The Measure of Reality

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Many of the material and intellectual tools essential to functioning in the modern world—clocks, maps, money, arithmetic, printing, accurate pictorial representation—were not in the foreground of the average European’s mental landscape during the late Middle Ages. The mentality of Medieval Europeans was much more qualitative than quantitative, regarding, for example, days made of sunrises and sunsets rather than a succession of hours of uniform length ticking away on a machine.

Alfred W. Crosby analyzes the transition from what he calls the Venerable Model to the New Model from every vantage point, devoting whole chapters to the subjects of time, space, mathematics, music, painting, and bookkeeping. He describes the far-reaching effects of breaking things into standard units: goods and labor into units of money, music into units of pitch and duration, one’s place in this world into units of latitude and longitude, and intellectual and emotional expression into units of words and sentences on a printed page. Crosby posits that visualization was the key ingredient in this shift in mentality, perhaps unlocking an evolutionary door that allowed, for example, some polyphonic compositions—ostensibly works of music—to be fully appreciable only with the eyes.

Europeans made a largely unwitting heretical break with their religious past, finding in the New Model an antidote “for the nagging insufficiency of its traditional explanations for the mysteries of reality.” Crosby repeatedly examines the struggle of the sacred and the secular, showing how religious thinking ultimately undid itself, pointing out, for example, that though it was religion that necessitated conceptualizing time as linear rather than cyclical, it was this same concept, ironically, that laid the groundwork for cosmologies that left God forgotten.

This work is amply researched. The footnotes, found on virtually every page, are tantalizing and betray the author’s love for his subject. This is a deeply satisfying book leading the intellectual descendants of these Europeans to reflect richly on the origins of their habits of thought.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, January, 1997, p. 811.

Business Week. April 28, 1997, p. 12E6.

Choice. XXXIV, May, 1997, p. 1556.

Civilization. IV, February, 1997, p. 82.

Journal of Interdisciplinary History. XXVIII, Autumn, 1997, p. 261.

Library Journal. CXXII, January, 1997, p. 118.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 26, 1997, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, January 26, 1997, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, November 25, 1996, p. 62.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 7, 1997, p. 23.

The Measure of Reality

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Alfred Crosby is professor of American studies, history, and geography at the University of Texas, Austin. As that interdisciplinary appointment may suggest, Crosby is an adventurous scholar who ignores conventional academic boundaries. He is also a breezy, entertaining writer. Among his previous books is Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (1986).

In the preface to The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600, Crosby recounts the genesis of this new book in intriguing terms. He describes The Measure of Reality as “the third book I have written in my lifelong search for explanations for the amazing success of European imperialism.” In Ecological Imperialism and Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History (1994), Crosby focused on the “biological advantages” the Europeans enjoyed, a theme also taken up by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (reviewed in this volume). However, that line of explanation, Crosby writes, seemed insufficient to account for the scale of European dominance. The “textbook answer”— superior European science and technology—failed to satisfy because it merely reframed the question. The answer, he came to believe,

lay at first not in [Europeans’] science and technology but in their utilization of habits of thought that would in time enable them to advance swiftly in science and technology and, in the meantime, gave them decisively important administrative, commercial, navigational, industrial, and military skills. The initial European advantage lay in what French historians have called mentalité.

Why, then, were European imperialists “unique in the degree of their success”? It is because they were, according to Crosby, “thinking of reality in quantitative terms with greater consistency than other members of their species.”

Strangely, having stated his thesis so straightforwardly, Crosby never attempts to argue it in any systematic way. He characterizes, at some length, what he calls “the Venerable Model”—the old mentalité—that the new quantitative model replaced. He considers some of the conditions, such as “the rise of commerce and the state” and “the revival of learning,” that nurtured the shift to “quantificational perception” but were not the direct agents of change. Then he offers such evidences of change as the development of clocks and the increasing sophistication of marine charts and astronomical observations. Finally, in a sequence of chapters (“Music,” “Painting,” and “Bookkeeping,”) Crosby discerns a common pattern in seemingly disconnected enterprises: “visualization,” the “striking of the match” in the revolutionary process he has proposed to survey. The “habit of visualization,” which is second nature to us today, was then a novelty, “a new way not so much of thinking about the infinite and ineffable as seeing and manipulating matters of finite and daily actuality.”

Visualization, then, in the special sense intended by Crosby, is a powerful tool of abstraction:

Record events in chronological order on parchment or...

(The entire section is 1337 words.)