[Humanist] 28.18 Crosby's measure

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon May 12 23:53:02 CEST 2014

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 18.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 12 May 2014 12:01:40 +0100
        From: John Naughton <john.jnaughton at gmail.com>
        Subject: Dangers of skating on thin ice

Willard McCarthy's recommendation of Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of
Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600 (Cambridge 1997) -- a
work hitherto unknown to me -- sent me to (a) the library catalogue and (b)
Google for reviews.  The latter reveal how difficult/risky it is for
scholars to embark on works which have a long historical sweep and/or grand
themes.  The standard specialist response is generally a variation of the
old trope that "if one is skating on thin ice it is best to go quickly".

Thus Theodore M. Porter writes in his review (
"Even more than in his previous work, [Crosby] defies all provincialism.
This is a book about the late medieval and Renaissance period with no
evidence of research in Latin, or indeed any language but English, and very
little reliance on primary sources. His use of scholarship is spotty and
idiosyncratic. His reading in the history of technology and science shows a
marked preference for older studies. He does not even nod to the outpouring
of work in the last two decades on the history of quantification since
1600. His grand argument has yawning gaps. The link between quantification
and imperialism he takes largely for granted. Supposing he is right about
the medieval origins of a quantitative mentality, he provides no
elaboration of how it mattered beyond a nod to the well-worn Weberian
tropes of rationalization and bureaucratization. Although the book purports
to be about broad shifts of thinking, mentalités, virtually all its
evidence relates to elite philosophers and artists."

Ouch! J. D. Parr, reviewing the book in The Bulletin of Historical Research
in Music Education (Vol. 20, No. 1, September 1998, pp. 63-68) tries a
different approach -- damning with faint praise.  Consider, for example,
this passage: "Using exhaustive research techniques and the clever wit of a
prized journalist Crosby attempts to investigate the causes of this epochal
change in attitude among Europeans - literally the 'how, when, why and
where' of this new perspective toward rationality. He succeeds brilliantly
on three counts, but despite his persistence with claiming a solution to
the 'why question', the evidence is simply not there. It would appear that
this more philosophical than cliometrical dilemma will have to be solved
through the field of psychohistory and group or individual personality

I particularly enjoyed "the clever wit of a prized journalist".


Professor John Naughton
Senior Research Fellow, CRASSH
University of Cambridge

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