Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Alfred W. Crosby: "The Measure of Reality" [1987]

Our group wasn't very enthusiastic about this book; our average rating was only 3.5 on a scale of 0 to 10. It is indeed an important historical question as to why European imperialism arose to dominate the world, but we thought Jared Diamond did a much better job answering it in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel which we read later on. Scott thought more emphasis should have been given to the central importance of the rise of capitalism in the whole process—even if it is true that Crosby was intending to focus more on the reasons why capitalism arose in Europe first, rather than elsewhere. Rosie said Crosby's book and argument just didn't stick with her. John didn't think Crosby proved his point.

Kevin Coulter wrote up this summation, which I think many of the rest of us agreed with:

I had a very difficult time bonding with this book from the very start. The author puts forth an interesting premise for the book—to show what it was about the "Western European" intellect that led to its dominance of the world. What he ends up mostly doing, however, is not explaining the why, but rather the what—and unfortunately he does it with mind-numbing historical minutiae that reads more like an overly long term paper filled with footnotes. The closest he gets to telling us why Western European imperialism was dominant was his interesting theory of the relative obscurity of Western Europe in the 1100's and 1200's. The tribes of Western Europe, relative brutes compared to the advanced societies of the Middle East and the Orient, were not weighted down by rigid caste structures. Thus, as Western Europe became more urbanized, certain groups, like merchants, had the freedom to advance their financial and class status by staking out new ways of acquiring wealth. Competition for wealth spurred the need for quantification, measurement, and the search for raw materials for currency, building, etc. That seemed to be it for his theories of why. The rest of the book is vignette after vignette of the progress in counting, measuring, a little about maps, etc. I'm sure Guido of Arrezo, St Isidore of Seville, Marsilio Ficino, Theodoric of Freiburg, and Simon Stevin were swell people. But simply brief mentions of their contributions to western thought in a long line of other equally obscure names makes for a very boring and pretentious book.

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