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Musings + Links (II)

Misinterpreting Joseph Needham

Joseph Needham began a magnificant project to catalog China's development of technology and science.[1] This work has played a key role in undermining previous narratives about the West's scientific supremacy. While I think Needham sometimes overstates the case or belives too strongly in a direct line from Chinese invention to similar Western ones, his work is quite thorough and raises the question of why China did not undergo a technological revolution in the same way that the West did.

Critics of Needham sometimes make the argument that Needham is asking the wrong question. And that instead of asking what China did wrong, he should view China as the normal case and ask instead what the West did right. I can only conclude that these critics have never actually read Needham firsthand, because he does, in fact, make this exact point in the conclusion to the project. Nevertheless, these critics have taught us an important lesson: historical criticism is much easier when you get to invent the arguments you're criticizing.

Tainter on Why Countries Will Not Voluntarily Reduce Growth

From The Collapse of Complex Societies, p. 214:

Here is the reason why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be equivalent to, and as foolhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option. Peer polity competition drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological.

He also has some thoughts that seem increasingly to describe our own society, p. 215:

As marginal returns decline (a process ongoing even now), up to the point where a new energy subsidy is in place, the standard of living that industrial societies have enjoyed will not grow so rapidly, and for some groups and nations may remain static or decline. The political conflicts that this will cause, coupled with the increasingly easy availability of nuclear weapons, will create a dangerous world situation in the foreseeable future.

Wittgenstein on the Modern World

The sickness of a time is cured by an alteration in the mode of the life of human beings, and it is only possible for the sickness of philosophical problems to get cured through a changed mode of thought and life, not through a medicine invented by an individual. Think of the use of the motor-car producing or encouraging certain sicknesses, and the human species being plagued by such sicknesses until, from some cause or other, as the result of some development or other, it abandons the habit of driving.

  1. Needham died before the work was finished. At the time of writing it is still in progress, though nearing completion. ↩︎