Reframing the Great Divergence

A detailed study of the Enlightenment and the Great Divergence displays admirable depth of knowledge and subtlety of argument.

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c.1766.

The big idea behind this book is that the most important difference between Europe and the rest of the world, which led to the Industrial Revolution and modern economic growth, was the dawning of the Enlightenment, with its favourable implications for scientific and technological progress. In turn, the Enlightenment is seen as the culmination of a lengthy process of intellectual change among the literate European elite. Mokyr sets out to describe and explain this cultural evolution. He develops an astonishingly erudite and highly sophisticated analysis that complements and greatly extends the arguments of his earlier books, The Gifts of Athena (2002) and The Enlightened Economy (2009).

Mokyr sees the Enlightenment as a movement that underpins research based on experimentation, empirical observation and measurement and scientific method. This increased substantially the stock of useful knowledge from which technological progress could result, together with a reduction in the costs of accessing that knowledge, as agencies for improving its diffusion – such as the Royal Society to Mechanics’ Institutes – proliferated. At the heart of the Enlightenment was a change in beliefs, values and preferences, which embraced the idea of progress.  

Mokyr’s account gives centre stage to social learning and persuasion and he stresses the role of competition in the ‘market for ideas’ facilitated by the invention of the printing press. An important institution was the Republic of Letters, through which a network of scientists developed modern scholarly practices, such as peer evaluation, open science and replication of results. Here the incentives to participate were furthering knowledge and the opportunity to establish a reputation from which patronage might follow. A key permissive factor was European political fragmentation, which made it harder for reactionary forces to stifle intellectual initiative. A vital catalyst was provided by ‘cultural entrepreneurs’; two major exemplars were Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton.

As in his earlier books, Mokyr claims that the Enlightenment was a driving force behind the Industrial Revolution, which supported a sustained acceleration in technological progress that increasingly came to rely upon science rather than the intuition and ad hoc learning of uneducated workers. Over the long run of the 19th century and beyond, stretching into the era of laboratory-based research and development, this is surely right and important to remember at a time when expertise is derided and inconvenient truths are denied.

Nevertheless, the importance of the Enlightenment for the classic Industrial Revolution, which started in Britain in the late 18th century, remains contentious and this book certainly does not mark the end of this controversy. There is evidence that the spread of knowledge-access institutions had a positive impact on patenting. That said, it seems clear from the work of the economic historian Robert C. Allen that Enlightenment science did not matter for the technological breakthroughs in cotton textiles, which were the key technological advances to raise productivity in the leading sector. Indeed, Mokyr accepts that the links between Bacon or Newton and the Industrial Revolution are tenuous. Also, unlike the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment was a European rather than a distinctively British phenomenon. Perhaps the Enlightenment’s role was to strengthen the response of British engineers to opportunities presented by the economic environment of cheap energy, secure property rights, relatively high incomes and urbanisation.

One has to admire the depth of knowledge and the subtlety of Mokyr’s argument. Nevertheless, it must be noted that this is not a book for the novice reader. It is intellectual rather than economic history, while both the ideas relating to cultural evolution and the details of the origins of the Enlightenment are heavy going at times. Those seeking an introduction to the role of the Enlightenment in British economic development will be better served by Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy. However, for serious students of the Enlightenment itself, Mokyr’s magnum opus will be required reading for a long time to come.

A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy
Joel Mokyr
Princeton University Press

Nicholas Crafts is Professor of Economic History at the University of Warwick.