Skip to content

The Faustian impulse and European exploration

June 8, 2012

Ricardo Duchesne in The Fortnightly Review:

In his 2003 book, Human Accomplishment: Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences800 BC to 1950, Charles Murray argued that the great artistic and scientific accomplishments were overwhelmingly European. ”What the human species is today,” he wrote, “it owes in astonishing degree to what was accomplished in just half a dozen centuries by the peoples of one small portion of the northwestern Eurasian land mass.”

This claim, which goes against the modern grain of the world history community – indeed, against fashionable belief; The New York Times unsurprisingly called it “more bluster than rigor” and “unconvincing” – was nonetheless the first attempt to quantify “as facts” the creative genius of individuals in terms of cultural origin and geographic distribution. Murray did this by calculating the amount of space allocated to these individuals in reference works, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Based on this metric, he concluded that “whether measured in people or events, 97 percent of accomplishment in the sciences occurred in Europe and North America” from 800 BC to 1950.  Murray’s inventories of the arts also confirmed the overpowering role of Europe, particularly after 1400. Although Murray did not compare their achievements but compiled separate lists for each civilization, he noted that the sheer number of “significant figures” in the arts is higher in the West in comparison to the combined number of the other civilizations. He explained this remarkable “divergence” in human accomplishments in terms of the degree to which cultures promote or discourage autonomy and purpose. I am persuaded that individualism is one of the critical variables.

The point I want to make, however, is that Murray pays no attention to accomplishments in other human endeavors such as leadership, exploration, and heroic deeds. The achievements he measures come only in the form of “great books” and “great ideas.” [More]

Advertisements
No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s