generalized body of knowledge we call “science.” But the distinctions between these different “levels” of useful knowledge are of degree, not of essence. On the other hand, the distinction between knowledge “how” and knowledge “what” is a useful one, reflecting a genuine hierarchy: the former has to rest on the latter.
Historically, the epistemic base of techniques matters for two reasons. First, the relation between the epistemic base and the technique that rests on it in a static sense is much like the ratio of the fixed and variable factor in economics: if the epistemic base of a technique is narrow, it will be difficult to expand and improve the technique, to find new applications, and to adapt it to changing circumstances. The broader the epistemic base, the more likely it is that technological progress can be sustained for extended periods before it starts to run into diminishing returns. Second, however, if the epistemic base itself is changing alongside the technique (and perhaps because of it), positive feedback can create an unstable system due to the interaction between the knowledge of “what” and the knowledge of “how.” Before 1750, on the whole, the relation was stable. New inventions appeared and created considerable social and economic change, but inevitably reached a plateau from which further improvements became more and more difficult: whether we look at ship-building, textile machinery, fire-arms or pumping technology, we see breakthroughs, followed by a gradual petering out of further improvements.
The Industrial Revolution changed all that: the remarkable thing about it was not that between 1760 and 1800 a “wave of gadgets” appeared, but that after 1820 this process not only did not peter out but gathered force in continuous improvements, new applications, and extensions. While the inventions of the 1820s and 1830s – excepting the railroad – perhaps do not figure as prominently in high school textbooks as those of Watt, Cort, and Crompton, they are the ones that made the difference between what would have become another technological blip and the expansion of the British and other European economies after 1830. Those inventions included, of course the high pressure steam engine and its applications, but also the extensions of the techniques used in cotton to other fabrics, the introduction of the self-acting mule (1825), Neilson’s hot blast (1829), the telegraph, and the growing use made of chemical and physical knowledge in manufacturing and agriculture after 1840. These techniques rested on epistemic bases that were getting wider. That is not to say that they were, by our standards, well-understood, only that they were better-understood.
Since so much depended on the growth of these epistemic bases, we may well ask what determined their historical evolution. We can, of course, establish some arguments as to the institutional arrangements under which knowledge will expand and grow. Repressive and reactionary regimes, in which heretics and deviants are mercilessly persecuted, or introverted cultures in which educated and creative people spend their mental efforts reflecting on the meaning of the soul and spirit rather than