically misrepresented Enlightenment philosophers’ thought as foreshadowing their own, and, second, vastly overstated those philosophers’ importance in the industrialization process. This overstatement, in turn, cast the Industrial Revolution as an essentially intellectual phenomenon, thereby concealing its exploitative foundations (15):

The blood and guts of the Industrial Revolution — its violence and hard labor, its failures and misery, its slavery and theft — drop into the background as we contemplate a bloodless world of praxis-oriented experts happily disseminating knowledge and cultural entrepreneurs philosophizing about the potential of ‘industrial science.’

Thus, in addition to the work of modernization theorists, and more recently Joel Mokyr, Marcus Popplow, and others, Wakefield disapproves of Margaret Jacob’s and Larry Stewart’s emphasis on the historical connections between natural philosophers, practical works, and state investment. To the extent that such connections existed—Wakefield invokes Popplow’s invocation of the example of the agricultural improvement schemes of Johann von Justi (1717?-1771)—they were actually dismally ineffectual in the face of technical incompetence and local resistance: “It was cameralists like Justi who needed help from farms and farmers: their academic careers depended on the fiction that the sciences could be, and were, useful for agricultural practice” (11).

Importantly, this perspective on the efficacy of philosophers’ schemes is not actually significantly different from that of Schaffer, who presented events such as Jacques de Vaucanson’s efforts to reform silk-weaving as subject to similar failures. The key difference, I think, is that Schaffer would portray Justi’s “fiction” as ideologically powerful in its time, where Wakefield supposes the fiction would not have been powerful, certainly practically, as well as, one presumes, ideologically, and could only be regarded as such in blinkered hindsight.

Now, just to add another intriguing dimension to our picture, let’s turn to Margaret Jacob’s The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution (1988). Interestingly enough, it turns out that, like Wakefield, she, too, blames 20th-century modernization theorists for the creation of inaccurate portraits of economic development in the 18th century. Only, she blames them not for overstating philosophers’ role, but for ignoring it (136–137):

With the assistance of the natural philosophers and their science, English entrepreneurs such as Josiah Wedgwood and the Strutts thought their way to industrialization. That intellectual history has largely gone unwritten because economic and social history, and modernization studies, have dominated the study of the first Industrial Revolution.

Certain assumptions about early industrialization have been commonplace in the recent literature: the mechanistic economic concepts of ‘take-off,’ which once begun becomes irreversible; the ‘state of business expectations’ (i.e., the necessity to achieve profit); the growth of population; access to raw materials and exploitable labor; and not least, a specific ‘specialization’ in financial and commercial operations—all have been assumed as prerequisites to the industrial process. Although none of these factors can be discounted, none of them explain the obvious. The presence of raw materials, foreign markets, cheap labor, and surplus capital will not in themselves make an industrial revolution.

Jacob’s vision of 18th-century entrepreneurs thinking their way to industrialization very neatly maps onto Wakefield’s complaint about the ways the importance 18th-century intellectual culture is misunderstood. At the same time, though, she, like Wakefield, holds 20th-century intellectuals’ misinterpretations of 18th-century history responsible for their irresponsible intervention in policy (137):

The recent history of the various attempts to impose industrialization on third world countries reveals with stark clarity that technology, capital, and imported expertise will not produce the intertwining of political, social, and intellectual factors that in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe permitted industrialization to occur, first in England and then gradually in much of the western and northern areas of the Continent.

The failure of modernization in various contemporary societies must of necessity affect the academic disciplines most directly concerned with explaining economic development historically or with understanding the social relations of science and technology. The time has come therefore to take another look at the first Industrial Revolution, more precisely at the role of science in that process.

Jacob, Cultural Meaning of the Sci RevFor Jacob, the 20th-century intellectuals’ mistake was not that they preconceived a particular vision of modernization as a replicable process and an innate good, while also dismissing the human costs in that model’s history; it was that intellectuals’ historical models of modernization were mistaken because they ignored the importance of the creation of a broad-based technical culture, which she holds was characteristic of the “English Enlightenment.” This culture developed through philosophers’ active interest in practical activities, and through practical engineers’ and artisans’ attendance at a growing array of public scientific lectures.

So, clearly, there’s a lot of confusion here. Let’s see if we can pull away a few tentative conclusions, and identify some unresolved questions, all with the proviso that I’m more spectator than expert in this area of history. As always, clarifying comments are most welcome.

Jacob and Schaffer do seem to agree, contra Wakefield, that the practical interests of Enlightenment philosophers were integral to the process of industrialization. In the view of both, a major part of that influence was the ideological support that philosophers lent to a nascent culture of mechanization. This, in my view, is a dicey question, and I’d like to explore it further in subsequent posts, without grounding the discussion with the framing device of Wakefield’s paper (and we’ll get to Geoffrey Sutton’s disagreement with Jacob then).

Jacob, however, does not seem to share Schaffer’s conviction that a large part of that philosophy’s ideological support was its view of physical labor and artisanal skill as exploitable resources, and its ability to use ideas to conceal that exploitation. Even if Jacob disagrees with modernization theorists’ history, per Wakefield she does seem to share their general understanding of industrialization as, in its fundamental essence, a productive development. Where Schaffer regards Enlightenment thought as not only deeply disruptive but also in a kind of existential conflict with skilled labor as part of its effort to divide the world into enlightened “managers” and exploitable, minimally skilled laborers; Jacob, in contrast, seems to regard the English Enlightenment as having actually forged a strong alliance between skilled workmen and philosophers.

I suspect Jacob’s picture is the better one on this point. Given the variety of skills necessary to implement new projects, the culture of conflict Schaffer illustrates was surely noticed, but might not have cut so clearly along class lines. In any event, it is not clear that tensions between capitalists and both skilled and unskilled labor were directly anticipated by Enlightenment ideals (though shades of them might be retrospectively detected in various corners of Enlightenment thought). Some might regard this as a naive point of view, but, for me, it accords with the idea of Enlightenment thought as more a reaction to existing conditions than as an attempt to define and control the final state of a new social order.

All in all, I mostly find myself in agreement with Wakefield: the ascription of high significance to intellectual history in the development of economic culture probably is overdrawn, leading to the application of anachronistic concepts, which serve to predetermine future developments. For me, this should apply as much to Schaffer’s rationalizing “managers” as to Marcus Popplow’s “praxis-tested expert knowledge.”

I would not, however, ascribe such narratives to a specific intellectual movement, e.g., modernization studies, so much as to intellectuals’ constant self-interest in overstating not only the significance of themselves and their perceived forebears, but that of their intellectual rivals as well. This interest has created a large, deep, and, as we have already seen, contradictory array of narrative accounts on which scholars can draw. I will try to delve into these further in subsequent posts.


1. Gabriel Finkelstein - January 26, 2015


2. Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #33 | Whewell's Ghost - February 3, 2015

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