Meta-Inventions which Advanced Civilisation

by Isaac

Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment asks why geniuses aren’t evenly spread throughout history, but instead cluster in a few cities in a few particular eras.

One idea of meta-inventions — new styles of thinking which accelerate the development of further knowledge, and to which we can partially credit the increased rate of progress since 800BC:

Over spans of time ranging from a few decades in some cases to a few centuries in others, the dimensionality of a domain in the arts and sciences changed, opening up new realms of potential accomplishment. I call this handful of accomplishments meta-inventions.

By meta-invention, I mean the introduction of a new cognitive tool for dealing with the world around us. Cognitive tool, not physical tool. The essence of a meta-invention resides within the human brain. A cognitive tool is one that, once known, can be forgotten (recall Chapter 2), but not stolen or physically lost. It is necessary to know some form of technology to reproduce a physical tool that has been taken away. It is not necessary to know any technology to retain a cognitive tool—it is necessary only to remember it.

Murray makes clear he is focused on particular ideas that are invented in particular times and places, not simply broad cultural trends. These are the ideas which amplify and improve human thought itself; people born after the invention of new cognitive tools are made more capable, more effective — more intelligent — by their very existence.

Murray lists 14 such cognitive tools.


Three relate to philosophy:

• Meditation

• Logic

• Ethics


Three to mathematics:

• Arabic numerals

• The mathematical proof

• The calibration of uncertainty


And two to the sciences:

• The secular observation of nature

• The scientific method


The final six relate to the arts. I’m not going to describe these in detail here, because they mainly opened up new possibilities only within their particular artistic medium, rather than whole new universes of thought. Still, they are:

• Artistic realism

• Linear perspective

• Artistic abstraction

• Polyphony

• Drama

• The novel