Work in Progress: The Age of Machine Civilization
Friday 03 February 2023
Charles A. Beard is among the most eminent of American historians — or, at least, he was. He is remembered among philosophers of history as one of the great representatives of historical relativism. His relativism didn’t make him a nihilist, however, as no nihilist would have labored over the many volumes of history that he wrote. I think it would be better to identify Beard’s methodology as a defense of the role of human interest in the pursuit of knowledge, i.e., a defense of having a bias. An historian that one does not think of as any kind of philosopher at all, George Trevelyan, had this to say about the role of bias in historical writing:
“I once wrote three volumes on Garibaldi. They are reeking with bias. Without bias I should never have written them at all. For I was moved to write them by poetical sympathy with the passions of the Italian patriots of that period, which I retrospectively shared. Such merit as the work has, largely derives from that. And some of its demerits also derive from the same cause. Even I can now see that I was not quite fair to the French, or to the Papalist or to the Italian Conservative points of view in 1849. If I had to write the first volume of that Trilogy again I should alter this somewhat, though not enough to satisfy everyone. But in fact I could not possibly write the book again. What is good in it derived from the passions and powers of my youth, now irrecoverable.”
The fact that a book is written at all is a bias. With some subjects, you know that they closely touch the hearts of many people because of the great many books that are written about a given subject. Go to a random used book store and compare the size of the “religion” section with the size of the “philosophy” section and you will immediately get my drift. Even among scholars not interested in popular treatments of any given subject, this kind of partiality is very much in evidence. Take, for example, the intense interest in the works of Wittgenstein. One can find commentaries about almost any aspect of Wittgenstein’s thought or life. If you’re curious about how a particular work came into being, you can probably find an account of it, and very likely by someone who knew him personally and had a good claim to knowledge of the circumstances.
Other philosophers have a rather less lavish following. For example, F. H. Bradley (one of my philosophical heroes and one of my models for prose style) wrote an early work on the philosophy of history, The Presuppositions of Critical History. I had to canvas used book stores for many years before I found a copy. But what about the context in which Bradley wrote this essay? Bradley himself said nothing of this. There is a preface, but it gives us no insight into Bradley’s motivation nor tells us what inspired the work. Who and what was Bradley reading when he wrote this? With Wittgenstein we could probably answer a question like this, but not with Bradley. The one scholar of whom I know who wrote commentaries on Bradley, Richard Wollheim, devotes two pages to this work in his book on Bradley, telling us that Bradley was reacting to German Biblical criticism, especially David Strauss (who also prompted Nietzsche to write a polemic, one of his Untimely Meditations). This gives us some insight into Bradley’s interests at the time, but more would be helpful to understand the context of the book.
In any case, to return to Beard, while I am suspicious of his historical relativism (if that is what it is), Beard is of particular interest to me as he wrote quite explicitly about civilization from an historian’s point of view. As an American historian he took up the mantle of earlier American historians and more-or-less cast himself in the role of the chronicler of the American epic in works such as The Rise of American Civilization (in four volumes) and The Making of American Civilization, and two volumes edited by Beard, Whither Mankind: A Panorama of Modern Civilization and Toward Civilization. All of these books make extensive use of the concept of civilization, and the latter two provide some exposition and analysis of the concept.
Of these latter two volumes, Whither Mankind was first (1928), and Toward Civilization followed (in 1930). Beard described the genesis of the second volume thus:
“This volume, like Whither Mankind, is a view of modern civilization, but from an entirely different angle. Whither Mankind advanced the thesis that what is called Western Civilization, as distinguished from other cultures, is in reality a technological civilization, resting at bottom on science and machinery. In its pages this thesis was discussed and developed mainly by specialists in the humanities — law, economics, and ethics. Outsiders looking in reported their findings and impressions.”
In the introductory essay to Whither Mankind Beard provides a sketch of technological civilization:
“Considered with respect to its intrinsic nature, technological civilization presents certain precise characteristics. It rests fundamentally on power-driven machinery which transcends the physical limits of its human directors, multiplying indefinitely the capacity for the production of goods. Science in all its branches — physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology — is the servant and upholder of this system. The day of crude invention being almost over, continuous research in the natural sciences is absolutely necessary to the extension of the machine and its market thus forcing continuously the creation of new goods, new processes, and new modes of life. As the money for learning comes in increasing proportions from taxes on industry and gifts by captains of capitalism, a steady growth in scientific endowments is to be expected, and the scientific curiosity thus aroused and stimulated will hardly fail to expand — and to invade all fields of thought with a technique of ever-refining subtlety. Affording the demand for the output of industry are the vast populations of the globe; hence mass production and marketing are inevitable concomitants of the machine routine.”
I find several things of interest in this description of technological civilization. Firstly, he identifies science as the servant and upholder of this technological regime. This is fundamentally in accord with my argument that ours is not a (strictly) scientific civilization because science serves civilization rather than civilization serving science. Secondly, his reference to “crude invention” implies that there is a stage of invention not primarily driven by scientific knowledge and technique, and there is thus a stage in the development of technological civilization that is driven by “crude invention,” but, when this stage of development is exhausted, invention must then take a more refined form derived from science, not from tinkering. Implicit in this passage is the assumption that this process will not stall once scientific invention takes over from crude invention. Beard has an argument for this, encapsulated in the above, such that largesse from successful capitalists and industries will flow into science, and this will become a virtuous cycle in which scientific curiosity is aroused, leading to further invention, leading to further profit, leading to further largesse. I will not here take up this argument, but it might be worth further discussion at some time.
The second volume, Toward Civilization, is intended to give the technologists and engineers, rather than scholars in the humanities, an opportunity to speak their minds on American civilization. A term that comes up throughout this volume is “machine civilization.” Beard announces this on page one: “The battle over the meaning and course of machine civilization grows apace, with resounding blows along the whole front.” This theme receives repeated reformulations, usually in the light of those who have set themselves against “machine civilization” as its critics:
“In this continuous creative process which produces and sustains our machine civilization, all take part, whether they work or buy or criticize or amuse themselves; all are in some intimate way directors of it or victims of it, twist and turn as they will; to its inescapable imperatives they must conform. And at bottom all, or nearly all, are alternately hopeful and pessimistic about it; they both cheer and curse it. As they observe the wireless radio encompassing the earth with music or the airplane soaring in the sky they marvel at its wonders; caught in its daily routine, its grinds, and its traffic jams they damn its tyrannies and futilities. At one hour it seems big with destiny; at another heavily laden with absurd telephone calls and vain irritations. But they cannot escape it. Day and night it encompasses them. Whoever would fain accomplish great things must somehow co-operate with it. A coming to consciousness of its drives and its choices in itself marks the appearance of a new power.”
What Beard is describing in this passage, philosopher of technology Don Ihde would, decades later, call the “technological texture” of contemporary life:
“…beginning with the first conscious event of the day, it is likely that the ringing of an alarm or the sound of a clock radio is our first awareness. This is followed by a whole series of interactions and uses, which may include turning off the electric blanket or turning up the heat and in either case throwing back the technologically produced bedclothes from the technologically produced bed, engaging the vast plumbing system, and entering a veritable technological jungle in the modern kitchen with stove, toaster, hot-water system, lighting, and so on. And even the philosopher takes this technological texture for granted in his or her daily use of telephone, Xerox machine, typewriter, automobile, ad infinitum.” (Existential Technics, pp. 10–11)
I mentioned in a PS to newsletter no. 218 that I had finished a paper, “The Develes Engynnes Wolde Me Take: Technological Textures of Life on Earth and in Space,” which discusses the idea of technological texture in more detail. I’m hoping this paper will appear in the Journal of Space Philosophy this spring.
When I read “machine civilization” I am immediately put in mind of H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, the film version of which I watched yet again this past week. The benevolent dictatorship of the engineers depicted in the book is precisely what one would expect from a “machine civilization,” which Wells describes variously as “the grip of the harsh humanity of the Air Dictatorship” and “the pitilessly benevolent grip of the Air Dictatorship.”
These passages sound a lot like T. S. Eliot on “the sharp compassion of the healer’s art.” This is Hamlet’s contention that he must be cruel to be kind translated into a modern idiom, so we know that the principle was familiar even before the age of machines, technology, and engineers.
Beard also wrote the closing chapter in Toward Civilization, in which he argues for the fundamental unity of machine civilization and whatever kind of civilization preceded it, and from which machine civilization inherits its traditions:
“Nothing is more apparent than the fact that these writers, though immersed in their laboratories or engaged in work of a highly technical character, are fully aware of the criticisms brought against machine civilization in the name of humanism, religion, and aesthetics. They are also fully aware of the evils and maladjustments connected with the development of science and machinery. No wall separates ‘the engineering mind’ from the cultural heritage in which it operates. It works within the limits of our transmitted intellectual outfit and it evolves in the process, assimilating materials and ideas from all sides.”
This book, released shortly after the onset of the Great Depression, was quite optimistic, as was the previous book — optimistic about technology, about civilization, and about America. I suspect that if the contributors to these volumes had known what the depths of the Great Depression would look like they would have been a good deal less optimistic. The Great Depression wasn’t the only straw to break the optimistic camel’s back, but it was a big straw, along with two planetary scale wars (one finished, one yet to come, when these books were published), not to mention genocides and numerous crimes against humanity. The pessimistic tone of the second half of the twentieth century was not pessimism for pessimism’s sake, but was based on sad experience. This pessimism had an intellectual side as well as a practical side.
In the above Beard wrote that “No wall separates ‘the engineering mind’ from the cultural heritage in which it operates.” The intellectual side of pessimism came to see that this was not true. C. P. Snow delivered his famous Rede Lecture on “The Two Cultures” on 07 May 1959, with the Cold War well underway. Snow’s thesis was widely debated — is still debated — but, in being debated, the basic premises of Snow’s argument were accepted: he established the terms of the debate, and others followed in his wake to discuss the problem that he had defined.
Three years before Snow’s Rede Lecture, Jacob Bronowski had published his Science and Human Values, based on lectures delivered in 1953. Bronowski’s book seems to be everything that Snow says doesn’t happen: erudite in both the sciences and the humanities, Bronowski outlined an inspiring vision of the unity of the sciences and the humanities. Bronowski both talked the talk and walked the walk.
The first chapter of Bronowski’s book, however, begins with a haunting description of his visit to Nagasaki in November 1945, when the city was still a blasted-out ruin. This is what stuck with me most about this book, and it seems that the moral conundrum that Bronowski posed he was not able to successfully resolve. At least, that was the case for me, as I came away from the book troubled rather than heartened (though I heartily recommend the book). In Bronowski we have what remained of Beard’s optimism for “machine civilization” in the second half of the twentieth century.
Bronowski, like Beard, had definite views on civilization. The last episode (“Long Childhood”) of his television series The Ascent of Man, was essentially Bronowski sitting in his modern house talking about the problems of modern civilization. This was one of the sources that sparked my interest in civilization as a theoretical problem. Bronowski argued in The Ascent of Man that we have a scientific civilization, and he made related claims in Science and Human Values (especially the later appendix, “The Abacus and the Rose”). This and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View television series started me down a dozen year path of trying to clarify what such claims mean. I’m not finished yet. If I had started with Beard instead of Clark and Bronowski, I would have taken a different path, but I suspect I would have converged on a similar goal.