How the Printing Press Ensures Eternal Enlightenment (Or So They Thought in the 18th Century)

By Chris Mooney | September 21, 2010 2:40 pm

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.


Comments (23)

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  1. Nullius in Verba

    “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.”

    True, but then the alternative of not allowing the free dissemination of ideas makes universal rationality even more impossible.

    And of course, it is always a work in progress. The tribunal always gets there in the end, but may be many years in “this ever recurrent and often cruel war.”

    I liked this bit:

    “Not only did anyone who tried to educate himself find the solid and fearful phalanx of all the errors of his country and his century standing between himself and the truth but the most dangerous of these errors were, so to speak, already part of himself. Every man has to begin by recognising his own errors before he could dispel those of others, and before wrestling with the natural difficulties placed in the way of truth he had as it were to refashion his own intelligence.”

    Wise advice, but hard to do. Know thyself.

  2. Sean McCorkle

    Just thinking out loud here:

    During the printing revolution, books became cheaper but were still not free. Costs, though dropping, still must have been a limiting factor at some level. I’m curious what the relative number of authors were during those times, as a fraction of the population. I bet the percentages were low, although they probably increased as time went on and costs went down. So maybe a lot of readers had some access to a smaller number of writers. Today, in contrast, extremely low (nearly free) costs of reading and writing blogs today allows many more people easy access to more people, and efficient means to find people that think like they do (Chris, I think you’ve made this point before). According to this, there were 0.1 billion blogs counted in 2009 – thats a pretty decent fraction of the population that are spouting off something or other. So in contrast to back then, much larger numbers of people are reading much larger numbers of writers. Time becomes a limit- one can easily spend all of one’s time only with ones favorite writers.

    Reading is part of the process – discussing and processing what one has read with others is the other important part.
    But today, widespread commonality is disappearing. There is less and less back and forth discourse between those who disagree, so ideas are not challenged as strongly. Back then, one’s ability to discuss with others was limited by geography, so perhaps one had easiest access to fellows that didn’t always agree – i.e. discussing with your neighbor or fellow townsfolk about some author. Social pressures required civil behavior towards each other, at risk of social consequences. (If a fight becomes personal with your neighbor, you’re going to still see them day after day). On the internet, the access is practically unlimited by comparison, and consequences of incivility (if any) are very different. Typically, one can be shunned from communities (blogs) where one is in disagreement, which will tend to drive like-thinking minds together into tribes.

  3. Jockaira

    Nullius in Verba,

    I liked that too. Someone else, a long time ago, said, “Recognizing one’s own ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.”

  4. Anthony McCarthy

    Freedom leaves people free to lie as well as to tell the truth. And when the lies appeal to peoples prejudices and appetites, it will be more influential than the truth. The message of the truth is stronger, being closer to reality, but it’s become obvious that you can corrupt an effective majority in a population by appealing to their weakness in order to rob them and get power.

    That’s one of the problems with our very difficult to change constitution here in the US. It’s an 18th century document that doesn’t take sufficient notice of what we found out about the effect of concentration of publishing and, even more so, the far more persuasive media of movies, radio and TV. I don’t think that representative government will survive in a population that is sold lies told by corporations and obscenely wealthy people propagandizing for their self interest. And with self-government will go those freedoms. Self-government by informed people is both the priority and the necessary protector of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. And our legal system has it backwards in a really dangerous way.

  5. Jon

    Most people don’t know that Jefferson wanted restriction against monopolies in the bill of rights:

    I will now add what I do not like [in the draft constitution]. First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land. . . .

    I would be interested in what Jefferson would have to say about certain monopolies in media and broadcast outlets today, as well as the sophisms coming out of certain “think” tanks that are passed to those outlets…

  6. Anthony McCarthy

    Jon, even more startling, Jefferson banned Hume’s History from the University of Virginia in order to suppress its anti-republican bias.

    Jefferson, the patron saint of free speech absolutism banned Hume, the patron saint of materialist absolutism for political reasons. Apparently he agreed with my point that preserving the possibility of representative government was superior to the doctrine of free speech, which ultimately depends on self-government by an informed population.

  7. Gaythia

    I would question Sean McCorkle’s comment that “widespread commonality” is disappearing. Tribes are not new, shunning is not new, limiting ones associations to like thinking people is not new. While it is true that in the 60’s and 70’s we did have a widespread, seemingly homogenous, white middle class, only part of that was due to the desirable economics fostering a strong middle class over greater income disparity. Culturally, people who did not fit into that idealized image were quite repressed. Suburbs were segregated. People in cities could live neighborhood by neighborhood but be separated by schools, religious affiliations, and housing and workplace discrimination, and still never directly interact. And communication was limited then also, with only 3 major TV networks, for example.
    I’d like to invite Anthony McCarthy out here to Colorado to see first hand what it is like to have an easy to change (state) constitution. We currently have on the ballot an amendment that would declare a fertilized egg to be a human being (See:
    And also extreme tax initiatives that would severely cut back government functions ( See: Tendencies towards domination by wealthy special interest groups are increased, not limited. Our Federal Constitution, while certainly not a perfect document, has, over time, served us quite well.

  8. Gaythia

    After contemplating the statement: “Methinks Condorcet has the freedom of the press and mass public enlightenment tangled together, when they’re really quite separate.” I decided that I do think that they are tangled together, and not “quite separate”. We can’t have enlightenment without information flowing as freely as possible. In a direct parallel with the internet, the printing press, when first invented, was such a communication breakthrough that it may have seemed that public enlightenment must quickly follow. As with the internet, it turns out to be more complicated than that. For one thing, after an initial burst of freer expression, the powers that be learn how to exert control and manipulate the new technologies towards their goals. Which doesn’t mean we aren’t better off, just that perfection is still a goal.

  9. Nullius in Verba

    “I decided that I do think that they are tangled together, and not “quite separate”. We can’t have enlightenment without information flowing as freely as possible.”

    I agree.

    The idea of this separation betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Enlightenment is. The Enlightenment is not the destination; it is the journey, the means of transport.

    It is like being told that evolution by natural selection leads to the appearance of good design in organisms, and asking ‘if that is so, then why do we still get conflict between predators and prey?’ Why are our good designs still attacked at every opportunity? Why does the lion not recognise the evolved perfection of the gazelle, and leave it be? Join it, even?

    The Enlightenment was about pushing your ideas out of the zoo gates, from a place where they are protected from all harm, and into a world where they must shape up or die. We can’t have enlightenment without information flowing as freely as possible. We can’t have enlightenment when the bars of cages surround our ideas. It’s a more comfortable existence inside the zoo; safe and well-fed, getting fat and slow. But it does not result in those apparent good designs we so admire.

  10. Jon

    Having read Nullius in Verba for a while, his ideas sound a lot like Social Darwinism.

    If we have a world purely where ideas must either “shape up or die”, why have something like public education? Why labor to give anyone critical thinking skills or an informed history curriculum if the just end result is that “fittest shall survive” in any case? It sounds an awful lot like “Might makes Right”–and in my experience, that’s not a guarantee in this world by any stretch. To paraphrase MLK, in the long term things bend toward justice, but that arc can be pretty long, and sometimes it needs all the help it can get.

    Even Darwin can become a casualty of this kind of logic, when applied ruthlessly enough:

  11. Jon

    Is it just me or does Climate Depot look like a carbon copy of the Drudge Report?

    (Let’s not look at what’s true–what’s sensational is what interests us… as well as some things we’ll never talk about, like who signs our check and the low curiosity level of our intended audience. If you have a problem with that, that must mean you’re elitists, part of the new class, liberal establishment, etc. )

  12. Anthony McCarthy

    I’d like to invite Anthony McCarthy out here to Colorado to see first hand what it is like to have an easy to change (state) constitution. Gaythia

    I was talking about the U.S. Constitution which is definitely not easy to change as you need two thirds of state legislatures to adopt the change. State constitutions are often easier to change. Though any change that is made to them still would have to not usurp the rights citizens have under the United States constitution. At least in so far as you can convince federal judges of that.

    The U.S. Constitution allowed slavery to exist and led directly to the civil war. It gave power to the Supreme Court which allowed the horrible Dred Scott and Plessey v Furgeson to become the law set by the constitution, through its normal operations. It has allowed the string of corporate person-hood rulings which are reaching their anti-democratic climax in Buckley v. Valeo and the Citizens United rulings. It has no equal protection for women and a host of minority groups. As a gay man, I do not have equal protection under the law, under the constitution. I suspect a corporation has more, actual rights than I do under the constitution. It’s riddled with hindrances of democracy in favor of the concentration of wealth and its exercise of political power in opposition to the interests of the majority.

    The Senate is an inherently undemocratic body, which puts far greater power into the hands of the residents of small states, such as the one I live in. There is no reason for residents of my state to have more voting power in the Senate than the residents of California or New York. And due to that imbalance of power, and since the Senate would have to vote by tw0-thirds to approve an amendment it is just about certain it will never change that way. The other two methods of amendment are even less likely to happen.

    I think it’s way past time to stop pretending that the constitution that we have works in the 21st century. It certainly doesn’t guarantee democracy.

  13. Gaythia

    Anthony, I agree with pretty much everything you say, except for the conclusion that things would improve with a faster process. I fear, that, peoples biases and prejudices being what they are, that we’d mostly get wider and wilder philosophical pendulum swings. We definitely need a equal rights and equal protection amendment, and slavery should never have been allowed in the first place. I agree that the initial hesitancy on the part of the founding fathers to make the Senate a directly elected body is over concentrating power to small states. In fact, I think that the odd “This is a Republic, not a Democracy” rhetoric taught by some of the right wing is a way to attempt to justify a future in which that would be even more true. I agree that making amendments to improve things will be difficult. I do think that we have managed to make progress, and that we can continue to make progress. It is not that I think that the Constitution is a perfect document. My question would be, in real life, how best do we move forward?

  14. Nullius in Verba

    “Having read Nullius in Verba for a while, his ideas sound a lot like Social Darwinism.”

    Definitely not! Social Darwinism is left-wing, not right.
    (Although I’m not exactly right-wing, either. It’s all relative, I guess.)

    Nevertheless, it is a most interesting thought, which I will pursue for a little…

    “Why labor to give anyone critical thinking skills or an informed history curriculum if the just end result is that “fittest shall survive” in any case?”

    Because “critical thinking skills” are precisely what I’m talking about. Critical thinking, and the ability to withstand it, is ‘fitness’ in this case.

    My analogy was to the basics of evolution by natural selection, not to “might makes right”. If that’s what you understand natural selection to be, then it’s not me that’s the Social Darwinist around here. ‘Fittest’ can mean the fastest, or the most intelligent gazelle, or the most cooperative family of gazelle’s, too. A loving mother’s sacrifice can be just what evolution implies.

    Social Darwinism is precisely the trap I’m warning against. Social Darwinists believed that they knew what constituted ‘fittest’ (and somehow, the definition always seemed to encompass themselves) and regarded any behaviour contrary to it as opposing this natural progress, weakening the race. Their concept of fitness therefore needed a little help, since it kept on losing out to weakness when left to its own devices.

    Likewise, there is a danger of believing that you know what constitutes the ‘truth’ (which definition always encompasses one’s own opinions) and any behaviour contrary to them, that results in one losing debates and believers, to be contrary to the natural progress of knowledge. One’s concept of ‘good science’ therefore needs a little help, since it keeps on losing arguments when left to its own devices.

    That’s an error. Everybody has unconscious biases and wrong beliefs. We are all susceptible to misinformation, error, prejudice, etc. That’s why we need information flowing as freely as possible, to maximise the chances that the criticisms and attacks made upon us will catch out our own mistakes before they take root, or propagate. The Intellectual Darwinist believes that in a free fight, lies would naturally beat truth, as the Social Darwinist believes the more violent and cruel will beat the friendly and altruistic. In the short-run, this can happen. But in the long run, truth and kindness will win out. That’s how they came to exist.

  15. Jon

    Ok, that time you passed the Turing test, unlike before with the George Orwell discussion. But I have to note the irony of someone calling themselves “Nullius in Verba” resorting to babbling about peoples’ “unconscious biases” when losing arguments on their merits…

  16. Nullius in Verba

    Turing test? Orwell? Oh, you mean when we had that discussion about your version of Nineteen Eighty Four being different to mine? Yes, that was very funny.

    The irony is that it’s only unconscious biases that could give you the impression that I’m losing arguments. You usually seem not to notice if I succeed in making a point; the only way I can tell if I’m getting through is that you quickly move on to another topic and don’t mention it again. It doesn’t matter, because I’m not trying to ‘win’. I’m trying to understand, and be understood. I know perfectly well that I’m not going to convince anyone here, but I do think it would help if you understood why other people think as they do; people like me. If you can understand an opponents best argument argued as well as it can be (without you having to believe it) then it’s much easier to have a constructive debate.

    Unconscious biases are a large part of what science is about; they are precisely what much of the scientific method is designed to deal with. Double-blind randomised trials? What possible difference can it make to the experiment what the observer knows about the set-up? If you regard mention of bias in a discussion about science as “babbling”…

    I’m trying to get across some important principles of science here, in response to persistent ‘babbling’ about non-science concepts like authority and consensus, or people (apparently) thinking maybe the Enlightenment didn’t quite get it right by allowing free debate. I’m trying to teach a bit of critical thinking.

    This tendency towards “intellectual tyranny in the name of science” has been noted before, and others far better at it than I have tried to explain the difference.
    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
    And yet, as he also notes (and gives examples of), we still keep on fooling ourselves, even scientists. “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” A priori belief, I would have said, but it’s close enough.

  17. Jon

    The irony is that it’s only unconscious biases that could give you the impression that I’m losing arguments.

    Back atcha. The dramatic irony here is very thick. I don’t know how you explain what has happened in the scientific community when even Richard Lindzen is duped into accepting the consensus. What is going on? Orbital mind control lasers taking over scientists’ minds? Stealth totalitarians taking over the academy? How did everyone get to marching in lockstep like that? Is there a secret scientific Hitler out there stopping people from getting tenure by overturning the scientific consensus? I never got anything but vague answers from you on this, and some talking points cribbed from Steve McIntyre.

    …maybe the Enlightenment didn’t quite get it right by allowing free debate.

    Um, no. The argument is that the Enlightenment didn’t quite get it right by assuming the man on the street would always be sufficiently informed by the press. People have been worried about that at least since Walter Lippmann’s *Public Opinion* back in the 20’s (And Orwell was worried about it too). Not a new line of discussion…

  18. Nullius in Verba

    “…a secret scientific Hitler…”

    Ah! Godwin’s law strikes again! You know the convention…

    “Orbital mind control lasers…”

    Is this intended to be representative of the level of argument that backs up your position?

    I’ve answered your question on a number of occasions previously, but I don’t see any point in responding again this time. This sort of thing is not moving the debate forward, and it’s not even very entertaining.

    You know, the other reason for encouraging free debate on matters of controversy is that if you silence a view, people might suspect that there’s something to it, while if you let them air their arguments in public, and they turn out to involve Hitler and mind control lasers, it’s a lot less likely they’ll be taken seriously. Well done!

  19. Jon

    Nullius–It’s called satire. It’s for helping the reader appreciate the absurd. The Hitler reference was ironic. For instance, does this blogger break Godwin’s Law?:

    Also, “Orbital Mind Control Lasers” is an accepted internet tradition, alongside slightly more well known tropes like tin foil hats and cats requesting cheeseburgers. Here is Tim Lambert using the phrase. For more, try Google.

  20. Sean McCorkle

    Gaythia@7 – good points all. Likely my perspective is biased, coming out of the 60s/70s homogeneous culture.

  21. Nullius in Verba

    Jon #20,

    I know what satire is. And I understood your technique. You’re still trying to find an argument to support your belief in Argument from Authority ad Populam, and this attempt sought to suggest that the only possible explanation for Argument from Authority ad Populam to fail would be some sort of a ridiculous paranoid delusion involving Hitler and mind control rays or the equivalent. The insinuation, of course, was that anyone like us who asserted Argument from Authority ad Populam to be a fallacy must be just such a delusional paranoid.
    I don’t mind unflattering comparisons if they’re sufficiently clever and make a valid point, but I don’t think this one is or does.

    As intellectual arguments go, it is unimpressive. And I kind of suspect that if I tried such tactics here, my comments would never see the light of day.

    I’m not impressed at Tim Lambert using it, either.

    I just wanted you to know that. The technique doesn’t work, and doesn’t make your position look good. There are obviously many other reasons why Argument from Authority is widely considered to be a fallacy besides the possibility of invasion by a world-wide army of mind-controlling Hitler clones, and it would be more graceful if you conceded the point, and switched to presenting well-founded empirical evidence instead.

    I appreciate that this is a harsh way of putting it, but it would be a great shame if conversation here devolved. Such conversations between opposing positions are precisely how the 18th century philosophers thought the printing press would bring about the Enlightenment. A curiously recursive discussion, is it not?

  22. Jon

    But we already went through your science discussion, Nullius, it consisted of “the hockey stick is broken” and then proceeds to pretend not to know what I was talking about when I pointed to multiple lines of evidence that rendered your arguments about a 10-year-old study moot. (Unless your arguments involve a vague conspiracy involving scientists worldwide, an argument requiring lots of “verba” over verifiable fact.)

    For a “Nullius in Verba” you sure seem to value verbosity as an end in itself, seemingly unbothered by an absence of data or facts (see? satire.)


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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