The Gifts of Athena

The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy

Joel Mokyr
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 384
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rz25
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Gifts of Athena
    Book Description:

    The growth of technological and scientific knowledge in the past two centuries has been the overriding dynamic element in the economic and social history of the world. Its result is now often called the knowledge economy. But what are the historical origins of this revolution and what have been its mechanisms? InThe Gifts of Athena, Joel Mokyr constructs an original framework to analyze the concept of "useful" knowledge. He argues that the growth explosion in the modern West in the past two centuries was driven not just by the appearance of new technological ideas but also by the improved access to these ideas in society at large--as made possible by social networks comprising universities, publishers, professional sciences, and kindred institutions. Through a wealth of historical evidence set in clear and lively prose, he shows that changes in the intellectual and social environment and the institutional background in which knowledge was generated and disseminated brought about the Industrial Revolution, followed by sustained economic growth and continuing technological change.

    Mokyr draws a link between intellectual forces such as the European enlightenment and subsequent economic changes of the nineteenth century, and follows their development into the twentieth century. He further explores some of the key implications of the knowledge revolution. Among these is the rise and fall of the "factory system" as an organizing principle of modern economic organization. He analyzes the impact of this revolution on information technology and communications as well as on the public's state of health and the structure of households. By examining the social and political roots of resistance to new knowledge, Mokyr also links growth in knowledge to political economy and connects the economic history of technology to the New Institutional Economics.The Gifts of Athenaprovides crucial insights into a matter of fundamental concern to a range of disciplines including economics, economic history, political economy, the history of technology, and the history of science.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2943-9
    Subjects: Economics, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Menlo Park
  4. Chapter 1 Technology and the Problem of Human Knowledge
    (pp. 1-27)

    The growth of human knowledge is one of the deepest and most elusive elements in history. Social scientists, cognitive psychologists, and philosophers have struggled with every aspect of it, and not much of a consensus has emerged. The study of what we know about our natural environment and how it affects our economy should be of enormous interest to economic historians. The growth of knowledge is one of the central themes of economic change, and for that reason alone it is far too important to be left to the historians of science.

    Discoveries, inventions, and scientific breakthroughs are the very...

  5. Chapter 2 The Industrial Enlightenment: The Taproot of Economic Progress
    (pp. 28-77)

    Can we “explain” the Industrial Revolution? Recent attempts by leading economists focus more on the issue of timing (Why did it happen in the eighteenth century) than on the issue of place (Why western Europe?) (Lucas, 2002; Hansen and Prescott, 1998; Acemoglu and Zilibotti, 1997; Galor and Weil, 2000; Galor and Moav, 2002). Both questions are equally valid, but they demand different types of answers. In what follows, I answer only the first question, although the ideas used here can readily be extended to the second. The answer for the timing question is to link the Industrial Revolution to a...

  6. Chapter 3 The Industrial Revolution and Beyond
    (pp. 78-118)

    The people alive during the first Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century were largely unaware of living in the middle of a period of dramatic and irreversible change. Most of the benefits and promises of the technological changes were still unsuspected. Adam Smith could not have much sense of the impact of the innovations taking place around him in 1776 and still believed that when the process of growth was completed, the economy could “advance no further” and both wages and profits would be very low. Napoleon, following Smith, famously referred to Britain as a nation of shopkeepers, not...

  7. Chapter 4 Technology and the Factory System
    (pp. 119-162)

    What does technology really do to our lives and well-being? Much of the history of technological revolutions in the past two centuries is written as if the only things that technology affected were output, productivity, and economic welfare as approximated by income. This is of course the best-understood and most widely analyzed aspect of technological progress. Yet technological progress also affected other aspects of the economy that may be significant. Among those is the optimal scale of the basic economic production unit and the location where production takes place. These in tum determine whether “work” will be carried out in...

  8. Chapter 5 Knowledge, Health, and the Household
    (pp. 163-217)

    Thus far, I have discussed techniques, that is the procedures with which we manipulate nature to produce goods and services. We typically do not think of households as units that employ prescriptive knowledge and select techniques, but a moment’s reflection reveals that they do so all the time. In the consumption process, households do not just purchase consumer goods but convert them into their final uses by using a set of techniques I callrecipes.¹These final uses include the satisfaction of the biological and psychological needs underlying demand as well as the indirect effect of consumption on health and...

  9. Chapter 6 The Political Economy of Knowledge: Innovation and Resistance in Economic History
    (pp. 218-283)

    Knowledge, much like living beings, is subject to “selection” in the rather immediate sense that more of it is generated than can be absorbed or utilized, and so some forms of knowledge have to be rejected. What is meant by that, however, and how selection on knowledge works is far from simple. Some observations are by now commonplace: in evolutionary epistemology it is widely recognized that selection is carried out by conscious, often identifiable agents, unlike in evolutionary biology where selection is a result of differential survival and reproduction but no conscious selector is operating. The world of propositional and...

  10. Chapter 7 Institutions, Knowledge, and Economic Growth
    (pp. 284-298)

    Useful knowledge, as I employ the term in this book, describes the equipment we use in our game against nature. Most of it is quite mundane: we know that it is cold in Chicago in January and that heavy layers of clothing protect the human body from losing the heat it generates, so this knowledge maps into the obvious technique of wearing sweaters. In principle, such knowledge could be entirely private. Yet the evolution of technology is something in which the interaction between different individuals is as important as what each of them knows. Although at base, then, technology is...

  11. References
    (pp. 299-338)
  12. Index
    (pp. 339-359)