Time And Space

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Topics may vary. Correspondence and criticism welcome: robert@thebrowser.com

This week: Books from the 1920s

How glorious the nineteen-twenties must have seemed to those artists and scientists fortunate enough to survive the 1914-18 War without great personal loss and then to rebound into a world where old certainties were crumbling and anything seemed possible.

The very nature of reality was being contested by advances in relativity and quantum theory. The formulators of quantum theory could say only that it described the behaviour of matter at a very small scale and that its principles departed from what had previously counted as common sense. If Newtonian physics had been a system of mathematics and mechanics, quantum physics was more like a system of metaphors — metaphors which could as easily be put to work in other fields of human activity. If reality defied common sense at a very small scale, why should it not defy common sense at all other scales?

Relativity was easier to understand if you had some mathematics. It did not rewrite the logic of the universe, but it did show the need to adjust intuitions about time and space in order to explain effects that astronomers in particular were observing. Relativity released its own swarm of metaphors into the world of ideas, beginning with its propositions that every property of everything in the universe was relative, and that time was neither a wholly abstract phenomenon nor entirely uniform in its behaviour. One might argue that modernism, a long nineteen-twenties, began with the spreading awareness of Einstein's theory of general relativity, first among intellectuals and then among the general public, after its publication in 1915.

The principles of genetics, revealed by the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's work in 1900, were assumed in the 1920s to offer a scientific method for improving the entire human race by means of selective breeding, or eugenics. Freud's lectures proposed a new theory of the human mind. The modelling of the atom by Ernest Rutherford reopened the old claims of the alchemists: All matter might be fungible. New technologies that had been accelerated and operationalised by the recent war included aeroplanes, weaponry, radios and televisions, psychological techniques of persuasion and propaganda, psychological treatments for grief and trauma.

No less a shift was under way in philosophy, where Bertrand Russell argued that philosophy, mathematics and logic were more or less the same thing. Mathematics was a symbolic language in which logical propositions were expressed; analytical philosophy could be worked out in the language of mathematics; the confusions of ordinary language could thus be eliminated and the operations of ordinary language exposed. Language was the key to knowledge and even to reality itself.

To this ferment in the hard sciences and philosophy was added the prosperity of post-war America, where the beneficiaries of price-rises saw themselves as the creators of wealth. This was a golden age for management theorists, economists, and free-market ideologists, who could find evidence for their laws and theories wherever they looked. Dissenters could find encouragement in the survival, if not yet the success, of the communist revolution in Russia.

This torrent of ideas and analogies pouring into the humanities made the 1920s as thrilling for writers and painters as it was for physicists and philosophers.

Novelists who had previously considered words as mere instruments for the telling of stories now came to see words as things in themselves. Words determined facts, not vice-versa. Fictional characters could do strange and unpredictable things in a universe which was itself strange and unpredictable. Plots became arbitrary when old rules were disappearing and new rules were still being discovered. One could spend the 2020s reading novels from the 1920s and feeling that literature had added nothing of comparable significance in the intervening hundred years.

There was Ulysses, of course; The Great Gatsby; Mrs Dalloway; To The Lighthouse; The Sun Also Rises; The Sound And The Fury; A Passage To India; Women In Love; All Quiet On The Western Front; Decline And Fall; Point Counter Point; The Trial; We; Swann's Way; The Magic Mountain. All human life was there, minus more recent elements of human life — cellphones, climate change, culture wars — that we probably don't much want in our fiction anyway.

All this you know. What I hope to do in this letter is to highlight one or two of the non-fiction books of the period which seem to me in their various ways to have a sensibility all their own: A grounding in what we can recognise and respect as scientific method, coupled with a certain innocence about the world — a belief that the rules of life, once discovered, will be comprehensible, and favourable to humanity. These are also books that hold their own as works of literature, however far they may have been overtaken as works of science and pseudo-science.

On Growth And Form by D'Arcy Thompson, published in 1917, seemed at the time to be among the great books of the new century. Now it is scarcely known.

Thompson's argument was that properties of size and shape had been much underrated and understudied by zoologists and biologists; that evolution was as much a matter of changing size and shape as of anything else; that fitness, in Darwinian terms, was largely determined by size and shape; and that the life of an organism was limited, even defined, by its size and shape.

Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of Thompson's book was the extravagant admiration which it inspired among its partisans. In a preface to the 1992 revised edition of On Growth And Form, Stephen Jay Gould wrote:

From Falstaff to the Ring of the Nibelungen, great constructions and great works of art have paid a price for amplitude beyond usual standards. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860–1948), Professor of Zoology at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, and perhaps the greatest polymath of our century, was scarcely homo unius libri (a man of one book). He composed two volumes of commentaries on all birds and fishes mentioned in classic Greek texts; he prepared the standard translation of Aristotle’s Historia animalium; he labored for years over statistics for the Fishery Board of Scotland; and he wrote the section on pycnogonids (a small but fascinating group of arthropods) for the Cambridge Natural History series. But his enduring (indeed evergrowing) fame rests upon a glorious (and very long) book that served more as the active project of a lifetime than a stage of ontogeny — On Growth And Form (first edition of 793 pages in 1917, second edition enlarged to 1116 pages in 1942).

The Nobel-prizewinning immunologist Peter Medawar, widely considered one of the finest scientific minds of the 20th century, said of Thompson:

[He was] an aristocrat of learning whose intellectual endowments are not likely ever again to be combined within one man. He was a classicist of sufficient distinction to have become President of the Classical Associations of England and Wales and of Scotland; a mathematician good enough to have had an entirely mathematical paper accepted for publication by the Royal Society; and a naturalist who held important chairs for sixty-four years, that is, for all but the length of time into which we must nowadays squeeze the whole of our lives from birth until professional retirement. He was a famous conversationalist and lecturer (the two are often thought to go together, but seldom do), and the author of a work which, considered as literature, is the equal of anything of Pater’s or Logan Pearsall Smith’s in its complete mastery of the bel canto style. Add to all this that he was over six feet tall, with the build and carriage of a Viking and with the pride of bearing that comes from good looks known to be possessed.

I hope by now I have piqued your interest such that you will consider downloading the free sample of On Growth And Form available from Amazon for Kindle. It includes Stephen Jay Gould's foreword, Thompson's first chapter, which introduces his argument, and his second chapter, On Magnitude, which is a feast in itself — from which, a morsel:

Small insects skating on a pool have their movements controlled and their freedom limited by the surface-tension between water and air, and the measure of that tension determines the magnitude which they may attain. A man coming wet from his bath carries a few ounces of water, and is perhaps 1 per cent heavier than before; but a wet fly weighs twice as much as a dry one, and becomes a helpless thing. A small insect finds itself imprisoned in a drop of water, and a fly with two feet in one drop finds it hard to extricate them.

Risk, Uncertainty, And Profit by Frank Knight, published in 1921, grew out Knight's PhD thesis at Cornell. It launched Knight on a brilliant career in economics spent largely at the University of Chicago where his pupils included Milton Friedman and James Buchanan. His name lives on in the concept known to economists as "Knightian uncertainty", following the distinction which Knight developed in his book between "risk" and "uncertainty":

“Risk" means in some cases a quantity susceptible of measurement, while at other times it is something distinctly not of this character; and there are far-reaching and crucial differences in the bearings of the phenomenon depending on which of the two is really present and operating. There are other ambiguities in the term "risk" as well, which will be pointed out; but this is the most important. It will appear that a measurable uncertainty, or "risk" proper, as we shall use the term, is so far different from an unmeasurable one that it is not in effect an uncertainty at all. We shall accordingly restrict the term "uncertainty" to cases of the non-quantitive type. It is this "true" uncertainty, and not risk, as has been argued, which forms the basis of a valid theory of profit and accounts for the divergence between actual and theoretical competition.

But whereas the concept of Knightian uncertainty remains current 50 years after Knight's death, the rest of his landmark book appears to be little read. If you buy the digital edition of the book you get the old 1921 print edition crudely scanned. Something of an explanation for this recent neglect can be found in a journal article about Knight published by the American economists Richard Langlois and Metin Cosgel in 1993:

For decades now, economists have struggled to interpret Frank Knight's Risk, Uncertainty, And Profit. Like a handful of other classic texts — Das Kapital and The General Theory come to mind — it has produced nearly as much confusion as inspiration, nearly as much misinterpretation as interpretation. Risk, Uncertainty, And Profit is a brilliant book. But it is also idiosyncratic in scope and method. Worse yet, in the eyes of the modern economist, it is deeply philosophical.

Needless to say, that last sentence made my eyes light up. I sat down to read Risk, Uncertainty, And Profit and found that for the non-economist it is brilliant without being in the least confusing.

Knight argues that the world is an uncertain place, and that true uncertainty cannot be quantified nor perhaps even identified. If we can assign a well-grounded probability to a future event then we no longer have uncertainty but something more like certainty — the near-certainty, for example, that something will happen seven times out of ten.

Knight goes on to argue that the profits of almost any company will almost always arise from true uncertainty about future business conditions. A company that guesses these future conditions correctly, and positions itself accordingly, will stand to make a profit. A company that guesses incorrectly will not. Where there is no true uncertainty, but merely "risk", which can be costed, and insured or provided against, any number of people may enter the business with absolute confidence and any profits will be competed away.

Knight goes on to develop from this model a theory of management which seems to me to be both original and unsurpassed.

In conditions of uncertainty, a good manager is somebody who is good at judging the fitness of subordinates and business partners to fulfil particular tasks in conditions of uncertainty. The more elevated the manager's position, the more completely his or her job will consist of judging subordinates and business partners; and the key quality on which these subordinates or business partners will be judged will be their capacity for judging others similarly. The essential work of a manager, therefore, is second-guessing other people's guesses. The whole business world is a Keynesian beauty contest, all the way down.

A few lines from Knight to give you a sense of his style:

Profit arises out of the inherent, absolute unpredictability of things, out of the sheer brute fact that the results of human activity cannot be anticipated and then only in so far as even a probability calculation in regard to them is impossible and meaningless.
The existence of a problem of knowledge depends on the future being different from the past, while the possibility of the solution of the problem depends on the future being like the past.
The ability to judge men in relation to the problems they are to deal with, and the power to "inspire" them to efficiency in judging other men and things, are the essential characteristics of the executive.

Knight's book has some dull patches where it goes into detail about the practicalities of corporate management; these sections seem distinctly dated in the way that his more general arguments do not; but skipping over a few pages here and there is a price well worth paying for the wisdom that remains.

I shall stop here simply because these letters should not be be unreasonably long. Next week, if you will allow, I will conclude by discussing Alfred North Whitehead's Science And The Modern World (1925); and J.W. Dunne's An Experiment With Time (1927).

Robert Cottrell


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