Enlightenment Ideals and Belief in Science During the Run-up to the Industrial Revolution: A Textual Analysis

Recent accounts of Britain’s economic takeoff and industrialization have emphasized the importance of cultural attitudes—specifically, Enlightenment ideals that had an optimistic and progressive view of scientific and industrial pursuits. Significant qualitative evidence has been put forth in support of such claims. This paper tests these claims using quantitative data from 173,031 works printed in English between 1500 and 1900. We first transform each volume into a “bag of words”, which results in groupings of words that are commonly found together. We then employ an algorithm to determine the proportion of each volume that is most closely associated with science, religion, and political economy. From there, we determine the optimism sentiment of each volume and derive a weighting over time for each category. The analysis yields two primary findings. First, there is little overlap in science and religion in the period under study. This indicates that the “secularization” of science was entrenched prior to the Enlightenment. Second, while scientific volumes did become more optimistic during the Enlightenment, this optimism was relegated to volumes found at the nexus of science and political economy. Purely scientific volumes reveal relatively little optimism over the entire period, as do volumes of religion. This suggests that it was the more pragmatic works of science—those that spoke to a broader political and economic audience—that contained the cultural values cited as important for Britain’s economic rise.