Back to metaphysics

A gentle reader (it was Perfesser Smith!) has kindly pointed to a fatuity in yesterday’s Idlepost, sufficiently egregious to be worth taking back. It was the suggestion that printing has anything to do with modernity. This is the sort of thing only a modernist would say, trapped as he is in the realm of appearances; in his hall of mirrors.

While it is true that a revolution was “in the air” of the fifteenth century, with the usual revolutionary dimensions and fronts, to associate it with the introduction of moveable type is worse than confusing cause with symptom.

Centuries before Gutenberg, Sheng Bi had introduced the same in China, with wood, then porcelain characters; his successors cast them in bronze. No “revolution” followed from this. A wit might observe that the Sung dynasty was now doomed, but this had more to do with Mongols invading. And whatever may be said for the Mongols, they were not great readers, nor theological hair-splitters. (They preferred to split heads.) I would go so far as to say that the Khans were not even preening intellectuals, of the sort that brought down the old metaphysical order of Europe in what we now call the Reformation.

Indeed, it is worth mentioning China for an attitude towards technology much more like ours in the Middle Ages, than like ours since the “dawn of the modern age.” Clocks, gunpowder, printing, what have you: they may have been quicker off the mark than we were (though we are only beginning to understand the range of mediaeval invention). But they took such “advances” in their stride, often greeting new devices as playthings, toys.

So did our pre-moderns.

Take for instance the Cistercian monks of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. They had a blast furnace for pig iron, plus all the techniques for a modern steel mill, though they hadn’t pushed production that far. This was all lost, together with Rievaulx’s extraordinary water-works, when that monstrous criminal, Henry VIII, dissolved the monasteries of England. The archaeologists who exhumed the ruined furnace in the last century were startled and amazed. Being moderns, they began to lament a “lost industrial revolution,” that could have swept Europe many centuries before the one that did.

But it would never have gone that way. The idea of mass production would not have occurred to the monks, because they were Christian. What an “industrial revolution” requires is not technological progress, which is easy enough to arrange once one’s attention is fixed on it. Rather it requires the modern attitude towards human beings: the ability to conceive of them as objects, as “labour,” as beasts of burden, interchangeable and essentially disposable, as the Pharaohs might have considered their pyramid-building workforce. That is what a “steel industry” presupposes: a proletariat.


Now back to Perfesser Smith, who, upon obtaining an electronic copy of the volumes to which I alluded yesterday (Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change), was unimpressed.

“I first checked and saw that she makes no more than passing, inconsequential reference to Machiavelli and William of Ockham, and does not appear to use the word nominalism at all.”

Instead he found this revealing statement, by Mrs Eisenstein (a fine lady, who died earlier this year):

“To ask historians to search for elements which entered into the making of an indefinite ‘modernity’ seems somewhat futile. To consider the effects of a definite communications shift which entered into each of the movements under discussion seems more promising.”

What is one to make of this?

Rather than paraphrase, I will quote Smith’s email, for it will repay close reading:

“In other words, being herself a modern, she cannot conceive that concurrent movements in the scientific, religious, and political spheres might share a common metaphysical essence that would account for their nature and near-concurrent historical emergence. Being metaphysically blind, the modern will always regard these realms as essentially heterogeneous, and that they can only share a commonality insofar as they may be affected by the same extrinsic, measurable phenomenon, in this case the printing press, which through changes in dissemination and retention patterns and whatnot, may accelerate the pace of these different movements, but not account for their origin; may account for their intensification, but not their content or direction.

“But if we define the difference between the pre-modern and the modern as that between a worldview oriented by a sense of transcendent reality and one where the notion of the transcendent has been eliminated, then, once we demonstrate how that transition occurred, the origin and direction of all these new movements can be accounted for.

“The Reformers severed all ties between the natural and supernatural (so the latter was only now accessible to “faith alone,” while the former was left to manage its own sinful affairs), scientists severed those between phenomena and substance (so reducing explanation to description), and politics those between power and authority (so reducing right to might).

“In general, appearance has been severed from the reality it was once understood to be an appearance of, and in such a way that appearance itself is now considered the only reality.

“In the pre-modern worldwiew, the essence of appearance lay in its being the means, the path, to an end, reality. In the modern worldview, appearance being itself the reality, its essence lies in being the means to more elaborations of appearance. In turn, the essence of these elaborations is as means to more intense elaborations, and so on. Appearance feeds on itself without any other intended end.

“Technique and systematization are the processes by which the essence of the modern worldview finds expression, and they cannot be stopped of their own accord. Nor can it be argued to the modern that these processes are inimical to him and his interests, because he can understand himself and his interests only through this worldview: his worldview.”


Or if I may be so bold, to condense this into a sound bite: The overthrow of Realism by Nominalism lies at the root of modernity; the replacement of a profound metaphysic with one that is invincibly jejune. Printing, at most, only served as a weapon.

Mea culpable, mea maxima culpable. It should have occurred to me by now that something inanimate, such as a machine, cannot change anything. Only souls can do that.