Technics and Human Development: The Birth of Meaning

February 18, 2018

Lewis Mumford, on how man created meaning

"The Myth and the Machine Volume One: Technics and Human Development"
By Lewis Mumford, 1967

"Reason in Art: The Life of Reason"
By George Santayana, 1905

Images and video of NYC experimental electronic music artist Kyosi folding the voice and words of Jo Annesta into her own shimmering music, H0L0, NYC

"With this new 'megatechnics' the dominant minority will create a uniform, all-enveloping, super- planetary-structure, designed for automatic operation. Instead of functioning actively as an autonomous personality, man will become a passive, purposeless, machine-conditioned animal whose proper functions, as technicians now interpret man's role, will either be fed into the machine, or strictly limited and controlled for the benefit of de-personalized, collective organizations." -- Lewis Mumford.

What first set humankind apart from other creatures was the ability to make meaning, argued philosopher Lewis Mumford, in "The Myth and the Machine Volume One: Technics and Human Development." Born from dream and excess psychic energy, meaning made the universe around us, helping us not only to describe what was in front of us, but what could be, or what might have been. Philosopher Max Müller called it the "Fundamental Metaphor," a "universal mythology, this flowing of our spirit into objective chaos and recreating it in our own image."

Lewis Mumford on Time Magazine cover

Early humans enjoyed "highly-organized nervous equipment" and big brains, allowing them to take more risks than other animals, course correcting along the way. It freed them in large degree from the immediate surrounds, the tyranny of instinctual patterns. The nimbleness of a person's digits helped with the picking, carrying, and eating of food, liberating the mouth for speech.

This fortune bequeathed humans with a "tremendous overcharge" of mental energy. "Man had to re- form and re-instate [animal instincts] at a higher level, illuminated by consciousness," Mumford wrote. The philosopher suspected that it was the dream that showed the way forward into this higher- consciousness. "Creativity begins in the unconsciousness; and its first manifestation is the dream," he wrote. Dreams opened human minds to what wasn't there. The imagination showed what could be possible. And these brought meaning to chaotic surroundings, recreating, in effect, the entire universe, in our collective consciousness.

Kyosi and Jo on stage

It was this intensification of consciousness, however evanescent, that led to the creation of language, tool-making and culture, raising human from the other animals. "In short, without man's cumulative capacity to give symbolic form to experience, to reflect upon it and re-fashion it, and project it, the physical universe would be as empty of meaning as a handless clock: its ticking would tell nothing," Mumford wrote. "The mindfulness of man makes the difference."

Language played a huge role, but it was slow in coming. Can you imagine your life without words, for communicating and for thinking? We have all had the experience, same as early man, "when we find that a dawning intuition cannot be translated into communicable speech for a lack of a fresh vocabulary."

Kyosi and Jo on stage

Generation upon generation of humans must have permanently lived in a state of inarticulation, with an urge to make sounds, but not attaching any meaning to the resulting babble. They must have just been delighted in their joys of making noise, long before they would associate certain sounds to particular meanings. What kept the noise-making alive was ritual, which was, according to Mumford, "older than language in man's development and played an indispensable part." For humans, the mechanical nature of ritual may have warded off compulsion neurosis.

"The original purpose of ritual was to create order and meaning where none existed," Mumford wrote.

"Before man could discover and project order outside himself he had first by constant repetition, to establish it within." Magic incantations were an early form of language without specific meaning, but with power through the repeated incantations of nonsensical phrases.

Kyosi and Jo on stage

Over time, they may have attached certain sounds to certain objects in their surroundings, just as in the way an infant learns that "special sounds stand for things, relations, acts, feelings, desires." But what no doubt required additional time was for us to all agree on what we were uttering. Without some standardization of meaning, each person would speak a private language, and the subsequent invention of writing would have been lost.

Anthropologists suspect that the formation of a shared language through the successive glacial periods when humans depended on big game to feed themselves-thus requiring a coordination of plans across the tribe. Cave-art could have been early re-enactments of a successful hunt, or a planning of a new one.

Kyosi and Jo on stage

And here is something that language may have enabled: A move beyond the concrete. Language could not only give a name to something, but can also be used to recall the past and anticipate the future, imaging the invisible, or what was possible. Names become symbols, which now can be manipulated, reasoned against. "A general improvement in symbolic thinking was what possibly gave Homo sapiens the edge over the earlier Neanderthal types," Mumford wrote. Mumford wrote this book to "re-examine the nature of man and the whole course of technological change." He wanted to refute the then widely-held idea that what makes man different from all the other beasts was his ability to make and use tools.

Kyosi and Jo on stage

Instead, he argues, it was culture that is the primary force driving consciousness and progress. Sometime in the past, Mumford argued, our predecessors "mistakenly coupled their particular mode of mechanical progress with an unjustifiable sense of increasing moral superiority."

In fact, the opposite is true. Man's most serious undertaking has never been work nor tool making, but playfulness. Predecessors who mistakenly coupled their mechanical progress w/ an unjustifiable sense of their increasing moral superiority. Without human's capacity to give symbolic form to experience, the universe would be empty of meaning.


from Lewis Mumford's The Myth and the Machine Volume One: Technics and Human Development"

"Our predecessors mistakenly coupled their particular mode of mechanical progress with an unjustifiable sense of increasing moral superiority." P. 4

"More than a century ago Thomas Carlyle described man as a 'tool-using animal,' as if this were the one trait that elevated him above the rest of creation." P. 5

"What is specially and uniquely human is man's capacity to combine a wide variety of animal propensities into an emergent cultural entity: a human personality." P. 6

"Modern man has formed a curiously distorted picture of himself, by interpreting his early history in terms of his present interests in making machines and conquering nature." P. 14

"In the realm of prehistory the generalist has a special office, that of bringing together widely separated fields, prudently fenced in by specialists, into a larger common area, visible only from the air." P. 16

"It is wiser to assume ... that Home sapiens fifty thousand years ago more closely represented ourselves than any remoter animal ancestor." P. 22

"Our chief reason for over-rating the importance of tools and machines is that man's most significant early inventions, in ritual, social organization, morals, and language, left no material remains..." p. 23

"The difference between the brain and the mind is surely as great as that between a phonograph and the music that comes forth from it." P. 27

"Not how long you live, but how much you have lived, how much meaning your life has absorbed and passed on, is what matters." P. 33

"It is only through the light of consciousness that the universe becomes visible, and should that light disappear, only nothingness would remain." P. 33

"If survival were all that mattered to primitive man, he could have survived with no better equipment than his immediate hominid ancestors had possessed." P. 45

"Though dogs may dream, no dream ever taught a dog to imitate a bird or to behave like a God." P. 49

"But the fact that tools, not just slivers, were produced shows that there is a counter-tendency in man, equally innate, and even more deeply, or at least more permanently, satisfying: the arts of creation and constructive organization, the deliberate forming of patterns, the putting together of ordered whole." P. 55

Savage pathology: "The formidable, irrational components that remain in civilized man's own code of conduct." P. 56

"Ungoverned creativity in science and invention has reinforced unconscious demonic drives that have placed our whole civilization in a state of perilous unbalance." P. 57-58

While ritual played an important role in man's development, it "succeeded only with a certain loss of creativity."

"The prevalence of ritual and all its derivative institutional manifestations accounts therefore for both the facts of early human development and its extreme slowness." P. 68

"Against the lawless absolution of his unconsciousness, man needed a lawful counter-force equally absolute. At the beginning the taboo alone provided this necessary balance." P. 70

"As for the effort to do away with emotionality, presupposing that respect for emotional values necessarily brings about a betrayal of truth, this view overlooks the fact that the very 'dryness' of so- called objective description may in itself be an indication of an unfortunate negative state, with equal dangers of distortion." P. 73

"A lion says 'lion' by its own presence far more emphatically than the word 'lion' even if shouted"

"If man had originally inhabited a world as blankly uniform as a 'high-rise' housing development, as featureless as a parking lot, as destitute of life as an automated factory, it is doubtful if he would have had a sufficiently varied sensory experience to retain images, mold language, or acquire ideas."

"For the dream can present ideas only in disguised story form, a wild masquerade."

“No mechanical system knows the meaning of meaning.”

So they true evolutionary value of hands, for humans, was that they "liberated the mouth for speech."

Man's most serious undertaking has never been work nor tool making, but playfulness.

Predecessors who mistakenly coupled their mechanical progress w/ an unjustifiable sense of their increasing moral superiority

Without human's capacity to give symbolic form to experience, the universe would be empty of meaning.

Quotes first posted on Twitter.


...from George Santayana's
Reason in Art: The Life of Reason

"A will that never found anything to thwart it would think itself omnipotent."

"There's a painful pregnancy in genius..."

Any operation that humanizes and rationalizes objects is called art.

"...Progress is art, bettering the conditions of existence."

"The idiot can't learn from experience at all because a new process in his liquid brain doesn't modify structure."

"Sentimental physics": The ethical notion that happiness and freedom arise solely from hard labor.

If popular fancy finally sicken on games & fictions, it could find entertainment in the play of reality & truth.

"So utility leads to art when its vehicle acquires intrinsic value and becomes expressive"

"Art needs to find a material relatively formless which its business is to shape."

All instrumental arts, however indispensable, are burdens & should be abridged as much as possible

OTOH, "spontaneous action leads to art when it acquires a rational function."

"To be absorbed by the incidental is the animal's portion, to be confined to the instrumental is the slave's..."

Spontaneity "hurries [people] into wars and orgies, quite as it kindles sudden flaming visions in their brains."

The worst of tyrants the #spontaneous "exercises a needless & fruitless tyranny in the guise of duty & inspiration"

"Barbaric musicians" too much carried away by their performance to "conceive its effects."\

Why idle notes can flow together harmoniously is as big a mystery as "the spirit's concern to keep a ... body alive."

"Pure music is pure art, its extreme abstraction is balanced by its entire spontaneity"

When people take only to fashionable music you can bet what they are attracted to is the fashion, not the music.

"The most abstract of arts serves the dumbest emotions.

The function of art is to make life better, by depicting life as it actually is.

A reproduction established itself in the wake of death, representation confronted the dispersion born from experience.

Early man began to use his newfound lingual gamut "to designate the whole range of his perceptions and passions."

Mental “Representation was able, by help of vocal symbols, to confront that dispersion inherent in experience, which is something in itself ephemeral...”

“In language, as in every other existence, idealism precedes realism, since it must be a part of nature living its own life before it can become a symbol for the rest, and bend to external control.”

Quotes first posted on Twitter.