James Essex and Permissionless Innovation

I have been researching the unpublished works of a little known English Antiquarian James Essex (1722-1784) for my doctoral thesis. He was a Cambridge man who trained as a surveyor and raised his status throughout his lifetime to become part of the Cambridge group of antiquarians and intellectuals interested in researching indigenous history through empirical observation rooted in the Baconian scientific revolution. By the time of his death, he was a consultant architect who designed buildings in Cambridge and executed a minor work for Henry Wapole. He was an architectural and medieval antiquarian who was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and had presented over a dozen papers on what we now know of as the English Gothic.

James Essex left an unpublished book called the History of Gothic Architecture in complete, handwritten form. This lack of publication was not unlike many of his contemporaries who failed to raise funds or find a serious benefactor to further the publication of their writings. (In another blog post I will describe the proliferation of many single sheet ‘prospectus’ for raising funds for future antiquarian publications that well pre-dates Kickstarter, but another time!) However, what he left was a product of its time – accurate, precise, inclusive of personal observations and historical.

I have been thinking about what Joel Mokyr describes as cultural entrepreneurship. Though his idea is vast, one of the core concepts is that during the Republic of Letters, shared norms and behaviours along with institutions and a network of individuals came together to push forward research and ideas. Though I am looking at architectural antiquarians, the concept is particularly apt in the areas of scientific discovery and the industrial revolution.

So in thinking about that idea and, also, about the modern concept of permissionless innovation, something clicked today. I realised that James Essex was experimenting with radical ideas in his unpublished book. In order for these ideas to flourish he had to be able to experiment without consequences, though those consequences would not be physically punitive, but would be anti-normative. He would be ostracised by his peers.

One of his radical ideas was this: that the Temple of Solomon, long thought to be the classical and spiritual ‘ideal’ in architecture from which all architecture derived, was neither classical nor and ideal. In arguing against the Temple, he rejected the very Masonic notions with which he and other Free Masons ascribed too. But he experimented through geometry, historical reasoning and sounds arguments to arrive at this conclusion. In parallel he even rejected Sir Christopher Wren’s postulation of the Saracen origins of the pointed arch. Though not earth shattering today, this was highly radical at a time when the rejection of classical origins of history had yet to be accepted.

So I wonder, can the application of the very idea of permissionless innovation take on historical forms? Conversely, can we start to see the rise of the precautionary principle in early modern, specifically English, cultural thought beyond its current application to the public policy and economics?


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