Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lewis Mumford

Today, 19 October, is the 111th birth anniversary of Lewis Mumford, American social philosopher, and one of the leading thinkers and writers of the 20th century.

Born in Flushing, New York, Mumford assiduously and single-mindedly devoted himself to writing. Over a period of 60 years, Mumford wrote some thirty books, covering subjects as diverse as the history of cities, the history of machine technology, art and architectural criticism, and literary criticism. He is most widely known for the books The City in History and The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power. He passed away on 26 January 1990.

Though widely honoured during his lifetime, with fellowships, professorships, awards and honorary doctorates, he remains largely unknown in his native America. Mumford may be seen as one of those who have enabled today’s environmental consciousness. Environmental historian Ramachandra Guha has referred to him as ‘the patron saint of environmentalism’. Mumford's ‘organicist’ philosophy was deeply ecological. His varied concerns converge on the problem of defining an ethic which would fuse the classical socialist values of justice and community with what we would today call environmental values. As early as 1930, we find him writing that the three main threats to modern civilisation were the destruction of forest cover, the depletion of non-renewable resources, and the awesome destructive power of modern weaponry. His first major work, Technics and Civilisation (1934), underlined the links between industrialisation, the increasing intensity of energy use, and pollution.

Mumford recognised that ecological degradation was, at least in part, the outcome of a flawed value system which had “missed the great lesson that both ecology and medicine teach - that man’s great mission is not to conquer Nature by main force but to co-operate with her intelligently and lovingly for his own purposes.” Ecological degradation, he believed, is inescapable in an economic system driven by the belief that quantitative production had no natural limits. Indeed modern technology is profoundly anti-ecological - “driven by the desire to displace the organic with the synthetic and the pre-fabricated”, it exhibits a “barely concealed hostility to living organisms, vital functions, organic associations.”

Mumford anticipated the alternate theorists of today. He was a critic of both capitalism and communism, holding them to be but two variants of a centralising, destructive and violent system of production. But he did not wholly turn his back on modern technology, seeking instead to bend it to serve human and environmental needs.

In an age of specialisation, Mumford was a sociologist, philosopher, cultural historian, art and literary critic, and authority on architecture and city planning, a true Renaissance man. In 1923, Mumford was a founding member of the Regional Planning Association of America, an experimental group that paved the way for several projects in regional development, including the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1932 Mumford began to write a column of architectural criticism, ‘The Sky Line’, for the New Yorker.

Mumford was deeply influenced in his youth by the work and thought of Patrick Geddes, the eccentric Scottish biologist, town planner, educator and peace activist (1854-1932). For Mumford, Geddes’ work provided the basic direction and the skeleton which he then added flesh to. In 1938, as consultant to the City and County Park Board in Honolulu, Hawaii, the follower of the ‘garden city’ Master prepared a booklet Whither Honolulu? based on his study of the parks and playgrounds of that city. Again, recalling Geddes’ efforts at organising ‘cities exhibitions’, in 1939, Mumford worked on a documentary film The City which was shown at the city planning exhibit at the New York World’s Fair.

Geddes’ young son Alisdair was killed in the First World War. He saw Alisdair in Mumford and wanted him to assist him in his work. Mumford was very oppressed with Geddes seeing in him the return of his dead son. Later, after his own son, who was named Geddes, was killed in the 2nd World War, by which time Patrick Geddes was no more, Mumford became a leading propogator of Geddes’ thinking and diligently assisted his biographers.

Mumford was deeply interested in India. He studied Indian history and religion and closely followed Geddes’ town planning work in India. Mumford was personally acquainted with Radhakamal Mukherjee, the Indian professor of sociology and disciple of Geddes, whose work dwelt on human interactions with nature - which he called ‘social ecology’. Mukherjee has written extensively on the ecological basis of civilisation in Gangetic Bengal, culminating in the emergence of Calcutta as a metropolis - but one that makes a dysfunctional break from its ecological and social roots.

Read the Time magazine cover story on Lewis Mumford (18 April 1938) here.


Irene said...

This was a fascinating read. Thank you for sharing! c",)

Ghetufool said...

one more time, i am indebted to you. this is the first time i heard about mumford. now i will try to know more.

irving said...

An excellent article on a little known and worldly man, in the best sense. His influence is everywhere, though many do not realize it. Thank you for posting it.

Ya Haqq!

rama said...

Thank you friends! Through his diverse interests and concerns, activist temperament, and long life - Mumford served as a BRIDGE, between disciplines and generations. He was a true "public intellectual". In the 1980s, Mumford was still alive, and widely recognised and referred to -but, as my Time magazine link indicates, he was active in the 1930s! His 3 autobiographical volumes ("My Works and Days", "Findings and Keepings" & Sketches from Life") make for fascinating reading, and endear him to the reader. I recall his account of his friendship and falling out with Frank Lloyd Wright, which is most educative. Best, rama

rama said...

I'd also like to mention his vision of "America" - as a heroic land of freedom, but one tragically dominated by the ghosts of the Old World. rama

jfreijser said...

Dear Rama,

I think it is quite marvellous to meet with you, here in this cyber-reality, deeply connected in mind and soul by our common interest in that great man Lewis Mumford.
Thank you for your excellent summary of Mumford’s life and career, and the lovely colour photograph, which I hadn’t seen before.
We both share, I think, the same bafflement with the world’s ignorance of Mumford’s existence, and I keep wondering how it came about. My own discovery of Mumford serves as a case in point.
From an early age (I’m now 51) I was interested in history, technology, science and art, and was forever trying to find the common ground that might define us ultimately as humans. My academic career only went so far as studying English literature and modern linguistics, at University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and Reading (UK), but my professional life took me deep into the world of information technology via the localization connection, ie. making software available in different languages through translation. Apart from this rather esoteric connection with information technology, I also had a deep love and interest in machines, in pure technics (I keep using this Mumford term), especially those ultimate movement experience machines called motorcycles, and basically anything on wheels.
I recognized early on in my life the deep, dark, inexplicable urge and obsession of making the machine on wheels go fast round a circuit, and from an early age walked around on racing circuits of Europe, watching the drivers and riders. And of course reading tons and tons of articles about them in the better British magazines. And of course I practiced some myself, by owning a motorcycle myself.

I guess, coming to arrive at that common ground is what I have been driven by all my life, and the arrival of Lewis Mumford into my thinking life, as late as 1992, was a turning point. Before I knew about Lewis Mumford I had been searching for ‘gurus’ who could serve as my guide in my specific quest, and the one that stood out before Mumford was Aldous Huxley, but in the late 80s he had kind of petered out as an inspirational source.
I came across Mumford in a Dutch collection of essays about philosophers of technology, and I knew immediately that I had found a successor to Huxley.
Except Mumford proved to be much more than that.
I can’t by any means claim to be a Mumford expert, but I have read Technics & Civilization, and The Myth of the Machine part I, and part II, the Pentagon of Power, very thoroughly, as well as Donald Miller’s biography, and LM’s own My Works and Days. Mumford’s bibliographies and indexes to his books are works of art in themselves, and they often led me to follow up through the works of others writers. For example, Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change, a jewell of a book, bursting with revelations and insights.

Being able to organize the Mumford Centenary and deliver your personal homage must have been a great event for you.

I keep wondering why his influence is so little recognized.

I remember a TV program of which I only saw the last 3 minutes, in which an American woman was fulminating about how the French philosopher Foucault (I think the programme was dedicated to Foucault’s death, then) had completely plagiarized the philosophical underpinnings and ideas of Lewis Mumford’s work to make it the basis of his own philosophy, without ever once referring to Lewis Mumford. I did not recognize the woman, and the program moved on without showing any credits.
I believe, similarly, Jacques Ellul never refers to Mumford, when the reverse is true, Mumford does refer to Ellul here and there. ‘Travesty of justice’ springs to mind.
There is something deeply wrong here, possibly caused by our modern thinking allowing itself to be defined only in the context of closed paradigms (thanks to Kuhn), without a willingness and openness towards being questioned and crossed over into more fields than just the one specialized one. For the latter attitude I think we need to revisit Popper.

Recently I read an obituary of Murray Bookchin, who seems to have truly followed a Mumfordian tradition, and I had also never heard of him.
Link to his Obit, see:,,1839260,00.html

Our worlds are so far apart, and yet so close. May the powers that be be struck by awareness, and may we, mere mortals, find a way of achieving it.
All the best,