For the Heinz science communication workshop out here at UC Davis, there’s a reading I assigned from the Marquis de Condorcet‘s magnificent 1794 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. I assign Chapter 8, in which Condorcet, the greatest of enlightenment optimists, explains how the arrival of the printing press basically ensures that reasoned arguments would become widely disseminated, leading to the downfall of irrationality and superstition.
Some choice quotations:
A new sort of tribunal had come into existence in which less lively but deeper impressions were communicated; which no longer allowed the same tyrannical empire to be exercised over men’s passions but ensured a more certain and more durable power over their minds; a situation in which the advantages are all on the side of truth, since what the art of communication loses in its power to seduce, it gains in the power to enlighten….In a word, we now have a tribunal, independent of all human coercion, which favours reason and justice, a tribunal whose scrutiny it is difficult to elude, and whose verdict it is impossible to evade.
Ah, the printing press. You just can’t deceive any more:
Any new mistake is criticized as soon as it is made, and often attacked even before it has been propagated; and so it has no time to take root in men’s minds.
Hey wait–that sounds like the blogosphere! And yet, it seems that a lot of mistakes still take root there.
In fairness, Condorcet is certainly on to something about the power of the press to ensure that ideas do get disseminated in some way–that pretty much everything can get out, and can’t be suppressed:
The instruction that every man is free to receive from books in silence and solitude can never be corrupted. It is enough for there to exist one corner of free earth from which the press can scatter its leaves. How with the multitude of different books, with the innumerable copies of each book, of reprints that can be made available at a moment’s notice, how could it be possible to bolt every door, to seal every crevice through which truth aspires to enter?
Yes….but that’s very different from enlightenment reaching every single person and making him/her rational and not susceptible to misinformation, error, prejudice, etc. Methinks Condorcet has the freedom of the press and mass public enlightenment tangled together, when they’re really quite separate.
But it should be grounds for a good discussion today. Love to hear thoughts on the blog, as well.
Links to this Post
- Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock | September 22, 2010