Lewis Mumford

American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology and literary critic (1895-1990)

Lewis Mumford (19 October 189526 January 1990) was an American historian of technology and science, also noted for his study of cities.

I would die happy if I knew that on my tombstone could be written these words, "This man was an absolute fool. None of the disastrous things that he reluctantly predicted ever came to pass!"
We must give as much weight to the arousal of the emotions and to the expression of moral and esthetic values as we now give to science, to invention, to practical organization. One without the other is impotent.

Quotes edit

  • It is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us: the cities and mansions that people dream of are those in which they finally live.
  • Max Beer, in his History of British Socialism, points out that Bacon looked for the happiness of mankind chiefly in the application of science and industry. But by now it is plain that if this alone were sufficient, we could all live in heaven tomorrow. Beer points out that More, on the other hand, looked to social reform and religious ethics to transform society; and it is equally plain that if the souls of men could be transformed without altering their material and institutional activities, Christianity, Mohammedanism, and Buddhism might have created an earthly paradise almost any time this last two thousand years. The truth is, as Beer sees, that these two conceptions are still at war with each other: idealism and science continue to function in separate compartments; and yet "the happiness of man on earth" depends upon their combination.
    • The Story of Utopias, Chapter Twelve (1922).
  • The settlement of America had its origins in the unsettlement of Europe. America came into existence when the European was already so distant from the ancient ideas and ways of his birthplace that the whole span of the Atlantic did not widen the gulf.
    • "The Origins of the American Mind" in The Golden Day (1926).
  • (The processes are) doubly ruinous: they impoverish the earth by hastily removing, for the benefit of a few generations, the common resources which, once expended and dissipated, can never be restored; and second, in its technique, its habits, its processes, the paleotechnic period is equally inimical to the earth considered as a human habitat, by its destruction of the beauty of the landscape, its ruining of streams, its pollution of drinking water, its filling the air with a finely divided carboniferous deposit, which chokes both life and vegetation.
    • "The Theory and Practice of Regionalism" in The Sociological Review, vol. 20, nos. 1 and 2, 1928.
  • The vast material displacements the machine has made in our physical environment are perhaps in the long run less important than its spiritual contributions to our culture.
    • "The Drama of the Machines" in Scribner's Magazine (August 1930)
  • Modern industrial design is based on the principle of conspicuous economy [but] the bourgeois culture which dominates the Western World is founded... on the principle of conspicuous waste.
    • Lewis Mumford (1930) Modern American design. R.L. Leonard, & ‎C.A. Glassgold (eds.), ‎American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen. p. 9; As cited in: V.T. Clayton et al. Drawing on America's Past, p. 28
  • Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.
    • The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865-1895 (1931), p. 3
Here was my city, immense, overpowering, flooded with energy and light...
  • If we are to create balanced human beings, capable of entering into world-wide co-operation with all other men of good will — and that is the supreme task of our generation, and the foundation of all its other potential achievements — we must give as much weight to the arousal of the emotions and to the expression of moral and esthetic values as we now give to science, to invention, to practical organization. One without the other is impotent. And values do not come ready-made: they are achieved by a resolute attempt to square the facts of one's own experience with the historic patterns formed in the past by those who devoted their whole lives to achieving and expressing values. If we are to express the love in our own hearts, we must also understand what love meant to Socrates and Saint Francis, to Dante and Shakespeare, to Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, to the explorer Shackleton and to the intrepid physicians who deliberately exposed themselves to yellow fever. These historic manifestations of love are not recorded in the day's newspaper or the current radio program: they are hidden to people who possess only fashionable minds.
    • Values for Survival (1946)
  • Virtue is not a chemical product, as Taine once described it: it is a historic product, like language and literature; and this means that if we cease to care about it, cease to cultivate it, cease to transmit its funded values, a large part of it will become meaningless, like a dead language to which we have lost the key. That, I submit, is what has happened in our own lifetime.
    • Values for Survival (1946)
  • Let us confess it: the human situation is always desperate.
    • In the Name of Sanity (1954)
  • Today, all the normal mischances of living have been multiplied, a million-fold, by the potentialities for destruction, for an unthinking act of collective suicide, which man's very triumphs in science and invention have brought about. In this situation the artist has a special task and duty: the task of reminding men of their humanity and the promise of their creativity.
    • In the Name of Sanity (1954)
  • I'm a pessimist about probabilities, I'm an optimist about possibilities.
    • As quoted in "Lewis Mumford Remembers" by Carey Winfrey in The New York Times (6 July 1977)
  • I would die happy if I knew that on my tombstone could be written these words, "This man was an absolute fool. None of the disastrous things that he reluctantly predicted ever came to pass!"
    • Address to the National Book Awards Committee, published in My Works and Days (1979)
  • Here was my city, immense, overpowering, flooded with energy and light... The world, at that moment , opened before me, challenging me, beckoning me, demanding something of me that it would take more than a lifetime to give, but raising all my energies by its own vivid promise to a higher pitch.
    • Sketches from Life: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford (1982), p. 130
  • The way people in democracies think of the government as something different from themselves is a real handicap. And, of course, sometimes the government confirms their opinion.
    • As quoted in Philosophers of the Earth : Conversations with Ecologists (1972) by Anne Chisholm
  • One of the marks of maturity is the need for solitude: a city should not merely draw men together in many varied activities, but should permit each person to find, near at hand, moments of seclusion and peace.

Technics and Civilization (1934) edit

  • The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age.
    • Ch. 1, sct. 2
  • Bloodshed kept pace with iron production: in essence, the entire paleotechnic period was ruled, from beginning to end, by the policy of blood and iron. The brutal contempt for life was equalled only by the the almost priestly ritual it developed for inflicting death. Its "peace" was indeed the peace that passeth understanding: what was it but latent warfare.
    • Ch. 4, sct. 5
  • In his discussion on slavery Aristotle said that when the shuttle wove by itself and the plectrum played by itself chief workmen would not need helpers nor masters slaves. At the time he wrote, he believed that he was establishing the eternal validity of slavery; but for us today he was in reality justifying the existence of the machine. Work, it is true, is the constant form of man's interaction with his environment, if by work one means the sum total of exertions necessary to maintain life; and the lack of work usually means an impairment of function and a breakdown in organic relationship that leads to substitute forms of work, such as invalidism and neurosis. But work in the form of unwilling drudgery or of that sedentary routine which... the Athenians so properly despised—work in these forms is the true province of machines. Instead of reducing human beings to work-mechanisms, we can now transfer the main part of burden to automatic machines. This potentially... is perhaps the largest justification of the mechanical developments of the last thousand years.
    • Ch. 6, sct. 4
  • That was the danger Samuel Butler jestingly prophesied in Erewhon, the danger that the human being might become a means whereby the machine perpetuated itself and extended its dominion.
    • Ch. 6, sct. 9
  • The recoil from the absolute of mechanism was into an equally sterile absolute of the organic: the raw primitive. The organic processes, reduced to shadows by the machine, made a violent effort to retrieve their position. The machine, which acerbically denied the flesh, was offset by the flesh, which denied the rational, the intelligent, the orderly processes of behavior that have entered into all man’s cultural developments—even those developments that most closely derive from the organic. The spurious notion that mechanism had naught to learn from life was supplanted by the equally false notion that life had nothing to learn from mechanism.
    • Ch. 6, sct. 9
  • On one side is the gigantic printing press, a miracle of fine articulation, which turns out the tabloid newspaper: on the other side are the contents of the tabloid itself, symbolically recording the most crude and elementary states of emotion.
    • Ch. 6, sct. 9
  • Mechanical instruments, potentially a vehicle of rational human purposes, are scarcely a blessing when they enable the gossip of the village idiot and the deeds of the thug to be broadcast to a million people each day.
    • Chapter 6, § 9
  • War is the supreme drama of a completely mechanized society.
    • Ch. 6, sct. 11
  • Sport in the sense of a mass-spectacle, with death to add to the underlying excitement, comes into existence when a population has been drilled and regimented and depressed to such an extent that it needs at least a vicarious participation in difficult feats of strength or skill or heroism in order to sustain its waning life-sense.
    • Ch. 6, sct. 11
  • Today, the notion of progress in a single line without goal or limit seems perhaps the most parochial notion of a very parochial century.
    • Ch. 8, sct. 12
  • However far modern science and technics have fallen short of their inherent possibilities, they have taught mankind at least one lesson: Nothing is impossible.
    • Ch. 8, sct. 13

The Culture of Cities (1938) edit

Nothing endures except life: the capacity for birth, growth, and renewal.
  • The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind.
    • Introduction
  • Today our world faces a crisis: a crisis which, if its consequences are as grave as now seems, may not fully be resolved for another century. If the destructive forces in civilization gain ascendancy, our new urban culture will be stricken in every part. Our cities, blasted and deserted, will be cemeteries for the dead: cold lairs given over to less destructive beasts than man. But we may avert that fate: perhaps only in facing such a desperate challenge can the necessary creative forces be effectually welded together. Instead of clinging to the sardonic funeral towers of metropolitan finance, ours to march out to newly plowed fields, to create fresh patterns of political action, to alter for human purposes the perverse mechanisms or our economic regime, to conceive and to germinate fresh forms of human culture.
    Instead of accepting the stale cult of death that the Fascists have erected, as the proper crown for the servility and brutality that are the pillars of their states, we must erect a cult of life: life in action, as the farmer or mechanic knows it: life in expression, as the artist knows it: life as the lover feels it and the parent practices it: life as it is known to men of good will who meditate in the cloister, experiment in the laboratory, or plan intelligently in the factory or the government office.
    • Introduction
  • Nothing is permanent: certainly not the frozen images of barbarous power with which fascism now confronts us. Those images may easily be smashed by an external shock, cracked as ignominiously as the fallen Dagon, the massive idol of the heathen; or they may be melted, eventually, by the internal warmth of normal men and women. Nothing endures except life: the capacity for birth, growth, and renewal. As life becomes insurgent once more in our civilization, conquering the reckless thrust of barbarism, the culture of cities will be both instrument and goal.
    • Introduction
  • Today, the degradation of the inner life is symbolized by the fact that the only place sacred from interruption is the private toilet.
    • Ch. 1, sct. 5
  • The cycle of the machine is now coming to an end. Man has learned much in the hard discipline and the shrewd, unflinching grasp of practical possibilities that the machine has provided in the last three centuries: but we can no more continue to live in the world of the machine than we could live successfully on the barren surface of the moon.
    • Ch. 7, sct. 16

Faith for Living (1940) edit

  • ...in general, the traditionalists are backward-looking, conservative; pessimists about the future and optimists about the past.
    • Often quoted as "Traditionalists are pessimists about the future and optimists about the past.", e.g, Peter's Quotations : Ideas for Our Time (1979) by Laurence J. Peter, p. 112.
  • Man's chief purpose...is the creation and preservation of values: that is what gives meaning to our civilization, and the participation in this is what gives significance, ultimately, to the individual human life.
  • The individual contribution, the work of any single generation, is infinitesimal; the power and glory belong to human society at large, and are the long result of selection, conservation, sacrifice, creation, and renewal — the outcome of endless brave efforts to conserve values and ideas, and to hand them on to posterity, along with physical life itself. Each person is a temporary focus of forces, vitalities, and values that carry back into an immemorial past and that reach forward into an unthinkable future.
  • The fundamental values of a true community are elsewhere: in love, poetry, disinterested thought, the free use of the imagination, the pursuit of non-utilitarian activities, the production of non-profitmaking goods, the employment of non-consumable wealth - here are the sustaining values of a living culture.
  • A community whose life is not irrigated by art and science, by religion and philosophy, day upon day, is a community that exists half alive.
  • The aggregation of the spiritual life from the practical life is a curse that falls impartially upon both sides of our existence. A society that gives to one class all the opportunities for leisure, and to another all the burdens of work, dooms both classes to spiritual sterility.

The Conduct Of Life (1951) edit

  • Perhaps never before have the peoples of the world been so close to losing the very core of their humanity; for of what use are cosmic energies, if they are handled by disoriented and demoralized men?
    • THE CHALLENGE TO RENEWAL: The Promise of Our Age
  • We arrest our inner creativity with external compulsions and irrelevant anxieties, at the mercy of constant interruptions by telephone and radio and insistent print, timing our lives to the movement of a production belt we do not control. At the same time, we give authority to the stomach, the muscles, the genitals--to animal reflexes that produce obedient consumers, whip-wielding man-trainers, slavish political subjects, push-button automatons.
    • CHALLENGE: Diagnosis of Our Times
  • Thus the inertia of "progress" today leads swiftly downhill; while the attempt while the attempt to achieve stabilization by collective compulsion and social arrest likewise leads to the same destination--death. Only one road lies open to those who would remain human: the road of renewal. Each one of us must dedicate himself, at whatever effort, with whatever willing sacrifice, to such a transformation of himself and all the groups and associations of in which he participates, as will lead to law and order, to peace and cooperation, to love and brotherhood, throughout the planet.
    • CHALLENGE: Alternatives to Catastrophe
  • Unable to create a meaningful life for itself, the personality takes its own revenge: from the lower depths comes a regressive form of spontaneity: raw animality forms a counterpoise to the meaningless stimuli and the vicarious life to which the ordinary man is conditioned. Getting spiritual nourishment from this chaos of events, sensations, and devious interpretations is the equivalent of trying to pick through a garbage pile for food.
    • Ch. 1
  • Now life is the only art that we are required to practice without preparation, and without being allowed the preliminary trials, the failures and botches, that are essential for the training of a mere beginner. In life, we must begin to give a public performance before we have acquired even a novice's skill; and often our moments of seeming mastery are upset by new demands, for which we have acquired no preparatory facility. Life is a score that we play at sight, not merely before we have divined the intentions of the composer, but even before we have mastered our instruments; even worse, a large part of the score has been only roughly indicated, and we must improvise the music for our particular instrument, over long passages. On these terms, the whole operation seems one of endless difficulty and frustration; and indeed, were it not for the fact that some of the passages have been played so often by our predecessors that, when we come to them, we seem to recall some of the score and can anticipate the natural sequence of the notes, we might often give up in sheer despair. The wonder is not that so much cacophony appears in our actual individual lives, but that there is any appearance of harmony and progression.
  • By his very success in inventing labor-saving devices, modern man has manufactured an abyss of boredom that only the privileged classes in earlier civilizations have ever fathomed.
    • "The Challenge of Renewal"
  • We have created an industrial order geared to automatism, where feeble-mindedness, native or acquired, is necessary for docile productivity in the factory; and where a pervasive neurosis is the final gift of the meaningless life that issues forth at the other end.
    • "The Fulfillment of Man"
  • Nothing is unthinkable, nothing impossible to the balanced person, provided it comes out of the needs of life and is dedicated to life's further development.
    • "The Way and the Life"

The City in History (1961) edit

The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity.
  • Every new baby is a blind desperate vote for survival: people who find themselves unable to register an effective political protest against extermination do so by a biological act.
    • Ch. 18
  • The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity.
    • Ch. 18
  • Failing to divide its social chromosomes and split up into new cells, each bearing some portion of the original inheritance, the city continues to grow inorganically, indeed cancerously, by a continuous breaking down of old tissues, and an overgrowth of formless new tissue. Here the city has absorbed villages and little towns, reducing them to place names, like Manhattanville and Harlem in New York; there it has, more happily, left the organs of local government and the vestiges of an independent life, even assisted their revival, as in Chelsea and Kensington in London; but it has nevertheless enveloped those areas in its physical organization and built up the open land that once served to ensure their identity and integrity.
    • Sprawling Giantism
  • Unfortunately, once an economy is geared to expansion, the means rapidly turn into an end and "the going becomes the goal." Even more unfortunately, the industries that are favored by such expansion must, to maintain their output, be devoted to goods that are readily consumable either by their nature, or because they are so shoddily fabricated that they must soon be replaced. By fashion and built-in obsolescence the economies of machine production, instead of producing leisure and durable wealth, are duly cancelled out by the mandatory consumption on an even larger scale.
    • Myth of Megalopolis
  • In the mass movement into the suburban areas a new kind of community was produced, which caricatured both the historic city and the archetypal suburban refuge: a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold, manufactured in the central metropolis. Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.”
    • pg 486

The Myth of the Machine (1967-1970) edit

2 Volumes: Technics and Human Development (1967) and The Pentagon of Power (1970)

Technics and Human Development (1967) edit

  • This essential coalition between royal military power and often dubious supernatural authority anticipated a similar alliance between the scientists and mathematical games theorists with the higher agents of government today, and was subject to similar corruptions, miscalculations, and hallucinations.
    • pg 176

The Pentagon of Power (1970) edit

  • If, as many anthropologists still hold, the making and using of tools as one of the chief sources of primitive man's intellectual development, is it not time that we asked ourselves what will happen to man if he departs as completely as he now threatens to do from his primal polytechnic occupations? Since they can no longer be pursued at a profit, perhaps they will have to be restored as modes of sport and recreation, even more as helpful — increasingly essential — forms of personal service and mutual aid.
    • Technical Liberation
  • In the elemental emotions of fear and rage associated with the most primitive parts of the brain, this swift response without conscious intervention or direction is a condition of survival: but something more than survival comes forth from it; for this very automatism freed the growing brain and ramifying nervous system for more important services, detached from the immediate pressure for survival, performed by the new brain. Here by his conscious symbolic activities man created a second realm that conforms more closely to his higher personal and social needs.
    • pg 397
  • The physical lot of surviving workers had notably improved, with unemployment insurance, social security, and the new health services, while their children's school education was assured by the government-operated schools: in addition, they had, for intellectual or emotional stimulus and diversion, the radio and the television. But the work itself was no longer as various, as interesting, or as sustaining to the personality...
    • Technical Liberation
  • In my own household, for example, an electric refrigerator has been in service for nineteen years, with only a single minor repair: an admirable job. Both automatic refrigerators for daily use and deepfreeze preservation are inventions of permanent value. Though one cannot bestow any such unqualified commendation upon the design of the contemporary motor car, one can hardly doubt that if biotechnic criteria were heeded, rather than those of market analysts and fashion experts, an equally good product might come forth from Detroit, with an equally long prospect of continued use.
    • Megatechnic Costs and Benefits
  • But what would become of mass production and its system of financial expansion if technical perfection, durability, social efficiency, and human satisfaction were the guiding aims. The very conditions for current financial success — constantly expanding production and replacement — works against these ends. To ensure the rapid absorption of its immense productivity, megatechnics resorts to a score of different devices: consumer credit, installment buying, multiple packaging, non-functional designs, meretricious novelties, shoddy materials, defective workmanship, built-in fragility, or forced obsolescence through frequent arbitrary changes of fashion. Without constant enticement and inveiglement by advertising, production would slow down and level off to normal replacement demand. Otherwise many products could reach a plateau of efficient design which would call for only minimal changes from year to year.
    • Megatechnic Costs and Benefits
  • What plethora of material goods can possibly atone for a waking life so humanly belittling, if not degrading, as the push-button tasks left to human performers?
    • p. 352
  • If we are to prevent megatechnics from further controlling and deforming every aspect of human culture, we shall be able to do so only with the aid of a radically different model derived directly, not from machines, but from living organisms and organic complexes (ecosystems). What can be known about life only through the process of living — and so is part of even the humblest organisms — must be added to all the other aspects that can be observed, abstracted, measured. … Once an organic world picture is in the ascendant, the working aim of an economy of plenitude will be not to feed more human functions into the machine, but to develop further man's incalculable potentialities for self-actualization and self-transendence, taking back into himself deliberately many of the activities he has too supinely surrendered into the mechanical system.
  • As opposed to [megatechnics], an organic system directs itself to qualitative richness, amplitude, spaciousness, free from quantitative pressure and crowding, since self-regulation, self-correction, and self-propulsion are as much an integral property of organisms as nutrition, reproduction, growth, and repair. Balance, wholeness, completeness, continuous interplay between inner and outer, the subjective and the objective aspects of existence are identifying characteristics of the organic model; and the general name for an economy based on such a model is an economy of plenitude.

Interpretations and Forecasts 1922-1972 (1973) edit

The mind reproduces itself by transmitting its symbols to other intermediaries, human and mechanical, than the particular brain that first assembled them...
  • Whereas Freud was for the most part concerned with the morbid effects of unconscious repression, Jung was more interested in the manifestations of unconscious expression, first in the dream and eventually in all the more orderly products of religion and art and morals.
    • "Revolt of the Demons", p. 399
  • The relation between psyche and soma, mind and brain, are peculiarly intimate; but, as in marriage, the partners are not inseparable: indeed their divorce was one of the conditions for the mind's independent history and its cumulative achievements.
    But the human mind possesses a special advantage over the brain: for once it has created impressive symbols and has stored significant memories, it can transfer its characteristic activities to materials like to stone and paper that outlast the original brain's brief life-span. When the organism dies, the brain dies, too, with all its lifetime accumulations. But the mind reproduces itself by transmitting its symbols to other intermediaries, human and mechanical, than the particular brain that first assembled them.
    • "The Mindfulness of Man", p. 424

My Works and Days (1979) edit

Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.
  • Each religion is a brave guess at the authorship of Hamlet. Yet, as far as the play goes does it make any difference whether Shakespeare or Bacon wrote it? Would it make any difference to the actors if their parts happened out of nothingness, if they found themselves acting on the stage because of some gross and unpardonable accident? Would it make any difference if the playwright gave them the lines or whether they composed them themselves, so long as the lines were properly spoken? Would it make any difference to the characters if A Midsummer Night's Dream was really a dream?
    • Ch. 2
  • There is no necessary connection between the important events of a life and the records of it that have been preserved in memory, in documents, in memorials, or in living testimony. The biographer must compose his life of what he has, just as the archeologist must restore his temple or his statue with such fragments as thieving time and careless men have left him; but fate often ironically leaves him a well-preserved leg and a dismembered torso, while the head, which would supply the main clue to the body, is missing. Hence, in addition to the purposive selection exercised by the subject himself and by the biographer in making use of such materials as are left, there exists a purely external selection dominated by chance, which cuts across the evidence in an arbitrary fashion. To correct for such distortions the biographer must be an anatomist of character: he must be able to restore the missing nose in plaster, even if he does not find the original marble.
    • Ch. 14
  • Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.
  • New York is the perfect model of a city, not the model of a perfect city.

Misattributed edit

  • A certain amount of opposition is a great help to a man. Kites rise against, not with, the wind. Even a head wind is better than none. No man ever worked his passage anywhere in a dead calm.
    • John Neal, as quoted in The Journal of Education for Upper Canada Vol. III (1850)

Quotes about Mumford edit

  • Lewis Mumford, with whose writings my own ideas have many points in common, says this about our contemporary civilization: "The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that apart from its man-made crises and catastraphes, it is not humanly interesting...In the end, such a civilization can produce only a mass man: incapable of choice, incapable of spontaneous, self-directed activities: at best patient, docile, disciplined to monotonous work to an almost pathetic degree, but increasingly irresponsible as his choices become fewer and fewer..."
  • Utopian systems have among their motive forces the acquisition of power for a small group for the purpose of making human destiny "secure," "scientific." This type of thinking has so permeated the minds of our intellectuals that even when they oppose an artificial rigidification of history, all they can propose is—another Utopia. A few years ago Mr. Lewis Mumford published a book entitled The Transformations of Man, in which he recommended, in view of spreading "world culture" among "posthistoric men," denationalized governments, detheologized religions, and world-citizens turned policemen to extirpate what he calls "outbreaks of private and collective criminality."
    • Thomas Molnar, The Decline of the Intellectual (1961) Ch. 11 "Intellectual and Philosopher"

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