Quantifying English intellectual accomplishment

In  his  book  “Human  Accomplishment”   the  American  Charles  Murray calculates  the  contribution  to  civilisation  made  by   individuals throughout  history  up until 1950.  To give his calculations  as  much objectivity  as possible he measures  the amount of attention given  to an  individual   by  specialists in their  field in   sources  such  as  biographical  dictionaries – put crudely, the greater the frequency  of mention and the larger the space devoted to an individual,  the  higher they score.

Murray  quantifies   achievements  under  the  headings  of   astronomy (Galileo  and  Kepler  tied  for  first  place),  biology  (Darwin  and Aristotle),  chemistry (Lavoisier),  earth sciences  (Lyell),   physics (Newton  and  Einstein),   mathematics  (Euler),   medicine   (Pasteur, Hippocrates  and  Koch),   technology  (Edison  and  Watt),    combined scientific (Newton), Chinese philosophy (Confucious), Indian philosophy (Sankara), Western  philosophy (Aristotle), Western music (Beethoven and Mozart),  Chinese painting  (Gu  Kaizhi  and  Zhao  Mengfu),  Japanese painting  (Sesshu,  Sotatsu and  Korin),   Western  art  (Michelangelo), Arabic  literature,  (al-Mutanabbi) Chinese literature (Du Fu),  Indian literature  (Kalidasa),   Japanese  literature  (Basho  and  Chikamatsu Monzaemon), Western literature (Shakespeare).  

Objections have been made to Murray’s methodology such as the fact that many  of the great achievements of the past,  especially in  the  arts, have  been anonymous,  which give it a bias towards the modern  period, and fears that it has a built-in Western bias –  the  representation of  non-Western  figures in the science  and technology  categories  is minimal.   Nothing can be done about anonymity – it is  worth  pointing out  that the majority of those heading the categories lived  at  least several  centuries  ago  – but  Murray  substantially   guards  against pro-Western  bias with the breadth and number of his sources and it  is simply  a fact that science and advanced technology arose only  in  the  past few centuries and that both are essentially Western  achievements. It  is  also noteworthy that Murray’s  method only places  one  of  his fellow   countrymen  at  number  one  in  any  category    (Edison   in technology).  If  any bias exists it is unlikely to  be  conscious.  At worst,  Murray’s  findings  can be seem as a fair  rating   of  Western achievement.

The list of those heading the various categories (see second  paragraph above)   suggests  that  Murray’s method is pretty  sound  despite  any possible methodological  shortcomings,  because those who come top  are all men of extreme achievement.  There might be arguments over  whether Aristotle should take precedence over Plato or Kant,   but no one could honestly argue that  Aristotle was an obviously unworthy winner of first place in the philosophy category.

Of the 13 categories which  can include Westerners (they are  obviously  excluded  from  non-European  literature  and  art),   Englishmen are indisputed firsts or share  first place with one other in four: biology Darwin with  Aristotle;   Physics  Newton  with  Einstein;   combined scientific  Newton alone;  Western literature Shakespeare  alone.   No other  nation  has  more  than two representatives  at  the  top  of  a category.  The thirteen Western  ncluding categories have a total of 18 people in  sole or joint first place.  England  has nearly a quarter of those  in first place and more than a quarter of the 15 who  are  drawn from the modern period, say 1500 AD onwards.   

Apart  from those coming first,   the English show strongly in most  of the  Western qualifying categories (especially in physics – 9 out of the top 20, technology – 8 out of the top twenty – and Western literature). The  major  exceptions  are   Western art  and   music,  where  English representation  is mediocre.   I think most people who think about  the matter  at  all  would feel those  quantified cultural  strengths  and  weaknesses represent the reality of English history and society.     

The fact that England shows so strongly in Murray’s exercise  gives the lie  to  the common representation of the  English  as  unintellectual. Moreover,  there is much more to human intellectual accomplishment than the fields covered by Murray,  most notably the writing of  history and the social sciences,  areas in which England has  been at the forefront throughout the modern period: think Gibbon,  Macaulay,  Herbert Spencer and Keynes.

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