Western Europeans were among the first, if not the first, to invent mechanical clocks, geometrically precise maps, double-entry bookkeeping, precise algebraic and musical notations, and perspective painting. By the sixteenth century more people were thinking quantitatively in western Europe than in any other part of the world. The Measure of Reality, first published in 1997, discusses the epochal shift from qualitative to quantitative perception in Western Europe during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. This shift made modern science, technology, business practice and bureaucracy possible.
Having written such books as Ecological Imperialism, Crosby, a professor of American studies, history and geography at the University of Texas, Austin, wondered what it was that made Europeans such successful colonists and empire builders. In this engrossing study, he posits that it was Europeans' ability to divide the world, whether experiential or abstract, into quanta which they could then manipulate and exploit. Crosby begins by reminding readers how different the Western worldview was a millennium ago. For example, Europeans, Crosby notes, "had a system of unequal accordian-pleated hours that puffed up and deflated so as to ensure a dozen hours each for daytime and nighttime, winter and summer." This more fluid conception of reality did not change over night. Crosby first looks at the "Necessary but Insufficient Causes" like the codification of time and calendar, new strides in cartography and astronomy and the introduction of Arabic numerals, before looking at the match that set fire to the rage to quantify. This was, he says, the shift to visualization. With the printing press, large numbers of people moved from oral to literate culture; with increasingly complicated polyphony, composers found need for musical notation; painters, in an effort to bring depth to their work, applied geometry to make the third dimension visual on a flat plane; and merchants eschewed memory for the more reliable double-entry bookkeeping. Crosby's argument is, of course, much subtler (not to mention more entertaining) than this grossly simplified outline. It is a joy for anyone interested in why we think the way we think.