Understanding Lewis Mumford: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Kenneth R. Stunkel. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellon Press. 2004. Cloth, ISBN 0773465588, $119.95. 290 pages.
This book is a welcome survey of the key ideas and themes that permeate the voluminous writings of Lewis Mumford. In an economy increasingly dominated by technological change, the writings of Mumford, one the foremost twentieth century scholars and critics of technology, are very relevant today. Yet his work is largely unknown to most academics today including institutional economists, who might be expected to be sympathetic to his heterodox views on technology (for a possible explanation see Long 2002). Kenneth Stunkel finds the modern neglect of Mumford "odd because virtually all the issues he raised and illuminated in the 1920's and 1930's are under discussion by intellectuals of the current generation" (p. 1).
He claims the major reason Mumford is not better known and more influential is because "reading Mumford is not easy, soothing, or recreational. His views on knowledge, civilization, history, technology, architecture, cities, and the human condition sprawl across thousands of pages emergent from a career spanning 70 years" (p. 7). While I think the neglect of Mumford has more complex origins, I strongly sympathize with Stunkel's attempt to make Mumford more accessible to twenty-first century readers.
The book's first four chapters give a brief biographical sketch of Mumford's life and intellectual development. The fifth chapter, entitled "Principles," identifies six themes or "threads" of thought that run throughout Mumford's writings. The first theme is that life is the starting point and foundation of everything else. This leads Mumford to judge technology, science, culture, and other historical phenomena by a Veblenian criterion of "how adequately they serve the interests of life" (p. 39). The second theme is that values are more fundamental than instrumentalities. This idea stems from Mumford's critique of the "pragmatism" of John Dewey and William James and from his fear that humanity would fall victim to the fallacy that science and technology could solve all problems. The third theme is that there is no substitute for first-hand experience, and the fourth theme is that wholeness is superior to partiality. Both these themes support Mumford's distrust of experts and abstract analysis. The fifth theme is that fullness and integrity in life need conscious roots...